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Positioning for Newbie Feelancers: The Ugly, The Bad, and the Good

After the gigantic rant I queued up last time, I’m going to resume instructional content in this business of freelancing series.  I think I’ve driven home the importance of reasoning about profit and I’ve introduced you to some business models to think about.

So let’s focus on actually hanging out your shingle and getting started.

Now, I don’t actually think you really need a website to start.  But a lot of people and most of you reading would probably disagree.  “How can you start a business without a website?!”

I frankly don’t care enough to argue the point.  So let’s just move on and assume that you’re going to build one, whether you need it or not.

First, The Ugly: What You’re Probably About to Do If I Don’t Stop You

Alright, let’s take inventory of where you are.  Just getting started, you have no clients or case studies, no testimonials or past history of business.  So all of those things are out for including in your website.

As for your services… well, app dev, right?  People give you requirements and you code ’em up and deploy that code that the world may bask in its well-crafted glory.  Nothing much to really say there, either?

But you can’t just say nothing…

Here It Comes: The Platitudes, Cookie-Cutter Methodologies, and Life Stories

No, saying nothing won’t fly, so you decide to talk about yourself, your approach, and your philosophies in glowing, rambling terms.  Oh, and in the plural of course.

Here at DogFood Inc, we strongly believe in integrity, work ethic, customers and decency.  These foundational principles infuse everything that we do!

We start by having a meeting with you where we listen to all of your needs.  You can think of this as gathering your requirements.  We then enter what we like to call the design phase, where we bring our unique architectural experience to bear in designing your app.

Next comes implementation, where we make sure to use all of the latest design patterns and best practices.  Then comes a rigorous round of testing, and finally hand-off, where we ask you to participate in our patent-pending user acceptance test process.

You may find yourself wondering why we’re named DogFood Inc.  Good question!  It all started 10 years ago with our founder and CEO’s dog, Spud.  You see Spud…

{blah, blah, blah}

And so because of Spud, and because we believe in the practice of “dogfooding” by building every tool we use from scratch, Dogfood Inc was born!  Let us take a bite out of your software needs!

Come on.  You know you were going to write something like this.  At least you were before I made you all self-conscious about it.

Don’t worry, I’m sure I wrote some similar drivel when I first hung out my own shingle 10 or more years ago.  Years of suffering the incumbent indignities of resumes and cover letters fill us to the brim with BS, to the extent that it keeps spewing from us even as we leave that world behind.

What’s the Problem Here?

A couple of years ago, I wrote about how recovering generalists could establish a value proposition.  That post is actually good additional reading for the theme in this series, if you’re so inclined.  But for now, I’m just going to borrow this graphic (originally found here):

Imagine for a moment that you were in possession of flowers that, when eaten, allowed people to hurl fireballs.  By simply eating your flower, people could slay their enemies or, at least, light a grill really efficiently.

What would your sales pitch look like for that?

Would you talk about your personal principles, and launch into a lengthy history of your life?  Would you talk about your flower growing approach and horticulture philosophies?

I certainly hope not.

You don’t need to be a slick salesman to realize this probably isn’t a great sales approach.  Anyone can understand that you sell these flowers by getting buyers to visualize themselves hurling fireballs at wasp nests and piles of tinder.

Revisiting The Ugly

Let’s now revisit this cover-letter copy where you’re talking about your philosophies, principles, turn-ons, and astrological sign for your customers’ ostensible benefit.  Let’s look at it through the lens of the Mario graphic.

Are you talking about Mario?  No, not even a little.

Are you talking about the flower?  Yeah, some.  But in a way that Mario won’t really care about or understand.

Are you talking about the (not even pictured) flower grower?  Oh, yeah.  A whole lot.

Your customer cares a lot about her prospective fire-slinging abilities.  She cares about the flower only in the frame of whether she believes that eating it will actually work and won’t poison her.

And she cares even less about you, personally.  Your integrity, or whatever, only becomes an issue for her in determining whether you might be a rose-selling charlatan.

Trust is real, and it’s important to address.  But you don’t achieve that trust by vomiting your purported values onto a landing page that — newsflash — could probably be simulated by someone without integrity falsely claiming to have it.  In fact, you don’t achieve trust with your copy at all, and it’s not the place for trying to do so.

Ugly positioning is talking about yourself, rather than your service or your customer.

The Bad: No Positioning or Flower-Focus

I’m hoping that I just saved you from the ugly.  The ugly is easy to explain, and thus easy to avoid.

Let’s talk now about the bad, when it comes to your positioning.

Whereas “the ugly” screams “I just started a new business and have never had buyers,” bad positioning is just sort of the default, especially in the freelance app dev world.  And the reason for this is that good positioning is really, really hard.

The Flavors of Bad Positioning

I’d say that bad positioning in our niche has basically two flavors:

  1. No positioning at all (e.g. creating generalist app dev profiles on sites like Upwork and Toptal).
  2. Positioning focused on the flower, since you don’t really understand why Mario wants it.

Far enough removed, I might say that these two are actually the same thing.  Whether you’re bidding on Upwork gigs or writing a bunch of copy about how you “craft” software of “high quality,” you never seek to understand what your buyer actually wants from your labor.  You just claim to be the cheapest (in total cost of ownership) and also “the best” and hope they pick you.

But from a tactical perspective, these approaches look a little different.  With the first approach, you basically just simulate an employment search process, whereas the latter will strike buyers as slightly more mature.  You have a site and your own sales and marketing apparatus.

The trouble with the second item comes from the sales and marketing apparatus focused entirely on the flower, and not on Mario.  It describes your discovery process, your project management methodology, your payment terms, etc.

Unlike the employment simulation scenario, these are all your processes, but they’re not interesting to or focused on your buyers.

Why Bad is the Default

Why is “bad” the default positioning for freelance software developers?  Well, it’s the logical conclusion of a highly generalized practice.  How can you earn Mario’s trust to bring him a great outcome when you refuse to niche down enough to know that Mario is your customer?

To understand what I mean, understand the generalist pitch in Mario’s world.

I sell flowers to absolutely anyone that wants a flower for any reason, and I honestly have no idea why any of those people might buy flowers.

Aha!  Now we’re getting somewhere.  Now it’s easy to understand why it gives you anxiety and a headache to do anything other than describe the flower (or drone on about yourself, the flower grower).

If you start telling people that eating your flowers will let them chuck fireballs, won’t you lose your Valentine’s Day business?!  And what about anniversaries?!  Isn’t it best to avoid really getting into their reasoning, lest you chase off business?

Well, the answer is “no,” but you’re going to have to either believe me or not for now.  And, even if you don’t believe me, you’d probably still concede that flower-describing is bad positioning, but you’d just contend that bad positioning is inevitable for freelance developers.

But if you do believe me, you need to start working your way toward good positioning.  And good positioning means the anxiety-inducing move away from “I do anything for anyone who will pay me.”

The Good Is a Journey, But Start Brainstorming

If you were hoping that I’d conclude this post with a quick, actionable guide that will let you nail down your positioning today, I’m going to disappoint you.  Good positioning is hard.

It is the most common flavor of reader question that you all send me, and it’s difficult to explain, difficult to grok, and difficult to practice.  But I’d argue that the core thinking — the seed of good positioning — is relatively straightforward.

So I’ll leave you with that seed.

You need to start asking yourself “who does my work make awesome, and how?”  I’ll give you a couple of concrete examples from my own life, in the form of my two recent niche businesses.

  • My codebase assessment practice makes IT executives look really good when making decisions about codebases.  Instead of facing the CEO or board with anecdotal evidence about what to do next, they can present confidently at that meeting, holding a whitepaper full of data to support their decision, and knowing that nobody will second guess them later.
  • Hit Subscribe makes overworked marketers at dev tools companies better able to tackle their extremely fractured workloads.  With 20 different marketing concerns and modes of evaluation, we handle one of the toughest — content — for them so that they can call it done and a win, and focus on other things.

And what’s the core of the awesomeness in these two cases?  What’s the Mario fireballing?

  • IT execs can turn board meetings from inquisitions into opportunities for career advancement.
  • Marketers can earn recognition and praise for notching a win when everyone recognizes that they should have been stretched too thin to do so.

Positioning is really hard, and describing it in the abstract is even harder.  So I’m hoping that these concrete examples get the creative juices flowing for you.

In short, you need to be able to tell stories like the two I just told you about your own customers.

You can get away from ugly positioning by just not writing terrible copy for yourself.  But getting away from bad positioning and into good is a journey that you should start as quickly as possible.

Start it by trying to figure out who you’ve conferred super powers to in the past, and who you can do so in the future.  In all probability, this is going to mean asking a lot of questions of former employers, managers, clients, etc.  That’s fine.  Do It.

The sooner you come to understand why people have paid you in the past, the sooner you’ll be able to get them to do so in the future, and for far higher prices than your erstwhile, badly positioned competitors.

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Helton Moraes
Helton Moraes
1 month ago

This reminds me of a great older post of yours about a “spider specialist” inside a corporation (“Please stop geeking out”).

Philip RIecks
1 month ago

Thanks a lot Erik for continuing your freelance series.

It’s a great place to gather information about pitfalls and advice for starting your own freelance gig (as a temporary adventure before becoming a business owner, for sure).

Santi
1 month ago

Well, the answer is “no,” but you’re going to have to either believe me or not for now.”

Looking forward to that post. It is the most common concern when niching down, the idea that you are rejecting a lot of business.

Santi
1 month ago
Reply to  Erik Dietrich

As there is so much bad freelancing advice, it would be awesome if you wrote a summary/guide about freelancing. Especially since much of your advice can be seen as “contrarian”.

You could even make it a nice PDF.

Something like:

1. Freelancer vs Consultant vs Business Owner

2. Career progression

3. Profit

4. Positioning

Erik Dietrich
Erik Dietrich
1 month ago
Reply to  Santi

I actually find myself in sort of a weird place these days with the DaedTech blog. A polished (ish) info product like you’re describing would make for something that I could sell at a low price point or else use as a loss-leader/lead-generator… if I were actually selling something else. But I’m not and really have no plans to do so. The content business we created has taken off to such a degree that I now just focus all my time on being CEO of that, and have gradually relegated what I do here to hobby status (ditto any requests… Read more »

Erik Dietrich
Erik Dietrich
1 month ago
Reply to  Santi

All that said, I do really appreciate the readership! And I’m not ruling out doing something bigger with the content, per se. It’s just that incentives are a little wonky.

Santiago Magariños
1 month ago
Reply to  Erik Dietrich

Glad to hear HS is doing great!

And thank you so much for your hobby’s output: fantastic content.