If you’re trying to launch a freelancing design or web development career, having an effective strategy to find and retain clients is crucial. But how do you grow a client list when you’re so focused on projects for your existing clients?
In this article, Michael Houghton, a freelance web developer based in Ireland with over 15 years of experience in freelancing, shares some amazing tips to help anyone trying to launch a freelancing career get clients passively. Enjoy!
How to gain clients passively
With a new year, comes a fresh start. Why not make 2018 the year that you make a start on gaining clients passively. There is no better time to start thinking about getting your message out there, than today!
Most of the time when we hear the word ‘passive’, we think of passive income. We know that if we can create passive income, we are doing something right!
But passive income isn’t the only thing businesses should be targeting. Freelance designers and developers typically wear many hats – for many of them, doing the actual job – the writing, the programming, the designing etc, is only half the job. The other half is spent on bookkeeping and finding new clients – making sure the business actually runs!
It is human nature for us to focus on the actual cost, but we rarely focus on opportunity cost. By reducing the time needed to run your freelancing business, there is opportunity to take on more clients and to increase your income.
One of the biggest improvements that I made to my freelancing business that changed the way I operated was to adopt passive marketing.
Passive marketing is simple – let clients come to you rather than you finding them! The truth is, the best clients, the best opportunities aren’t advertised. Clients actively go looking for those freelancers. When clients find you, the ball is 100% in your court. You’re able to dictate the working terms and rates. The whole game changes.
I had a client contact me last year who needed a Laravel developer with experience leading teams but who also had a solid knowledge of accounting and finance. It wasn’t a position worth advertising because so few developers would have the required skill set. In fact, I suspected I was one of only a few people they could find with the right background for the role. It is no surprise, then, that there was no negotiation needed when I presented my offer to work with them – they were happy to pay whatever I asked for because they knew I was the right fit and would deliver the results they needed.
This is the power of passive marketing. But how should one go about implementing such a strategy? Before I list the specific resources I use, the first thing you need to define is what message you want to put out there.
For passive marketing to be successful, you need to think about your ideal client. Who are they and what sort of keywords or phrases are they going to be searching for to find you? This largely comes back to knowing what your niche is and specializing as a freelance designer or web developer to find your target market. For example, rather than simply be a writer, what if your skill set was writing about the stock market? I am a web developer, but I would get lost in a large ocean of web developers if I were to just brand myself as a web developer. That’s why focus on being a ‘Laravel developer for startups’. I put myself into a very specific niche so that the right type of client will contact me. What good is it if a client contacts me to help them with a WordPress website, if I don’t know anything about WordPress?
So your messaging is important. And even if you are still finding your niche or learning a new technology or skill so that you can move into a niche, remember you are writing your message for a future client. So even if you don’t yet have the right level of experience or if you’re still upskilling, don’t be afraid to target your message around who you want to be – even if you’re not quite there yet. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should lie on your profile, but let your message also act as guidance for the type of client you want, while keeping you in check on your own goals.
For example, let’s say you’re a developer who wants to get into artificial intelligence. Maybe you’re extremely interested in AI but you haven’t been given the opportunity yet. But you’re learning, you’re reading all the time and working on your own projects. That’s the kind of detail you should list in your message. Don’t be afraid to target your message towards the market you want to move into – even if you aren’t quite there yet!
So you now have your message. Let’s run through some strategies that I have implemented successfully:
LinkedIn is a hugely powerful way to connect with clients. It is by far the easiest way to gain an audience quickly, and when done right it can be a great source of leads. At least half of my leads (and some of my biggest clients) have found me through LinkedIn.
The best part is that it’s super easy to set up a profile and get started. The best advice I can provide about LinkedIn is:
- Target your message towards your ideal future client.
- Complete every single step that LinkedIn suggests when building your profile.
- Have a very clear headshot for your profile image – ideally with you smiling!
- Focus on your tagline and summary, as this is what clients will read first. Remember to be specific in your tagline, e,g “Laravel developer for startups” rather than just “Software engineer”.
Personal website / branded website / portfolio
Forbes recently published an article which shows that freelancers with a website earn 65% more income than freelancers that don’t.
Yet so many of the freelancers I talk to don’t have their own website. Whether it is branded as a company or agency, or is simply your-name.com, the main priority is to get your message out there.
Of course, the real power of having your own website comes from the content that you write and the way you target your keywords. I recently ran an experiment on my own website michaelhoughton.com. I wanted to target keywords that were as niche as possible. One easy way to do this, is to simply target location-based keywords. In my case, I targeted the phrase “Laravel developer in Limerick, Ireland” and I set this as my main meta title on the home page.
Within three days, my Google ranking for “Laravel developer in Limerick” jumped to third. My ranking for “Laravel developer in Ireland” jumped to seventh. I had changed nothing else, but by targeting a very specific niche, I was able to target my ideal client.
Blogging is hard. I enjoy writing, but I still struggle to find the time to blog. I often feel as a freelancer there is this constant feeling that we should be blogging. In my experience however, blogging will give you that extra 20% of client leads but it won’t make or break your success.
Get your message and initial content right first for your website – this is the priority. From there, focus on writing blog articles that will do the following:
- Target your ideal client. Don’t just write about anything – target content that will show that you know your niche or will attract a client to you.
- Focus on search engine optimisation – your article should be designed to improve your Google ranking on certain keywords. Ensure your blog articles are consistent with the overall message of your website.
- Focus on quality, not quantity. You may hear messages like “you should be blogging every day” – the truth is, it is very difficult to maintain quality content when writing every day. Aim to write when you feel inspired and take the time you need to get your article right.
Open source contributions
Github is a great way for clients to find you and writing open source contributions is a great way for clients to see your work in action.
The downside of open source contributions is that it can be time consuming. Like blogging, it requires constant work, unlike LinkedIn and a website, which if done well the first time, will bring in leads for a long time.
My advice on open source work is to do it primarily because you enjoy it. Open source is a lot of fun and is a great way to boost your profile, but your primary motive should be because you enjoy a particular project or want to make a difference. Your motivation to write open source code to boost your profile may quickly falter, but if you are truly passionate about a project you will see it through.
Other than that – keep your open source contributions consistent with your niche. For example, if you are a PHP developer, your contributions should be based around PHP ideally, so that your potential clients can see your PHP code before they work with you.
What about now?
All of these suggestions are designed to help you gain future clients, but what if you need clients right now? What steps can you take today to gain clients quickly?
Websites such as UpWork and Freelancer.com are marketplaces that require you to submit proposals to gain work. This is far from passive – in fact, the win rate through freelancer marketplaces can be very low.
Thankfully, there are a couple of freelancer marketplaces that actively do the searching for you.
Toptal is likely the biggest freelancer network in the world, with more than 3,000 developers, designers and financial experts and a team that is growing fast. I was fortunate enough to be a Toptal developer for three years, and while getting into Toptal is difficult, once you are in, recruiters will work hard to match you to the right client.
You can be based pretty much anywhere to be part of the Toptal network and the work is fully remote. Feel free to read my article on the Toptal interview process for more information.
X Team is a company which targets the world’s top developers, much like Toptal. While I haven’t worked with X Team specifically, the feedback I have received from other developers has been positive.
Developer Fair is an Irish-based freelancer marketplace. It’s still in the startup stage, but I have worked on a couple of projects for them and it was an enjoyable experience. They target developers and designers.
If you are willing to invest your time now, you can set yourself up to have an extremely profitable freelance business in the long run. There is no doubt that the most successful freelancers have implemented this strategy.
There is a quote by Mark I. McCallum which goes “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now”. As freelancers, we all know that we should be working on our profile and message to future clients, yet we continually put it off. Let today be the time to start getting your message out to your ideal client.
Michael Houghton is a freelance developer based in Ireland with 15 years freelancing experience. Visit MichaelHoughton.com to learn more about Michael.
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