If I were to distill down every article, podcast episode, course, or what-have-you that I’ve ever created into a mission statement of sorts, I think it would be this: To turn talented freelancers into savvy business owners.
Sometimes, readers of mine look a bit too far into this statement…
Am I advocating that people stop getting better at their crafts?
That everyone should turn into charlatans, and “sell the sizzle” by becoming world-class schmoozers?
I get why people sometimes think this. In our vernacular, “change” is often associated with “replacing something faulty with something good”. When Obama ran under the banner of Change We Can Believe In, he was making a judgement about the system he was inheriting.
But change can happen without demoting or discarding the thing being changed.
You can become good at business without sacrificing your principles.
You can be both a businessman and a master craftsman.
The way of the world
— cat /dev/urandom (@csprngoutput) September 7, 2015
What prompted today’s article was a tweet from Scott.
Over the years, I’ve heard a similar sentiment from hundreds of freelancers.
Business is inefficient.
There are too many layers between buyers with needs and providers.
And, worst of all, clients are duped by fast-talking consultants who know how to wine-and-dine, yet deliver an inferior product.
The first time I was exposed to this reality was when I worked for an interactive agency in Miami Beach. Our clients included airlines, resorts, and other high-profile companies with massive budgets.
The work our agency did wasn’t anything special. We had good designers, good developers, and good analysts on the team. But when it came down to what we did and the results we delivered, we didn’t have any “secret sauce” that a handful of other struggling South Florida agencies lacked.
But what became clear was that we were doing very, very well. I remember when the two owners received their American Express Centurion cards at the office. These are cards that, at least at the time, required you to spend a quarter million+ dollars a year on. The owners and their friends traveled constantly, and always flew first-class and stayed at the best resorts.
What was their secret?
How were they landing six-figure contracts left and right for basic WordPress sites?
They knew how to play the game.
Whenever a client of ours would be in town, the owners and a few of the account reps would party hard with them. Steak dinners, nightclubs, private poolside cabanas — nothing was off limits.
They knew that business had a lot to do with relationships, especially when you’re talking about projects in the tens, or hundreds, of thousands of dollars.
So they focused their attention on building up those relationships.
I thought this whole way of doing things was entirely frivolous.
It was stupid.
We should just focus on being technically awesome, and win work that way.
I eventually had to ask myself: sleaze, or no sleaze?
A few years later I had moved to Virginia, quit my agency job, and was working as a freelancer. I was at the point where I was considering scaling my successful freelancing business into an agency, and my only model I had for running a firm was the agency I worked at when I lived in Florida.
And while I wasn’t opposed to maybe one day being offered an AMEX Black Card, I didn’t want to get it the way my former bosses did.
The first problem I had facing me was that I was an introvert. I’m not the partying type. I have a hard enough time going to a nightclub with my wife (do married couples do that? I don’t know), let alone with a client.
But the bigger problem was that I had a lot of moral reservations about that particular method of business development. It was no better than high-priced lobbyists who wine-and-dine politicians, with slightly less impactful consequences.
When I decided to scale my agency, my goal was to build something I could be proud of. I wanted to produce amazing websites and web apps. And I wanted my work — the results I delivered to my clients — to do the selling for me.
Have you ever felt this way?
I did. And still, sometimes, do.
I’d love to be able to do great work, and let savvy clients seek me out and hire me. And while this sometimes can work, it’s the exception, not the rule.
Most business deals, especially as you get into the higher budgets, are sourced from existing relationships. The company that wins the project isn’t usually objectively the best company for the project. There’s usually no scoring algorithm that determines who gets the work.
All of the freelancers I’ve hired are friends of mine.
And it’s not because I want to shower money on people I know (though I don’t mind it, considering the alternatives). It’s because I don’t have the time, know-how, or confidence to objectively make the right decision about how to run better ads or produce better podcasts.
In some instances, I didn’t even know I had a problem, let alone that it could be solved.
Everyone I’ve hired has impressed me in some way by teaching me something of value.
They’ve taught me about my business, about how I could grow my business, and gave me insights into a world (their world!) that I only knew about on a very superficial level. These relationships started by me reading their blog, talking over Twitter, or meeting at a networking event or conference. These relationships were cultivated and tended to. Eventually, they led to me being presented with a path forward that would make me better off than I was.
The mistake most of us make is that we imagine our clients have total awareness of their problems and how to solve these problems.
That’s a HUGE assumption. And it’s almost always false. Even for a client like me who thinks he knows a lot about his own business 🙂
Do I think that some singularity is near, where businesses will have total awareness of their problems and have the ability to figure out how to solve them and objectively hire the best people for the job?
Call me a pessimist, but I don’t.
Where this leads us
So you have your craft — that is, what you love to do. Your profession.
And there exist companies that could benefit from what you have to offer.
How do you find them? How do they find you?
You could try to freelancer marketplaces like Freelancer.com and Upwork, but 90% of the people who could get something of value from you either don’t know those marketplaces exist or don’t know they have a problem to begin with.
Later in our Twitter conversation, Scott mentioned that he didn’t like that a lot of his peers who were making good inroads into his industry were barging into companies and pointing out their problems and holding them virtually ransom until they fixed them. But there are other ways to accomplish the same end, just like there are other ways to build relationships that don’t involve getting your future clients drunk.
The best way to connect problems with solutions is by educating the people who have those problems — by prescribing a solution to a patient that has an illness.
And the best way to do that on a large scale is by marketing not your technical services, but the prescriptions — and ultimately, the medicine — that you have to offer the world.
This is education-based marketing, and it’s the best way to get clients who are willing to pay you a premium and won’t force you to sacrifice your rates and your principles as they seek out the “cheapest vendor”.
You can reliably market and sell yourself without abandoning the passion for your craft that got you into your business.
You don’t need to be like my former bosses, who won projects because they knew how to have a good time with their clients.
You can learn how to play the “marketing game” — networking, creating evergreen content, hosting seminars or webinars, and so on — without all the marketing fluff that we all love to hate.
You can change into a savvy business owner AND remain a talented freelancer who produces great work.