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Summary:

Web Worker Daily reader Nick Heppleston asks: As an avid reader of the WWD and as a professional developer who is thinking about going solo, the one thing that is holding me back is the fear of new customers drying up. As a developer and not […]

Web Worker Daily reader Nick Heppleston asks:

As an avid reader of the WWD and as a professional developer who is thinking about going solo, the one thing that is holding me back is the fear of new customers drying up. As a developer and not a salesman, can you (or any of your readers) offer any advice on marketing yourself as a freelancer and finding new customers?

The most obvious way of finding freelance work is posting your c.v. and searching listings on online contract job sites like Guru.com. This is the web worker equivalent of checking the newspaper job ads each morning and dutifully mailing off a cover letter plus resume. It’s just about as successful, too. Yes, you can find work that way–but not necessarily work that really suits you with people you like. And once your current contract ends, you might have to start all over again. Is there a better way?

Yes there is. Let customers find you. That’s how Stowe Boyd, founder of Blue Whale Labs and a successful independent consultant, markets his services:

I have a simple approach to marketing my services: I don’t. Or, perhaps more accurately, I don’t do any marketing other than blogging and attending conferences, which are the primary channels for potential clients. I leave the rest up to fate, the Tooth Fairy, and word of mouth.

I asked James Governor, founder of four-year-old industry analyst firm RedMonk, how he finds new customers. James takes an approach similar to Stowe’s:

The secret to sales and finding clients is lots and lots of touchpoints. Sales is at least partly a numbers game. Blogs are a great way to create new touchpoints, and as such are a great marketing tool. The more conversations you have with the market the more opportunities you will find. But treat these conversations as learning opportunities as much as sales opportunities. The sale will almost certainly drop out of a problem description.

Of course you then want to maintain these client relationships, which is definitely not a numbers game. Maintain focus on existing clients–and if possible up sell into them. That is, large companies may need help in other areas, and be willing to make recommendations to other groups. If you’re a trusted advisor to your clients, which sometimes means telling them their idea is not a great one, they will come back again. You want a profile within a community that can look for opportunities for you.

Stowe and James suggest that you don’t need to specifically look for customers. Instead, let your reputation find them for you. Focus on your reputation, on learning new things, and on connecting with people doing work that excites you. Then opportunities will come looking for you.

You can start building up your profile even before you leave full-time employment. Start a blog and comment on other people’s blogs. Attend conferences that interest you, even if you’re not sure how they fit in with your career plans. Speak at them, if you can–what a great way to show off what you know and how you communicate. Participate in online forums or IRC channels, sharing your expertise and building new knowledge and relationships at the same time.

For developers, open source software efforts are an excellent way to learn new things, connect with like-minded people, and show your expertise. Designers can achieve similar professional visibility by producing and marketing free website templates or doing pro bono work for nonprofits. Consultants and writers will find that blogs are an ideal way of showing writing skills and insight.

One major benefit of the raise-your-profile-and-they-will-come approach is that working on your reputation and visibility is a whole lot more fun than cold-emailing potential customers or fighting with twenty-seven other people for a PHP web development contract listed on Monster.com. Most of us have chosen web work because we love it. Spending time writing about it, talking about it, and learning about it is rewarding all by itself. How great that it also happens to be the best way to find money-making opportunities too.

Of course there’s more to turning your profile into actual income, including explicitly asking for work via proposals or more informal means, doing the work itself, and making sure you get paid once the work is done. We’ll tackle those topics in the future. Meanwhile, if you have tips for finding opportunities and marketing your services, share them in the comments.

(Disclosure: I work with RedMonk as an industry analyst.)

  1. I’ve made my living off of Craigslist – going to every major city and creating an RSS feed off of the jobs search “web design telecommute” I see about 15 jobs a day (most from companies seeking on-going work) that I could apply for and another 80-90 that don’t quite fit my skill set! I’ve had to stop applying because I got too many responses. Just change it to “web developer telecommute” (that telecommute is actually an option at the top of the job search page) and you’ll be on your way. Also popular sites for telecommute work

    http://www.jobster.com
    http://www.authenticjobs.com
    http://www.jobazaar.com
    http://www.odesk.com (great site, check this out!)
    http://www.findatechjob.com
    http://www.yorz.com

    Also check out the job board at 37 Signals. I’ve created RSS feeds for all of these sites so I know when jobs with my skillset are posted right away. You will NEVER run out of work if you’re good.

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  2. Like the original article says, create relationships with your clients – and then be sure to let them know that your main source of new work is referrals. Just putting that in their minds will increase the chance of referrals. And referrals are so much better, less likely to bicker over price, etc…

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  3. Might be a good idea to check out the outsourcing websites and post your bio/resume/portfolio there. Lots of people looking for developers.

    Sites such as these:
    http://www.elance.com
    http://www.rentacoder.com
    http://www.scriptlance.com

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  4. I’m in the same position at the moment. Keeping up with a client services day job while taking steps toward working solo.

    What’s working for me? Doing the work. I’ve had opportunities through former colleagues and other agencies to do freelance work to help them out of a pinch, and build a network of satisfied clients and referrals.

    I’ve also been feeling out other contacts for upcoming work and establishing relationships with associates that I can count on to exchange work with. I send design work their way, they send tech work mine.

    You can’t truly go solo as a solo endeavor. Hedge your bets, distribute your eggs among many baskets, build up a portfolio…That process will instill confidence that you can count on staying busy.

    I bid on projects on Craigslist as well. Even if they don’t come to fruition, oftentimes a conversation will ensue that might establish more relationships. Compete on LinkedIn. Set rules for yourself: Only people you know or worked with or have had a real conversation with should be connected to. Race to line up connections.

    Finally, I’d agree with developing a pet project or contributing to open source as well. Better yet, identify a goal and work on building that as a revenue stream. It doesn’t have to be enough to fully sustain you (or require 100% of your time). Just something to complement the freelance income and help with the buffer.

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  5. Start a blog! Today I get 100% of my business via my blog. It’s allowed me to find work in a niche I’m particularly interested in.

    When I went solo, I used guru.com and elance.com at first. The work I was getting from those sites was ok, but it wasn’t what I was passionate about. Blogging gave me a way to show my expertise, and to find a wide audience.

    Starting a blog will not get you business right away. But it is a very effective marketing tool. In fact, I wrote up some of my own experiences and tips and published it in a free 18 page pdf called A Guide to Business Blogging. It’s directly at people who are considering using a blog in their marketing mix. I hope this isn’t considered too spammy of me to include the link (edit this out if you like): http://www.theblogstudio.com/aguide/

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  6. A lot of website have been named but elance.com is a very good one. One of the first ones to be launched.

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  7. There is another interesting and good site that you may would like to try – http://www.webmasterprojects.com – Webmaster Projects is an online freelance marketplace that allows buyers to outsource projects and get quotes from 100s of qualified freelance professionals, web & graphics designers, programmers, content writers, SEO executives from all over the world.

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  8. [...] Another person who thinks almost the same as me about having a strong online presence to attract business is Anne Zelenka from Web Worker Daily. Be sure to check her post about this topic here. [...]

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  9. Vern in Thailand Saturday, April 7, 2007

    Thanks for this incredible collection of tips in one page! I’ll go create RSS feeds for craigslist in a minute. Does anyone use a resume on their blog? I’m trying this currently.

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  10. [...] something of value and you can share your knowledge about that. By writing about a topic you know you will at least build a reputation of some level of expertise on your field, so although you won’t be making money with your blog, you still have hopes to get out [...]

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