The Business of Freelancing, Episode 20: Scott Yewell On His First $100k+ Project


This week I sat down with Scott Yewell to talk about how he recently closed his first six-figure project. Scott’s a partner at Blackfin Media, who for the last 14 years has been building small ($1-10k) website projects.

A few months ago, Scott joined my Consultancy Masterclass and made a lot of changes. He walked away with the class with a few pages of notes and a directive: change how and what you’re selling.

Well, it worked.

He just closed a 6-8 month project at $7,500 a week ($180-$240k) — which is a significantly more than the < $10k projects they used to field. In this interview, Scott lays out everything he did differently to make this change.

Here’s the interview!

(Note: If you’re interested in joining Scott and 130 others who have taken my Masterclass, there’s more information about the upcoming live class at the end of the interview.)


Brennan Dunn: Hey, everyone. I’m here with Scott Yewell. Scott, welcome to “The Business of Freelancing Podcast.”

Scott Yewell:  Thank you.

Brennan:  What’s going on, man?

Scott:  Up here in Newburyport, Massachusetts trying to stay warm. The heat is cranked. Just getting to work, starting the day actually.

Brennan:  Down here in Southeastern Virginia. The heat is cranked, too. It was crazy yesterday. It was the mid 70s and today it is a high of 39. That’s typical Virginia.

Virginia can…it’s kind of schizophrenic in that fall and spring just have crazy…

Scott:  Swings.

Brennan:  70 one day, 30 the next day, 70 the…yeah, it’s insane.

Scott:  I grew up in Western California. It’s not desert climate but it’s close. In the winter, it would be down freezing and then be 75 by the afternoon.

Brennan:  Always fun. Cool.

The reason I wanted to bring you on was you emailed me, I think it was last week.

Scott:  Yep.

Brennan:  You had emailed me saying, “Hey, by the way, I just got my first six figure contract.”

I’m like, “Whoo!”

Scott:  It was awesome.

Brennan:  Pop open the champagne.

We brewed some hot wine over the weekend for the first time at home.

Scott:  Oh, cool. So pop that open?

Brennan:  I’m going to retroactively dedicate it to your success.

Scott:  That’s awesome. Thank you.

Brennan:  But anyway, I get a lot of email from people, especially a lot of people on my list, who are stuck in…all of their contracts tend to be very low budget. They’re stuck in the cycle. Selling is hard so when you sell for a while and you finally get a contract and it’s not a lot of money, you sometimes get in this never‑ending loop of…

Scott:  It’s exhausting.

Brennan:  Right.

To be honest, I’ve never been able to really relate, as well, because a lot of the work I’ve always done have been these big, Ruby on Rails apps for a start‑up or a software company or even a mid‑sized business. These are all a minimum one, two month engagement full time, which is already going to bring it into five figures at a minimum.

I’d love to hear about, first off, Blackfin. What you guys do. What you were doing, I guess. Secondly, what’s changed and what allowed you to get that first milestone project. What are your plans going forward?

Scott:  Sure. To kick off, I haven’t always been a web developer working for a web development consultancy. Up until this past February, in 2014, I was working in the corporate world.

I’ve been trying to get out, trying to bootstrap things on the side. Also, I co‑host a podcast called “Bootstraped with Kids” with Brecht Palombo.

We documented our whole process of trying to launch a SaaS business and then killing it when we decided we didn’t like it anymore. We also didn’t have any customers.

I’ve been trying to do that stuff on the side while I was working a full time job at a company that got bought by Oracle eventually. I really didn’t like going to work anymore, didn’t like commuting, and was trying to get out.

I had a conversation with Chris, who’s the owner of Blackfin in February ‑‑ I was out on paternity leave ‑‑ and said…He’s like, “Hey, what if you didn’t have to go back to work anymore?”

I was hooked. I was like, “What?”

Basically, what he wanted to do…He’d been running Blackfin for 14 years and was tired of it and wanted someone to come in and run it with him. That was the opportunity that he presented. I said, “That’s awesome.”

I jumped ship. I joined Blackfin immediately. I took a pay cut because I was getting paid a lot at the corporate job.

I’m getting paid less at Blackfin but the relationship is that we split all profits 50/50 so there’s huge upside if we can grow this thing and make it profitable.

The last six months, I’ve been working, learning the business and understanding his current customer base and the kinds of projects and fulfilling on them in the way that he had been, and this whole time thinking, “There’s lots of opportunity here to either create products or to grow this.”

He hadn’t really ever marketed the business. It had all been word of mouth. Since he’d been doing it for 14 years, there’s a lot of word of mouth among his little customers. I say little. Maybe that’s the wrong term but there were a lot of projects that were…It evolved over time.

It started off just writing custom PHP websites. This is back in 2000 so PHP plus MySQL with a custom CMS because that was people did.

He evolved into a hosting company and sold that because that was 24 hour support and he was going crazy.

Brennan:  To be honest, I don’t think there’s a lot of money to be made in that kind of thing anyway, so…

Scott:  At least not now, with people like Bluehost and Rackspace out there. It’s just too…

Brennan:  Commoditized.

Scott:  Totally commoditized, yeah.

He actually sold out when there was some value there and then spent some time doing WordPress sites, got burned on…a couple of sites got hacked and he had to spend a lot of hours fixing those.

He evolved into a general web development company. He’s done some custom apps, custom websites. But all through that time, there were probably two or three big customers and maybe 100 small ones.

That was the business I jumped into, where there was a couple ongoing customers that we would do maintenance work, website updates. The last six months we’ve done a lot of responsive design retrofits. Taking the website they had built that was all table based and then reimplementing that so that it could to tablet and mobile, too, by changing the CSS to HTML.

These projects, on average, were between $5,000 and $10,000 a pop. Then, we would also offer at $100 an hour, we still do, just random stuff. I can even change a logo. I’ve got to add this little module. That kind of stuff. We just bill that at $100 an hour.

That’s what I’ve been doing until August, or September, actually. I heard about your class and this is where things started to change a little bit.

What I realized at the time was that we spent so much time just ramping up on a project. We’d ramp up on a project. We’d work on it for two or three weeks and then we’d be done.

We’d spend a lot of time just trying to scope it. Then we’d have to schedule time to get the developers to build it. Then we’ve got to QA it, and then we have to launch it and support it through the first couple days where they recognize they want some more changes. Then we’d be done.

I just felt like we were always spinning up, spinning down, spinning up, spinning down. While that’s happening, the business wasn’t growing really much because we didn’t have any time to spend on growing the business because we’re spending all this time spinning up and spinning down these projects.

I felt trapped and didn’t quite know how to change this.

I listen to a lot of podcasts. I listen to thoughtbot’s “Giant Robots Smashing Other Giant Robots.” They’re a Rails consultancy here in Boston.

I was thinking this whole time, “Wow, they grew from basically four guys writing Rails apps to this three or four office group across the world that’s got 90 or even 100 employees. They must be doing something different. There’s no way that they’re doing the same thing that Blackfin is doing.”

I started seeking out other models, I guess, for just how to be a different kind of web consultancy.

I’d much rather be part of a big and fast‑growing place that’s exciting, working with great people, than stressed out, scrambling to get projects up and running and out the door, and then just repeating.

It was in this time when I learned about your master class. Actually, at first, I bought your book, “Double Your Freelancing Rate,” and started rethinking how we were just, actually, doing everything.

I think our development processes were good, like how we build things, how we QA things, how we project manage it. That stuff’s pretty good. Where we weren’t, I think, doing as good of a job was just how we talked to our customers about what we were doing.

It’s so easy to fall back on “We’re a web consultancy. We build stuff at $100 an hour.” That’s very transparent. It’s easy to calculate.

Brennan:  It’s easy to say what you do. [laughs]

Scott:  It’s easy to say what you do. People say, “Is that fair value?” I’m like, “I don’t know. Go look on the web. Everyone’s $100 bucks an hour. We’re $100 bucks an hour. We’re nice. We’re in town. Work with us.”

I’m reading “Double Your Freelancing Rate”. It’s like, “Talk about the value of your project.” We hadn’t talked to any of our customers about…Why is it that you want your website…Why do you want to responsive retrofit your website? Do you want it because we told you you should have it, or do you want it because there’s some value there?

When we started talking like that to the customers, it was really interesting. They stopped talking about their websites. They started talking about these other things that they wanted to do with their business. It was way more fun to talk to them. Explaining how the CSS and the browser know to render the right portion so it looks right, they really don’t care. They just want it to work.

Brennan:  [laughs] They want the guy in their phone who pulls up their site and it’s a full‑page Flash site to see something more than a blank screen. To be honest, a lot of our early customers, with my agency, were those kind of people.

We’re talking all about responsive design. This is earlier in responsive design’s or responsive whatever’s infancy, I guess. Back then, they were like, “I just want people who are Googling for sushi and find me to not see a white page.”

Scott:  Right. You start talking about break points and stuff. They’re like, “I don’t care.” What we’ve found though is that the people that were excited about the stuff we were talking about, they’re really technical. They tended to be difficult clients because they wanted to basically be in the code with us while we were writing it. It made QA…

Brennan:  A pain. [laughs]

Scott:  …or reviewing with them a little painful. It’s like, “Let us do our job. You can go do your job. We can all do our jobs happily, together.

I’m reading your book. It was just great. There’s a lot of aha moments, like “Talk about the value.” Also, in your book, you talk about how to map the flow of a proposal. It wasn’t what we were doing, which was like, “Hi. We’re Blackfin Media. This is what we do. Here’s what we’re going to do and build this thing. Here’s how much it’s going to cost.”

It was all about us because we thought that’s what a proposal was. It’s “Here’s what we’re going to do for you,” as opposed to structuring it like, “This is about you. Let me talk to you about what I heard about you and what your problems are and how those are affecting your business.”

“Here are some solutions that you’ve asked us to think about. Here’s how they’re going to benefit you. It’s all about you. It’s all about the customer.”

Also, that flow allows them to revisit very clearly the pain that they’ve talked about. What I’ve found, even thinking about our business, at Blackfin…When I’m thinking about our business, I’m thinking about so much crap at the same time.

It’s only when I’m talking to my co‑host Brecht or another friend about the business, he reflects back to me a couple points that he thought were the most interesting or most valuable. That really clarified it for me.

That’s basically what we’re doing with this proposal for the customer. It’s like, “You’re thinking about your business all the time. Here are some key points that are really causing you pain.”

They’re like, “That’s awesome.” They get so excited because they finally feel like they have a handle on it. Now they’re marinating in this pain that they were talking to you about.

[crosstalk]

Scott:  Then you throw them a rope with the solutions you’re going to offer and the value of those solutions in context of the pain they were in.

Brennan:  They’re the ones who told you that pain to begin with, right?

Scott:  Yes, exactly.

Brennan:  They might not have said it overtly. It might have been buried under a lot of other stuff, but I think I look at our job as consultants is being like business shrinks, in a way, right?

Scott:  Totally.

Brennan:  Where we’re looking, and we’re trying to pull out between the lines what problem somebody is having. We’re also prescribing the medication. We’re prescribing the project.

Scott:  Yes. It’s all tied together. They see the value of the project. It’s not like, “Here’s your responsive website because you should have one.” It’s like, “I see that 30 percent of my customers are trying to view my site on a mobile device, and the bounce rate is 92 percent.”

It’s like, “The value of your average visitor is 40 bucks or something like that. Here’s the value of the responsive website to you, or it could be.” It’s so easy for them.

At least in my sample size of one project that I’ve run through this process, the sales portion wasn’t stressful. It wasn’t like “Argh” and the hemming and hawing over the price. It was just like, “I get it. Great. When can you start?” That’s honestly the conversation we had at the end.

If you want, I can go through all the conversations we had. Actually, one of the things you talked about was the transition. We’re not done with our transition. We have our first opportunity to deliver a really big project.

The way that started was they…I wish I had a “Here, do this. It’ll work every time.” They found us. They called us up and said, “You guys are local. I’ve heard that you build websites. Can you come talk to us? We have something we want to work on.”

We started it like our typical engagement, where we walked in. They showed us their problem, which was a web application. They said, “We have this web application. It was written over 11 years, in classic ASP. Our developer who’s building it, he can’t work on it anymore. We really want to change it and to evolve it. Can you help us?”

We were like, “Yup. We’re 100 bucks an hour. We’re going to go price this out.” That’s how we started the conversation.

Over time, they needed some help scoping what they wanted this next app to be. In the meantime, they wanted to do some maintenance work on this classic ASP app. We’re really a PHP, MySQL, and Postgres shop. We’re not a…

Brennan:  .NET.

Scott:  …classic ASP. This is before .NET. It’s VBScript.

Brennan:  Shows what I know about the dark side. [laughs]

Scott:  This language hasn’t been supported since 2004? It was running against SQL Server, which isn’t something we have a lot of experience on, on a Windows machine, which isn’t something we really do.

We knew they needed help. They’re local. It sounded like a cool project in the end because the end project, they wanted us to rebuild it all in some framework that we thought would be helpful. The big job, as we saw it then, would be something that we could choose a platform, but to get there, they had a couple maintenance projects.

We ended up being a service provider to them through some of these small projects. Over that time, we earned a lot of trust. They’d come with problems. We were very upfront and honest with them about timeframes and deliverables, and they came to trust us.

We also had a financial relationship where they had paid us a couple times for some small projects, small projects being like $1,000 to $3,000 projects. One was moving the app from the server in the closet of the business to Rackspace. That was one of the projects.

We had some of these small projects. That started in August. And then, September, I took your consultancy master class. That was two days. It was great. I really think you did a great job.

The other members of the class were engaging and some were funny. Overall, it was great to get different perspectives of people and what they were trying to do, what their businesses were.

The thing is, you realize that there are a lot of people out here trying to do what we’re trying to do. What was great was you’d been through it and had a model that I wanted to get to, which was big, longer term projects that avoided this spin up and spin down stuff.

The two things that I got out of your class, and that’s what I’ve gotten so far. I’m still reviewing the notes and trying to make more changes to improve our business.

One was just the realization of, “Oh, there are big projects out there and people pay a lot of money for…” You can just choose to find those clients. It’s really about changing your perception of what the value is that you’re offering and feeling confident in offering that value to your customer as opposed to order taking.

Having that mentality shift out of the class, the next meeting I had with these guys it was like because we never had…one of these you prescribe in your book is the roadmapping session. We never had the roadmapping session. We had five conversations sketching things out on whiteboards.

It was very fluid and it wasn’t time bound. I wish we had done that but we didn’t.

It was coming back and saying, just documenting all that and packaging it up and building the proposal story of, “Here’s specifically the payoff I’ve heard you talk about. Now let’s talk specifically about when we can start on this project,” because it had kind of been drifting.

That was a great conversation because after that conversation, it catalyzed everything and they were ready to go. “You’re right. These are the [indecipherable 0:21:13] you’re dealing with every day. Let’s get this done.”

Then we started on the conversation of, “Will you get us a formal proposal for this big project now?” I got to use all those tips you talked about in the book about the proposal and the story.

One of the things about this, the proposal was so much more fun to write than the way I was writing proposals before.

Brennan:  You’re telling a story. You’re not just dumping line items.

Scott:  Yeah, and I got really excited about getting the project scope, too. You could really start seeing the value of, “Holy crap. We are going to transform this business. We are going to give them a tool that’s going to allow them to triple their growth rate. That’s freaking awesome.”

Nowhere in the proposal did I talk about, except at the end…we have a section at the end of FAQ about working with us. That’s where we talk about some tech stuff.

The first two pages of the proposal ‑‑ the proposal was only three pages long ‑‑ were just an exciting story about…it was the hero story. It was like, “We have this company and they’re having all these pain points. Then a solution appeared, and then glory days. Then there’s a dollar value.”

Brennan:  Like reading Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With A Thousand Faces.” You bring the client out into the wilderness and you reflect and soul search with them. Then you come back.

Scott:  Then you revisit.

Brennan:  The montage of practicing these routine exercises over and over and over again.

Scott:  It’s fun to write. Then, when we gave it to them, the proposal, they were a little shocked because the other part of your class I took was…there are highlighted customers there. If you offer them the value in the right way, they’ll accept it. They will be excited about it.

The other part is feel confident in the value that you’re offering. One of the things we were doing was just like, “We’re $100 an hour because it’s easy to justify being $100 an hour.” That was our business model.

Brennan:  You can point at salaried equivalents and say, “Well, if you factor in overhead and taxes, we’re pretty much that.”

Scott:  Right. In fact, us versus them, why the hell are we talking about our business? Why am I sharing my profit margins with the customer. They don’t care. They care about their business.

Brennan:  Where do you buy anything in life where you actually think about, “What are the factory workers paid?” and all that kind of stuff.

Scott:  Yeah, totally. I used to work at Bose. The Bose Wave Radio costs $550. I know what it costs to build that thing.

Brennan:  It’s not that.

Scott:  It’s not that. They have this super efficient factory that cranks these things out at a very high quality. It’s a good product but there’s a great profit margin there. Nobody cares.

Being confident in the value you’re offering. When it came to pricing, I decided to follow your lead and charge a weekly rate, which we called an iteration because I think that’s what you said to call it. We called it an iteration.

Here’s how our pricing strategy went. “Brennan charged $10,000 a week. I don’t know what we should charge so let’s just charge $5,000 a week.” That’s more than what we would be charging because $100 an hour, if we were working full time that would have been $4,000. $5,000, that’s great.

Then I was like, “Why am I choosing five? Why don’t I just choose more?”

I talked to Chris about it. It was a weird conversation because he’s owned this thing for 14 years and he’s been doing business this way for 14 years.

Brennan:  You’re rocking the boat.

Scott:  Yeah. He’s really appreciative that I can come in and help out and work on the business and offload a bunch of responsibility but the idea of the new guy coming in and changing your business, no one likes that.

We had three conversations about it. I was like, “Look. Let’s just try it. If it doesn’t fly, we can fall back. It can always fall back to a cheaper price. That’s not an issue.”

I said that just now and I almost want to punch myself in the face. The philosophy I had internally going into this negotiation was, “We’re not going to negotiate the price. We’re going to go in there. If they don’t like the price, we’re going to change the scope.”

I was talking to Chris. I know that he was excited about the opportunity to make more money but there’s this disbelief of, “How can you just do that? How can you just charge more money?”

Brennan:  He was allowing you to do that.

Scott:  Yeah. “That feels uncomfortable. What are my other customers going to say when they find out? What is this guy going to do when he finds out my other customers only get billed $100 an hour?”

Just to answer that, the customer never asked. They don’t ask what you charge your other customers. They don’t think about it or it’s not relevant. If they asked me, I would have said, “Look, it’s not relevant. Your business is a special case because it’s your business and we’re going to focus 100 percent on it with this project. The people working on your project will. Let’s just talk about this project.”

You just keep the conversation about the project. “What about my other customers?”

Brennan:  I always make the mistake of thinking that our customers are as obsessed about our companies as we are.

Scott:  They don’t care. These guys are so excited about the opportunity in front of them they just want to get there.

It came down to pricing. I was like, “Look, how about we choose $7,500 a week. That’s going to be a great profit margin for us.” Another exciting side effect of this is I’m really excited to work on this project because we’re going to make a lot of money, but also it made it a higher value project all around.

We’re more excited to work on it. We can put some more resources on it with that price so we know we’re going to do a good job. And it’s just this mindshift of that’s what we’re worth now. That’s what we charge now. It’s changed the dynamic of the business where we feel like a more valuable company.

The crazy part is, we’re delivering similar stuff to what we’ve always done in the past but we’re more confident in it now. We’re more excited about it. It feels like a step up.

What I can’t quite get over is that nothing else in the outside world really changed at all. It’s just how we perceived ourselves and how we positioned it to the customer.

Let’s talk about how that process went. We delivered the proposal and the CEO writes back. He’s like, “I don’t understand this weekly iteration. This price seems really high. I need you to come in next week and talk about scope because I think this might be too much for us to spend.”

I kind of freaked out. I wrote a response saying, “Hey, just to answer a couple of your questions in email, here’s some answers. Let’s meet next Thursday at 10:00 AM.”

The response to what the iteration was, “A weekly iteration is two developers working 80 percent of the time, 20 percent the time of our QA guy, and 20 percent of the time of our project manager. That’s what we call a weekly iteration.”

Brennan:  Yeah, because it’s not just one salary. It’s not one resource for a week.

Scott:  It’s not one resource. That was another tip from the master class. Package things. If they want to sit down and make a spreadsheet and figure out what you could be paying your people, fine. But honestly, they didn’t. They don’t care that much about our business. They’re more like, “No, what’s the value?”

What we did then was he got the response, comes to the meeting on Monday. He’s like, “All right. So…”

Going to the meeting, I’m thinking just two things. I was preparing myself to negotiate scope, not value. That’s our rate. If you don’t want to work with us, you don’t have to. That’s how we work.

The other part is, my brother works for Salesforce.com. He had some training about sales. He had the sailor sales training. The guy is like, “One thing you can do before you go into a meeting is repeat after me, ‘I’m independently wealthy and I don’t need your fucking money.'”

I had this thing going through my head because you go in there and you’re like, “Look. This is just numbers. Let’s talk numbers,” and stop thinking about, “This is my livelihood.” I had that going through my head and negotiate on scope.

We get to the meeting and I’m all primed to negotiate scope. I’ve figured out five different ways to put this together. I start talking and the guy’s like, “I don’t want to do anything you’re talking about. I want to build the whole thing. I just need to know, in your scope, you said six to eight months. That’s $7,500 a week. That’s a 60 grand swing. Why can’t you just tell me? Why can’t you just give me a project value because I don’t want a 60 grand liability hanging around.”

I was like, “Oh, all right.” I tried to explain the cost of software development. “When we get into this there’s always scope creep. Having that range and that variation is economic pressure on you, the business, to minimize your scope creep.”

He’s like, “Yeah, but you’re incentivized to drag.”

I’m like, “Look. We’re going to meet every two weeks. If you think we’re moving too slow, let us know and we’ll figure something out. But I think you’re going to be excited about the progress you’re going to see every two weeks.” Then he was happy.

Brennan:  Have you started this project yet?

Scott:  We start September 1st.

Brennan:  I want to find out when you do start it, how the dynamic has changed… because it’s totally different. When you have a client who looks at you as a premium provider, not just this $100 an hour labor shop.

Scott:  Right, a commodity.

Brennan:  The way they’ll treat you will be totally different. On top of that, one of the things we covered in the class, actually, was the idea of being that steward to your client’s budget.

When you tell your client, “Yes, when I’m billing you for my time, sure. If that’s how I wanted to run a business, I could just drag things out. But I want to run a business by making you an awesome case study that I can use to sell future clients. The way to do that is not by drawing you out. It’s by getting you to the goal you need to get to, which we’ve already mapped out what that is.

“When you’re just giving line item orders, it’s kind of like filling the gas tank but not really knowing where you’re going.” We know where we’re going. We’re going to stay in touch weekly, biweekly, whatever that might be, about how much closer are we to that goal? Not what have we done. Yes, you want to talk about feature‑wise, development‑wise, what got done. But more importantly, what got done and how does that relate to that end goal?

On top of that, we don’t want to have this 11th‑hour thing. None of us want to, and I’m sure you’ve been here too where you get that 11th‑hour, “We need to talk,” call from a client who’s like, “I spent all this money. We’re not even halfway there. What happened?”

You don’t want to be, none of us ever want to be there, especially if you’ve been there before. The way to do that is to just communicate not about just progress, not about just development, but also about where you are in the grand scheme of things and do that often.

Scott:  Honestly, that’s another change we’re implementing is that we, most of our projects, because they’re three to four‑week projects it’s like fire‑and‑forget with the customer. Like, “OK, go,” and then you come back a week later, “Here it is!” and then you launch it.

It seemed like they didn’t…Like they didn’t value the work enough to reprioritize their schedules to really evaluate the work. So we launched the project and three weeks later like, “Hey, I thought we talked about this.” We’re like, “Dude, we reviewed this like four weeks ago. You were on the phone call. You said yes a lot. I’m pretty sure you saw it and said, ‘OK.'” He’s like, “I don’t care. I want it changed now.”

It’s like, why didn’t you tell me earlier? It’s really I think because we weren’t high enough on their test list. In this one, like I…The CEO and I, we’ll have coffee now. Because he wants to know…He’s excited about the investment he’s making he wants to get details about it and understand how we’re planning it, building it.

What’s great about that too is that the…This is one project where we want to delight them. We want them so excited about this project that we deliver that we’re going to do a really good job. But he’s already excited about the next three projects. He’s teeing them up in his head, so it’s a great…

Brennan:  Which is great, because if you can, I mean especially, you already have those early wins. But if you can deliver this, deliver a tremendous ROI for them, this could be…

Scott:  It’s just a great relationship.

Brennan:  It’s pivotal not only in that you have this new, high‑value portfolio entry, but now you’ve got experience under your belt having done the new model ‑‑ having tried this new model, having it been successful.

Like I said, when you do start to work on this project, it will be different. It will be different than the kind of stuff you’ve done before by virtue of the fact that, like you just said. The client wants to sit down and talk to you about strategy. Not about like, “Hey, here’s my new list of requirements I need done. Do them.” Right?

Scott:  Right. Totally.

Brennan:  That’s going to set that…To me, that’s not sustainable. I know some companies, that’s what they do. They’re order takers, they thrive on that, whatever. I think for me, for you, and I think for probably a lot of people listening, that’s not the kind of business we want to build. We want to be partners. We want to have a vested interest in the success of our clients. The way to do that is not to be an order taker.

Scott:  Absolutely. Like I said before, we’re still going through the transition. We still have a lot of customers where we’re order takers for them. We’re in this hybrid world where I’m and the team and Chris are really excited about this new opportunity. At the same time, we’re still taking orders and servicing these other customers.

What we’re figuring out, and this is another difficult partnership conversation, is what are we doing to do with these existing people that are still paying the bills? It’s good business. It’s, as far as profit. But it’s not nearly the excitement that we’re getting off this new way of running our business. We’re figuring that out. Maybe I can report back later about how we did it, but it’s probably going to take six months, I’m guessing.

Brennan:  Do you think you’ll eventually grow out of most of your clients and try to focus exclusively on this kind of client?

Scott:  I hope so. Because this is a much more fun and exciting kind of business for me. I like writing code. I even like optimizing databases. It’s fun to do, to get that reward and that efficiency.

When you start talking about tripling somebody else’s business by, like something in your head can be applied to their business and will just make them so happy, and it’s just trapped in your head right now? That feels amazing. It’s just so validating. I wish that I had my own business I was tripling all the time. That would be great.

But I don’t know, for some reason, maybe it’s just the kind of person I am, it’s easier for me to help other people than…Because I feel like I don’t have the idea that I want to invest all my time into right now.

So in the meantime, I’ve been learning all of this stuff, from podcasts, from blogs, from some experiments about how to build things. Then somebody else has this opportunity, like, “Dude, I could just pour this gasoline on that fire over there. I’ll blow up, and they’re going to be so happy.” That sounds awesome. I want to do that all the time. Taking orders at 6:00 PM for an emergency website tweak, that doesn’t get me excited, you know?

Brennan:  Let me ask you this. In closing, the thing I want to talk about quickly is this all sounds great, and I’ve said this before and I’ve told people about, this is exactly how I’ve gone ahead and have justified what I’m charging now for the kind of projects I’m doing and have done.

The thing that, where people get hung up is people, a lot of people have this inability or this fear of, Well, I can’t come up with these business‑changing ideas.” Like “I can’t.” Like I’m comfortable taking orders because I’m technically very good at whatever I do. Like coding or design or whatever. I can respond and say, “OK, you need a five‑page website built? I can build you a five‑page website because that’s what I do for a living.”

But then, God forbid, you want to talk about how that five‑page website could affect their business. Well, now we’re moving into a higher pay grade. I think a lot of people beat themselves over the head thinking that their clients tend to be much more business‑savvy than they are. It’s probably true sometimes, but it’s not always, believe it, it’s not always true at all.

But on top of that, I think a lot of us underestimate how capable we are of just intersecting like, “Here’s what we do. We’re like you.” You build web stuff for people. You read different websites, you read different blogs. You know a bit about the ecosystem.

I think we make this assumption that…We sometimes think that the client or clients understand that too. Like our clients are there reading Hacker News and our clients are there reading all these different blogs and listing their startups to the rest of us and doing all this stuff, which they’re not, typically. They’re not.

I think there’s a lot of value and you just, you as a consultant, you as a freelance consultant, relying on what you know, the experience you’ve gained being a part of your industry, being a part of your profession and finding ways of saying, “OK, the client obviously knows more than I do about…” Say they, I don’t know, like one of our clients…

[crosstalk]

Brennan:  Yeah, like cars or whatever. But they might not know about these different trends in mobile apps. They might not know about the fact that you, putting an app in the app store doesn’t mean it’s going to make you any money. It’s probably the opposite. There are all these things that they don’t really know about. If you can steer them and…

The thing is, I think the big disconnect that I’ve seen, at least, has been a lot of people seem to think that what I’m advocating and what we’re saying here is just talk the good talk and you can then gouge people.

I think the thing that needs to be understood is by virtue of the fact of all this stuff you’ve done for this new client of yours, by understanding their needs, by understand their business, by understanding really what they need fixed, you’re going to be delivering a better product to them than you would have had you not done that.

Had you just been an order taker and said, “OK, just show us the app now and we’ll recreate it.” That’s not probably what they need, and they’re not going to get as…When you do this, you deliver better work, right?

Scott:  Definitely. I hear what you’re saying about…It’s not, the experience we’re having isn’t just like we’re charging more money. It could just be that, and I think we would be marginally successful. The real shift was about talking about business value and understanding, just what are you trying to do?

I used to write a lot of software back in 2000, 2002. I was in a startup and I wrote code 16 hours a day, and just that’s what I did. Then I said, “I should go to business school. Because then I’ll know business.” It was like “The Matrix.” They’ll plug me into a thing and then I’ll be good at kung fu. I’ll be good at business.

I go to business school and after two years in business school I learned a lot about different kinds of businesses you could do and how to talk to VCs about startups, but I didn’t know business. It was a really frustrating experience.

So I get out of there, I go to marketing, and I learned some more stuff. This divergence is about how to talk about business value. It’s really not that complicated. You don’t need a degree, you don’t need to read a ton of business books. You’re probably going to come off as more authentic if you don’t know all the business‑y terms.

What you need to do is listen to your customer that you’re talking about and just be a human with them and listen to where they’re frustrated or scared or excited or where their pain is or what they’re avoiding talking about and asking questions about it. They will give you all the words you need to talk about what you’re going to deliver to them.

The stuff that’s been going on in your head is going to be all this technical stuff and like, crap. Email autoresponder would just kill it for these guys, or responsive web design would really transform this business.

You’ll have all these tentacle solutions in your head and the hard work, this is I think maybe what’s confusing, or I don’t know how to do that to people is drawing the line between that technical thing you have in your head and those words that they told you that were associated with exciting or the strong emotion in the conversation. You just try to do that.

Brennan:  It doesn’t take an MBA to do that.

Scott:  It does not, no.

Brennan:  It really doesn’t. It’s just really looking at something you’re passionate about. Like I’m passionate maybe about test‑driven development. That’s something a lot of us geeks, a lot of us developers, we love. If I were to tell my dad, who owns a business, “How about we build you an app and we’ll TDD it, we’ll test‑drive it, we’ll…” whatever, right? He’s going to be like…

Scott:  I don’t care.

Brennan:  I’ve had clients who say like, “Why? So you want me to, you want to spend more time writing code because you’re running tests. I don’t really know what a test means. I don’t know.” Until I started thinking about and trying to recast TDD or test‑driven development as something that would matter to my typical client, it all started making sense.

I started saying, “Well, we do this thing called test‑driven development. What that means for you, what that means for your business, is that you will have a lower total cost of ownership because the software we produce will be easier to maintain and, when we develop new things, when we build new things, we don’t need to worry about…”

Scott:  Breaking them.

Brennan:  Breaking them, right. You explain it, you give them examples, case studies, about, “Well, if you don’t do that, here’s what could happen, and here’s why we do it this way. By the way, this is non‑negotiable because if we don’t do it this way, we could end up looking really bad if somebody else inherits this project a year from now and tries to develop it and breaks it.” Like, “It looks bad on us, and here’s why we do it, and here’s why you should want us to do it.”

Scott:  Back to your point though about, I think you were talking about how people in your audience or people that are trying to up‑level their consultancy, you don’t have to learn new things. Everything you know right now or probably most things you know right now is going to be of huge value to some of your customers. They just need to know about it, and why it, the value of that thing, that technical skill, that feature, the value of that in their context.

This, charging more money and delivering a better product is all about fitting the things you know into their context. It’s not, you don’t have to go learn anything brand new. Yeah. There’s example about their, just the email autoresponder guy. It’s not complicated. It’s a five‑email series. He writes it. He can even outsource the writer. You can plant it that that whole cost of delivery is, you could probably do that for under 500 bucks.

But the value to the end customer is about conversions, it’s about building relationships with the customers. You talk to them about that. But what’s that actually doing for their business? That’s the conversation that I think one should practice more.

Brennan:  I do think it could be very beneficial, especially if you’re listening to this and you’re not a marketer, you’re not into sales, you’re not into marketing. Learning a bit about sales and marketing I think will go a long way regardless of what you do, because

None of our clients typically are not hiring us because they like spending money on code or design or words or whatever else. No one has ever wanted to write big checks for Scott’s code. No one cares about Scott.

[laughter]

Scott:  But my wife cares least of all.

Brennan:  If you can understand exactly what it is that they’re looking for, I think that…A lot of this is really just rewiring what it is you bring to the table and selling yourself differently. I do think that leveling up your ability to both sell and market yourself, but also how sales and marketing relates to your clients.

Because a lot of what we do, I mean that’s the goal at the end of the day is to get more sales, get more customers, get more money, whatever. That’s typically the end goal for most of our clients, and when we’re not focusing on that, when we’re saying, “Ooh, pretty logo, and let’s make it pink instead of blue.” Yeah, that could possibly influence that angle, but until you’re talking on that same page, until you’re on that same page with your client.

A lot of the times, I think our clients come to us and they don’t really expect us to be doing that. They’re just coming to us and saying like, “Hmm, I woke up and decided I want more customers. I think maybe a website will do that. I’m going to hunt out a, or seek out a website designer.”

Then they talk to you about the website. I think most of us are going to just respond to that and say, “OK, tell me about your site. Tell me how many pages you need. WordPress or not.” That’s where we start, and when we can elevate ourselves to that original level that our client was at, the level of, why are they actually thinking of spending money on a website?

That’s what sets you apart, which is going to make it easier for you to sell, because you’re not going to sound like everyone else. You’re lower risk. You’re the one talking about getting them more customers, which is all they care about. The other guys are talking about building these different sites, which maybe that could get you more customers. But it’s not implicit. It’s not something you’re saying.

Scott:  We’re having the experience now where this customer is calling us into meetings with their other technical vendors to help advise them on the value of those offerings.

Brennan:  It’s a good position to be in.

Scott:  It’s amazing, yeah. Not because we’re going to lie to them or take advantage of them, but we know about a lot of things that they need done now, and we have the opportunity to present a solution to them. Yeah. I feel like I could talk to you about this for hours.

Brennan:  I’ll need to have you on once you…I’d love to hear when you’re midway through it. This is, what, a six to eight‑month engagement you said, something like that?

Scott:  Yeah, that’s what it looks like right now, yeah.

Brennan:  Let’s have you back on in a few months and I’d love to hear…

Scott:  How it’s going?

Brennan:  How it’s different. Yeah, how it’s going, but also how the engagement is different. Like what’s different about it versus your existing legacy clients and stuff?

Scott:  Sure.

Brennan:  Cool. Well, Scott, thank you so much. Quick questions: Where can people find out more about Blackfin and where can people find out more about you? Yeah.

Scott:  Unfortunately, everything is all over the place. Blackfin, you can check out at BlackfinMedia.com. We have a nice, new responsive website there.

Brennan:  I’d hope so, considering that’s what you’re selling to a lot of your clients.

Scott:  If you want to reach out to me, you can ping me at [email protected]. That’s probably my most public Internet address. Then that’s just spelled like it sounds. It’s a long address. Then if you want to follow me on Twitter, I’m @syewell.

Brennan:  Cool. Well, thank you, Scott, and thanks for coming on.

Scott:  Thanks for having me, Brennan.


I hope you enjoyed that interview with Scott. If you’re interested in hearing more interviews from successful freelance consultants, let me know in the comments below (feel free to name drop some suggestions!)

Also, earlier this week I formally scheduled the first Consultancy Masterclass of 2015. There are currently 11 of 14 seats still available. If you do plan on applying to join the next round, note that you’ll need to carve out two full days (January 13-14) to dedicate to the class. But if your business is at the point where you’re ready to take it to the next level, spending 2 days to totally transform your business — like Scott did last September — will be a great start to 2015 (and you can cash in on an end-of-the-year 2014 tax deduction with your tuition payment.)

Apply now for the January class

“I still can't believe you don't charge for this course.”
Struggling to find and close projects? Need some help in figuring out how to charge what you're worth? Join more than 25,000 freelancers who have transformed the way they sell and pitch clients.
I can't thank you enough for everything you're doing to share your knowledge and experience with us. I've been reading and listening to a lot of "gurus" out there and often times feel like their approaches are a bit too gimmicky or lack what I appreciate about your content the most: genuinely caring about the client's needs. I read every word of every lesson many times over and I could truly feel my mindset shifting.
Sam F., joined the course April 18, 2018
Join 50,000+ freelancers who get early access to new articles, guides, updates, and more.