We have discussed how you can market your freelance business on sites such as Upwork and Freelancer.com. And as great as those options are, they should only make up a small portion of your client acquisition strategy. In this guide I’m going to provide you with tips for organically growing a freelance business.
When I say organic, I mean that these are strategies that should work while you sleep. For example, I have had some of my largest clients contact me out of the blue based on them coming across a blog post or GitHub project I published.
Organically Growing a Freelance Business
Having an organic marketing strategy is key for building a sustainable business. And in my experience the marketing mechanisms that have been the most effective are the six I will discuss.
Starting off the list are referral requests. Word of mouth marketing is one of the most powerful tools you can use for acquiring new clients.
Imagine a real world scenario of referrals. If someone opens up a new restaurant in your town, are you more likely to be influenced by the restaurant advertisements or one of your close friends telling you how great the food was? If you’re like me, if a friend sings the praises of the restaurant I’m going to value their opinion much more than an ad from the restaurant itself. The reasons for this is because I trust my friend more than the restaurant.
It works the same way when it comes to marketing yourself as a freelancer. If you have happy clients they can help grow your business.
Through the years I’ve had multiple clients refer their friends and colleagues to me. However I’ve also discovered that sometimes it helps to give them a little push. After you have successfully completed a project is a great time to ask a client if they have any friends that may need your services.
Next on the list of organic marketing strategies is blogging. I considered placing blogging at the top of the list because it’s such a powerful tool. Through the years I have been contacted by multiple clients that told me they found me via my blog and subsequently hired me.
Blogging is content marketing at its finest. With your blog you are able to showcase your skills, position yourself as an expert in the field, and give clients a taste of your personality.
If you have never blogged before and are wondering what type of content to write, here are some high level topics that have worked for me:
- Tutorials showing how to build features I specialize in. For example, if you focus on building eCommerce websites you could write blog posts explaining how to connect an application to a payment gateway.
- Soft skill strategies. For this you can write posts related to experiences you have had while learning how to become a freelancer. An example could be writing about a time when you had a challenging client and how you were able to work with them effectively. These types of posts have multiple benefits since they are effective for content marketing and also allow you to contribute to the freelancer community.
Blogging is a great way to position yourself as an expert. However writing blog posts is not the only way to be considered an expert. Another great way to accomplish this feat is to contribute to other blogs and news outlets. If you look at my personal site you’ll see that I’ve been interviewed or quoted in dozens of blogs and magazines through the years. These outlets include sites such as ReadWriteWeb and the magazine CIO.
HARO, which stands for Help A Reporter Out. HARO pairs individuals with reporters around the world. The way it works is that reporters can post requests on HARO asking for interviews or quotes on a topic they are researching. Each day I monitor HARO and when I see a topic that I am familiar with I’ll write up a few sentences and send them to the reporter.
Don’t let the expert moniker scare you away. There are many times where I am far from an expert in a field that I’ve been quoted in. However I’ll perform a little time researching a reporter’s question and then I’ll simply give my opinion.
This type of marketing is great because:
- It’s free.
- Credible reporters are the ones positioning you as an expert.
- Many times the reporter will link back to your website, which helps from an SEO perspective.
Open Source Contribution
Next on the list of strategies for organically growing a freelance business is contributing to the open source community. When it comes to open source contributions there are a number of strategies that you can take:
- Direct code contribution – this usually comes in the form of creating a code library that other developers can use. One of the more successful Rails development firms in the world, Thoughtbot, has take this approach to the extreme. The Thoughtbot team has built libraries such as FactoryGirl, Paperclip, and Administrate. These Ruby gems are some of the most popular gems in the Ruby development ecosystem and the Thoughtbot team released these libraries completely for free. However I can assure you that the company’s open source contributions have directly related to acquiring clients.
- Tutorials – if you don’t feel that you’re quite ready for building a code library that other developers will use, that’s perfectly fine. You can find a feature that you feel comfortable developing and you can create a screencast in which you walk through your process for building the component.
- Contributing to Pre-Existing Libraries – another great way to contribute to the open source community is to help add features or fix bugs on pre-existing code libraries. You can easily discover the full list of requested features for a code library by looking at its issue list on GitHub. By taking this approach you don’t have to worry about building a code library from scratch. You can simply add onto another app which helps the original development team and also will give you experience and confidence in working with professional code bases. Personally I contributed to multiple Eventbrite API RubyGems and built in functionality that previously didn’t exist.
Social Media Marketing
No post that discusses organically growing a freelance business would be complete without mentioning social media marketing. I have to admit that this is probably my least favorite marketing channel. If you peruse Twitter, Facebook or Instagram it seems like they are cluttered with annoying sales pitches. However I have been discovered by multiple clients via my social media accounts.
Each day I try to post a development picture on Instagram. And by taking this approach I have received a number of unsolicited project requests. And several of these requests have turned into freelance clients.
When it comes to social media marketing my recommendation is to find an outlet that you enjoy working with. And once you’ve picked your favorite channel, put all of your available energy into that specific service. This is important. Because if you pick out an outlet that you don’t like, you’re not going to want to post in it in a regular basis. And when it comes to social media marketing, consistency is a key to success.
In summary, when it comes to organically growing a freelance business I focus on three approaches. First, once you have happy clients work on getting them to refer you to their friends and colleagues. Next, make sure that you’re constantly blogging and positioning yourself as an expert in your space. And lastly, find a social media outlet that you enjoy working in and post in it daily.
Build a freelance business completely from scratch, including: acquiring clients, building a portfolio, and managing projects.
In this guide I'm going to provide you with tips for organically growing your freelance business. You know when I say organic I don't mean the very expensive vegetables at the grocery store. Instead I mean that these are strategies that should work while you sleep. For example I've had some of my largest clients contact me completely out of the blue based on coming across a blog post or a project that I had. Having an organic marketing strategy is a key for building a sustainable business. And in my experience the marketing mechanisms that have been the most effective are the three that we're going to discuss in this guide starting off the list our referral requests. Word of Mouth Marketing is one of the most powerful tools that you can use for acquiring new clients. Imagine a real world scenario where a new restaurant opens up in your city the new restaurant puts ads in newspapers and on the side of buildings will pretend that they have a lot of money for marketing. Are you going to care about what the restaurant says about themselves on their advertisements. You may you may be influenced a little but wouldn't it be more effective if one of your friends that you really trust goes to the restaurant and comes back and is singing it's praises if they come back and say oh the drinks and food and all those kind of things were just fantastic and they even give you examples on how the food was so good and which things were their favorite. If you're like me that referral from my friend is going to be much more effective and it's going to make me want to go that restaurant more than just seeing some restaurant ads. And it's the exact same thing for you as a freelancer. Your best proponents are going to be your happy clients if you have a client that you've done a good job on they're going to want to tell all of their colleagues their friends their family everyone like that and that's part of the reason why it's so important that you make sure that your clients are happy and you perform a good job for them. Now don't be shy in asking for referrals. What I'll usually do is after I've successfully completed a project I will go to them and say hey would you mind sending a referral request to any of your other colleagues that you work with or is there anyone that has mentioned needing an application built or whatever your service is usually bill if they do know anyone they'll be more than happy to call the person or email them and in some cases what they've asked me to do is to actually write up a little bit about myself. So I have a paragraph written just about myself. Services it's mainly kind of a shortened version of some of the proposals that we've taken. I get that e-mail that the client and then they send it to anyone that needs a service that I perform. Now one very crucial requirement to being able to get good referrals is you have to do a great job with your clients. It does not matter how many clients you go through or how good your systems are for asking for referrals if clients aren't happy with your work they're never going to recommend you to anybody. And that's just pretty natural that's kind of the way it actually should be. And you have to remember that every time that a client sends out a referral to any of their friends family colleagues anybody like that they're actually staking their own reputation on your work. So that's a pretty big responsibility. So any time they get a referral. I know it's not just my reputation at stake but it's also the reputation of whoever referred me. And that usually spurs me to even more detailed and really give a spirit of excellence in every project that I take on like Up next on the list of strategies is blogging actually considered placing blogging at the very top of the list simply because it's such a powerful tool and it's really worked for me through the years I can remember multiple occasions where I've been contacted by clients that told me that they found me from my blog. I did no kind of marketing besides simply typing out tutorials or just kind of giving my opinion on things happening in the development community doing videos even videos just like this. And a client came across it they liked what they heard did some more research on other blogs that I wrote or videos that I filmed and they contacted me and hired me straight from their blogging is content marketing at its finest. With your blog you can showcase your skills. You can position yourself as an expert in the field and you can even give clients a taste of your personality. Now if you've never blogged before and you're wondering what kind of content that you can use on a blog. Here are a few suggestions that have worked for through the years first are tutorials and these are tutorials where I show how to build specific features so I started off a long time ago just finding features in applications that I knew how to build and I knew how to build the right way. I would just write out and this was even before I started doing screencast I would write out and type out all the different commands I'd enter in and copy and paste the code in so that someone who came across it would be able to follow along. And what this allows you to do is to be able to position yourself as an expert because someone who's looking for that content they stumble across it they're going to see you as an expert in that specific field. So a good example could be if say that you're a really well experienced developer who works on e-commerce platforms. You could write a full blog post or even a screencast or anything like that. And you can walk the people through readers or viewers you can walk them through how to connect a e-commerce platform to a pay payment gateway you know something like that is just and that's just one example but you can think of it as being able to find the things you're really good at the things ideally that you're better than most people. Because if it if you just type something basic like how to create a Rails application there are a million other guides on that you're not going to get a lot of traction. And anyone who comes across it isn't going to be that impressed. So really focus on the long tail side so find very specific things that you know how to build that other people are interested in and write or video about those kind of things. Additionally I write about developer and freelance or soft skills. So for this I will go and I'll write posts things like you know how to learn a programming language or the best ways to memorize code content. You know just things like that things that I've come across through books that I've read or other lectures that I watch that I've found personally effective for me and that I practice on a regular basis by writing that kind of content. It's really helpful because you're not only helping the other readers and you're also able to market yourself the you know good quality content. But in addition you're also contributing to the freelancer and the developer communities because other freelancers are going to come across that content and it's going to help them in their businesses. And any time that you can help your fellow colleagues and the other people that you're in the industry with the better it's going to be for you in the long run. However writing blog posts is not the only way to be considered an expert. Another great way is to actually contribute to other blog posts and news outlets. If you go to my personal web site Jordan Hudgens dot com and you click on the interviews link you'll see that I've been interviewed by dozens of blogs and magazines. Some are actually decent sized like Read Write Web or CIO magazine. When I didn't have a big PR firm in fact I had no PR for my interest had me in getting these. And rarely did I have someone contact me out of the blue I had to be proactive in order to get those type of interviews and to get those who can get my thoughts quoted in those different outlets and the way that I did it is I worked with a company called Herro and that represents help a reporter out and heroes are great service and it's free for individuals to start and what you can do is go in and there is a full list of hundreds of reporters who every single day will post questions and you can go through each one of the questions and they are grouped by categories. For me I look at the business and the technology ones and I see which questions I think I may have a unique opinion on all reply back. Give a few sentences to you and sometimes a few paragraphs of content to the reporter and if they like what I say then they will publish that interview or that quote in their usually blog sometimes magazine and even occasionally books. It's a really cool service. It's great for you as a freelancer because you can get your name out there but also it's great for the reporter as you're giving them great content. And on a kind of auxilary helpful note these sites usually will give a link back to your Web site so you can have a link to your portfolio website or one of your marketing web sites and that will help quite a bit from a Google search engine optimization standpoint. Next on THE LIST a strategy is for organically growing your freelance business is contribute to the open source community we already talked about how you could do this in the form of writing blog posts or filming screencast. And those are great ways of doing it. But I categorize those a little bit more on the content marketing side of the world. This is quite a bit different when it comes to open source development. What I'm talking about is doing things like create a code library that you make available in free to everyone and you so that can be say if you're a ruby developer or you could create a ruby gem package it up and push it up to ruby gems dot org and let anyone download it and use it in their own applications. This is an approach I've seen a number of companies have incredible results for one of them specifically that comes the top of my head right now is thought but thought by it is a development firm and they're actually one of the more more successful dev firms that I know of. They focus a lot on Ruby development and they have entire teams dedicated to working on open source projects. Now this may seem a little counterintuitive. This company is paying some very senior very pricey developers to go out and build code that is completely free to use they don't make a penny off some of these are gems like the factory girl gem which is one of my favorites. We're working with behavior driven development and I use it in pretty much every project I have and they have another a number of other ones like the administrate gem that is becoming one of the more popular admin gems for Ruby applications. So they're doing a lot of work because their code libraries are used by hundreds of thousands of people if not more and they're in projects that don't make a penny off of. So that may seem like a bad business plan except that they have been able to leverage their success and leverage how many people have used those gems to build an incredibly successful business and they have a great digital shop that his work with Fortune 500 companies and they do very well it's kind of like where you'd want to take if you do want to grow your freelance business and to a multimillion dollar enterprise. They're a great model to look at and they've been able to leverage the work that they do in the open source community so that they are positioned as experts. I know that if I was not a developer and I had a pretty large budget to build a project that they would probably be one of the first people I would go to because of how good they are and they prove it. They don't just say they're good on their Web site. They prove it by creating libraries that developers from all over the world are integrating in production projects. The way I look at it is if they can build code that can be downloaded and accessed in millions of projects all over the world then they're probably going to do a pretty good job on whatever project I hand them. Now if your first response to open source development is that that's too big of a task for you that's perfectly fine. And if you're kind of new to development then I would recommend actually staying away from building the large expansive kind of library right away. That's something that you do after you've had years of experience. But one thing you can do is go to a smaller gem so find a gem that maybe isn't quite as big as something that has millions of downloads go to something that's a little bit newer in its infancy and then go to the issue list right and you'll see a whole issue list and what you can do is find an issue that you are confident that you have a chance to fix and then fork the repo and go through make the changes and then create a pull request and you can do all this on get. And after you submitted that pool request whoever the creator of the library is they can look at that poll request see if they like it. And then they can merge into the code and then you have just contributed to the open source community. This is something that I've done for a number of years. I've contributed some of the bright ruby gems so that when originally they had a gem that really only worked on older versions Ruby I went and I forked the gym and upgraded it so that it could work for newer versions and it's all open source so you can go grab it and work on connecting to that event. API yourself. And so that's just something that I've had good success with and I have had a number of clients that I never marketed to. They didn't even find any my blog posts I didn't contact them on elance they just were going through repo's and they came across some work that I did on hub and they contacted me straight from them no no lesson on organically grown your freelance business would be complete without a discussion on social media marketing. Now out of all of the marketing channels that are out there social media is probably one of my least favorite. I just don't really enjoy it. I feel like a lot of people go on there and they're just marketing themselves their businesses or they are trolling other people and I just don't find it a very enjoyable thing with all that being said I've done a couple things to help market myself on those outlets and they've proven to be pretty effective. And I've also been able to kind of separate myself from the accounts. And so what I've done is I've gotten a cute sweet account and sweet allows you to schedule posts and to manage all of your outlets all from one spot. So what I can do is I can create 12 different links for a day and that night before all time each one of them and I will say OK I want the first one to go out at 9:00 a.m. and the next one to go out at 10:15 a.m. and put all of them with their titles and their links. I'm usually shooting now. Different blog posts I've written. Some of you may have found me through something like that. That's what I do on the Twitter side and it's OK it's not my personal favorite I don't enjoy going to Twitter and looking through the timeline. If any bloody messages me or does a reply I will go look at that and I'll get back to him as soon as I have a chance. So that's Twitter and I've seen it be effective in yeah kind of a small form. What I actually enjoy doing are the account I really enjoy is Instagram. You know Instagram for developer may not seem like the most. Doesn't seem like it make the most sense. It's you can't put links on it. You can't really do good screen shots or screen casts anything like that. But what I've done is all take pictures where and when I'm working at a coffee shop or I'll take pictures when I'm in the office of my computer when I get a new computer I'll do a little demo with it I'll do different things like that. And I actually enjoy doing those. And as long as you put the appropriate hashtags like you know development web freelancer things like that then other people can find you. And by being consistent with it I usually post about once per day by being consistent. I've been able to actually get a number of freelance clients that contacted me completely out of the blue they saw me post about an application I was building and I received a direct message from them and they asked if they could hire me to work on a project for them. So there's definitely some good ways of doing it. I probably haven't even came close to exploiting social media as much as I could but for the limited amount of time I wanted to spend on it I focused on picking out a few outlets that made the most sense. And so the two that I really picked out were Twitter and Instagram. And then I put together a strategic plan for kind of like a content calendar where I have each one of my posts scheduled I'll usually schedule them the night before. It doesn't usually take more than about 10 15 minutes or so. So that's what my approach on the social media marketing side has been and it's proven to be pretty effective. So in conclusion when it comes to organically marketing your freelance business you have a number of different options. We've talked about quite a few in this guide everything from writing blog posts and filming screencast for content marketing all the way through going and getting interviewed from reporters for magazines and for blogs. There's all kinds of things you can do and if you research even just some of those components like content marketing you can see there's literally been dozens if not hundreds of books written on that specific topic. So what my recommendation is to be smart and strategic. Pick out the different elements that you really enjoy doing because if you don't enjoy doing them you're not going to do them for more than a few days or maybe a few weeks and then you're going to look inconsistent. So for example if you start a blog and you post three times in two weeks and write this great content and then don't do anything for about six months you are going to look like you just kind of started and then stopped you're not going to look consistent. So make sure whatever you do you're consistent with it and that it's something that you really enjoy doing because that's going to help keep bringing you back every day.