Freelance Programming without a Marketing Presence
Happy Friday, everyone. I’ve had no shortage of questions about freelance programming and consulting since I started reader question Fridays. I’ve talked about speaking to buyers and about moonlighting, among other things. And in all of these posts, I bang the drum for building a marketing presence over the course of time. But today’s reader question concerns freelance programming when you don’t have time to play the long game.
In that first post, I encouraged people to start building a marketing presence and brand immediately. I invoked a saying about trees. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best time is now. In response to that, a reader asked the following.
How about making it a little quick?
I like the example of sowing the plant now and I do understand its strength but not everyone has that much time cushion in his/her life to keep doing his/her thing continuously…
Fair enough. What do you do when you want to get going as a freelance programmer immediately, but haven’t had time to specialize or build a brand? Well, to answer that, I’m going to take a small detour through the concepts of marketing and sales.
Marketing and Sales
Plenty of sites will tell you about the nuts and bolts difference between marketing and sales. Generally they’ll advise you that marketing involves brand awareness while sales involves closing the deal. And, that’s true. But I’m going to draw a different distinction.
Simply put, marketing is “here’s a sense of the value we provide” and sales is “let’s talk about you giving me money.” So, if you’re anything like me, personality-wise, marketing is okay, and sales is distasteful.
In fact, I’ve actually come to like marketing. I’ve even created a business where we help tech tools and training companies with content marketing. Basically this involves leading with value — creating content that prospective customers find interesting, but without trying to take money from them. You attract their interest, offer them information or entertainment, and then hope that builds goodwill for the brand, eventually resulting in sales. But you also hope that, by the time a sale becomes relevant, you’ve already given them something of value and made them an enthusiastic buyer.
“Here’s the thing we’re selling, and we think it speaks for itself — let us know if you’re interested.”
Imagine a sales process like that. Software developers are cynical, savvy, and sales-averse, so a pitch like that is a way to our hearts (and wallets).
Software Developers as Salespeople
Ironically, in spite of our leeriness toward sales, we, as software developers are sales people. And, we’re not even the easygoing, friendly type. We’re the sharkskin suit, slicked back hair, high-pressure type. We want you to hurry in for these great deals while supplies last!
Okay, I can almost see your skeptical look through the information ether of the internet. But, seriously. We do this when we sell our labor. It’s called a job interview.
Think about it. What do you do at job interview time? You dust off your suit, affix a maniacal smile to your face, and set about convincing a bunch of strangers to buy, buy, buy while your labor supplies last. You’ve never met them before, in all likelihood. And, there you sit, saying things like “self-starter” as you pitch them on yourself.
Why do you have to turn on the snake oil charm? Because that interview is the only mechanism they have by which to evaluate you. You’ve never offered them a lick of value or insight into your capabilities. So you have to sell them as if you’d called them out of the blue, selling cleaning supplies.
Marketing is the difference. If you had a brand and a reputation, you’d have done marketing. And if you’d done that, instead of a weird, high pressure labor sales pitch, they’d be talking about your work and you’d be discussing the prospective “sale” like human beings having a rational conversation.
C’est La Vie: Freelance Programming without Marketing
Let’s now get back to the premise of the post. You want to get into freelance programming, but you don’t have the time or resources at your disposal to build your brand. So you have to become good at sales.
The easiest venue for landing work as a freelance programmer comes largely through the same process as W2 hiring. Go to work as a contractor. Companies will still interview you, so you’ll still get to put on your sharkskin suit, smile manically, and say that you’re a real self-starter. You’ll just do it for a 1099 arrangement and an hourly gig instead of a salaried one. You can sign on for long or short term gigs here, and move around as frequently as you’re comfortable suffering through the interview process. The better you get at sales, the easier this process becomes.
But let’s say that you want to specialize and niche a little more. Maybe freelance programming means migrating away from salaried employment by another name. Without a brand, you still need to do well at sales. You just need to sell prospective buyers on dealing with you in your specialized capacity. For instance, if you tune databases for performance, you’ll need to get in touch with the buyer that would buy such a thing, and then cold-pitch that person. After all, you’ll have nothing but your winning smile to use as evidence.
Get in this mindset, because you really will need to get good at sales. But that doesn’t mean you can’t tip the scales in your favor a bit with the right sales-aids.
Create the Skeleton of a Brand
If you didn’t plant your metaphorical trees 20 years ago, you won’t have impressive oaks today. But you can throw up something that sort of looks like a tree.
I won’t belabor that metaphor any further, but the idea here is that you can look legit without investing the time required to have a lot of followers, domain authority, and reputation. So I suggest you do this. If you want to transition into freelance programming, create a professional looking website and list your specialties. It doesn’t have to dazzle anyone, nor do you have to hand-code it from scratch. Use WordPress and some easy, purchased theme. You’ll have a nice looking site in half a day.
On top of that, do things that companies would expect of an independent professional. Make yourself some business cards. Get some boilerplate contracts that you give to clients, and use something like 99 designs to make yourself a logo so that you can have letterhead for invoices, proposals, and the like. All of this certainly requires effort, but it’s nothing you can’t knock out in a week or two.
You should also incorporate as some kind of entity. When prospective buyers look you up, you want them to find a real organization.
Leverage Your Network
Once you have the scaffolding of a brand in place, you can start pitching people. You’re still wearing that sharkskin suit and winning smile, but at least now you have props. And, if you’ve gone through the effort to create a site, you’ve probably figured out some semblance of a niche and a value proposition.
Take that, and start to tip the scales in your favor by personal interaction. First up, find people that you’ve worked with in the past who can speak to your suitability at delivering this value proposition. If appropriate, secure them as references for your work. When dealing with relatively unknown commodity consultants or freelancers, many firms will ask for references just as they would a job applicant. Have those ready.
But you can also leverage these people for so-called “warm leads.” Many people will ask people in their network to introduce them to others that they could help. But don’t you do that — that’s giving people homework. Instead, go through their network and find prospective buyers that they know. Then, all you need to do is ask them for an introduction to Suzie Smith. That’s not homework — that’s easy.
Fake it ’til You Make It
In essence, your foray into freelance programming will involve two things, when done in short order. First, you’ll do more selling and less organic growth of your pipeline via reputation (i.e. marketing/branding). And second, you’ll sort of manufacture a brand for yourself on the fly, as you go.
So envision a successful pitch to a buyer and work backward. Most likely you’ve gotten the conversation because of a warm introduction from a mutual acquaintance. What do you want to have with you to make that acquaintance proud and to secure a deal? A business card would help. Having a website would help. Having other past clients vouch for you would help (lacking those, just give them former colleagues/employers). You get the idea.
The way it works goes back to the tree planting metaphor. The natural way to do things is to have planted them 20 years ago. But.. you can take trees and transplant them to cheat the system a bit. They’ll be smaller trees, and it might get weird, but you can do it. And if you pull it off successfully, in another 20 years, nobody will know the difference.
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And, by the way…
If you like the wisdom here, such as it is, you can get a whole lot of that more in my recently released book, Developer Hegemony. If you want a sample of that, you can sign up to download some chapters below.
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