Freelance Software Development: Speaking to Your Buyers
I believe that at two, you have to call it a streak. And so I’d like to celebrate my illustrious streak of reader question Fridays successfully delivered. Today’s topic? Freelance software development.
This actually follows pretty naturally from last Friday’s post. Toward the end of that post, I pleaded with software developers to stop worrying about impressing one another. I did this because software developers are not your buyers — they’re your peers. Just as you don’t see Target’s CEO calling Walmart’s to show him what great deals Target has this week, you shouldn’t market toward your peers. Instead, you should direct your marketing efforts (blog included) at your buyers.
Doesn’t This Make You a Hypocrite, Erik?
If you dig through the archives of this blog, you will find an awful lot of posts directed at software developers. So I’ll just head off the inevitable comment about my hypocrisy with a caveat heading.
First, I treated my blog as half journal, half catharsis for a lot of years. That is, I didn’t set out to speak to my buyers because I didn’t have any when I started, prospective or otherwise. I wouldn’t go off on my own until I’d already been blogging for years and, at that point, I had my own pipeline pretty well stocked. Due to preparation through other means, I never relied on this blog to keep work rolling in. I do get inquiries and business through the site, but usually about developer training and the assumption that I can teach/setup anything I blog about.
The other thing that I’ll say in defense of me speaking to developers through the blog is that developers now are my buyers. You can buy my recent book if you don’t believe me, or check out my other developer-oriented offerings. Over years and years of blogging, I learned that it makes sense to offer your audience things it might value monetarily. (I encourage you prospective bloggers to be less obtuse than me and have this figured out from day one.)
So, yes, I speak to software developers on this blog and always have. But I don’t do it in the hopes that someone will notice it and hire me to do custom app dev.
Onto the Reader Question(s)
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s move on to the reader question(s) that pertain to freelance software development. Usually, I try to do a FIFO scheme, but I actually received more than one variant of the same question after last week’s post. I figure that bumps it to the top of the list. So here’s a composite of that question.
Do you have any tips on how to write for buyers, rather than fellow developers? My interests (and my prospective freelancing) run heavily technical, and that’s what I know how to talk about. So how do you recommend that I speak to buyers through the blog?
Short answer is, sure, I absolutely have tips for that. And I’ll get to topic ideas in a bit. But first, let’s get both a little blunt and a little philosophical, so that you understand what you’re up against.
Buyers in Pyramid Shaped Corporations
Both in my book, Developer Hegemony, and on this blog I have defined the corporate hierarchy. I talk about it consisting of pragmatists at the bottom (line level people), idealists in the middle (usually management) and opportunists at the top (executives and owners). I also add to this the journeyman idealist, an algorithm trivia buff that takes himself comically seriously and sits between idealists and pragmatists at most software shops. Let’s juxtapose the buyer universe against these archetypes in the pyramid shaped corporation.
Opportunists — owners and executives — have real buying power. Before the world watered down the C*O designation, officer really meant, “person that can throw the company’s purchasing power around.” When I was a CIO, I had authority to make significant purchasing decisions for the company. I was a buyer with money, and money that mattered. In an alternate universe, I could have been one of your buyers (and, depending on who is reading, maybe I was in this one).
Idealists also tend to have buying power, but it’s mitigated somewhat. Typically these folks have a budget and they have normal spending patterns. Within these pre-defined constructs, they can purchase autonomously. But if the purchase exceeds certain thresholds, they need sign-off from on high.
Pragmatists and journeyman idealists have virtually no organizational spending power, except, perhaps, for a $2K/year “self-improvement” budget or “tools” budget that still requires managers’ permission. In fact, in terms of actual organizational clout, pragmatists and journeyman idealists are exactly the same thing. Sure, one administers the language quizzes at interview time and the other gets quizzed, but that’s the organizational realpolitik equivalent of a parent putting one of two small children “in charge” — let ’em argue with each other instead of demanding an increase to the toys budget.
Freelance Software Development as a Seller
We can summarize purchasing power, then, simply. You can assume that developers have only their own disposable income to spend. Assume that managers can authorize purchases on the order of thousands and can replace things. Meaning, they can change databases or back fill departed developers. And, finally, assume that anything new or going into the tens of thousands means a conversation with a director or higher.
Now process all of that for a moment, and think how it relates to you. If you want to sell to developers, you can do that. But you can only sell stuff at price points that they’ll pay out of their own bank accounts. This includes books, video courses, apps, and the like. But it doesn’t include hiring software developers, unless you’re this guy. So forget about software developers (or architects/tech lead/whatever) if you want to sell yourself as a freelance application developer. You cost about $4,000 per week.
Let’s move on to the manager. Now, at 4K per week, you probably want to spend more than 2 weeks on a gig. This puts you squarely in $10,000+ territory per engagement. And recall what I said about manager authority. Idealist line managers can pull the trigger on you, but only if this represents a back-fill for an already-approved decision.
This leaves executive types that have real budget authority. Their exact titles will vary some by organizational size. At tiny organizations, simple managers may actually have this level of autonomy, whereas at others, this doesn’t occur until they have extremely fancy titles. But these opportunists can and do approve the sort of pricetag you’re looking for.
So, Straight to the CIO?
To put it more plainly, as you move up the org chart, you find more empowered buyers but less interest in details. As you move down the org chart, you get to the right level of detail, but you start to flirt with the event horizon of the mindless interviewing and hiring machine.
When Your Buyer Becomes the Interview Machine
And this conundrum cuts to the heart of your issue. Hiring on as a freelance software developer for longer term projects inevitably starts to look like hiring as an employee. Opportunist has to approve if it’s a new position. If not, the idealist can approve. Either way, both of them punt it to the interview process, which turns into journeyman idealists serving as proxy buyers by committee via a bureaucratic process that we call “hiring”. In this case, your “buyer” is sort of a magic 8 ball, and speaking to it with blog posts or other pitches becomes as stupid as it sounds.
To wit, you can write the sorts of blog posts that impress journeyman idealists, both as an employee or as a freelance contractor. When impressed, they’ll invite you to interview and they’ll even advocate for you during the process. But a bunch of other journeyman idealists, a regular idealist and maybe an opportunist will also want a crack at you. This “in” proves hardly better than not having it at all, tipping the scales slightly in your direction.
As a service seller, the interview process is a black hole. As soon as you start to walk, talk, and quack like a supplicant pragmatist, you’ll get sucked invariably into it. Don’t go near the event horizon.
Find Your Voice Through Your Value Proposition
Notice the core problem. The prospective buyers (e.g. CIOs) that could shepherd you past the low level hiring game don’t care about what you care about. The people that care about what you care about only matter collectively, as bureaucratic process.
You have to make someone who matters care about what you care about.
That is your blog. That is your public speaking topic. That drives webinars you create, mailers you send out, and all of the content marketing that you do.
As a developer, you have technical things that you’re good at. Various companies have paid you lots of money over the years to do those things. Refactoring legacy code? Tuning databases? Setting up continuous deployment pipelines? The companies that you’ve worked for made or saved money because of you.
You speak to buyers — buyers who matter — by explaining that to them in terms they understand. You explain and reinforce your value proposition as a technologist.
Freelance Software Development Value Proposition: Solving Problems, Not Listing Skills
I’ve written about this before. As developers, we’re used to (badly) explaining our value proposition with skills: frameworks, languages, etc. But this is like a contractor telling you that he’s proficient in saw, hammer, pipe, spring, nut, bolt, etc. Who cares? You want someone to come over to fix your garage. The contractor’s value proposition to you is, “I’ll fix your garage door” and not “here’s all this minutiae I do in my day to day work.”
As a prospective freelance software development pro, you could look at the negative. The world pushes you toward that mindless hiring black hole. But you could also look at the positive. While all of your competitors are out talking about how many “years of saw” they have, you can say, “hey, CIO, how about you forget those geeks and let me fix your garage.” When you start talking like that, she might even invite you to sit down at her dinner table for a few minutes instead of signaling the waiter to escort you out before you can even get to your expertise in both Phillips and flathead.
Identify Buyer Pain Points
I’m being glib. I understand that. But I’m doing so to drive home a point. You need to take what you know and love, and find the intersection between that and actual problems that buyers have. This will yield your value proposition. But I also recognize that this is an extremely difficult exercise.
In the first place, it might actually turn out that some of what you like to do isn’t actually useful to people. Secondly, it might be really hard to connect the dots in a way that’s easy to understand. And it may be that you bring value only indirectly or after lots of time. You’ll have a lot of brainstorming to do, and a lot of thinking in a new way to make happen.
And you might have to divert a bit from what you like to work on. Because, really, it’s not about you. It’s about the buyers and their needs. Start by looking at what you do, day to day, for your current company. Then ask how that makes or saves the company money.
But go beyond that. Identify the buyers in your organization, and see how your contributions impact them. Understand and grok this to the point where you can explore options. Can you generalize your contributions and offer them to other, similar buyers? If you tuned your contributions a bit, could you widen the pool even more?
Now You’re Talking (Or Ready To)
Luckily, I can stop here. What we’re talking about is how to speak to buyers on your blog. Not how to get in front of them, not how to pitch them, and not how to manage relationships. That comes later, once you’ve started to get your content marketing in place (and when I’m not so many words into a post).
Your struggle to identify and understand your buyers serves as fodder for your posting. Your exploration of how you can make their lives easier does too. As you relate your skill set to them, their best interests, and the company’s bottom line, your posting catches their attention and speaks to them.
Let’s look at some examples.
- Troy Hunt writes about selecting a VPN provider, which probably makes execs want to call him and ask him to pick one for them.
- Uncle Bob asks you to imagine life as the new CTO, which probably makes CTOs want him to help their folks with craftsmanship.
- Steve Smith talks about when to upgrade to ASP.NET Core, appealing to tech leaders contemplating migrations.
Here you have independent pros that understand their prospective buyers. They have specialties with deep technical implications, but they also understand and can articulate why prospective buyers might care. And they don’t even need to speak directly to the buyers, per se. They just need to put the content out there that tells buyers, “hiring that person will make my life better.”
Generalized Topic Ideas
With that in mind, here are some specific ways to write posts, but generalized to cover as many people reading as possible. I’ll just awkwardly call it “Specialty X.”
- A Non-Technical Person’s Guide to Specialty X
- Why A Lack of Specialty X is Costing You Money
- How I Did Specialty X for Company Y and saved them $Z
- Specialty X 101
- Getting Your Team Familiar with Specialty X
- Signs You Need Specialty X
Hopefully, you get the idea. Your blogging/content marketing stuff doesn’t have to contain these types of posts exclusively. You can do deeper, more technical dives, and that probably actually helps your cred with the buyers. You just need to prominently feature these types of posts so that they buy you as a credible, independent expert.
Eventually, You’ll Be Amazed
Start writing this way and building your reputation for this specialty. It’s a long play, but eventually things will happen that amaze you.
I’m pretty merciless in my treatment of software interview process. That’s because I’ve seen that you can simply opt out of it by learning to articulate your value proposition. As a software developer looking to go freelance, your world has always been impressing gaggles of journeyman idealists who don’t understand your value or their own. Speaking to actual buyers is foreign.
As you market yourself and speak to your buyers directly more and more, they’ll make inquiries and have conversations with you. They might be managers at small companies or VPs of larger ones. Whatever their background, they’ll call you up, talk to you about your services and rates, and say, “alright, do you want to invoice or setup a purchase order?” It honestly happens. I had a call like that just today, in fact, where I was offered a gig directing legacy rescue and practice improvement.
You’ll be amazed. It’ll happen just like that for you at some point. You’ll think there’s been some kind of mistake. Don’t they want some architect to stopwatch you pseudo-coding bubble sort on a whiteboard? Nope. They’ll sign a contract and tell all of the journeyman idealists on staff to make themselves available for whatever you need.
Learn the language of your buyers because speaking to them is powerful stuff.
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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