The most agonizing part of being a freelancer is managing deal flow. Most of the time, you’ll have your head down doing your work until you complete a particular project. When the dust settles and you’ve collected the cash from your final invoice, you look up with abject terror to realize there’s nothing on the horizon.Or maybe you’ve taken a hacksaw to the chain that’s been binding you to your 9 to 5, only to realize you’re a newbie, fresh product — no one knows that you’ve quit your job and are now in the freelance game
How do you score those first few important clients when you’re new to the hustle or you’ve found yourself in a financial Sahara?
First, let’s talk about gig sites. Repeat after me: Just say no to Upwork.
Competing on price is a zero-sum game. You will always be the loser.
There’s nothing more demeaning than a financial race to the bottom. Sites like Upwork and Fiverr benefit those who are hiring because they force freelancers to compete on price. And let me be crystal clear about this: Competing on price is a zero-sum game. You will always be the loser. There will always be someone who will offer to do the work for half your rate in half the time, regardless of whether the product is garbage.
Upwork is the biggest con going. Trust me, you can build a legitimate freelance career without having to devalue your work or deal with a middleman taking a princely cut.
Okay, whew. Digression over. Let’s get back to business.
1. Decide What You Want to Do
Don’t freak out. This isn’t a lifelong commitment. For my first two years of freelancing, I only did social media projects until I woke up one day wanting to tear my hair out. I was good at social media strategy, but I hated social media strategy. That’s when I realized that just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean I need to do it for a living.
But don’t feel bad if you have to take gigs you don’t want at the beginning or during droughts. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of being picky. I’ve taken on projects because, at the end of the day, I had bills to pay.
Now, get clear and specific about your goals by asking yourself the following questions.
What do you want to do?
Decide on the products/services you want to offer. Let me share three magical words with you: multiple revenue streams. Generating income from various sources not only minimizes the risk of not getting work, it also diversifies your work. Your ideas are fresh and you rarely get sick of what you do. I have five streams going right now: strategy work, 1:1 coaching, writing, performing audits (i.e. I tell you what’s wrong with your business), and products/courses (coming in 2019). All of my work comes from my experience in storytelling and marketing, but I’ve chosen different ways to use my skills to make money.
Who do you want to do it for?
Visualize your dream client. And no, your dream client isn’t just someone who pays you on time, although that is certainly dreamy. What kind of business are they in? How large is the company? What are the company’s values, and do they align with yours? How does your client value you? For example, I’ve shifted my model this year to use my 20+ years of experience to help women-owned businesses and POC/marginalized business owners. The majority of my clients are small to mid-sized companies, and they view me more as an integral partner than as a vendor. These businesses aim to create products and services that truly meet the needs of their customers. They operate from a place of honesty and integrity, which aligns with how I want to live my life.
Why do you want to do it?
Yes, we all want to make money, but that goal isn’t self-sustaining. After a while, you’ll realize money is a thing, but not the only thing, and then you’ll risk being resentful of the work you do. Do you have big dreams of leaving the world in better shape? Do you have a skill that would truly help and transform other people or make their lives easier? A sense of purpose can be a constant motivator.
Where do you want to work?
Does your work have a geographic component? Where are most of your ideal clients located? Do you want to work virtually or one-on-one with people, in person?
2. Validate Your Idea
Do the research. Is there a demand for your work? What are people paying for it? Make sure you price yourself wisely — there are scores of online calculators that can help you figure out your rate. Determine if you want to be paid by the hour or by the project. I could write a whole piece on
hourly vs. project, but for now, I’ll just say that at this point in my career I only do project rates.
3. Shout It From the Rafters
Tell everyone you know that you’re freelancing: your mom, your best friend, your dog, the barista at Starbucks… you get what I mean. Work can come from anywhere, but no one will offer you work unless you announce that you’re looking for it. I routinely send brief emails to my network outlining the kinds of projects I’m taking on and asking if they or someone they know is looking for a bomb-ass consultant. Email everyone in the free world: Do you need help? Do you know anyone who needs help?
4. Work Your Network
I’m a shy introvert. The idea of networking gives me palpitations. I used to go to networking events and just stand in a corner — the only thing that was getting worked was my cheese plate. But don’t worry: You can expand your network without being smarmy about it.
Join private Facebook and LinkedIn groups related to your industry
Connect online with people who run in similar industry circles. Why? Because who doesn’t want support — a place where you can field questions, punt ideas,and help others. Here are two more magic words: overflow referrals.
The more people you have in your corner, especially if they’re good at what they do, the better; you’ll find that work gets shared. I’ve seen countless freelance gigs posted in the Dreamers // Doers Facebook group, as well as a ton of other groups. I’ve also made a few friends online and those relationships have scored me projects.
Work your contacts
I have a philosophy that if I don’t like you, I can’t get on the phone or spend time with you. I want the time I spend with people to be gratifying. Have coffee with your peers. Schedule Skype/FaceTime dates to talk shop or buddy up with a peer for ongoing mutual support as accountability partners.
Ask your friends for specific introductions to people in their network, but don’t be vague. Don’t just say, “Can you hook me up with someone in your network?” Rather, say, “Do you know someone in nonprofits who works in social media marketing? I’d love to hook up with them for [X reason]. Could you make an intro?”
A key point: Never ask for or make blind introductions. Always ask each party if they want to be connected. It’s good professional etiquette and it ensures both parties are interested and not put in an awkward or compromising position.
Connect with past employers/former clients
You’re probably thinking, Oh, if they need work they’ll just know to contact me. Please stop thinking this. People don’t have elephantine memories and they’re not psychic. People can only see a few feet in front of them, so you have to be in front of them.
Reconnect with old clients or past employers and ask if they need help with something. Assess their business, sites, emails, and social channels and suggest ways you can help take their business to the next level. It shows you did some legwork and you have specific ideas on how to make their business better.
5. Be Open
Sometimes you need to get crafty because you have bills to pay. Work your revenue streams, but also think about smaller projects you can take on that will provide some quick cash. Recently, I created portfolios for fellow freelancers by pairing my wordsmithing and positioning abilities with designed templates on Creative Market. When you need cash, nothing is beneath you.
At the end of the day, you just need to find that person to hire you to do one thing. That’s enough to get the ball rolling.