I’ve been freelancing as a web professional on-and-off for the past ten years. I like making websites, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning new technologies and tools. It’s fun! And the more skills I have, the more projects I can take on, right?
For instance, one time, two people asked me if I knew Drupal in the same week. I had to pass on them because I didn’t know Drupal, but they seemed like really great projects. So guess what I spent that weekend doing? Setting up a Drupal site and bugging my friends to test it out. Guess how many Drupal sites I’ve actually been paid to built? I’ll give you a hint: you can’t divide by this number or bad things will happen.
I was so focused on learning new technical skills, it never occurred to me to learn how to run a business. Surely, once I was became a ninja rockstar developer, people would seek me out to work on their projects, and they would have a blank check ready to go. Right?
Despite my growing stack of technical books, I never seemed to be making progress towards the land of ninja wizards (where everyone has a steady, generous income). I couldn’t tell if I was studying the right thing or going in the right direction — I only knew for sure when I had gone the wrong way (see: ActionScript).
One day, my main client encouraged me to learn Ruby. They were moving away from websites, and into app development. “YES!!! I will look into it,” I said.
When I did, I had to admit that it was going to be long time before I was any good at Ruby. So for the first time, I said no to learning more stuff. And that meant I needed to get new clients, not new tech skills.
I really hated the idea of marketing and sales (I still do).
So I did what I was comfortable with first — I went to the library and studied. I read books on consulting, sales, business models, and how to get clients. I had trouble following the advice, so I scheduled sessions with a business coach.
I signed up for a desk at a co-working space and forced myself to talk to people. I started a monthly meetup with other web professionals. I began using a CRM app. Not everything worked. But slowly, I started to get new clients.
I don’t want to learn Ruby or Drupal or Symfony or even SquareSpace. It’s no longer my job to learn every tech skill out there so that I can win every RFP that floats by.
My job is to find the right clients to work with: clients who have an online marketing problem that I can solve with the skills I already have.
I’ve spent about a year building up my business skills, and these are the results:
1. I raised my rates: Nobody blinked an eye, which indicates how low my old rates were. Have I lost some jobs because my rates were too high? Yes. Were these people who would have valued my time? No.
2. My sales pipeline exists now: I’ve been getting a steady stream of inquiries, and am generally booked in advance. This took a long time to establish. It requires a having a clear message, marketing/networking, and staying in touch with your network.
3. I have a strategy for building my business: freelancing seems like a sustainable career choice. There’s a lot of hype about having passion, but having direction is more important.
I’m still figuring things out and working to improve my business, but I’m no longer floating around as freelancer. I know why my work is valuable, I know what I want to work on, and I know who I want to work with.
Ironically, after jumping into the deep end with marketing, I’ve become a much better developer. By being more selective in my projects, I can do more technically challenging work. It’s been fantastic, and the land of ninja unicorns doesn’t seem so far away anymore.
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