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Creating The Ultimate Sales Funnel For Your Freelancing Business


If you’re a freelancer, you probably despise Upwork, Freelancer.com, PeoplePerHour, and all the other marketplaces du jour as much as I do.

upwork

These marketplaces are full of bottom of the barrel clients. They’re looking to farm out projects to the lowest bidder, and rarely are looking for creative or consultative input.

As evidence, go check out the front page of /r/freelance on Reddit. No matter when you’re reading this guide, I’m almost positive that every other post has something to do with getting screwed over on one of these marketplace platforms.

The Holy Grail of consulting is having your own sales funnel. These are clients who seek you out for your expertise and want to work with you — and you alone.

But how do you create this funnel?

Don’t you need to be famous?

Don’t you need to be a known figure in your industry, someone who regularly keynotes all the big conferences and probably has a book or three out?

(This helps, as you’ll soon find out.)

The answer is no.

Anyone can create a sales funnel. Even you.

This guide is going to teach you how to generate your own exclusive leads

One of the first entrepreneurial things I did after dropping out of college was co-founding a small startup that generated leads for mortgage brokers.

How did a young kid fresh out of academia who never bought a house get himself involved in the mortgage industry?

Well, I ended up responding to a Craigslist job for a local mortgage broker. He wanted somebody to put together a site and run some ads on his behalf, and he’d cut them in on 50% of his commission revenue.

Being young and stupid, I accepted.

It worked though. This was back when Google AdWords wasn’t horrifically expensive, and for a few dollars a click I could buy keywords like “mortgage” and “refinance” in the South Florida search market. Before I knew it, people were filling out the form I had, and my client/partner was cutting me checks for thousands of dollars.

During that experience, I learned a dirty little secret: all leads aren’t created equal.

Ask a mortgage broker what they think of LendingTree (“when banks compete, you win!”) LendingTree generates a lead, and then sells that lead to dozens of brokers — many of whom are selling the same, commoditized mortgage loan. And if you’re not the first person to call a lead, you usually don’t have a chance.

Upwork is basically LendingTree. They generate a lead, in the form of a project request. Then you and a bunch of other people like you compete for that lead’s business. And unlike with LendingTree, where each of their broker customers pays them per lead, you’re usually not paying to hear about that project — but you are paying with your time.

I soon discovered that I could sell exclusive and branded leads to mortgage brokers.

I was able to replicate the success I had with my broker client and do the same on a larger scale. We made a ton of money, and people were paying $100+ for a name and a phone number because our leads which were exclusive (they only went to one client of ours) and branded (the lead saw the logo and mugshot of the broker they’d be contacted by.)

Our clients were making $3,000, $4,000, $5,000+ for pushing paperwork around for the leads we delivered, and they were paying us about $1,000 to get a lead (on average, a decent broker could close 10% of our leads.)

That was huge for them. And it was even better for us, since our margins were upwards of 50%.

…And then the bubble burst, and the mortgage industry tanked along with the rest of the American economy.

But I learned a big lesson that day:

Not all leads are created equal.

You need to own your deal flow

This guide is going to teach you how to put into place systems that can help you generate your own project leads so you don’t need to depend on marketplaces.

I’m going to help you with acquiring new contacts, streamlining how you build up a relationship built on trust and your expertise, and then asking for a sale.

It’s a system that I’ve helped hundreds of freelancers implement within Double Your Freelancing Clients (now known as the Double Your Freelancing Academy.)

The only surefire way to truly own the way you get clients and make money is to have an audience, and to be strategic about how you build and condition that audience.

Let’s get started.

Defining your funnel

Before we get into the details, let’s get a high-level view of what we’ll be setting up.

You’re first going to have a number of acquisition channels that capture new contacts. Examples include:

You’re going to entice people to take the next step and consume a freebie offering that you have for them. This freebie is going to do a few things:

  • Make someone better off than they were before they met you (most important)
  • Demonstrate your expertise and ability
  • Demonstrate your professionalism
  • Passively collect research data
  • Prepare somebody for your initial service offering

What is a freebie offering? It’s a free (duh!) piece of educational content that educates somebody about the need for the type of solution you deliver. Examples include:

  • An email course
  • A video course
  • A whitepaper
  • A free report
  • A checklist / diagnostic
  • A webinar or seminar

After someone has consumed our freebie offering, we want to move them up the chain by offering them an initial service offering. This is almost always a Roadmapping engagement — a fixed price, fixed scope short engagement that delivers some direct and one-off value.

Examples include:

  • If your freebie offering is an email course that teaches people how to understand their ecommerce metrics, you might offer them a service that has you look at their metrics and provide actionable recommendations.
  • If your freebie offering is a webinar that delivers case studies, examples, and commentary on the pros/cons of commissioning a mobile app, you might offer a service that scopes out and digs into what it would take to build their app.

Service offerings are always the personalized application of a freebie offering that precedes it.

They’re a way of allowing people to self-select to take the general education they received from you in your freebie offering to the next level by applying it to their specific problem.

And because they’re pitched at scale and automatically (more on that below,) it doesn’t matter if 10 people are consuming your freebie offering or 10,000. The effort is more-or-less the same for you. Your end goal is to have a system that you tweak and tailor over time, and the purpose of this system is to capture leads, educate them about the need for your service, and then pitch them on your service.

Your Initial Service Offering

Before we can talk about capturing leads and teaching leads, we need to start with your end goal.

When we work with students in the Academy, the very first thing we do is help them define their positioning. What problem do they solve, and for whom?

And what’s at stake if this problem goes unsolved?

This requires choosing a niche, which is probably the #1 struggle for a lot of freelancers who want to build a sales funnel.

Strong positioning (that is, niching) is intimidating because it’s something radically new for most. And because it’s foundational, the idea is “if I screw this up, I’m dead in the water.”

If you’ve only ever sold yourself on your technical skills and haven’t ever properly niched yourself, don’t expect to do it perfectly the first time. Your positioning can evolve over time, especially as you collect more data (which I’ll be showing you how to do.) Unless you have a strong track record and intimate knowledge about a particular problem and its consequences, you’re going to screw up.

And that’s OK.

The important thing is that you have a target in mind, even if you can’t hit the bulls eye yet.

Jonathan Stark has a great mad-lib style formula you can use to help you come up with a basic positioning statement:

I’m a _______ who helps _______ with _______. Unlike my competitors, _______.

Once you have that your positioning statement, you need to do some initial outreach and validation to confirm your positioning, and then turn your statement into something marketable — a long-form sales page. (Example: Website Rescues)

This page is meant for people who now know they have a problem, and they just need it solved.

If you’ve taught somebody about how storytelling can help to radically increase online sales, there’s a strong chance that by the end of it they’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and want storytelling to increase their online sales.

So now you need to introduce a turnkey offer for helping them with storytelling.

The structure for a good sales page is pretty standard. The direct marketers perfected it back in the 80s, and now we’re just recycling what’s been tested and vetted over the years.

Here’s the structure:

  • Problem: Why is someone here again? (Oh right, they’re losing sales because they aren’t telling the right stories.)
  • Solution: What do people suffering from this problem want? (More sales!)
  • Offer: How you can help them figure out what stories they should be telling.
  • Objections: Can storytelling reallyyyyy help my sales? What happens if I’m not satisfied?
  • Social proof: Who else has storytelling helped, and what effect did it have on their business?
  • Uniqueness: Why should you help them with their storytelling?

You’ll notice that the offer isn’t “I’ll redo your website’s copy with storytelling in mind, which will increase your sales.” Rather, we’re offering to help them figure out what needs to be done.

A good initial service offering isn’t the same as your core offering — that is, the thing you usually do for clients. If you’re great at writing stories for your clients, your initial offering should be a prescription that tells them why, how, and what stories they should be writing.

It’s an exploration into a future project, but not the end-all project itself.

The reason is simple: we want people to walk up our Step Ladder of Trust. Before we hit them with the big, pricey offering, we want them to see how capable we our by first giving them something more bite sized. This initial Roadmapping engagement is meant to convert someone from a lead to a client.

For a deeper dive into writing sales pages, I’d recommend my interviews with Sean D’Souza (part 1 and 2) and Jane Portman.

Freebie Offering

When you get most clients, they’ve already identified a problem and decided to seek out someone to solve it.

After all, somebody who posts a job requirement on Upwork is already fully aware of what they need, and just needs a fill-in-the-blank to do the work.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it leaves you competing for a commodity requirement. Someone who’s decided they need a WordPress website is going to seek out self-identified designers and developers who specialize in WordPress.

A freebie offering doesn’t necessarily appeal to someone who already has a project on the table. It’s targeting someone who likely has a problem that you can help with because they’re either in the right demographic, or are actively seeking out things that are peripherally related to what you’re ultimately selling.

OK, so what do I mean by peripherally related?

Back when I started Planscope, I realized that very few people wanted project management software. They weren’t interested in software, they didn’t want another tool. Instead, they wanted advice on how to better manage projects.

Knowing this, I produced a bunch of content and ultimately an email course (freebie offering) that taught them just that.

This way, when somebody came across one of my articles on freelancing and consulting, I could advertise my free course on managing projects because… let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be better at managing their projects? However, when I would advertise my project management software directly, the results were abysmal.

Very few wanted project management software. But lots wanted to be better project managers.

The same was true when I ran my agency.

We used to do a lot of in-person seminars. Over the span of just a few years, our local audience topped more than 3,000 people — mostly acquired slowly through a series of events and seminars we’d host at our office.

One of our presentations was on making Excel suck less. We were targeting companies that depended on Excel to run key parts of their business, but just hated working with it. We’d teach them a bit about how they could streamline the way they collaborate and work internally with Excel, and hint that all of Excel’s shortcomings could be easily solved by employing custom software.

Most of the business owners that came out to these seminars were not looking for custom software (that was our bread-and-butter for my agency.)

But they were aggravated by Excel. And hardly any of them even thought building custom software was within their reach. After all, Microsoft built custom software. Not them.

We educated them and showed them that when they hit the upper limits of Excel they had two options:

  • Find off the shelf software that does exactly what they need
  • Build it themselves

The extent of the IT department for many of the clients we acquired this way was a guy who would fix the printers when they broke. They usually didn’t have engineers on staff. And custom software wasn’t something that they’d even considered.

But we helped them see that they could solve their problem, and it could be done by hiring a company like ours.

After the seminar, we’d followup and show them what to be aware of when hiring a development team, and what practices and procedures they should consider. In effect, we set ourselves up as the benchmark that they’d compare any of our competitors to.

And should one of these companies either hire us outright or, more likely, heartily recommend us to a peer of theirs who was struggling with bad internal workflows, they didn’t exactly shop around. We owned the relationship, and we were almost always the only agency in the running.

After all, we helped them discover the need for a custom software project.

Or we at least educated them about the pros and cons of using Excel vs. building something custom, which usually resulted in them proxying that education on to someone else later on, who then hire us.

When it comes to how to actually create your freebie offering, I’m going to defer to the-one-and-only Kai Davis, who’s both a teacher and one of the key people in the Academy: Freebie Offerings and Educational Courses For Consultants

(Open the link above in a new tab and give it a read once you’ve read through this guide.)

A few things I want to quickly point out about freebie offerings before we move on:

  1. Don’t worry about getting people into your funnel who aren’t 100% qualified clients. The mistake a lot of freelancers make is that they only focus on people who could actually become a client. That’s all good and well when you’re meeting with people 1-on-1, but because your freebie offering is delivered at scale and is evergreen (meaning: anyone can join it whenever), complete overlap isn’t important. Many of my best clients came from the most unqualified people in my audience.
  2. Build in feedback loops into your freebie offering. When someone joins, ask them “what’s the ONE thing you need this course/report/whitepaper to help you with? Reply and let me know” Collect these responses, and use these replies to spark discussions with your subscribers. You want to learn as much as you can about the people consuming your content and what they’re looking for from you.

Want to work with an expert who will help you write and develop your own freebie offering? Kurt’s available in the Academy.

What happens if someone doesn’t buy your service offering after going through your freebie offering?

Expect this to happen 99% of the time.

Most people won’t be ready to buy after going through your freebie offering. Your job, though, is to increase the likelihood — however small — that they do act on it.

But for the 99% of those who consume your freebie offering but pass on your service offering… what then?

The answer is simple: keep sending them valuable content.

Here’s the thing… If someone is able to learn a lot from you via your freebie offering (e.g. an email course), they’re going to want more from you. If they aren’t getting more value than the free time they’re putting in to your emails, they’ll unsubscribe.

But for those that want more from you, give them what they want.

Let’s go back to the storytelling example I had above. Let’s say you’ve taught somebody why they should use storytelling to help sell their product or service. Then you showed them how they could get started (by hiring you.) The majority that don’t fit one of the following:

  • They’re too busy to care — which means you can probably do more to really push the urgency of good storytelling. They make a mental note to followup when they’re not busy, but they’ll probably forget.
  • They want what you have, but aren’t ready yet — maybe they don’t have the budget. Or they’re not fully sold on how storytelling can help them. They make a mental note to followup… you get the picture 🙂
  • They aren’t interested at all in storytelling, or they don’t believe that you can help them — they’ll either churn out naturally by unsubscribing, or they’ll change their mind.

By continuing to deliver valuable information that’s relevant to them, you’re able to keep yourself and your agenda of increasing sales through storytelling at the top of their mind. And you also have a chance to win over the skeptics.

The expected answer here is, “Write a bunch of articles! Email them to your new list!”

And while I appreciate and fully concur, it’s not realistic for a lot of us. At least not at first.

A way to bridge the gap is to share with your fledgling audience interesting articles you come across doing your daily work. Email them a list of a handful of articles that you read over the last few weeks, and under each article link inject yourself and your personality.

What did you get out of this article? Why do you think it’ll be helpful for your readers to read? What’s one key takeaway that you want your readers to get from it?

This sets yourself up in a position of authority.

You’re demonstrating your expertise because you’re in tune with the industry you work within. You’re advising people about why they should care. You’re letting your readers know how this content will help them.

And when you’re ready, write your own. Link to your own content. Downplay or eliminate 3rd party content. This establishes yourself as the ultimate authority — in the minds of your readers, you become the expert storyteller. You’re the consultant who helps companies leverage storytelling to make more sales.

They won’t forget that, and if you keep helping them they won’t forget about you and what you have to offer — whether it’s for their business or a peer’s business.

Let your newsletters spark new sales discussions

While you’re sending content, whether your own or 3rd party, always leave the reader with some sort of call to action.

Ask them what they plan of doing as a result of reading what you sent them. What’s their next step? How is that article that you sent on the importance of telling the story of your team, and not just showcasing the executive teams’ curriculum vitae, going to affect the next version of their site’s about page?

Ask the reader for a reply.

Don’t frame the question as, “What can I help you with?” (That’s broad.)

Be specific. Ask a pointed question. And have these mass emails spark multiple discussions with would-be clients. Use these as opportunities to casually drum up new work.

Finally, Acquisition Channels

Now you have a start-to-finish funnel that you can add people to.

We spend 5 whole months within the Academy building this out. It’s not something you do overnight, and I don’t expect you to have a fully functioning funnel ready to go right after reading this guide.

But here’s what’s great: You can now add people to this funnel in a lot of different ways, and The Funnel does the rest.

You can spend the rest of your time focused on acquisition.

Here’s the list again of acquisition channels:

When you’re just starting out and don’t have an audience, your best bet is to try to siphon off people from other, more established audiences. Writing blog post after blog post when you don’t have anyone reading and Google’s not sending any traffic is demoralizing and is why many blogs end up failing.

To borrow from other people’s audiences, you’re going to want to develop an outreach strategy and start approaching people who have audiences that have some overlap with the audience you want to eventually create for yourself.

Tactics like appearing on podcasts or guest blogging are a great way to get in front of new audiences and also collect backlinks, which are instrumental in getting your website to rank higher organically.

A more immediate tactic is showing up to a networking event, chatting with people, and asking if they’d be interested in your freebie offering (but don’t call it that, instead: “Would you mind if I added you to a new free course I recently created? It’s all about how leveraging storytelling tactics in your sales copy can increase sales, and I think you’ll get a lot out of it.”)

Another benefit of getting involved in your local networking scene is that you can get to know the organizer, and maybe even present a free seminar on storytelling to their audience at some point in the future.

Once you’ve started to develop an audience, either in-person or online, it becomes a lot easier to create content.

You’ll be kicking off discussions with people in your audience, and in doing this you’ll learn more about their problems and goals. And instead of replying individually, you can reply publicly in a blog post and promote the post to your audience. Check out how I do just that in this article.

Additionally, when you know that there are people waiting for your content, creating it becomes much easier. If you read my weekly newsletter, you know that I mostly use it to promote new articles (like this one.) If I was writing this 4,000+ word beast of a guide and had no idea if anyone would read… well, let’s just say I might not prioritize getting it done.

You should make it a point to put together an outreach strategy (guest posts, podcast appearances, networking events, and so on), and also an internal strategy (creating content that sites on your site). The former will serve to acquire new audience members, and the latter to increase trust and expertise.

To quickly recap:

  1. We have numerous acquisition channels: the blog posts you’ve written, podcasts you’ve hosted or appeared on, people you meet at networking events and conferences, and so on. When just starting out, you’re going to default to borrowing other people’s audiences to kickstart your own audience.
  2. These channels promote your freebie offering, which is educational content that helps prospective clients see the need for someone like you. The assumption is most people who consume this content don’t yet have a project on the table.
  3. Your freebie offering promotes your initial service offering, which offers a turnkey implementation of the content you covered in the freebie offering.
  4. Should somebody not act on your initial service offering, you’ll continue sending them valuable content and using this content to reinforce your expertise and authority.

Your ongoing major marketing responsibility is pushing people into your funnel. Over time, you’ll ideally have a number of acquisition sources that work without ongoing effort, but when starting out you’ll need to do a lot of things that don’t scale.

Your secondary responsibility is to acquire and act on as much data as possible. Learn about your audience. How can you help them? What do they really need? Use this feedback to refine your service offering, your freebie offering, and to help plan any future content you produce.

If I missed anything or you’re stuck in trying to figure out how to implement any part of this guide, let me know in the comments below and I’ll help you out 🙂


We’ve covered a lot.

And I realize this is a lot to process. There are probably a few things that you aren’t entirely comfortable and confident with (like setting up freebie offerings, writing sales copy, doing outreach, etc.,) but if I’ve done my job right I’ve given you a baseline formula that you can use to create your own sales funnel.

As I’ve alluded to throughout this guide, the new Double Your Freelancing Academy is designed to give you the framework and 1-on-1 support you need to set up your own sales funnel and much more. Find out more about the Academy and to schedule a no-obligation call with me to see if it’s a good fit for you.

 

  • Michiel Trimpe

    Great article! I loved that it’s a really actionable comprehensive overview of all the steps you’d need to make to build a working funnel.

    One question I have is that I recently started giving talks at various conferences as a way of building an audience but I noticed that it isn’t listed as one of your acquisition channels. Do you consider that an effective acquisition channel? Or perhaps have tips on making it more effective?

  • You’re absolutely right when you mention the need for us to specialize. Finding my niche has been the biggest obstacle. How do you respond to organic client leads (random referral), that are offering a decent budget for their problem, but it doesn’t align with the clients you expect to work with?

    I’m thinking of working exclusively with fashion e-commerce store owners whose websites run on WordPress (WooCommerce), but got a lead for an IT company with a great budget. How do I make it easier to say no to the money so I can focus on building the business I want?

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