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To Market Yourself as a Freelance Dev, Stop Posturing for Your Peers

In my last post, I offered freelancers a primer on sales.  And in that post, I promised to start talking about marketing.

After all, effective marketing — getting buyers to come to you — is the main success driver for effective sales.

But as I laced my fingers, inverted my wrists, and stretched in the universal “I’m about to do stuff” pose, I realized something.  Before we can get started on how you should market, we’re going to need to spend some time unlearning a bad habit.

In fact, an entire post’s worth of time.

The bad habit in question is how you, the freelance developer, LOVE to appeal to the wrong audience.

Specifically, you love to appeal to other software developers — your peers.  You probably give occasional talks at user groups and conferences and have a nice Stack Overflow score.  You’re looking endlessly for semi-objective signposts that make you stand out from the crowd when hiring authorities (or buyers) grade you.

This is a failure pattern.  And I’m going to spend this post beating it out of you.

There Are Roles That Go Into Buying Your Services

Let’s say that you set up a lemonade stand outside of your office as a side hustle.  Let’s then assume that people get over how weird that is, and they start buying lemonade from you on hot days.

In this situation, the buyer role is simple.  Your customer, parting with a dollar for refreshing lemonade, is the alpha and the omega.

But, it turns out that buying tens of thousands of dollars worth of app dev labor is a little more complicated than buying a cup of lemonade.  In fact, it’s complicated enough that the transaction involves more than one person, occupying more than one role.

Buyer Roles in General

Before diving into specifics, I’ll define some general roles for high ticket sale situations.  And just for fun, I’ll weave in the narrative of a lemonade purchase.

  • Economic Buyer — this is the actual, economic buyer.  She has total, ultimate control over whether to make the purchase or not.  She is the one standing in front of you, brandishing the dollar, and weighing whether or not to give it to you
  • Decision Maker — this strains the credibility in our lemonade example, but there are situations where the person who signs the checks completely delegates the decision.  If the lemonade purchaser, for instance, had a personal shopper or something.
  • Influencer — the influencer is an undecided person that has the ear and trust of the decision-maker.  He is standing next to the decision-maker, saying nothing.  But the decision-maker would likely listen to him if he told her to buy (or not to).
  • Champion — the champion is an influencer that really likes you.  He’s standing next to decision-maker telling her how she has to try your lemonade.
  • Blocker — this is an influencer who breaks the other way.  He’s whispering in decision-maker’s ear that you’ve been known to put laxatives in your lemonade.
  • End user — you have this role in situations where the decision-maker won’t actually use the offering.  Maybe decision-maker is actually buying the lemonade to take home to her son, the end user.
  • Bureaucrat — I’m using this as a tongue-in-cheek, catch-all term for concerns like legal, regulatory compliance, etc.  This gets a little hard to recreate in your lemonade side hustle world, but maybe it’s your employer’s HR and landlord, who has rules and regulations for food and beverage vendors, stipulating that decision maker will only buy from bonded and licensed lemonade sellers.
  • Committee — the last role is a composite.  A buyer committee describes a situation where a purchase requires agreement from various parties I’ve described.

As you can see, any purchase might involve various roles beyond just the decision-maker.  But as you go from a dollar lemonade on up to a 7 figure service delivery contract, you can imagine that the complexity of interaction among the roles increases substantially.

Should I incorporate? The monopoly guy here thinks the answer is yes, and so do I.

Buyer Roles for Freelance App Dev

With that in mind, let’s look at the specific instance of you trying to sell freelance app dev.  For the example here, I’m going to assume that you’re trying to sell your services as a staff augmentation to a mid-market company with an existing software department.

Let’s say they’ve acquired a small competitor and they want you to come help them migrate the competitor’s codebase to their own.  Competitor was a Rails shop, you’re a Rails developer, and they’re a Java shop with Java developers.

  • Economic Buyer: CIO — this company is small enough that the CIO herself officially signs off on any W2s or 1099 hires that exceed $10K.
  • Decision Maker: Dev Manager — since the CIO is a little busy to get involved with every contractor they might bring on, she delegates this decision to the dev manager.  She might interview the 1099 herself, but she’s probably content to delegate everything to the dev manager.
  • Influencer: Architect and Devs — The primary influencer here is the architect of the group that you’ll work with and, to a lesser extent, the devs in the group.
  • Champion — usually you won’t have any champions in this context.  But if you’ve spoken at lots of conferences and such, you might have a champion among the influencers — a star-struck developer saying “wow, we have the chance to bring on someone that gave a ‘Rails Optimization’ talk at WhateverCon!”
  • Blocker — if you have any blockers, you’re probably borked.  Someone is giving you a big, fat thumbs-down following the interviews.
  • End user — this really doesn’t apply to selling app dev (don’t confuse this with the company’s end users — this would be you laboring for someone other than the company paying you).
  • Bureaucrat — As a freelance seller of app dev, you’ll see this a lot.  This is their legal department negotiating the terms of your contract and other similar concerns.  Your sale will usually hinge on agreement to play by their rules.
  • Committee — in the overwhelming majority of cases, this company will have an extremely well-defined buyer committee consisting of bureaucrat, influencers and decision-maker.  It’s so well defined because it’s just their interview and hiring process.

So, that’s the lay of the land as you try to sell app dev by the hour.  Your sales process, as I’ve said in previous posts in the series, basically just looks like a job interview.

Impressing Your Peers as a Marketing Face Plant

Now, it should probably strike you as a smell that your business’s sales process is no different than an employee’s job application process.  But let’s set that aside and focus instead on something else.

Your current plan for marketing is, to put it generously, somewhat inefficient.

The “Impress Your Peers” Marketing Plan in Detail

To really drill in on that, let’s walk through that plan.  Pay attention to how many times the word “hope” comes up.

  1. Spend hundreds of hours creating content for your blog and hope that people start following you.
  2. Answer a lot of RPFs and hope that conferences accept you.
  3. Hope that some of your blog followers and/or conference attendees happen to work at companies to whom you’re going to sell your labor.
  4. Hope that none of your public opinions have created blockers to go along with any champions.
  5. Interview at the company and hope that you make the champions look good during that process.
  6. Hope that the decision-maker bothers to listen to the champions
  7. Profit!

If I were to pick a colloquialism to summarize this marketing strategy, I’d pick, “throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and hope something sticks.”

The Non-Ludicrous Marketing Plan in Detail

Let’s take a look at a better marketing strategy.  Now, hang on to your hats because this is going to get complicated.

  1. Create content that decision-makers and buyers appreciate.

Still with me?  That was a lot to process, I know.

In all seriousness, that’s really all there is to marketing, at least at a conceptual level.  It’s obviously not trivial to get the attention of dev managers and CIOs and to figure out what might interest them.  You have work to do there.

But at the 10K foot view, marketing to your buyers is quite simple.  Doubly so when you compare it to the first, Rube-Goldbergian strategy, that we learn as salaried software engineers, and then limp along with in the freelance world.

Developers Will Rarely Matter in Your Sales

Now, let me drive this point home even further.  In an interview process, the decision-maker definitely weighs the input of architects and developers in their roles as influencers, champions, and blockers.  Companies create that process specifically to give those engineers a voice.

But once you stop acting like a job applicant and start selling directly to buyers and decision-makers, the game changes.

To illustrate, consider my erstwhile codebase assessment and management consulting practice.  IT leadership would call me and ask me to dive deep on their codebases, helping them make hard decisions.  Should we keep going or pull the plug?  Do we have the right staff?

My sales calls involved only the buyers and decision makers, as did all of my service delivery.  And, if you think about it, how else could this possibly have gone?

Do you think I had many developer and architect champions?  “It’s always great when a consultant comes into second guess our work!”

Almost by definition, my sales process for that service involved buyers, decision-makers, bureaucrats and nothing but blockers as far as the eye could see.

And, do you know what?  They brought me in anyway.

I’m telling you this story to illustrate that, as you move away from doing generalist app dev labor, developers stop functioning as meaningful influencers.

Stop Doing the Easy Thing

One of the most important pieces of advice that I give to aspiring software bloggers is to stop fretting about the CMS, install WordPress or whatever, and just start writing.

Why?  Because fretting about tech stack — diving into the weeds about what you know — is a seductive form of procrastination, in that it’s easy to rationalize.  No, you’re not procrastinating, of course.  You’re just doing your due diligence as a professional.

It’s the same thing with marketing your business.  Speaking to your peers is easy.  It’s comfortable and familiar.  And you already have all of those impressive merit badges on coderninjafighters.com or whatever.

Figuring out where executives hang out and what they want and need?  It (understandably, at first) feels like boiling the ocean.  So you avoid it because it’s hard, respond to another conference RFP, and soldier on with hope as your marketing strategy.

You need to stop it.  I know it’s going to be hard and I know it’s going to be frustrating and I know it’s going to be weird.

It doesn’t matter.  Do it anyway.

And, when it comes to impressing your peers masquerading as marketing?  Stop it.  Imagine yourself as Tyler Durden, saying “it is only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”

Burn it to the ground, burn it all, do it right this minute, and get ready to start your marketing from scratch.

(Some Additional Stuff I’ve Written on this Subject, if you want to read further)

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