How To Turn Down Freelance Work Gracefully

how-to-turn-down-freelance-workIf I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: freelancing and consulting work are like sunlight; there’s enough for all of us to get a tan.

That said, in the coin flip of life, some days don’t feel like you’re operating in a world of abundance. This freelancing game can be brutal.  Sometimes things look bleak, and you wonder if you’re going to make it.

The minute you start radiating struggle or desperation, a predatory (at worst) or clueless (at best) potential client will appear, sensing your weakness and enticing you with a fat – or so they say – check, if only you can accommodate their abusiveness, idiocy, or micro-managing.

You begin to wonder how critical is it that you close this job? Ask yourself if you’re willing to be married to a client who is throwing up red flags before you’ve even done any business together?  Can you tolerate their behavior once there are stakes?  Sometimes you’ll decide that things just aren’t bad enough to willingly subject yourself to frustration.

The other side of the coin flip of life is that sometimes things are going like gangbusters.  Sometimes the freelancing game opens up and gives you the goodies you’ve been working so hard to acquire.

The minute you sign a few lucrative clients and start turning out good work, you become attractive to good and bad clients alike.  People stop objecting to your rates quite so strenuously.  Your proposals are accepted with progressively less pushback.

You wonder how much work you can take on before quality of service begins to decline?  You begin to wonder if you can hire fast enough to meet demand?  Can you manage any more projects without things starting to slide?  Sometimes you’ll decide that your best move is to preserve your schedule slack, your quality of service, or your peace of mind.

In these cases – whether motivated by the good or the bad of the freelancing business – you may decide that you really need to turn down the work that has been so thoughtfully offered to you.  And it can be damned uncomfortable knowing how to turn down freelance work like a professional, without offending anyone, without appearing to be arrogant, and without burning any bridges that may come back to haunt your freelancing business later (I don’t have to explain to you why it’s a bad idea to treat people poorly or with arrogance, even if they’re a bozo, do I?).

Luckily, in my 12 years of operating a freelancing business, I’ve been on both sides of the coin.  And I’m going to tell you how to turn down freelance work and still respect yourself afterward.

1) Listen to them.  Even if you’re 99.9% certain you’re not going to accept their project, listen to them.  A brief conversation isn’t going to cost you much, and there’s the possibility – however remote – that their project will turn out to be one that is worth making an exception for.

2) Use this e-mail template.  I’ve developed this e-mail template over time, and use it in my own freelancing business.  When I first wondered how to turn down freelance work, my attempts to do so were, at best, ham-fisted; at worst, outright arrogant.  As the years have gone by, I’ve nipped and tucked this message into a pretty effective work-rejecting tool, one that doesn’t burn any bridges:

Hi {name}
First, thanks for considering {company name} for your project. I know it's hard to know who to turn to with such an important project, and I appreciate your show of trust.
Second, after our consultation and looking over the specifics of your situation with my team, it looks like we're probably not a good fit for your project. The {schedule/market/technology/etc} required for this project is outside what we feel we can provide to make your project come to life. I'd be remiss in signing you up without being able to provide the best possible solution.
Instead, I recommend you talk to one of these local firms:
{insert the name of/links to 2 or 3 local competitors}
All that said, don't hesitate to keep in touch. Your project has a lot of merit, and sounds like it will be real winner with the right team behind it. I'm looking forward to hearing about your eventual launch!

Kind Regards,
{your e-mail signature}

3) Be gracious when they come back to you later.  This doesn’t always happen, but my experience in the freelancing business tells me it’s not unusual, either.  When you’re busy wondering how to turn down freelance work, you probably aren’t wondering what to do if they come back.  There’s a reason they chose you in the first place, and if your work is truly unique, it’s possible that the client won’t be satisfied by anyone you refer them to instead.

4) Hold your boundaries.  Whether the client pushes back immediately, or comes back to you 6 months later, don’t feel obligated to budge.  Sure, feel free to re-evaluate if they come back to you 6 months later, but if the original issues that made you wonder how to turn down freelance work are still valid, hold your boundaries.  Sometimes – just sometimes – a client will have come to a more realistic view of their project, a new manager has taken over, or other project circumstances have changed in the interim, and you’ll find that you feel good about giving it a go.  But sometimes not.

That’s it!  The issue of how to turn down freelance work is not a terribly complicated one, but it does require clear thought, abundant tact, and strong boundaries, three things that I’m sorry to say are frequently in short supply in many small freelancing shops.

Don’t be afraid to behave like the professional you aspire to be.  Being more professional and holding stronger boundaries will never make your business worse.  And when in doubt, send the graceful rejection e-mail I supplied above!


How To Launch A Product, Lose A Contest, And End Up A Winner Anyway

It was only Day 2 of the Gumroad Small Product Lab when I decided not to bother participating.

No, it was late on Day 2, even!  After signing up on Day 1, I hadn’t really decided to launch a product; signing up was driven more by curiosity than anything else. My hope was that  Gumroad would be offering some secret marketing info that I could use to promote my podcast. I had no idea how close that hope would be to what actually transpired.

Chatting with friends on Day 2, I deliberated over whether or not to do this, and what kind of a product I could do. In typical form, I had a hard time thinking truly small – a hallmark of my career is my tendency to over-engineer everything I do. Usually, this works in my favor; on a 10-day time-span, over-engineering would yield the same result as not starting at all; a no-finish. As my head hit the pillow and my eyelids grew heavy on the evening of Day 2, I drifted off to sleep having resolved not to participate in the Small Product Lab at all. I even made note of it in my planner on Product People Club:

Picture of when I decided not to launch a product


A sense of dread and panic tumbled about in my guts. My past failures to get product out the door weighed on me like an invisible, lead-lined robe. “Am I really going to do this again?” I thought. “Commit to launch a product, only to get overwhelmed and give up?”

Just so you don’t get the wrong idea, this is not a sad-sack story. I have had plenty of success in my career – operating a busy web development consultancy for 12 years, and hosting a reasonably-popular podcast – but the one type of career success that proven elusive for me is product (but not for lack of trying – multiple times). My recent product efforts to launch a product had been centered around a web app, but frankly, I felt like I needed a win, badly, NOW. I felt a powerful need to get on the scoreboard much sooner than my web app would allow. And it looked like Gumroad was offering a great opportunity, with plenty of support.

Taking the time to catch up, I read the e-mails Gumroad had sent out for Days 1, 2 and 3. I did some research based on my own areas of interest and expertise. I took notes and thought out loud. Again, I turned to my friends and colleagues, most of whom have stories similar to mine, and some of whom have successfully manage to produce and profit from their own products. I threw out ideas, I expressed concerns, I asked questions. My friends did their part and showed me no mercy, shooting down ridiculous ideas, poking holes in ridiculous concerns, and helping me to refine kernels of plausible ideas.

Ultimately, I decided that my small product would be a book. After a few mental iterations, I decided that the book would be about podcasting, for beginners. A final chat with my friends helped me determine that although there was no way to predict success, at the very least I had a workable idea of the appropriate scale, that addressed a fertile market, that was worth the time to launch a product in.

I later described my decision to do a podcasting book thus on Product Hunt:

As to why *this* product, there are a few reasons:

– I’m passionate about podcasting
– I often am contacted by other people who are passionate about podcasting but don’t know where to start
– My writing muscles were all warmed up by an unrelated project that required me to generate a lot of written content
– When the 10-day challenge came up, I was sick & tired of spinning my wheels with regard to launching a product

It was Day 3. I was nervous, and I was late. But I knew I had to do this, that all of the false starts over the past several years would be worth it if I could just launch a product this time, sales or no (though I admit, the idea of doing a product that doesn’t sell seems wasteful to me, and best avoided whenever possible).

I sat down to write, preoccupied with my own doubts about my late start, and was immediately thunderstruck by a thought: I’ve already written a big chunk of this book!

Frantic, I began to dig through my e-mail. Here and there, spread out over the past 2 years, were messages from aspiring podcasters – messages that I had replied to with advice regarding developing a concept, recording on the cheap, focusing on the essentials of starting a show quickly. I also found messages to my assistant, containing guidelines for helping me to produce my podcast. In these messages, I would find the raw material for my book. Turning my attention to chat logs, I found that in the course of describing my product vision to my friends, I had written a significant amount of material that could serve as even more raw material for the book.

With my pangs of doubt beginning to fade away and a steadily-growing blaze of desire, I worked late into the night to outline my book and start plugging chunks of e-mails and chat logs into the various sections of the outline. I knew I’d have to re-write virtually all of it, but that seemed infinitely preferable to starting from scratch and flirting with the dreaded Blank Page Syndrome.  I’d never manage to launch a product that way, I was certain.

The last thought passing through my mind before sleep finally took me during the (very) late hours of Day 3 was “I think I can do this”.


I awoke easily, with a strong sense of focus. After spending the first half of the day attending to my consulting obligations, I began to work on my book again, cutting & pasting sections of old e-mails and chat logs here and there, hanging meat on the skeleton that was to become my book.

It was also on Day 4 that I began to consider things like a title, a website, and a promotional plan. Gumroad sent a nice e-mail about setting up a landing page using their Audience feature to build up a following before trying to launch a product, which I was only too happy to make use of. With my Audience page complete, I began to think about other means of promoting my eventual product. I decided that I would use a lead magnet – a free piece of content – to draw attention to my book.

As my work drew to a close on Day 4, I had 15 pages written – all from re-using and re-writing my own previously-written private material about podcasting. My head hit the pillow that night with a singular though – “I know I can do this!”.


Once again I began working on consulting projects until noon before turning attention to my book. I had used all of my pre-existing material, and now had to begin to create content. “I’m past the easy part” I thought, “and now I’m going to have to start doing this for real”. That afternoon was spent writing like I’ve never written before.

The Day 5 e-mail from Gumroad was about building an audience. I knew that the Audience page would help, and I knew I could drum up some attention from my Twitter friends, but I also knew that come Day 10 when I had to launch a product, I had a pretty big head start on building an audience.

Unlike many other competitors, I had a 300-person e-mail list comprised of people who follow my podcast, my web-app-in-development, and my blog. Everyone had signed up because they were interested in a project of mine, so it seemed like fair game to mention my book as well. Ultimately I decided that this list would have to be the foundation of my promotional plan, alongside Twitter, posting to Reddit, and my blog. I signed up for HootSuite to help me automate my tweets, and devoted a bit of thought to how best to spread the word about my book.

I also reached out to hire a designer friend to create the lead magnet I intended to use to draw attention to my book. By re-purposing my internal production workflow outline and having it turned into an infographic, I now had a high-perceived-value item to offer in exchange for collecting even more e-mail addresses. If you’re curious, you can download the production workflow infographic here.

At the end of Day 5, I had over 40 pages written, a beautiful infographic lead magnet, and a plan! That night, I could barely fall asleep, my brain was so focused and alive. “I. Am. DOING. This!” I thought as I finally fell asleep.


From the get-go, I worked on my book as I worked on my consulting projects that morning, started tweeting to drive people to my Audience page, and hired a designer to come up with a cover graphic, all the while writing, writing, writing. I was in an unusually high state of focus, with plenty of energy. It was great. The Day 6 e-mail came and I barely glanced at it – something to do with motivation? I barely noticed. I was in the zone.

Final outcomes for Day 6? The book was up to 60 pages. I had cover designs coming in 2 days. 8 people signed up on my Audience page. And I hit the sheets that night with a sense of confidence and excitement that I hadn’t felt in years: “I’m going to absolutely crush this”.


My thinking was blurry. My body was slow. Every boxing, kickboxing, and weightlifting injury I ever incurred over my 42 years seemed to have come back to life overnight, leaving me feeling like a patched-together dumpster old old traumas.

Sitting at the computer, I did a bit of editing, answered a few e-mails to keep my consulting business going and my cover design project on track, and fought the urge to nap. My body was SCREAMING at me to go back to bed. For the rest of Day 7 I attended to some lightweight consulting billables and little else. I didn’t even go into the office, I worked from home (lazily) and played Wii with my daughter, in a fog the whole time. I was seriously doubting my ability to launch a product at this point.  My only product work consisted of forcing myself to write 5 pages and do some tweeting. I also browsed the Gumroad Small Product Lab Facebook group, trying to draw inspiration from all the brilliant folks who were also participating in the Lab.

I went to bed early the evening of Day 7, vowing that “tomorrow I’ll be back to killing it”.


I had hardly slept, and felt terrible. It dawned on me that my work on Days 3,4,5 and 6 had been intense, fueled by excitement and way more caffeine than I normally consume, and accompanied by WAY too little sleep – about 4 hours per night. I may have been able to work like that when I was a bushy-eyed 21-year-old, but as a 42-year-old diabetic with a business to run on top of participating in the Small Product Lab, I needed to work much smarter. My mistake was one of scope – I had allowed my product to swell up to something much bigger than I anticipated at the start of the project.

So, I had a few quick decisions to make:

1) Do I give up? The answer was “not just no, but HELL no”. I was so close; I could smell blood in the water, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me at this point.
2) How, then, do I proceed? The answer to this was “the scope of my product now consists of whatever I’ve written so far – editing is all I can do now”.
3) How hard do I push? The answer to this was “exactly hard enough to release on Day 10, and no more”.

And just like that, I had figured out how to keep moving in a way that I was able to keep moving, and that is what kept me in the contest.  I a gave myself permission to more-or-less take a rest day, as I had done on Day 7.  I knew that if I pushed too hard at this point, my attempt to launch a product would fail.

My product was now set; “RECORD & RELEASE: Learn How To Podcast In Just One Day” would be 65 pages and not a page more. Although I did an edit pass, I didn’t add a single word to the manuscript.


My only productivity that day was approving the cover art for my book, and registering a domain for the website I intended to use for the book.

“I got this. I got this.” I told myself as my head hit the pillow very early in the evening of Day 8.


I ran my consulting shop, edited the book, formatted the book, tweeted, built the sales page for the book, and outlined my release plan. I knew that losing Days 7 and 8 was bad, especially since I didn’t start until Day 3 in the first place, but I also knew that I had broken myself of the “overdoing it” habit at last. Every action I undertook that day, I saw straight to the heart of. Nothing that didn’t exist in the critical path got an Decided to launch a product - a book!ounce of my attention that day.

I caught up on the e-mails from Days 7, 8 and 9 all at once, consulted with my friends regarding pricing and my promotional plan, and put all the pieces in place for Day 10. Gumroad turned out to be very easy to use, which was important to me as a first-timer, and as someone who was working against a 10-day plan; I flat-out did not have time to learn anything difficult if I was going to launch a product. I was weary, but focused. I felt confident that I was doing excellent work, and that no matter how my launch day turned out, seeing this challenge through was going to pay dividends of one sort or another going forward. For inspiration, I again turned to the Gumroad Small Product Lab Facebook group, marveling at some of the “I wish I’d thought of that!” products that my fellow participants were posting.

That night, I went to sleep feeling eager for the morning. I felt energized. “I wonder if I have a shot at winning this whole thing?” echoed in my head as I fell asleep.


I had my plan all mapped out:

1) E-mail my list
2) Direct traffic to my book page via Twitter, Reddit, FB, forums, etc
3) That’s pretty much it

One thing that I hadn’t planned on – that ended up making a big difference – was being listed on Product Hunt. I had decided to skip PH entirely. I was uncomfortable with how little I knew about the site and the culture and the users, and figured it was probably not worth the trouble. I was completely wrong, and I’ll write about that another time, but Product Hunt ended up being absolutely worth my time.

As I began my Tweeting/social media/forum-posting campaign, I noticed that 8 sales came in almost immediately. That only amounted to $80, but it was the most exciting $80 I’ve ever made, hands-down!

Scheduled Tweets were going out, I was posting on product sites and forums hour after hour, and the sales kept coming in. I didn’t work THAT hard on launch day, because I already had my e-mails & postings staged, but it was exhausting because I was paying intense attention to so many things.  Turns out that when you launch a product, there are a LOT of details to keep track of!

Posts to the Gumroad Small Product Lab Facebook group where plentiful, with launch announcements for loads of clever products created by enterprising people popping up in the feed all day long.  One by one I watched each participant launch a product of his or her own.  It was awesome.

When I went to bed in the evening of Day 10, I had $240 in sales showing up in my dashboard. “Well, that’s it” I thought. “That’s my big launch-day spike; after this it’ll be a trickle and I’ll need to come up with a plan to keep it rolling.” I was OK with this; I felt proud that I’d not just finished the product, but launched it!


I have no idea what the heck transpired on Gumroad after I went to bed, but whatever it was put $400 in my pocket while I was sleeping.

The thought that accompanied me into sleep on Day 11 was “What a fantastic day it’s been”.


The big winner, the keeper of all the marbles, the #1 creator of the Small Product Lab. I’m not going to lie – I’m a confident guy, and participating in this Lab made me more so. I knew I was doing good work, and in my heart of hearts I really wanted to win. Like, really wanted to win. Not because I’m a hyper-competitive jerk, but because I felt absolutely overjoyed at what I’d managed to do over the course of the preceding days with the encouragement and support of Gumroad, my friends, and my family, and wanted very much to finish off my efforts to launch a product with an exclamation point.


D.J. Coffman won, and he absolutely deserved to. His product was clever and artistic, his promotional tactics were more expansive than anyone elses, and his overall game was just that much sharper than the rest.

I may not have won, but my product & I did receive an Honorable Mention, which was awesome, because it was not, by any means, guaranteed.  There were some impressive products created during this challenge! But once it was all said and done, I felt like a winner anyway.

Checking my e-mail on Day 12 revealed some interesting developments.

  • A Japanese media outlet had reached out to me for an interview.
  • A friend who works in PR was talking about bringing me on some morning radio show. \
  • 2 people had e-mailed me to inquire about purchasing a consulting engagement to have all their podcasting infrstructure set up for them – website, Blubrry account, iTunes registration, blog, everything.

Just $600 in sales and some traffic had opened up this interesting little handful of opportunities, without even winning the contest? I was impressed. I also wondered how people who sell, say, 1,000 units right when they launch a product can even cope with all the ancillary attention.

As I finished my Small Product Lab experience, I found myself with a potential new line of business, and a new-found sense that success with my own product is a possibility for me. Take away the sales, and all of those things are still well worth the effort it took to complete the challenge. Going forward I have a better sense of my own creative and marketing capabilities, and virtually no doubt about my ability to launch a product – after all, I just did it.

I also find myself with new friends in the form of the fellow participants I met in the Facebook group. A few of these participants – including the winner, D.J. Coffman – will be appearing on an upcoming episode of my podcast, Chasing Product, to talk about our experience hustling to launch a product. Feel free to join my mailing list to be notified when the episode goes live – these are all smart, interesting people and it should be a great show.

Gumroad put out the call, and dozens of creators answered. I’m incredibly thankful for that, and for what completing this challenge has done to change my perspective and give me the opportunity to get on the scoreboard as a product creator.

There’s another Gumroad Small Product Lab starting on July 27…are you going to launch a product?  what will your product be?

How I Accidentally Launched On Product Hunt

When I launched my new podcasting book recently, I had a halfway-decent promotional plan mapped out. My mailing list would be the centerpiece, my Twitter account would dribble enticing podcasting quotes, hashtagged to capture attention from interested folk, my friends would RT me or post promotional tweets of their own, and I’d pop in to forums & try to helpfully answer questions about things that could be found in my book.  None of this is super-advanced in terms of marketing, just a dedication to executing on some basics – which is good, because my marketing skills are basic!

What was NOT a part of my initial plan was for the book to be launched on Product Hunt.

All things being equal, I wanted to get listed, but I honestly knew very little about it. I had an account on PH but had never used it. I had heard many stories about creators and founders posting their product to PH and seeing it promptly disappear. Reading the rules regarding who is allowed to post comments and who isn’t, and how it’s all determined, I got the vague sense that being launched on Product Hunt was like ordering from the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld – one mistake, and you’re outta here! Man oh man, did that turn out to be wrong, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

I had decided to skip PH entirely. I was uncomfortable with how little I knew about the site and the culture and the users, didn’t understand the rules, and figured it was probably not worth the trouble.

Little did I know that some of the people I had spoken to about the book along the way thought that my decision to skip PH was crazy.  They thought my product had a lot of merit, and one of them went ahead and posted it on Product Hunt of their own accord, telling me about it after the fact. “Thanks, pal!” I thought. “This is going to be a pain” – but I was so wrong.

My e-mail list sent some traffic to my book page, as well as my various social media postings, but PH was the 800-pound gorilla in the room that day, sending me about 90% of my launch-day traffic! I participated in the comments on PH about my product, hoping to put a human face on RECORD & RELEASE and prevent it from falling into the black hole I’d heard so much about. Not only did my product not fall into a black hole, it kept getting voted up! And up…and up..and…you get the picture.


By the middle of the day, my book had firmly latched on to the #5 position, and held it. And just like that, without meaning to, I was on the other side of a product that had been launched on Product Hunt.  It had been a long time coming, and it was very satisfying.

“Congratulations!” people told me. “That was great, a lot of people found your product compelling, now you’re going to be in the newsletter!” I had no idea what the newsletter was. Honestly, I still don’t. But it sounds like it will drive a lot of traffic, so I’m excited! Plus, all the people I interacted with on PH were really cool. Hell, the reason I’m writing this is because the people who work at PH were so cool to interact with.

My launch day wasn’t huge in terms of money – my book earned out to the tune of $600 – but it showed me a few things:

  • PH can make or break a product launch.
  • The culture of the site values merit over popularity, which I appreciate.
  • This little book of mine might really have legs, if I market it correctly.

Launch Day was great and I’m stoked that it happened the way it did. PH was a huge part of it, and I’m thankful for that. I’m now making it a point to participate in the site more, upvoting meritorious products in an attempt to pay forward the good fortune I enjoyed from having my product received well on the site.

Are you planning to list your next product launch on Product Hunt?

There’s Always More to Learn. Launch A Product Anyway.

I am not a perfectionist.

Let’s be clear about that up front, because it’s the first thing people always assume when talking about the long, slow, process I’ve gone through in my journey to launch a product; “Oh, Chris, if you weren’t such a perfectionist, you’d just slap something together and ship it!”

But that isn’t true. I am much, much worse than a perfectionist – I am a completist. What is a completist, you ask? Well, it’s this:

a collector who attempts to collect an example of every item in a particular field.

How in the world does that relate to founding a software product? Or any product at all? What is it that I feel I need to collect to completion in order to be able to launch a product?

Here’s a hint: it’s NOT the ability to “slap something together and ship it”. I’ve been analyzing business requirements, writing specs, and shipping code for 20 years now. I have THAT part down. If anything, I’ve shipped more “slapped together” code than my consulting clients would probably feel comfortable with. Sorry, clients!

What I have been trying to collect to completion is product marketing knowledge. That’s what I felt I was lacking, and what I felt I had to master in its entirety before being able to give myself permission to launch something. “I don’t know enough to launch a product yet!” has been my mantra – or worse, “I don’t know anything yet!”, which is completely nuts.

The More I Learn, The Less I Know…WTF?!?

I’ll let you in on a little secret – despite the numerous books, blogs, videos, and podcast guests whose combined product-founding knowledge I’ve absorbed, I have been completely insecure about my own level of marketing know-how. I’ve been laboring under a sense that the more I learn, the less I feel like I know, and the less confident I feel about the knowledge I do have. Generally speaking, that’s the opposite of what happens when I learn about a given subject matter (for example, I never felt that way about programming). It’s weird, I didn’t like it, and I’m not sure why it was happening.

For certain, I’ve learned a lot about product marketing. But it was never enough. Until recently, that is.

I was having a conversation with a friend who suggested that perhaps my problem wasn’t that I knew too little. After all, she said, I seemed to demonstrate plenty of knowledge about what needed to be done when discussing the matter. Perhaps, suggested my friend, I was suffering from information overload? At first, this seemed nuts and sent me spinning off into existential BS – how could I possibly know too much? Can anybody really know too much? Is it even possible to know too much? My inner nerd was aghast at the thought.

But What If it’s True?  What Do I Do?

Nevertheless, I thought “What if you’re right? What if I am suffering from information overload? What if my efforts to absorb material until I feel like I have the whole picture is crippling me? ” Then I took it one step further and thought, “What if having the whole picture doesn’t matter?” Hell, maybe there’s no such thing as the whole picture!” And that’s when I asked myself this question:

“What if everything I know about marketing a product is everything there is to know? What do I do in THAT case?”

Now, clearly I don’t know everything there is to know about marketing a product, nobody does. But never before had it occurred to me that perhaps I already know enough. The answer to my question, then – duh – was:

“I’d cobble together a marketing stack from the 4 or 5 things I feel like I understand well enough to use, and just get moving!”

A quick inventory told me what I was working with:

  • I’m already using AdWords to get traffic; have been on-and-off for a couple of years
  • I’m already blogging; have been for over a decade
  • I’m already creating a mailing list; hell, I’ve been creating two of them
  • I’m already sending out mass e-mails to my list
  • I’m already using a podcast to build an audience and credibility; have been for 2 years now

The entire time I’ve been bemoaning the “fact” that I don’t know enough marketing tools to launch a product, I’ve been using marketing tools to promote an upcoming product. Arguably, I’ve been doing a weak, unfocused and ineffective job of it, but I have been doing it.

And just like that – with a deep sigh of realization and relief – I gave myself permission to proceed.  And proceed I did!

In order to actually get to launch, I spent the past 10 days putting my energy into a newly-slotted-at-#1-priority project, a book entitled RECORD & RELEASE: Learn How To Podcast In Just One Day.  

Record & Release book cover

The book shipped on July 24, 3PM PST.

Buy now for $29

Why a book about podcasting?  Because hosting my Chasing Product podcast has brought me into contact with people who also want to start a show, but don’t know how.  My book answers questions such as:

  • How do I choose a show topic?
  • How do I choose a name?
  • What gear is “good enough” without being expensive?
  • How do I set everything up?
  • How do I get people to listen?

And more!  RECORD & RELEASE will not only answer all these questions, but is short enough that you can read the whole thing AND put all the pieces of a show together in just one day (if you have the hustle to do so). Similar online courses often start at $100 and go up from there – and they might even be worth it – but the book is only $29.


But What about SmallSpec?

SmallSpec is still a go, but has been re-slotted as my #2 priority project. The new prototype is almost ready for dogfooding. I’m letting someone else build it this time, and oddly, now that I have given myself permission to just use my existing knowledge to market it, I’m much less eager to push, push, push it out the door. But rest assured, once it’s been dogfooded for a few weeks, I’m going to toss it out on the web and let you fine folks either embrace it or rip it apart.

The long & the short of it is, SmallSpec is tomorrow, RECORD & RELEASE is right now. I was able to launch a product faster, using the tools I already know, by shifting gears temporarily and doing a book. My Saas app…that’s still coming, just later.

Burning Consulting Questions: How To Get Clients?

I talk to a good number of freelancers/consultants, and I hear this same burning consulting question from a lot of people, both new and established:

I understand you run a successful consulting business and was wondering if you have any “tips” regarding how to get clients?

OK, here comes a “Constulants hate him” moment: I haven’t had to work all that hard to keep my business busy. I’ve been reasonably fortunate in two ways regarding client acquisition:

  1. 80% of my firms’ work comes from word-of-mouth referrals, and
  2. The other 20% comes from people just phoning in after finding my company on Google.

The majority of my business revenue comes from selling new projects to existing clients, far more so than by selling new projects to new clients.  My experience has been that the best answer to “how to get clients” is “sell to the clients you already have”.

That said, at the moment I do find myself looking to fan the flames of marketing a bit. I recently devised a new strategy for marketing my business locally, and I’m not 100% certain it’s going to work. It’s something I’ve never tried before (at least not for driving business to my consulting practice), but I’ll report back with results once I’ve implemented it.

In the meantime, I’m going to talk about another resource that you can look at right now.

Brennan Dunn recently posted a fantastic article with tons of info on how to get clients.  It’s aimed at freelancers who are starting out, but it’s absolutely appropriate for established players.


The methodology he describes is somewhat similar to what I did when I was starting out:

I sent hand-written  letters to the owner of every tech firm in town.

I greeted them, explained that I had just moved here, and that I wanted to introduce myself. I offered to take them to lunch and talk shop.

Bear in mind, I was flat broke – I had just moved to a completely new town, bought a house, and promptly gotten laid off of my telecommute job.  Sure, I was scared and in bad shape – I can scarcely think of worse circumstances to start freelancing in – but I never let them see me sweat. What I let them see was a useful guy who was one of them.  I just didn’t know how to get clients without having an established relationship first, and even to this day the idea seems odd to me.

In targeting the community of existing tech firms, I had a (very patient) plan how to get clients.  

didn’t feel like I was up to prospecting directly for the end-clients, and frankly I didn’t want to. My intent was to scoop up some easy subcontracting gigs, and I did – eventually.Like Brennan, I did a lot of e-mail work in those early days, dropping helpful tips on people & directing them to things I thought they’d fine interesting and/or useful.

By doing so, I established myself not as “other” but as a part of what was already going on, a guy who had value to provide.  It took 3 months before my first paid gig popped up.

I would pretend I had clients even when I didn’t.  

It was important to appear as though I had something going on on my own already, just to create the image of value. Brennan mentions subtly reminding people that you do this stuff for a living in his piece, and I did – even when I had absolutely nothing going on project-wise.

“Fake it ’till you make it” is oft-repeated advice in the business world – I’ve never heard it applied to how to get clients, but this is essentially what I was doing.

Even in desperation, I set – and held – boundaries.

When people *did* start reaching out to me with real work, I never jumped on it too eagerly. “Well, I’m all booked up this week – and then some! – but we can get together next week to kick off your project”.

I’d get them signed up and get the deposit right away, of course (you are getting deposits, right?), but I never dropped anything and rushed off to see anyone on the spur of the moment.  At all times, the appearance that my time was valuable was being maintained.

Again, this was a method of earning respect by holding strong boundaries and reminding people that I had value.

I got in front of people, even if it required humbling myself.

I once was offered a gig teaching web design classes. It was a 2-day class that only paid $100/day, and the class was only held once a month. I hated the idea of teaching this class, and I felt like I was accomplished enough career-wise that I shouldn’t have to take a gig like that, but let’s be honest – those groceries weren’t going to buy themselves.

Even so, I kept the big picture in mind, maintained strong boundaries and made it clear that I did have other things going on, too. My being humble enough to check my ego and just do the work, I exposed myself to further opportunity – through one of the students in my class, I closed a consulting deal that ended up putting about $10K in my pocket over the course of about 2 months. That alone made teaching the class well, well worth it.

Again, this dovetails nicely with part of Brennan’s approach, which calls for eventually giving some kind of authority-building talk to the community you’re targeting.  I think his approach is a better authority-builder than teaching some cheap-o class, frankly, but the two approaches are from the same neighborhood and – at least in my case – can confer similar benefits.

So, what are you waiting for? Go get yourself in front of some people, either in-person or via e-mail, and be helpful & instructive to them. That’s how to get clients.  It’s certainly not going to hurt your business.

Feel free to discuss your go-to moves for acquiring consulting clients in the comments.

12 Things I Learned in 12 Years of Freelancing

donutsSo, it turns out that Cogeian Systems turns 12 years old this month. I’ve decided to share some of my experience from these 12 years. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t…but I hope it does.

1) Sometimes turning down work is a good idea.

I am a firm believer that freelance and consulting work is like sunlight; there’s enough for all of us to get a tan. But sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. Sometimes you’re up against a mortgage payment and the sales funnel is covered in dust. In these moments, a nightmare client will *always* appear, sensing your weakness and desperation, enticing you with a big fat check (but not as fat as it would be if you weren’t desperate), if only you can accommodate their abusiveness, idiocy, or micro-managing.

What do you do?

Well, I’d never suggest that you blow off a mortgage payment, but I will suggest this – when you are confronted with a client who throws up big red flags in the initial interview, ask yourself how critical is it that you close this job? Sometimes you’ll find that it’s not critical enough to subject yourself to misery. I do realize this advice is easier to stomach when you have an established client base, and I sincerely hope you get to that point, look back, and laugh.

2) Sometimes firing a client is an even better idea.

Again with the turning away revenue? Yes. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – some clients are more trouble than they are worth. If you accept a client who goes sideways on you, you need to look deep into yourself and your business and decide what that client is worth to you.

Losing sleep? Constant anxiety? Verbal abuse? Slow pay? Constant hand-holding? Ask yourself, what’s the opportunity cost of all this? What economically productive thing could I be doing with the time I spend all wrapped up in this garbage? Opportunity cost is huge, way bigger than most people give it credit for. Every minute you spend on a bad, soul-crushing or unprofitable client is a minute you’ll never get back.

Don’t waste your minutes on horrible clients. Be brave and make the break.

“Get as much help as you can afford to get, as early as you can…”

3) However much you’re sleeping, sleep more.

This isn’t a “freelancing” issues so much as it is a “maintaining sufficient health *to* freelance with” issue. So many things in your body depend upon getting good recovery every night, both physically and cognitively. Don’t believe me? Go ask the scientists who figured out that sleep clears your brain of toxins and cellular detritus.

As a freelancer, your cognition *is* your work product, in a very real way. Don’t screw with it. If you’re 25 and are capable of pulling all-nighters with no ill effects, don’t get cocky; we could all do that when we were 25, you’re not special. But every time you do that, you’re adding mileage to what will eventually be your 40-year-old, worn-out-feeling brain. Instead, develop good work and sleep habits. It pays off.

Just…take care of your damn health, OK, young folk? Now get off my lawn.

4) Stay technical; skill rot is insidious.

This one is going to be controversial amongst the “subcontract all your work to a VA and go sip tropical drinks on a beach somewhere” crowd, and that’s OK. Different strokes, and all there. Here goes:

Consulting can be tough in terms of getting to play with the newest and most interesting toys. Most W2 jobs have either downtime or a training budget. If you’re a busy freelancer or consultant, this may not be the case. You’ll likely need to schedule in time to noodle around with new technologies, the same way you schedule paying work.

And it’s good for you. Cognitively, staying technical keeps you sharp. Professionally, staying technical keeps you relevant. And if you’re a born coder, staying technical keeps you interested. Bear in mind that this is *not* an admonition to ignore any other skills that you may need to run your operation; it is merely a suggestion to maintain a level of technical skill that will help you stay connected to the work.

5) Get help early.

Even though you’re staying technical, that doesn’t mean you should be the only – or even primary – technical resource working on client projects. Get as much help as you can afford to get, as early as you can get it. Wait too long, with too big a client-base, and you’ll be so personally enmeshed with your various client projects that you won’t have enough hours in the day to train anyone else on them; move too soon, before you have a good base of billables in place, you’ll spend yourself broke trying to keep an employee or subcontractor busy.

There is a happy medium, and it’s going to be different for everyone. If I had to do it all again, I would seek help WAY earlier than I did, and I would use the time it freed up to drum up new business and deepen relationships with existing clients. A lot of us wait too long to get help. Take the hint. You can find help on oDesk, eLance, any of the popular job and gig boards, and even by working your personal networks of LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter contacts.

6) Run toward revenue vs. running away from expense.

It pays to be frugal in business, it really does, and staying frugal (but not cheap!) will help you pay for help and grow in those early years. But at a certain point, you will find that you’ve established a minimum level of overhead necessary for your business to function. Cutting below that yields you nothing, and can actually cost you money in terms of time & hassle.

When given a choice between “I should cut expenses” and “I should drum up some new work”, unless you’re operation is straight-up wasteful, bias yourself toward bringing new work in the door. Revenue (well, cash flow) is the name of the game. You can cost-cut yourself right out of business, but you’re not likely to have to shut the doors because you’ve accepted too many big checks.

“Being gracious does not mean you have to be a pushover.”

7) Charge more.

I’m tempted to post a picture of Patrick McKenzie here, but no. For whatever reason, loads of freelancers are hesitant to charge a healthy rate. Part of that is the mistaken belief that undercutting the competition is the way to get business. Part of that is a widespread self-esteem problem amongst geeks who were beat up and/or stuffed into lockers in elementary school (like me). And part of that is this feeling that what we do is pretty easy, so it doesn’t seem right to charge much for it.


What you do may not seem particularly challenging or valuable…to you. But you’re not the one hiring you, are you? You’re not the one struggling with simple things like SquareSpace and Twitter and FTP, are you? You’re not the one twisting in the wind on important project because you lack technical skills, are you?

No! You’re not! You’re the one they call to fix those problems for them. Your client reaps the direct return on investment of your work, reaps the cost savings of your work, reaps the psychological well-being of having your work be helpful, reaps the benefits of your work saving them time. And those problems, my friend, have real worth to your client. Realize that worth, and then ask for it.

8) Be less available.

I can hear you already…”wait, be less available? Less available. Less?”

Yes, less available! Do you jump every time the phone rings or an e-mail comes in? Do you drop what you’re doing when a client demands that you build/design/set up this thing they want RIGHT NOW? Do you find that your workflow is more driven by interruption than directed by your own best efforts?

Try being less available. It will help with your focus on whatever work you’re doing, and it will strengthen your professional boundaries (see #10, below).

Professionalism requires that you say “no” sometimes, remember? That applies in a lot of different scenarios. That’s what the client hired you for, to know better than they do!

Don’t be too quick to jump when someone says so. It’s your business, you know when it’s the right time to jump. Hold on to the power to make that decision, because when it’s gone…you’ll have one hell of a time getting it back.

9) Be gracious…

This shouldn’t even need to be said, but *sigh*. There are plenty of jerks in the freelancing and consulting world. Nobody like them; clients hate them, vendors hate them, the press hates them, and other freelancers hate them, especially the “bad-mouth other consultants to help myself get work” jerks. Jerk.

Try to operate with a sense of graciousness in all situations. Maintain a respectful bearing with the people you encounter in business and try to never lose your cool where anyone can see you; the relationships you make (or break) can end up making (or breaking) you down the road. Kindness costs you nothing, but being a jerk may cost you a huge opportunity – or a whole series of them!

10) …but hold your boundaries.

Being gracious does not mean you have to be a pushover. You never have to accept transgressive behavior from clients, employees, vendors, etc – never.

Setting strong boundaries for yourself and your business – such as always charging for change orders and scope increases, or never working on weekends, or not putting up with certain behaviors from employees – helps to establish you as an operator worth respecting, and serves as a clear reference point for resolving arguments later.

11) Be patient, but do it with a sense of urgency.

Sounds contradictory, right? Think of it this way:

– Your actions should be driven by a sense of urgency
– Your outcomes should be anticipated patiently

You can – and should – exhibit plenty of hustle in the execution of your day-to-day business activities, but even if you do all the “right” things the “right” way, there are no guarantees that those activities will pay off as quickly as you want them to.

The cold fact is, the universe laughs at your planned outcomes. By all means, handle your business, but understand that you may have to do a LOT of pump-priming in this business before anything starts flowing out of it.

“Cognitively, staying technical keeps you sharp.”

12) Remember to play.

All work and no play makes…aw, you know the rest. Don’t let your work be the only thing you pay attention to in your life. Running a freelancing/consulting operation is hard, and it can entail a lot of ups and downs in terms of stress, freedom, financial stability (or lack thereof), people having their hands out when the money is flowing, people not taking your career seriously, crazy clients, etc.

If you’re going to ride that emotional roller-coaster, fine. But please keep your soul/spirit/psyche/emotional core/[insert pesudo-spiritual noun here] in good shape by having a life that is full…just not solely full of work!


I’ve decided to make it a baker’s dozen and give you this additional thing I’ve learned:

13) Get the hell out of your office and in front of your clients

Call it marketing. Call it making yourself known to the community. Call it making friends. I don’t care what you call it, but as a the owner of a freelancing/consulting operation, you need to do it.

All else being equal, people hire a known quantity. People hire someone they like. People hire someone they trust. You need to be known, you need to be liked, and you need to be trusted, and to do that, you have got to interact with people. You need to be a part of what’s going on.

You can visit your existing clients in-person just to keep that connection fresh. You can try marketing at-scale in the form of seminars in your local business community. You or your staff can volunteer at any one of the various charitable goings-on you may find in your town. You can donate. You can put your newsletter in front of your clients. Take a client out to lunch & ask them to bring a friend (but do NOT pitch the friend at lunch!). You can submit articles to your local paper. You can attend fund-raisers for whatever non-profit happens to be helping whichever people you want to help.

All of these things help to establish you as a piece of the business firmament in your local area, and get you out in front of potential clients. Plus they’re good for you.

* * *

Are these the only things that I’ve learned these past 12 years? Hell no! But when I strip away all the ego, pride, fear, and other dubious emotions that have clouded me regarding wanting to run my own business in the first place, these are the things that stand out.

If I had written this 5 years ago, it would have included idiotic bullet points like “the biggest check always wins”, “I haven’t won unless you’ve lost” and “out-working the other guy is always the answer”. Ugh.

12 years is a long time to be in the pressure cooker, and it’s more than enough time to boil away a lot of the BS that surrounds operating a freelancing/consulting business. Some of the things I used to think were vitally important weren’t, and a lot of things that I never stopped to consider as factors (hello, sleep?) turned out to be huge.

There really isn’t any way to know what it’s going to be like until you do it, and I sincerely hope my 12 years of experience benefits you in some way.

Interview: Successful Freelancing (via The Freelance Podcast)

The host of The Freelance Podcast was gracious enough to invite me on the show, hoping to share my 12 years of successful freelancing experience with his listeners. We get into a bit of the armchair psychology of being self-employed and maintaining persistence. We also discuss the “maker” mentality, both the good and the bad. Additionally, we discuss the importance of fellowship and how my podcast helps to keep me sane.

It’s a great podcast, a great host, and I’m flattered to have had a chance to be involved and share the ins and outs of successful freelancing. Head on over and check out the interview!

2014 Year In Review – (Not) Moving From Consulting to Product

crying-baby-partySo, 2014 was a big year for me, but not in the ways one wants a year to be big.  I had planned on moving from consulting to product sales, but it didn’t happen.  In short, the year can be summarized (at a very high level) thus:

1) Made a bunch of money
2) Had a bunch of heartache
3) Was constantly unsure if #1 was worth #2

Let’s unpack that.

1) Made a bunch of money.

I know, I know, this sounds boastful, and it isn’t meant to be. But the truth is, my consulting business trucked right along in 2014, giving me a very comfortable salary in excess of anything I ever earned as a corporate dev working for other people. This is a good thing.

What’s good is that the great bulk of 2014s billables came from selling new projects to existing clients; this is much, much easier than landing new clients. What’s bad is that landing new clients usually does account for some percentage of revenue, and in 2014 that percentage was 0%. Why? Because moving from consulting to product intended to replace the revenue that usually comes from landing new clients, and I didn’t manage to actually launch a product in 2014. So, the year went by without landing a significant number of new clients AND without any product revenue. Still a good bottom line number, but not what it should have been.

So now the big question is, why didn’t I manage to actually launch a product? Well, that brings us to…

2) Had a Bunch of Heartache

The honest answer is, I spent a big chunk of 2014 licking my wounds from 2013, and dealing with family & health issues. It was all I could do to keep my consulting business trucking along. In the first half of the year, I managed to keep producing my podcast and started development on a new prototype of SmallSpec, the painless functional specification tool I had meant to launch in 2013 but had scuttled.. I spent a significant amount of time reading every piece of startup and marketing info I could get my hands on, and generally took on more than I could handle.

Once overwhelmed, I did a horrible job of managing my emotional and personal business in 2014 and just got overwhelmed. There were a lot of externalities going on, but all I can take responsibility for is how I reacted to the things going on around me, and my reactions sucked. I made a lot of dumb choices in some ways, and in other ways I just didn’t have the stamina to do everything I committed to. Live and learn.

3) Was Constantly Unsure if “Made a bunch of money” was worth “had a bunch of heartache”

This is where the rubber meets the road. I spent 2014 constantly second-guessing myself. “Should I take on less consulting work?”, “Should I even be trying to move from consulting to product?”, “Did I just waste my time reading that startup blog?”, “Why am I tired all the time?”, etc. There was literally not one thing I did in 2014 that I felt confident about; it was all one big slog to keep the revenue engine running and hopefully make some progress on product on top of that. At no point did I feel good about what I was doing, on either the consulting or product side of the house.

That’s pretty unusual. Most years, by the time New Years Eve comes around, all I’ve had to do is consulting work, and I feel like I’ve crushed it. But for some reason, introducing the move from consulting to product into my mix of activities unleashed an unprecedented amount of FUD into my life. I’m not sure why.  But it did make me wonder if the juice was worth the squeeze.

So, What Does It All Mean?

Well, it all means that I managed to make it though a tough year. The earth didn’t swallow me whole, nobody came and cut the cable when I tried to publish my podcast, and agents of the government didn’t show up at my office to inform me that I’m not allowed to launch a product. On top of that, I still managed to earn a great living solving interesting business problems for clients that I like.  That’s not so bad.

But it does mean I have some work to do in 2015 – namely, I need to figure out what’s important to me – specifically, whether moving from consulting to product is really what I want to do, or if I’m just following a societal script – and double-down on it, reducing my other activities to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Where I stand at the end of 2015 will tell me if I actually managed to learn anything from 2014.

Stay tuned for a 2015 “goals” post next week.

Three Big Questions New Consultants Need Answered

hands-raised-in-classVery often, I will receive an e-mail from a developer hoping to go out on his own, asking “What is needed to get started in consulting?

Let me begin by telling you what is *not* needed: Permission! I say this up front because a lot of people who are otherwise qualified to go into business for themselves are waiting around for some third party to bless them. Don’t wait for some third party to validate you – if this is the move you truly want to make, then make it.

That said, off the top of my head I would suggest that you have:

a) at least 5 years of experience in your specific technical domain,
b) at least 1 year of experience working in a small agency, consulting shop, or other client services firm that is small enough for you to have been exposed to the non-coding aspects of client work,
c) good health and plenty of energy,
d) a stable home environment, and
e) customers!

Notice that I did not list things like:

  • a website
  • business cards
  • a fancy office
  • a brand-new MacBook Air
  • a Google AdWords campaign
  • a Chamber of Commerce membership

All that stuff can come later – or not – and I suspect that folks who focus on these things first are more interested in “playing business” than actually “doing business”. Don’t be that person! Prioritize revenue first; the landscape of the consulting business is littered with the corpses of people who wasted their time putting “infrastructure” in place first.

Here’s a good example: when I started Cogeian Systems, I had the following:

  • A phone (my home phone, no less)
  • A folding table
  • A 5-year-old laptop
  • A phone book (remember those?)

That’s it. That’s *it*. It was enough to perform my work, contact my customers, and do research for new ones. Of course, I also got myself out of the house as often as possible, and even embarked upon a hand-written letter campaign to introduce myself to local business owners, in order to meet enough people to find projects. But as far as infrastructure goes, consulting requires very little. Please do not fool yourself into wasting time on this.

For now, work your network, shake loose some projects, and start earning money. All the rest can be handled in due time, but your #1 priority at first should be to earn actual money by finding clients and serving them well.

The next question I often hear form new or hopeful consultants is “How do I set my rates? I’m afraid my clients will push back and I don’t know how to explain myself“.

Here’s a tip: You don’t need to justify your rates if the work you’re doing is appropriate for those rates. You don’t need to explain yourself to anyone. Simply quote your rates, and frame them in terms of Return On Investment. Will your proposed project make them money? Tell them how much. Will it save them money? Tell them how much. Why do this? Because that’s the language your prospective clients speak.

Don’t be scared. Have confidence! You need to feel like you’re worth what you’re charging. In the case that a client does push back against your rate, remember that you don’t have to convince them that they must pay a higher rate than they want to – they can do what they want, up to and including declining to hire you, and you don’t have much control over that. But what you absolutely must do is make it clear that once the rate goes into effect, that’s the rate, period, and anyone who wants to keep working with you must pay that rate. If your work is truly good, and truly creates value for your clients, the rate is _already_ justified.

And if you walk a prospect, odds are you won’t be losing anyone you’ll miss.

The third question I often hear is “what kind of horrible mistakes do I need to watch out for with my consulting business?“.

I can only pick one? The first thing I would tell you is, don’t spend much emotional energy being concerned about making mistakes.  You will make mistakes; it is a certainty, so make peace with it.  We all make mistakes.  That said, you don’t have to make the same mistakes the rest of us make.  You don’t have to suffer the way some of us long-timers might have.

With that in mind, I already mentioned that “Playing business” instead of “doing business” is a big one. Charging too little is a HUGE one. But I would say that not getting help early enough is probably the worst mistake, because bringing in help allows you to avoid a lot of problems.

Being overbooked is a condition that has tentacles, reaching out and smothering other aspects of your business – your marketing, your cashflow, your support. If you bring on help – even part-part-time help – the instant you have sufficient revenue and deal-flow to do so, it will free you up to keep one hand on the steering wheel of your business at all times. Otherwise, you’ll end up with both hands being ocupied by desperately typing away at your keyboard trying to keep up with project work. At that point all you have a is a job. Trust me, I have been there, and it took hell to dig myself out of that particular hole.

Definitely get help early. It will buy you time to do big-picture things like lining up new jobs & keeping an eye on cash flow. Trust me, these things do not sound interesting but they will absolutely make or break you once you’re out on your own.