Start a freelancing business

How Freelancers Can Kickstart Their Audience

By Brennan Dunn

Let’s get real and talk about the one prerequisite needed prior to any discussion around setting your rates, writing proposals, or up-selling retainers and productized consulting.

Finding clients.

For many new freelancers (and even seasoned freelancers) who don’t have a strong referral base or a system for acquiring leads, this is one of the most challenging — and most misunderstood — aspects of the job. Because, well, if you don’t have clients, you don’t have invoices to send and you’re out of business.

Are you a do-er, or a wait-er?

My friend Noah Kagan published a stellar blog post on what separates successful people from not-so-successful people. The big takeaway was that the former group is proactive, whereas the latter is reactive and typically waits around for the right _______ to happen (the assumption being that when this happens, their career as a freelancer will be kicked into high-gear and they’ll be set).

I hang around a lot of proactive do-ers. These are people who you probably follow on Twitter, read their blogs, subscribe to their newsletter, and so on.

And if there’s one thing I can say with total certainty, it’s that the people I know who are most successful don’t wait around for success to happen to them.

They aren’t the type who wait for inspiration to strike.

They don’t wait for customers or clients to come knocking at their doors.

They recognize they’re an asset, and understand the role of money in strengthening that asset. These are people that spend money to make money — by signing up for courses, buying books, or hiring staff.

They don’t think their customers and clients are idiots when they don’t understand or make unrealistic requests; instead, they look at what they can do differently with their next client to make sure this mistake — their mistake — doesn’t happen again.

“I’m a wait-er. So what should I do?”

I want to tell you a story about my first day as a high school student.

I grew up thinking high school would be a mashup between Saved By The Bell and Dawson’s Creek (don’t ask). So when I transferred to a public high school from a small, private Christian school, I imagined that things would be like I saw on TV. I’d fall into a tight-knit circle of friends. All the cute girls would congregate around my locker and flirt with me. And it would be just like Saved By The Bell, and I’d be the dark-haired successor of Zach Morris.

But that first day, week, and few months of school didn’t exactly pan out to be like that school bus daydream. It was a lot easier to dream than it was to do, and I was expecting the friends and girls to come to me.

Part of my high school education was learning that life didn’t work out quite like that. And that education came to its completion when I was building my agency and things were getting rough. Those referral clients I was always getting at the right times when freelancing? Dried up. And worst of all, I now had people on payroll. And my payroll company and employees didn’t give a lick about whether my checking account had enough money in it — people had to get paid on the 15th and 30th of the month.

I knew I had to do more if I wanted to keep my business in business.

You’re probably not running an agency, and you might not even be freelancing full-time. But you want to move away from being a wait-er, and want to become a do-er.

So here’s what you can do this week to make that happen.

Step 1: Find a place you can influence

I think it’s easier to influence people offline. Attention spans are higher and bounce rates are lower (closing a tab is easier than exiting a conversation).

In some parts of the world, in-person networking is starting to happen again, so don’t dismiss it because of the pandemic. Find a group near you where the focus is primarily business, and find out what sort of events they have going on in the future. Check your local Chamber of Commerce, BNI group, or to find candidates. Bear in mind that the goal isn’t necessarily to find a place that has qualified clients milling around the room; rather, you’re just looking for people you can influence in some way.

Step 2: Talk to people about their business/goals, and find ways to tie it to your business

The last thing the people you’ll meet at these events want is to be pitched, so leave your sales decks at home.

Ask people about what they do. Why they’re here. What they’re hoping to get out of the mixer you’re at. Find out what sucks about their business and what’s holding them back. Offer off-the-cuff advice and suggestions. Don’t try to sell your services — at all. Sell yourself.

I love to use a lot of the Socratic Questioning tactics I cover in DYFR during this stage. It’s a great way to really get in the heads of what people really want, which is often different than what they say they want.

The mistake people make when it comes to networking is that they treat it a bit like speed dating — speed sales. A lot of people will “make the rounds” and try to immediately feel out what the likelihood is that the person they’re talking to will become a customer. If that likelihood is small (these things can often be determined fairly quickly), eye contact abruptly ends, and they start to slowly scan the room, fake smile still attached, looking for their next victim.

Instead, think of networking as a way to meet real-life humans who know people. Maybe someone you meet will turn into a client, but it’s rare. But more importantly, they might know someone who could be a future client — or, alternatively, those you meet can serve as sleeper cell agents for your business, ready to be activated whenever they come across a colleague who casually quips, “Bill, you wouldn’t happen to know anyone who…”

Step 3: Opt-in on the spot

Business cards suck. Whenever I come home from a networking event, the stack of cards that have accumulated throughout the night end up in my sock drawer.

So why not use a little ingenuity to level-up the way you bring someone from being a casual encounter you meet at a mixer to a sleeper cell agent for your business?

Instead of handing over a business card, try this:

“Hey, I’ve really enjoyed chatting about $SUBJECT with you. Could I ask you a question? I’m working on organizing a group of savvy business-types, and I think you’d be a perfect fit. Do you mind if I add you to the list?”

(Fact: The type of people who show up to these events love going to these things.)

“Awesome! So what’s your email, I’ll enter you in now.” (This is where you pull out your smartphone and open up the Mailchimp app and manually enter in a new subscriber. Or just add their email address to a note.)

Now you have a new subscriber to your list, and you’ve now recruited your first agent.

Step 4: Deliver lots and lots of value, and do it often

The next day, go through your list of new recruits and email each of them individually. Ask for more details about what you discussed the previous night. Send them links to articles of interest that can help them with whatever problems they pointed out (bonus points if these are articles on your own blog).

Here are a few ways you can continuously deliver value to this new group and help it grow:

  • Use the seminar model detailed The Blueprint and in this post to provide value-at-scale, where you’re the center of attention. Email your list to feel out topic ideas and to register attendees (don’t forget to ask them, “Can you relay this on to one trusted contact of yours who you think will get a lot of value out of my talk?”)
  • Email your list of future mixers and events you’ll be attending, and invite them out for drinks and/or food before or after the event. Ask them to bring their colleagues and peers.
  • Whenever some major news or update comes out related to your skillset, email your group about it, and include how it relates to business. Ask them to share it around with anyone they think might be interested, and give THEM the link to your group opt-in page… and ask them to include it at the header of the email they’re forwarding on.
  • Just delivered a big new client project? Invite your list out for drinks to celebrate (and depending on the size of the list / your cash flow, buy them the first drink). Get it in their heads that you’re the guy or gal who gets things done.
  • Don’t be afraid to occasionally close your emails with “I have some upcoming availability. Do you know of anyone who could use my help in growing their business?” After all, they owe you! You’ve given them a tremendous amount of value, and you might be surprised with how readily people are willing to work on your behalf.

These are just a few things you could do, but let your group evolve and shape itself over time. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where your list is sufficiently sized to organize your own events, and you and your business will be at the center of attention and the “hero” of the story.

This doesn’t need to be hard, it just needs to be acted on — consistently and steadily.

So ask yourself: Are you going to wait around for that perfect lead to come knocking on your door, or are you going to go out there and build your network of future clients and referral sources?

Note: Many of these ideas stem directly from the rewrite of my course on getting clients, “The Blueprint”.