My biggest fear as a beginning freelancer was how little I knew about finding clients.
I knew nothing.
I was unemployed, scraping by on my last 9–5 paycheck, wondering how to make this whole freelancing thing work.
In my free time I read articles and books. I wanted to uncover how the most well-known and high-paid freelancers made their rise to the top.
Most blogs and books offered miscellaneous marketing tactics like running ads, cold-calling, optimizing articles, etc. But the top freelancers seemed to market themselves without even trying.
It’s not that top freelancers didn’t use marketing tactics at all. It’s that they seemed to also benefit from an unspoken force that nudged these freelancers continuously upward, even while they slept.
Now that I’ve been in the game a bit longer, and have seen my own career pushed forward by similar momentum, I can attribute that subtle force to two closely-tied ingredients:
- A powerful network
- A niche
#1: A powerful network
My first two freelance clients came from within my personal network. I happened to have two friends in advertising — one sent me a lead, the other hired me for a handful of projects.
At the time I remember thinking, I’ll take leads from friends for now. But someday I’ll learn how to find clients on my own.
It took me a couple years to realize how backwards my logic was.
As a freelancer, your reputation proceeds — and markets — you.
As you do good work, clients notice.
As you deliver content on time, clients notice.
As clients notice your good work and reliability, they proudly refer you to others. For each additional person you impress, your reputation can compound and become a marketing force to be reckoned with.
That type of trusting network doesn’t form overnight. Building a reputation requires long-term effort. Most freelancers can’t rely on their reputation from day one. There’s some grunt-work and hustle to get past first.
But once that force starts to work, finding new clients and projects starts to become easy.
#2: A niche
Growing a powerful network takes time. But there is a shortcut.
That shortcut is choosing a niche.
Most industries seem impenetrable and enormous from the outside. But once you’re an insider, you realize just how small and connected most fields truly are, especially as you work with decision makers.
I began my freelance journey as a generalist copywriter. Even when Sarabeth (my wife + writing partner) joined me a year and a half later, we continued to write for any company willing to pay for our time.
After years of working across a breadth of industries, we realized SaaS companies were consistently our favorite clients who provided our most interesting work.
We eventually went all-in on SaaS. Our business took off and we wondered why we had procrastinated specializing for so long. Our referrals went up exponentially, seemingly overnight. More clients began to request ongoing retainers and we became easier to find online.
Our inbound leads went from about 70% to almost 100% in just a few months. In other words, almost all our clients find and reach out to us.
“Passive” is not a word most freelancers can use to describe their business. The nature of our work— though flexible and fulfilling — tends to involve a lot of deep focus. Our earnings and leads are notoriously tied to personal productivity.
That’s why every long-term freelancer should seek opportunities to make their business work around the clock for them. I believe this begins by investing in specialization and community.
What are some passive tactics you apply to your freelance business? Let’s discuss in the comments.
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P.S. I regularly write about content promotion tactics, freelancing, and running a small business. Access weekly inspiration and tactics.