Business has been great for my little custom software company. We’re not ready to take over the world or release a product, but things are doing OK. I’m happy. And I’ve been pondering the means by which I’ve managed to grow the business and get more freelance clients. Sometimes I wonder if success in any endeavor just boils down to luck, a happy accident. But after a talk with a good friend and colleague, I think I understand what has happened.
How does any business get customers? By advertising? Nobody pays attention to that anymore. By clever PR? Sure, there’s always the odd person who will hire you because he saw that newspaper article about how you donated 100 hours of your time to build a website that takes donations to help cure those poor kids in the oncology ward of the local hospital. But as I talk to other solo and small businesspeople, an interesting trend reveals itself: the #1 way small freelancing firms get get more freelance clients is by utilizing the “face time and free stuff” technique.
I can hear you already – “Wha-a-a-a-t?” Just bear with me for a moment.
People like to do business with their friends. Period. Finito. End of story. Go out and ask 100 prospects if they’d rather do business with SuperMegaJumboCorp or with their poker buddy Bob. Go ahead, ask them. I guarantee you that if Bob is even remotely competent at doing what SuperMegaJumboCorp does, 100% of the time, the prospect will choose Bob. Yes, he could get hit by a bus and take the project to the grave with him. Yes, he’s only one guy and can only provide so much support. Yes, he could get hired away. But Bob will get the business in spite of all this, because he is the prospect’s pal. Being a friend and a known quantity is how Bob can get more freelance clients than you can.
I’ve actually had prospects tell me outright that yes, Bob has royally screwed up our database, and yes, it’s hard on our business sometimes, but we’re not going to fire him because well, we’ve known Bob a long time and he’s just a real good guy. Competency didn’t even figure into the equation! What can we learn from that?
When I first moved to the Central Valley, I didn’t know anybody. Not a soul! But here I was, with a new home to pay for and a family to feed, one of about a dozen people freshly laid off from a company that came thiiiiiiiiis close to going out of business (but later thrived and got acquired by PeopleFluent). I had a handful of small clients, but in early 2003 nobody was hiring developers and nobody was taking on custom dev projects. Obviously, I had to make something happen. So what was my first move? Did I take out a Yellow Pages ad? Did I spend $75 to have a bunch of business cards printed up? Did I paper the business district with flyers? Did I go running to the Chamber of Commerce?
I sat down with a copy of the Yellow Pages and hand-wrote – yes, hand-wrote, the same way your grandmomma hand-wrote letters to your grandpappy way back when he was serving in the Big Red One – a series of personal letters to the principal of every business in town that appeared to be even remotely technology-related. But I wasn’t asking for work. Oh, no. That would have been sad and small and would have gotten my letter tossed in the trash immediately. Instead, I introduced myself, briefly summarized my industry experience, and asked about the principal. I offered to take the principal to lunch and talk shop. I didn’t approach anyone as a supplicant looking for a favor – I approached them as a peer looking to get to know his fellow tech industry workers. I forgot all about my predicament and focused on striking up a few new friendships with these interesting new people I was about to meet. In short, I embarked upon a friend-building campaign.
I paid for sushi. I paid for Tex-Mex. I paid for American Chain Cuisine. I visited offices. I talked, I joked, and I listened – oh, I listened. People really, really like to talk about themselves. And in the process of all this, I became friendly with some people. Friendly enough that eventually a local business owner I’d introduced myself to confided in me that she was unhappy with one of her employees and wanted me to take over his position. I politely declined that particular bit, but soon ended up doing some other work on contract for her. Revenue at last! Pleased, this business owner introduced me to some friends, one of whom I really hit it off with. I ended up doing a little bit of work with him, too.
Around the same time, two other unrelated local principals took me up on my lunch invitation and I ended up hitting it off with them as well, the result being a little but more work. Then a sweet lady from a local charity caught wind of my presence in town and invited me to bid on a project. I took her to coffee, talked about her project and her charity’s mission, and eventually won the bid. This was the start of me beginning to get more freelance clients.
What’s the commonality?
I got face-to-face with these folks. I got friendly with these folks. I shared space and time and broke bread with these folks on my own dime before I ever asked anything of them. In most cases, I never actually asked anything – eventually they just pulled me aside and gave me the “Hey, do you know how to do X?” routine. But why me? Why not the 72,566,985 other guys out there with similar qualifications? Why did I end up getting the business and not them?
Because 72,566,984 of them didn’t bother to reach out, get face-to-face, and hand over a free lunch, that’s why.
When I bid, I’m usually the most expensive bid. My rates are reportedly higher than most for the local area. I’m neither handsome nor charming enough to leave people starry-eyed long enough for me to conk them over the head and lift their wallet. But by golly, I seem to do an alright job of making a new friend over a good meal. And that appears to be enough to put me in the running for most projects I want to be involved with. Everyone likes face time – a real conversation with a real human being. Everyone also likes free stuff – a real, honest-to-goodness, no-obligation freebie, like lunch at your choice of restaurant or your favorite flavored latte delivered to your office, just to say hello. And the best part is, everyone can do this to get more freelance clients.
Just take yourself back to the schoolyard for a moment, when you were young and open and not conditioned to fear rejection. What did you do back then to make a new friend? “Hi, you wanna play with me?” or “Here, want half of my sandwich?” were both perfectly acceptable ways of introducing yourself as a kid – unless the sandwich you were offering contained baloney. Thankfully, the adult world isn’t THAT different. Baloney still doesn’t fly, but a simple hello and a lunch invitation can work wonders for making new friends. And if you take care of getting out into the community and making friends with people, the business will be more likely to come. Sure, it’s not going to come from every person you meet, nor is every new person you meet going to become a friend.
Even so, you’ll certainly become friendly with many people, have a lot of interesting conversations, and pump a lot of “you” presence into the collective mind of the local marketplace. Eventually, when there’s enough “you” in the mindspace of the market, the pressure will cause something to pop, just like a closed system that’s been pushed beyond capacity. And that pop can end up putting dollars in your pocket once you start to get more freelance clients.
Face time. Free stuff. Get out in front of people. Open up. Make some friends. Don’t ask for business, just get out there and befriend people – become a known part of the local business community. Give somebody lunch, or a t-shirt, or a free hour of your time to fix a problem, or shut your yap and listen to someone tell you about himself.
It takes time for this to work. But for truly small businesses – especially those who are not located in prospect-rich environments – face time and free stuff is a great way to operate. If you’re not having conversations with new people regularly, you may be missing out on a lot of otherwise-hidden opportunities. This alone won’t build a business for you, but it pays to make this habit a part of your overall strategy to get more freelance clients.