The number one question I get asked is, “How do you find work?”. The answer is actually pretty simple, but first let me tell you what hasn’t worked so far:
Sure, marketing has its place, and there may come a time where I find a need and use for it, but my small attempts at marketing thus far have come up empty – from a quality leads perspective. One specific thing I tried early on was a featured listing on Sortfolio for a couple of months. The investment wasn’t huge – $99 per month – but it just didn’t generate anything for me. Frankly, I’m just not sure the types of clients I work with even know about those types of sites, and if they do, they still don’t know who to trust – and that’s the big thing, right there.
So, what does work? Two things, actually – recommendations from personal contacts and Twitter (yeah, I didn’t expect that one either, but stay with me and I’ll explain). The personal recommendations piece is pretty easy to understand. When someone needs work that they don’t know anything about, they ask their friends (and will almost always hire who’s recommended to them if they can afford the service offered). I do the same thing when it comes to mechanics, getting gutters replaced or having cabinets installed, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
But, it’s key that you let people know you’re starting a business, and that they understand the type of work you do. For me, I just tell people that I work on websites, and they’ll recommend me to most anyone who says, “I need a new website”. Those jobs may not always turn out to be a great fit for me, but I’d always rather have the conversation (plus, giving people good solid – usually free – advice on the direction they should go is one of the things that I pride Guerilla Labs on). These connections have turned into some of my best work over the last year and a half, with a couple becoming relationships with a lot of ongoing business. It’s my belief that being friendly and doing good work will just lead to even more.
Before we get into the second piece, let me ask you as question.
Who do you want to work with?
Who’s your dream client? Who would you love to work beside if given the opportunity? I think a lot of us daydream about these things, but we never take actual steps toward making them a reality. For me, a lot of the people who I most want to work with are on Twitter, and I was already following them.
Now, I’m not what you’d call “active” on social networks. I don’t post much, and I try to not check things more than once or twice a day. But, I learned that watching Twitter was a key way for me to find out about projects that people might need an extra hand with. This, of course, probably isn’t true for every industry, but it is for the web.
So, every now and then I’d see a tweet saying something like, “Looking for a front-end developer to help with a couple of upcoming projects.” The typical reply I see on Twitter to this sort of thing is people saying, “Hey, I’m available. Hit me up if you’re interested.” The thought that normally goes through my mind when I see that is, “That sounds so arrogant. Why would someone look up information about you and get in contact when you can’t even be bothered to introduce yourself like a real person?” And I know Twitter is limited to 140 characters, so there isn’t a lot that can be said, but there is a better way than just “buzzing the tower” with a tweet like that.
I’ve been hesitant to talk about this, but here’s what I did.
First, you should know that part of my previous job was making hires. And I grew to hate resumés – they all looked the same, were super boring, and usually didn’t tell me anything real about the applicant. So, I set out to do something different, which turned out to be a personalized letter, which would tell people about my work in a more conversational way – focusing a bit more on my personality and how that person could see me fitting in than on past employment and collegiate honor societies. I wanted something nice, well constructed, but not flashy. Surprisingly to me, it seemed to really appeal to the people I spoke with.
When I would see a tweet of someone looking for work, I would find an email address to get in touch instead of replying on Twitter. I’d try to keep my email short (figuring these are busy people with full inboxes), basically saying that I saw their tweet, that I’d love the opportunity to work with them, providing a super brief (2 sentences) insight into my work, and linking them to the personalized letter for more details. As an example, here’s the letter I sent to Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain last spring (several of the details are way out of date now).
Another thing to remember is that you’re talking with real people. I know these are people who you’d really like to work with – and perhaps really admire – but ultimately they are no different than you. They aren’t supernaturally more intelligent or talented than you. If you’re going to start a business, you have to realize that you have skills that give you as much right to a seat at the table as anyone else. Please, don’t be arrogant, but also don’t sell yourself short. Be humble, be nice, talk to others like real people with the same hopes, dreams and fears as you. Respect their time. Learn from those with more experience.
But take action.
I’ve been very fortunate to have a couple of these opportunities work out, and I’ve been completely bummed when a couple of them haven’t. But, the only thing to do is to keep throwing my hat in the ring. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
…which reminds me of story. During my collegiate years, my university was undergoing quite a bit of construction – totally wreaking havoc on all parking throughout the campus. Yet, I found a way to get great spots next to my building almost every day. I would then irritate my buddies by bragging about what a great spot I got, and I eventually began informing people that I had the spiritual gift of finding parking spots.
That’s good fun, but there is something real I discovered: I was getting good spots because most people assumed the spots closest to the building weren’t open, so they would start with lots halfway down the street in the attempt to save time. But, there were spots right up front, ready and waiting for anyone willing to risk it.
Yes, it’s a bit silly, and like any metaphor, it doesn’t hold true in all situations, but I believe this really is the case in business. Be willing to risk going after those jobs that you really want. You know, the ones you think someone better and more qualified has already scooped up – the ones you think you have no shot at.
What do you have to lose?
First Year Clients
My first year saw me working with Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain at 31Three, the fine folks at A Book Apart, Crush & Lovely, Brand Aid Design (and a slew of great small-businesses through Brand Aid Design), LifeWay, Church Health Reader, Made South, The Riverstone Group and a few others I either can’t talk about publicly or have inadvertently neglected. I have high hopes for what’s to come.
Continue A Field Guide to Self Employment with chapter 5: Billing.