Running your freelancing business

Skills That Every Freelancer Should Have

By Brennan Dunn

I used to think of myself as a developer.

I’d go to conferences and code retreats with other developers. I’d buy books detailing new frameworks and languages that I could use to keep myself relevant. And when talking to and pitching clients, I’d rely on my developer-ness to win the project.

But as I grew my agency, I was forced to start looking at the bigger picture. I could not longer compete as just a development agency.

Why did these clients hire us?

What were they really looking for?

This inevitably led me to the conclusion that what our clients really wanted was much more than just development.

Products, not projects

We once had a client who came to us who needed a web app prototyped that would allow people to queue up birthdays and have the service mail out hand-written greeting cards in the post on autopilot. (For the purpose of this example, disregard the moral greyness of such a service.)

As the owner of a firm that mostly employed developers, I saw the big challenge as being the construction of the web app. How would we build it? How should we construct the database schema? What major features would go into this product?

But it wasn’t until I started to really think about the real goals of this project that I realized this technical questions, though valid, weren’t enough.

For this app to be successful, we need to convince people that they should entrust the service with sending their grandmother a birthday card.

And we also need the overcome the resistance people had in signing up for this app and loading in all their contacts with their respective birthdates.

And what if someone signs up for a trial, and never gets around to queueing up any cards? They’ll never pay. Duh.

That’s why it’s important to think of yourself as more than just a practitioner of your core craft.

Because for this project to be successful, here’s what really had to happen:

  • The marketing site needed to really make a persuasive argument for signing up for a trial
  • After signing up, the in-app onboarding had to make sure that the user knew how to load in their contacts
  • Because most probably won’t load any contacts in right away, email automation needs to bring “unactivated” users back to using the app
  •  The ongoing value of the product had to be demonstrated continuously in order to justify the monthly cost

To focus on just the project that you’re hired for ends up hurting your clients.

If you build the best, most amazing website in the world and no one sees it… it’s a useless website. It’s a failure.

The same is true of any applications you develop or articles you write.

Instead, you should look holistically at the product that they’re hiring you for.

How can you bolster your chances of success by helping attract more people to your designs or get more customers to pay for the apps you build?

Killer skills that every freelancer should have

If you’re a freelancer, which means you’re running your own business, you should assume that most of your clients aren’t “filling in the blanks” and assembling an all-star team to help market and promote their business.

Assume it’s just you.

When they hire you to redesign their website, they’re acting from a position of need.

They need more customers, so they decided that they needed a refreshed design, and sought somebody out like you.

But if no one’s visiting their website, then they really don’t have a design problem.

Or if the copy isn’t compelling people to buy or sign up, the design might not be supporting the copy… but, again, it’s probably not a 100% design problem.

Become a unicorn by being that designer who also knows how to write sales copy or the designer who knows how to run A/B tests.

Don’t settle for just building functional web or mobile apps, but learn how to activate more new users, convert more trials to paid users, and reduce churn.

Be the editor who can do more than just edit words, but also help their clients publish best-selling books.

Take the writing work you’re already doing for your clients, and personalize it to make it even more relevant to the reader.

Not only will this set you apart from your competition, but you’ll be much more valuable.

You’ll be able to justify a premium rate because you’re delivering a more premium product. Compound that with what I cover in courses like Double Your Freelancing Rate and you’ll be unstoppable.

When I work with clients, I write JavaScript code, play around with CSS from time-to-time, write landing page and ad copy, and construct and write complex automation sequences.

These are skills many of you reading already have.

But I’ve learned how to synthesize these skills to form holistic engagements that add hundreds of thousands of dollars to my clients’ bottom lines while charging $25,000+ a week.

Here are some of the resources I learn from to augment my skills (in no particular order):

  • Revise Weekly ($49/month) – my friend Nick Disabato runs it. Every week I get an email that helps me better A/B test my own work, and helps me discover more ways to help my clients.
  • Jon Loomer – Facebook is always changing the way their platform works. Jon’s on top of it all and has helped me tremendously in learning how to market on Facebook. (I wouldn’t have been able to write my article on getting freelance leads on Facebook without Jon)
  • Super Spicy Media – Mojca’s on top of social media and creates superb content on how to best leverage social media to increase sales and generate leads.
  • Copyhackers – Joanna single-handedly helped this Ruby geek learn how to write sales copy, headlines, and call-to-actions.
  • User Onboard – UX expert Samuel Hulick regularly publishes teardowns of major apps, and shows what’s good and bad about how they onboard new users. This has helped me better onboard my own customers.
  • The Art of Paid Traffic Podcast – A weekly podcast hosted by Rick Mulready. Full of actionable content.
  • – A community of people who submit and discuss articles, siloed into groups (e.g. “The Pit: Landing Page Critiques”, “Content Marketing In The Trenches”, etc.)
  • (Did I miss something that should be here? Let me know in the comments.)

Becoming competent at marketing, sales writing, and so on is like learning anything else in life.

It just takes practice.

So before you say, “Gah, Brennan, I’m a coder… stop asking me to learn how to write,” ask yourself: do you remember back before you knew how to code?

Because I do. And I remember back when I would scoff at the idea of “email marketing” and had no idea how to create paid ads. But I learned how to do these things, and — along with learning how to sell on value — learning these new skills has helped me charge more and close more deals.

(Recommended reading: Patrick McKenzie’s article, “Don’t Call Yourself A Programmer”. If you market yourself as a programmer/designer/writer/whatever, read this.)

We want to help

The team at Double Your Freelancing and I are going to be providing more training material, specifically tailored for freelancers, that helps you learn more marketable skills.

We already focus on helping with “soft skills” — positioning your business, pricing on value, managing projects, and so on. But for us to holistically help freelancers, we’re going to need to find new ways to help make you more valuable and unique to your clients.

But we’d like to help you grow beyond the creative work you’re already doing, and tap into new skills that can help you multiply your earning power.

Recently we broke ground on our first technical course. It’s all about how to master email marketing automation, and it’s available to pre-order now.