Ask WWD: How Do I Find Customers?

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.)

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