Start a freelancing business

Should You Be Focusing on *Finding Clients* or *Having Them Find You*?

By Zach Swinehart

A stream of endless potential clients beating down your door is any freelancer’s dream.

After all, it’s the uncertainty about when and where the next client will come from that causes us freelancers to feel desperate.

…And it’s that desperation that causes us to…

  • Work with crappy clients
  • Negotiate on our rate
  • Agree to ridiculous demands or deadlines

The solution to this is having a queue of clients waiting, and having enough lead flow that you don’t feel like any one potential client is all that important.

But here’s the rub…

I have no doubt that if I were to ask you something like, “Hey yo, do you want an endless stream of clients coming to you?” you’d say yes.

But building that stream takes time, work, delayed gratification, and getting out of your comfort zone.

(…Or it takes a lot of money and financial risk.)

Meanwhile, going out and finding clients – vs. building systems for them to find you – provides instant results.

The catch with the “going out and finding clients” approach that 90%+ of freelancers take:

It takes a really long time to actually get ahead, because the only real “marketing asset” you’re building as a result of this is the potential for word-of-mouth referrals from a client if you do a kick-ass job for them and provide a great ROI.

I managed to build a six-figure consultancy for myself on nothing but word-of-mouth referrals.

…But it also took me about a decade to get to that point.

…And my lead flow is entirely out of my control, and subject to seasonal rising and falling.

…And it has been heavily dependent on luck.

…And the time before the luck-driven referrals came in was very rough financially.

So while it eventually worked out for me, it’s not an advisable way to go.

The Best Road to Long-Term Success

The best long-term lead generation route involves building education-driven marketing assets, which we cover in The Blueprint and these blog posts:

Brennan developed this approach in answer to needing reliable lead generation for his agency, and leveraging what he knew about content marketing to get there.

The essence of the approach we recommend (and teach in The Blueprint) is this:

  1. Choose an audience you want to serve and a valuable problem you want to solve for them
  2. Interview prospective clients to hone your service offering ideas and get more info about this audience
  3. Create helpful content for people in this audience who aren’t yet problem-aware or solution-aware
  4. Encourage them to sign up for your email list to a freebie offering, which is typically an email course
  5. Use that freebie offering (and associated email funnel) to educate them more about the problem and solution to prime them for becoming clients
  6. Position your service as the “How” for them to put this solution into practice in their business
  7. Drive potential clients into this funnel via content marketing
  8. Potentially augment with paid traffic acquisition, or double down on more content marketing
  9. And then – at long last, and only after all of the above steps are in place and well-honed – you get to lean back in your leather chair and puff on cigars that you light with $100 bills thanks to all these leads you’re getting and all this disposable income you have. (Or you can use your profits for more sensible things, but you do you)

Steps 1-8 sound like a lot of work, eh?

They are.

Putting together the “minimum viable automated marketing system” will likely take a freelancer who doesn’t have internet marketing experience at least 100 hours to set up, and it doesn’t have an instant gratification payoff, so it’s naturally discouraging.

(i.e. you might spend that first 100 hours and only get 1 client out of it, and think to yourself “this is dumb and doesn’t work and I could have gotten 10 clients on Upwork in this amount of time,” even if by the time you spent another 100-200 hours on it, you’d be automatically generating more leads than you ever could with your manual “finding clients” strategies)

Here’s the way I look at it…

Most freelancers burn tons of time going out and finding clients, and in doing so, trade off their long-term comfort and success in favor of short-term revenue.

This more automated, asset-driven approach is the solution to that.

But it’s not a good fit for every stage of business.

The Approach Most Freelancers Take

If it takes you, say, 10 hours start-to-finish to find, court, and close a new client…

And you want 4 clients a month…

That means you spend 40 hours a month. I.e. 480 hours a year.

And most freelancers who take this route don’t get ahead particularly quickly, so you’re virtually guaranteed to be stuck in this cycle for at least a few years.

So this means you’re looking at a minimum of 1,500 hours of “going out and finding clients” work before you see enough traction from word of mouth to keep you afloat and start to reduce that “finding clients” time requirement.

(If you’re lucky.)

If you’re reading this, I know I don’t need to convince you about the suckiness of going out and finding clients — we all know how much it sucks.

And I probably don’t need to convince you about the validity of building automated lead gen systems; you probably like the idea of that too.

The really difficult thing, IMO, is the question of “how am I supposed to invest 100-200 hours into building a lead gen system when I need clients RIGHT NOW?”

If you’re working all the time at low rates and struggling to pay the bills, it’s important that you keep working so that you can put food on the table.

You can’t afford to build these systems and go 2 or 3 months before getting your first lead from them.

Here’s what I recommend…

The Solution: Determine Your Ideal “Time Asset Allocation” and *Stick To It*

In investing, there’s this concept of “asset allocation.”

The TLDR of asset allocation is that when you’re young and investing for retirement, you don’t need the money any time soon, so your assets should be allocated to “high risk, high reward” types of investments with a long time horizon.

(The idea being that even if the market crashes, it doesn’t matter because you don’t need to take the money out for decades, and by then things will hopefully have recovered.)

And when you’re old and getting ready to retire, your investments should mostly be in cash or low-risk investments like bonds, since you’re going to be wanting to use your money soon.

Where I’m going with all this…

As a freelancer, your time is your *primary asset.*

You only have so many hours in a day, and freelancers live and die by what they do with those hours.

The bulk of a typical freelancer’s time is split between these top activities:

  1. Doing client work
  2. Trying to get new client work
  3. Administrative stuff like answering emails
  4. Wasting time / procrastinating
  5. Building your business

Most struggling freelancers have their “time asset allocation” skewed towards the doing of the work, and the finding of the work. They get stuck here; often for years or decades.

What we need to do is get your asset allocation skewed more towards building the business activities.

Initially, this “building the business” time should heavily go towards that “The Blueprint-style approach” that I outlined above.

But once you have that automated lead flow set up and working, if you’re looking to scale, you’ll likely want to skew that time towards building processes and hiring staff.

For now though, given that the big problem you’re experiencing is “I want more leads coming in,” you need to determine what time asset allocation will allow you to both…

  1. Not starve to death
  2. Still have you working towards building a long-term lead gen asset

Perhaps one like this…

It means you will have a little bit less work and money coming in, so maybe it’s not possible for you if you’re currently just barely making ends meet.

But basically, if you want to create a situation where you’re spending your time building marketing assets that will serve you automatically, you need to create time to do that.

There’s no magic wand you can wave here, and there’s no amount of money you can throw at the problem to make it go away.

(Just ask the myriad freelancers who blindly invest thousands of dollars into paid ads that they send to their portfolio page, only to get 1 client from it before they say “this doesn’t work” and pack it in…)

In order to do this right, you need to create time for learning, and then you’ll need to create time for implementing.

The only way to create that time is to either…

  • Work more hours (e.g. nights, weekends, early mornings)
  • Raise your rates so that you can work less and earn the same amount
  • Look for inefficiencies in your process that allow you to reduce/cut unpaid work and raise your effective hourly rate
  • Budget aggressively so that you can live on less money
  • Get a side gig for extra cash
  • Pursuing other “going out and finding clients” approaches that might be more efficient than the one you’re currently primarily relying on

I’ll leave it to you to pick which of those approaches you think makes most sense for you.

Your Next Steps…

Depending on where you’re at right now, it might not make sense to focus on building automated lead generation systems quite yet.

Instead, it might make sense to learn more about how to raise your rates, and create more leverage in your “client finding” approaches with that knowledge, and then make the time to start building lead gen systems.

Regardless of which next step you think makes the most sense for you, the biggest habit that will serve you here is making time every day / every week for intentional practice and skill-building beyond simply doing work for your clients.

If you can build the habit of constantly trying to grow as a business owner and service provider, and you pair that with doing your very best work for clients and always aiming to deliver a high ROI for them (which we talk more about here), you’ll be setting up a solid foundation for growing your business long-term.

Parting Words

I know that the process I outlined for building automated lead flow can be both intimidating and uncomfortable.

That’s why 90%+ of freelancers don’t do it.

But the way I see it, you have two options here…

You can either A) do something that WILL WORK given enough time and persistence, but is scary and uncomfortable — i.e. building a an automated lead generation machine like the one we teach in The Blueprint, which will allow you to charge top-tier rates and always have a backlog of clients.

Or B) do something that might work, maybe-hopefully, but feels “less scary” and doesn’t push you out of your comfort zone — i.e. doing what most freelancers do and hoping that one day they can have enough word of mouth referrals coming in to sustain them, and that those referrals will have valuable problems and high budgets.

For me, if I could do it all over again, I’d go back and do option A.

In addition to being more reliable and controllable, it has a side benefit of forcing you to build skills that benefit any scaled/product-oriented businesses you ever might want to start in the future.

The hardest part for me in transitioning away from freelancing and into products has been shedding the “technician’s mindset” and getting comfortable with marketing — if I’d employed these techniques we’re talking about here in my freelance business, that transition would have been a breeze to navigate.

Hope you found this helpful,

— Zach