There are various stages in our lives when we feel the need to either earn a side income, or break free from employment and create a service that we deviver on our own. Throughout my career, I have tried both. Even though I had a lot of fears and limiting beliefs that made me insecure with freelancing, I can say with strong conviction that each of my attempts were worth it.
To help you get started on this journey, I will address the number one fear that held me back when I got started as a freelancer: marketing myself and getting clients.
Lessons from a school kid
I can still recall that I made money advertising the services of my stepfather at the age of 10. He gave me a huge pile of printed paper and some tape. Then he asked me to mount his ad on walls around the area. He paid me in exchange for my work.
I also traded used Sega MegaDrive and Super Nintendo cartiridges with the help of magazine ads and live marketplaces. I had clients that came back to me on a regular basis, because I deeply understood what they wanted. In exchange for fulfilling the desires of my clients and finding them rare games, I collected a premium. Back then, I knew the marketplace inside out, and found many arbitrage situations even though I could only access retail price. I could still sell games really well, because I was an enthusiastic player myself.
The third, slightly more serious venture I entered was live tutoring. The friends of my family, my neighbors referred students to me and I charged an hourly rate for my lessons. In high school, even my teachers referred some students to me. I taught 5-6 lessons a week. It’s weird that a business woman friend of ours sent her 40 year old boyfriend to me for English lessons. Imagine a 15 year old kid teaching English to an adult who has been tested by life on many levels. I also taught math lessons to a mother who wanted to finish her high school studies, after mentoring her two children for years. I still have great memories from these days, because tutoring met all my needs. I immersed into topics I loved, while helping others achieve their goals. The reward also came after each lesson in the form of payments that gave me a more rewarding experience than just collecting pocket money.
Do you know what’s really ironic? Back in 2015, I attended a training on marketing my products and services on the Internet. My mentor was a successful entrepreneur who had built all sorts of profitable businesses online. There were three paths available to me:
- Building a brand and marketing a physical product,
- Coaching online,
- Helping other businesses by building their marketing funnels.
As an IT engineer, it was a logical step for me to learn the marketing side of my job. However, as a 34 year old adult, I felt resistance and fear. What if no-one buys my products? What if no-one buys my books, courses, or coaching materials? What if no businesses want me to help them? Do these fears sound familiar?
As a kid, I never had these fears. I just did what I thought was right. I was passionate and played trading cool games, tutoring others on topics I was passionate about, and I also helped my family build a better business. I can even recall helping my real father with organizing and shipping his products in exchange for a cut.
Sometimes I am still wondering, where I lost touch with my fearless self who wanted to explore the world. Isn’t this weird? We are afraid of getting fired, going bankrupt, not getting any clients, and all sorts of things. Wouldn’t it be equally easy to get deeply immersed in the journey life provides us and just play? Think about it! What would you be able to accomplish if you knew that you have nothing to fear about?
The science of getting clients
I promised you stories about getting real clients, right? Let’s see how it’s done in practice.
Imagine you have no personal brand and no-one knows you. What is the first logical step? Right! Building a personal brand and making connections.
You may think that no-one knows you, but in reality, my teachers know how passionate I was about some subjects. When I was 11, I already knew that I wanted to be a programmer. Therefore, I excelled at maths, physics, and of course programming.
My teachers noticed my skill level and passion. My grandmother kept bragging about me everywhere, so others asked me to tutor them. Not kidding. I took driving lessons at the age of 20, and my driving instructor told me he wanted me to mentor his son who was about to fail his math final exam.
Later, at the university, I worked with PhD students. One of them had a connection with the Hungarian National Library. He didn’t have time to teach them a ten week Java course, so he asked me to deliver the training. Why? Because he knew that I was enthusiastic about programming and that I could do it.
If you do great things and learn how to market yourself, your reputation will grow, and some people will want to get in touch with you. In order to do great things, you can start working for yourself: you can create a portfolio site, and you can also create products that you host online.
Sooner or later, you will need real clients who will provide you with enough social proof to increase your rates. This is where most people get stuck. “No-one trusts me, because I have no clients. But I cannot get clients, because no-one trusts me.”
Let me share three ways with you to get your first few clients:
- Find someone who has access to paying clients and needs your help
- Offer work for free or reduce your rates in exchange for testimonials
- Offer work on a performance basis
Let’s explore these options one by one.
Find someone who connects you with your clients
We have already talked about the first option. The PhD student at my university had the connections, but he had no time. So he referred me to the Hungarian National Library. I got instant authority through him, as the IT team of the library trusted me. If you choose this option, make sure you have the competency and willingness to deliver even if you face obstacles. Otherwise, you will damage your relationship with both the client and your connection who referred you.
The connector between you and your client can be an online marketplace. For instance, I managed to find multiple clients on an online marketplace, in exchange for a rate of $100/hour. Although they could see my blog articles, books, and courses, they had no idea how easy or how hard it is to work with me, because I had zero ratings on that site. They still placed trust in me without any social proof.
If you want to repeat the same, ask yourself. Can you write quality blog posts? Can you write even more and self-publish a book on Leanpub? Can you record screencast videos on Youtube? If your answer is yes to at least the first two questions, you have the same chances to get the trust of the same client.
You may ask how I could publish three books and eight courses with three publishers on top of my self-published courses. I never contacted anyone. Based on my articles and my Youtube channel, Sitepoint approached me to author two courses: one on TypeScript, and one on CSS architecture.
An acquisition editor from Packt got in touch with me to author a course with them. This one course became a series of three courses on functional programming. Half a year later, they approached me again for another course. Before I completed the course, I already had a signed contract on another course on .NET development without any credentials or articles written about .NET. Finally, I approached Packt based on my track record and asked them to author an AI and Python course, even though my last AI publication dates back to my work with my mentors at the university from ten years ago.
The story with Apress is even more interesting. I self-published a few books on Leanpub. I received an offer from Apress that they really liked the content, and they are happy to buy the rights to publish the book. They put a lot of work in proofreading the content, and they published it fast. Once the book was published, Apress asked me to write about three topics, but unfortunately, I had to turn them down.
Half a year later, they contacted me again that they wanted to buy the rights to publish another Leanpub book of mine. I gladly accepted the offer.
The reason why I received so many offers is that I put my work out there. I never did anything special. In fact, if you can write technical content, you can do the same.
Companies ask you to write technical content for up to $250 per article. Publishers ask you to write books and publish courses. Bootcamps ask you to mentor their students. Course creators ask you to write multiple choice questions and tech riddles. The formula for these offers are simple: you create free content, and watch how it resonates with your audience.
Working for free and for reduced rates
Working for free is something we all have experience in. Think about it. During a job interview process, companies tend to hand out homework assignments, and they evaluate your solution. They may even invite you for an unpaid onsite interview, where you have to cooperate with the development team.
Free work is always a teaser. You could build your portfolio for free, solving your own problems. It takes you the same amount of effort if you offer free or very cheap services in exchange for a testimonial or review. This is how most freelancers start in marketplaces like freelancer.com, UpWork, or PeoplePerHour. This is a good strategy even on a gig marketplace like Fiverr.
Unfortunately, buyers also take advantage of these discount offers. This is why freelancer rates on online marketplaces are relatively low compared to projects you can reach by networking or local freelancer portals.
Furthermore, in some countries, there is a well known scam among companies. They pretend that they are hiring and they ask you to do free work for them. Then they use the software you create for their own purposes. Even though these scams are rare, this should not discourage you. The worst thing that can happen to you is that you walk away with experience under your belt. Whatever you do, you cannot lose. You will definitely gain experience, and you may get other rewards.
If you really want to work with a client or employer, but they are not willing to trust you by putting you on their payroll, you can offer free work. Free work is like a teaser. A client can try you out for the duration of one project or a few weeks. You promise them that you would be autonomous, and all you ask for is a testimonial or a recommendation at the end of your working relationship. You will obviously offer your services afterwards, but they are not obliged to accept it.
If you offer work for a period of time, make sure that you agree on a project and some goals that you would deliver. Otherwise it will be hard to evaluate your accomplishments.
Does this work in real life? It has definitely worked for me.
First, at the university, I started writing my masters thesis. My mentors were not obliged to put me on the payroll of an EU funded project. In fact, I never asked them to pay me. They could have just accepted my work, help me write a great thesis, and use my work in their research project to improve their impact factor and deliver their obligations in exchange for the EU funding. However, my mentors placed trust in me, and during my last university years so much so that I earned more money with them than with my employers after university.
Second, I started writing articles for free in a magazine. The editor put me on the payroll after just a few articles. This was in 2008. Not a big deal, but it worked.
I admit, I don’t have a lot of experience with offering free work as a software developer, because I always had other options.
Free work makes sense, because this is what most people do in universities when they get started. They have to spend a few months with a company in an internship position. Some of these opportunities are unpaid. If you are starting your freelancing career without a degree, chances are that you can find your own internship and get the social proof required to build your online presence.
A smart way to surprise your client is to research their problems and pain points, work on them, and send them valuable information that helps them solve one of their pain points. Then you can offer cooperation that can deepen the relationship. As most people never invest hours in their clients without a contract and without pay, your work will most likely make them at least think about accepting your offer. The client feels understood, and they also get a sample on the quality of your work.
Most people don’t go the extra mile to get clients this way. They just cold call people or mass-approach them on LinkedIn with irrelevant offers. As their success rate is very low with the cold call approach, they eventually give up on freelancing claiming that employment is safe and freelancing does not work.
Offer work on a performance basis
I can still remember the spring of 2008. I had an interview in the lobby of the Intercontinental hotel of Budapest. The CEO of an online gaming company interviewed multiple people for a country manager role. Being a country manager is hard work that has little to do with software development. It is mainly a marketing role with some sales.
I had no degree or experience in marketing. I was clearly not qualified for the job in any way. In fact, back then I had no idea about what the difference is between marketing and sales. Furthermore, I had a full time job, and I was only available to work in the evening and during weekends.
The CEO only knew that due to my hobby, I knew the poker market inside out, I knew how to earn up to 160% rakeback, which means casinos paid me to play in their poker rooms to entertain other players. He also had respect towards people who could actually make money playing cards. He shared with me that he loved playing poker, but it was never financially rewarding enough for him. So he first became an affiliate, then he became a founder of a poker room.
I told him I knew all the major affiliates of the country personally, enumerated them, and described him their businesses. I enthusiastically talked about promotions that work and promotions that don’t. Above all, I was fully happy with working on a performance basis.
Not long after the interview, I was informed that I got the job, beating applicants with marketing background. This story gives you an idea of what is possible with the right mindset. Other applicants were
- had relevant experience in marketing,
- had time to work for the CEO during the day, while I was coding for a stock trading company.
Instead of choosing any of the other applicants, he chose me, a software developer with no relevant experience. Of course he didn’t give me any fixed income. Yet, he gave me the trust to get started, we agreed on the goals, and I soon started earning 500-2000 euros a month.
If you know what software development is, you have a portfolio site, and you have a few client testimonials, is it easier for you to get a client who wants you to code something? Would it be easier or harder for you to get a position this way than for me convincing a CEO with a business degree that he can trust you with a marketing position even though you don’t even know the difference between marketing and sales?
I know, my example was extreme, and commission-based compensation is not typical in software development. However, project-based compensation is more than typical. Imagine a client wants a WordPress site. You tell your client that you do the job. If he likes it, he can buy the site from you. If he doesn’t, he owes you nothing. This is an irresistible offer, and this is enough to get your foot in the door.
If you do quality work, chances are that your client will pay for your services.
What happens if your client rejects your work? Nothing. You gained experience, and after changing the logos and working on the content a bit, you can add the site to your portfolio.
What happens if the client takes your site and refuses to pay you? Technically, you can avoid this by hosting the site yourself, but there are some types of work, where you cannot do anything against fraud. There will be times when you don’t get paid. So what? You still gain valuable experience as a starter. Furthermore, I am not sure if it is just me who is so lucky, or I filter my clients well, but I have never had bad experience with my own clients based on a sample size of more than a hundred. I always got paid.
The main difference between children and adults is that children have not lost touch with their explorative self who dares to dream and tries things out that make no sense from the perspective of an adult.
Now that I am writing the last lines of this article, I have realized that even though some fears and limiting beliefs got implanted in my mind, I never lost touch with my inner child, and I continued playing and enjoying the journey.
It made no sense for me to apply for a marketing role, yet I made it. It made no sense for me to start blogging, yet my articles and videos attracted more opportunities than I ever dreamed of. Based on my experience, clients trusted me over and over again regardless of my experience level, the industry, and the project.
My clear goal with this article is to inspire you that it is not too hard to get started building a side income with freelancing. If you are employed right now and your contract allows you to pursue other opportunities on the side, you can get your first client with the three strategies you got to know from this article. You can find connections, and you can also create an irresistible offer in the form of free work or performance-based compensation.
If you need help with freelancing, the DevCareerMastery team can help you reach your goals. Book a free roadmap session with either me or with one of my coaches.