How to improve your freelancing by losing more potential gigs

Last week, I wrote an article about how I’m dedicating 2016 to helping as many freelancers as possible hit six figures, and be on the way to $250k per year.

As I’ve said, I’ve consistently made $250k+ as a freelancer for the last few years. So if I’m going to help other people reach this level, I should probably have some idea of how I got there, right? 🙂

By the way, I’ve put together a free guide that covers about ten lessons I learned on the way to my first million in freelance (download the guide free at the end of this post).

In the guide, the first item is this: “Sales covers a multitude of sins.” What I mean by that is that you can do a lot wrong as a freelancer, but if you’re able to close a lot of deals, you have tremendous margin to make mistakes elsewhere, and to try different things on your way to improving.

So…if I had to pick the number one thing I’ve done right since I started freelancing, it would be this:

I’ve hustled really hard to get a lot of leads.

This has been instrumental in giving me the freedom to be very aggressive with experiments in pricing, project selection, and other terms.

By “leads”, I mean potential freelance projects that are within some reasonable distance of your skills, pricing, etc.

When you get an email from your old boss about a quick project they need some help with, that’s a lead.

When your last client intros you to a friend who has some questions about a website they need built, that’s a lead.

When that guy you met at your wife’s Christmas party calls you about a new project he just got put in charge of at work that he needs some help with, that’s NOT a lead.

Just kidding, that’s a lead too.

And you need a LOT of these leads.

This might seem really basic. Of course you need a lot of leads; that’s where your work comes from!

But that’s not what I’m talking about. If you hustle enough to get leads to keep you busy, you’ll probably be OK, but you won’t knock it out of the park as a freelancer.

You need quality leads that cover 3x – 10x of the volume of work you can actually do.

How fear and desperation hold you back from making changes you know you should make

Here are some things you should consider doing this year, if you haven’t already:

  • stop charging hourly
  • charge a lot more
  • move your clients to recurring revenue
  • pick a narrow niche to focus on
  • talk about the results you get, not the work you do
  • create and enforce boundaries

If the things on this list sound familiar, they should. There’s a whole army of writers and speakers and gurus out there preaching them.

They’re all right, but they’re wrong at the same time. If you’re the typical freelancer, you already know you should do those things (and if you don’t, then don’t worry, because I’m going to talk about them constantly).

But I can tell you from experience that actually doing those things is HARD.

When everyone in your industry is charging $50-75 / hr, it’s HARD to tell the first lead you’ve had in four weeks that you charge a weekly rate of $5k.

When you only have one client (that was hard to land) and they want you to just please do these two quick things that weren’t in the project scope, it’s hard to tell them that you’ll have to get them an estimate on the changes.

When you’re going to be $2000 short this month and that prospective client wants to do a call over the weekend, it’s hard to tell them you only do discovery calls on Tuesday afternoons.

What’s the common denominator for all of the items above, the thing that’s actually making them hard?

Fear.

Fear of losing the client, the project, the income.

And to a large extent, that fear is justified. For most of you reading this, you probably couldn’t handle your business getting cut in half for six or twelve months while you try out a bunch of different things.

Some would tell you that you need to stuff the fear down and just do it, that fortune favors the bold.

Sometimes they’re right 🙂

But in this case, for most of you, I don’t buy that. You can’t pay your rent with misplaced boldness.

By the way, if you’re not afraid and what you need is just the tactics to implement, the rest of this article probably isn’t for you. The next one will be though.

But if you know what you should do but you’re nervous about actually doing it, then read on.

So how do you get over the fear of losing clients and gigs?

One effective way to control fear is to limit the downside risk, ideally without capping the upside risk. Experiments are easy when a bad result isn’t that big of a deal.

You need some margin.

What would a lead avalanche look like?

Let’s say that you do about $8k per month in freelance. You get 2-3 quality leads per month, and you end up closing about half of those.

What would happen, hypothetically, if you instead were getting three quality leads per day?

What would happen if every time you opened your email, there was another quality referral, or inbound lead from your site, or whatever? And not for bad projects, but for five figure projects, or even six figure projects?

One answer is something a lot of freelancers jump to: you could hire some help. You could build an agency / dev shop / design studio / etc.

For reasons that are well beyond the scope of this article, I don’t think that’s a great option for most freelancers. There are exceptions, but unless you really want to build a firm, I think most freelancers should stay more-or-less solo. If your primary motivation is financial, there are better options.

So if you’re going to stay solo and you have all these leads coming in, you have a few options:

  • You could just take the interesting-looking projects
  • You could double your pricing
  • You could stop charging hourly
  • You could tell clients you only work three days a week between the hours of 9am and 4pm
  • You could try about a million other things

You could do any or all of these things and probably still stay busy. You’d close a smaller percentage of the deals, but that’s ok.

The point is that you would have options. You would have margin.

Basically, it’s much easier to try some experiments with pricing and with closing deals when you know that if you lose the gig as a result, there are two more leads right behind it.

The purpose of hustling to get a lot of leads isn’t so you can get enough work.

It’s so you can LOSE a lot of potential gigs and still be fine, both financially and emotionally.

Think of every lead as a lottery ticket. Except instead of there being a 1 in 100 million chance (seriously, don’t play the lottery), there’s a 1 in 10 chance. Not real numbers, but you get the idea 😉

I do believe in luck, but I also believe in the idea of increasing your “luck surface area” by creating as many opportunities as possible to get lucky.

Other ways to get margin

Having a lot of leads isn’t the only way. There are other ways that you can get this margin as a freelancer:

  • Have other sources of income
  • Build up a lot of savings
  • Make a lot more than you need to every month
  • Be able to take big risks (like if you’re young and not supporting anyone financially)

But those are either outside of your control or take a lot of time to build up to.

Hustling to get a lot of quality leads is something you can do right now, today. And it’s something that can start paying off with more margin for experimentation and improvement within the next few months, instead of the next few years.

Caveats

Now, this isn’t all easy.

First, it’s hard to get quality leads.

Second, for most freelancers, it takes a significant amount of work just to deal with a lead. Most of us aren’t selling off-the-shelf widgets where you can quote a price and that’s the end of it. We’re selling custom services and there’s a fair amount of work and relationship building before we can even get to the point where the prospect can say yes or no.

Finally, it’s discouraging to lose gigs. Even when you know that there are other gigs coming, letting a five or six figure deal slip through your fingers sucks.

To be continued…

So that’s my case for why the best practical path forward to dramatic improvement to your freelance business is to dramatically increase the volume of leads you get.

If you do it right, you’ll win a lower percentage of those leads than you do now, but that’s OK. You’re going to win the right ones, the cream of the crop.

In the next email or two, I’ll cover:

  1. How should you get all these leads?
  2. How do you avoid being totally overwhelmed with dealing with them?
  3. How do you cope with discouragement when you inevitably lose potential gigs?

What you can do today

In the meantime, I have two free things below to help you get started:

Get More Lessons Learned: My First Million Dollars From Freelance

First, I have a little guide I’ve put together on the ten or so lessons that I learned (and re-learned) on the way to my first million dollars from freelance. It’s a quick read, no more than 30 mins or so, but I hope it’ll give you some things to think about.

Second, you’ll also get the daily LetsMakeApps.io lead service for developers and designers. Every day, we comb through thousands of freelance gigs across 100+ sites and channels, and hand-pick the best ones to email to you. I use this myself, and it’ll save you hours every week.

This is the easiest way to get started with dramatically increasing your lead volume right now.

We’ll cover a lot more ways to increase your lead pipeline in the next few weeks.