(Art credit: Kathryn Sheldon)
Freelancers tell me all the time that they want “better” clients. Clients who value them, pay them what they’re worth, and give them the freedom to do what they love. Clients who see them as a valuable part of their business, engage with them over and over again, refer them to other people, and think of them as part of the team.
Every time a freelancer tells me this, my first question is, “How do you find clients?” And they tell me about funnels, ads, freebies, and their social media presence. When I ask them how they’ve built and leveraged their professional network, they look at me like I just time traveled from a chamber of commerce meeting in 1972.
Freelancers (and entrepreneurs in general) have become lazy and brainwashed by the narrative of overnight success built from a single social media post, viral blog, or killer freebie. The internet was supposed to make networking obsolete. Why have coffee with just one person when you can make one piece of killer content (and get in front of a million eyes) and the whole world will instantly recognize your value?
And it’s not just the internet, traditional marketing strategies have always been based on a needle-in-a-haystack mentality — you put your message out there to as many people as possible and a small percentage will buy what you have to offer.
The most common way I see this play out for freelancers is a sales funnel.
1. Give something amazing and free away to tons of people.
2. A small group of those people will give you their email address so you can give them even more free things.
3. A small group of those people will have a “discovery” or “strategy” call with you where you’ll give them free advice and try to convince them why they should pay you to do something that they think you’re teaching them to do on their own….for free.
4. A small group of those people (at this point, it is not even a group, we’re talking single digits here) will actually pay you to do something for them.
5. Maybe 1–2 of these people will turn out to be excellent clients and you’ll work with them long-term.
Solopreneurs and freelancers get fooled into thinking that this is the way to find clients — cast a wide net to find the right fish, kiss all the toads to find the frog… Here’s why that is not true:
Building the right audience takes time
I’m not saying that freebies and content marketing are bad strategies, I use both of them for the passive income side of my business where I sell things “off-the-shelf” like courses, tools, and templates…but it takes a ton of time and effort to build a dedicated audience organically. Unless you already have a huge audience, you will have to 1) pay someone (most likely Mark Zuckerberg) to get your amazing free thing in front of lots of people, and 2) spend a lot of time making great (free) content and getting it out on as many channels as possible.
The funnel strategy works for products (and huge companies), not solopreneurs
This might be a viable strategy for someone who needs to sell lots of products to break even or has a huge sales team that does nothing but monitor the funnel and do free discovery calls. When your business is built on your skillset and the work that only you do, you need to find a small group of dedicated clients who know and value you, not a bunch of people who really just want to consume free content and never pay you what you’re worth.
This brings me to the other complaint that freelancers often have, “I’m spending all of my time finding clients and not doing what I love.”
Well…when you’re sifting through your funnel, having dozens of free “discovery calls,” and managing your social media accounts it’s hard to focus on your actual work. It’s also hard not to see each one of your followers or subscribers and just potential dollar signs.
When you focus on actual relationships with the right people, you not only increase your chances of finding high-quality clients, but you also build a connection with an actual human which is worth so much more than the money in the bank. When you’re a freelancer, finding clients you can marry instead of just date will not only make your work more satisfying, it will remove you from the feast/famine mentality of constantly having to hustle.
The answer, my friends, is networking.
I hear you saying it, I’ve said it myself, “I hate networking.”
I too hate old-school networking, which I define as joining groups and talking to strangers at professional events in an effort to gain something. This is just like your funnel but without the internet — you’re talking to a ton of people in a superficial way, basically seeing them as walking dollar signs, and then narrowing them down to the ones who will actually pay you.
The way I’m defining networking is the process of building meaningful connections with others so that you can support each other. This means that you’re networking with people who might not actually be potential clients. When you see people as potential relationships and not dollar signs, you build a real connection which can lead to future work, referrals, and in the best cases, a person you can come to when you need advice or support.
Here’s how I build and nurture my network.
Identify Your Existing Network
Your existing network is the best place to start. This doesn’t mean that you’re reaching out to everyone you’ve ever known to try and get them to hire you, it means you’re reconnecting with people you actually like, know, and respect in an effort to make yourself better at what you do (and hopefully add value for them as well).
Make a list of everyone you know who 1) might be a potential client or know potential clients, 2) does something adjacent to what you do, or 3) also runs their own business. I encourage you to think outside of the box on this list. You’re not reaching out to them to say, “Hey, I’m running a ____ business now. Can I tell you more about what I do?” You’re reaching out to say, “Hey, we haven’t connected in a while. I’m running my own ____ business now and would love to catch up and pick your brain about _____ (topic).”
The bottom line is that if the people you already know don’t know what you do, then they won’t know to talk about you when someone needs the type of services you offer.
Rejuvenate Your Existing Network
Once you have this list, start reaching out. This needs to be genuine, not just a generic BCC email. Pick the people you actually want to reconnect with and send them a personalized email, text, or give them a call and ask if they’d like to catch up. Even if it seems like they wouldn’t be a potential client, you would be surprised at how peripheral connections can turn into solid client relationships. Plus, it is just nice to have an excuse to reach out to someone you haven’t seen in a long time and reconnect. When I first did this, it took a couple of follow-up emails for some people, but ultimately, I didn’t find anyone who wasn’t willing to connect and everyone I talked to gave the most amazing advice and support. The worst thing that can happen is that someone doesn’t email you back.
Find the Nodes
I know, cold outreach sucks. I hate doing it too. But this is the best way to broaden your network and build connections. Instead of finding individuals who might be your ideal audience, look for “nodes.” Nodes are people who already serve your ideal audience in another way, the people that your ideal clients go to for advice and referrals. For example, if you’re a graphic designer who specializes in logos for dentists in Tampa, you don’t want to reach out to every single dentist office in Tampa. You want to find the Tampa dental association and connect with the person who handles communications. If you’re an environmental designer who creates expo spaces, you don’t want to reach out to individuals who go to expos, you want to reach out to the organizer of the expo. If you’re a graphic designer who specializes in book covers, you don’t want to reach out to individual authors, you want to build a relationship with a book editor.
Find the people adjacent to your work, who already know your audience and build a relationship with them. This will give you a referral network that keeps going and going, instead of just one new client. Most importantly, every time you have one of these meetings end with asking, “Who else should I talk to?” Then you don’t have to cold call/email, you can get an introduction from someone, which goes a lot farther.
Keep Up With Your Network
Once you’ve done this initial outreach, keep up your network regularly. There are lots of ways to do this. You can establish a regular email newsletter that keeps them engaged in your work. This is a fine strategy but can also feel salesy and leads to people getting burned out on you trying to sell them. For the people I’m most interested in keeping in touch with, I make sure that I reach out every few months and grab coffee or just have a Zoom check-in with them. You can also send over “thought of you” emails when you come across an article or opportunity that they might be interested in. Don’t use the check-ins to sell them, just talk about life and catch up…ask how you can be helpful.
Since starting my business, I have reconnected with so many people including former colleagues, business partners, and friends who I haven’t seen for years. I’ve also connected with new people from all over the globe who have found me through my blogs and recommendations from other awesome people I work with.
Did some of these connections lead to work? Of course. Several of these amazing people have referred me to clients, brought me in on their projects, and even passed on entire projects to me. But more importantly, I’m cultivating relationships with people that I can now reach out to for advice, a recommendation, or an introduction in the future. Likewise, I never turn down a request for a chat in an effort to pay it forward.
No matter how you approach client acquisition, networking is a must. Building a network of clients, partners, and colleagues is what will create sustainable income, differentiate you from other freelancers, and give you a place to go when things get tough, and margins get tight.