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Ask HN: How do you brand yourself as a freelancer?
247 points by bluewalt 1 day ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 96 comments
I'll quit my CTO position in a few months to become a Freelancer. I know personal branding is an important part of the job to get customers.

In short: what do you do for that?

* Where do you ensure to be visible? LinkedIn, personal website, etc?

* Do you create and post content (blog, LinkedIn groups, etc.)?

* What content about you do you emphasize to find leads?

* Do you use your own name, or a company name?

* Did you chose to brand yourself a generalist Freelancer ("I'm a developper working with X and Y languages") or a specialist one ("I can be a CTO as a service building your MVP for your startup and help recruiting and train your team")

Thanks for sharing your tips and experience.






I know personal branding is an important part of the job to get customers

It pales in comparison to sales. Everything pales in comparison to sales. Including competence. Including doing the work.

What content about you do you emphasize to find leads?

To a first approximation, finding leads consists of finding leads. Not making content. It means pounding the pavement. Making cold calls. Making warm calls to people you know to ask for leads.

Don't get me wrong, I love avoiding sales as much as anyone. I've built websites and used Linkedin and blogged to avoid selling. I joined the local Chamber of Commerce and Rotary to sit in a room eating instead of going out selling.

Selling is really hard because it is mostly rejection. It is even harder when starting out because good clients already have consultants. It is even harder when starting out because you have no idea what sells. And crazy ideas about what might...like consultant CTO who also handles hiring and builds the product. There probably is someone who might buy that. You are unlikely to find that person because there are not enough days in the world for you to meet them and close the sale.

Even worse, if you meet someone who thinks they might buy that thing, they are probably a bad client. In the best case bad because they have no experience working with people like you. In the average case, bad because they do have experience working with people like you...new desperate freelancers.

Sell something that sells. Sell what other people sell because that is what sells. Every snowflake is different. Being different, being niche, pitching a snowflake...these are all excuses to avoid selling. Selling into a niche works when you've found the niche is organically through experience.

Good luck.


> Sell something that sells. Sell what other people sell because that is what sells.

Agreed. I tried for ~3 years to sell ‘general development services’. Got tangled up in mobile apps, SharePoint, web development, basically anything that I didn’t consider to be “IT”.

It was a financial and professional disaster. The solutions all sucked, because I didn’t have deep expertise in anything and there was never enough budget to “do things right”. There was no opportunity to develop any kind of reputation for anything. It is insanely hard to sell “well, I can build things”.

As soon as I started focusing on a single, well-understood, boring business problem (“we need a good website”) everything changed. I started getting good at it, margins became healthy, referrals started to happen. Try getting a referral when the problems you solve are too vague to describe.

> There probably is someone who might buy that. You are unlikely to find that person because there are not enough days in the world for you to meet them and close the sale.

If there’s a market for CTO-as-a-service, or anything really, you need to be able to reach it. A hyper niche service can be OK if you can reach the people that need it. Broad markets can be just as hard because you tend to need to reach lots of people (think advertising). For me, the sweet spot turned out to be “small to mid-size regional companies” because you can identify them and sell to them as a freelancer.


^ There's nuggets of gold in this comment. I went through a very similar cycle. Learn from our mistakes friends!

Is this the nugget of gold? “As soon as I started focusing on a single, well-understood, boring business problem (“we need a good website”) everything changed.”

It’s the generalist vs. focused part. Many of us who have been successful in tech have done so because we are good generalists. But, that doesn’t transfer well as something that you can market. So there is great power in narrowly focusing on some skill that has demand you can meet.

It's also important to identify the thing that people request first, such as a good website. Plenty of work is done after that problem is solved or in addition to that problem.

The person who solves the "we need a website" problem gets to solve those additional problems if they want to.


That is a great point. Advertising as a generalist is hard because at the point a generalist is needed they already have a website and a developer.

You need to meet them at where they are, when they are in the market for a developer.


What you are saying is gold and rings true for my experiences. Spot on.

There is an entire industry of headhunters for stand-in for directors and senior staff.

One of the better posts I've ever read here. It's all sales. The guy who does excellent work but doesn't sell will get buried by the guy that does awful work but can sell. Period. Full stop.

Sell Sell Sell some more


No. Create value, describe that value. A salesman can sell ice to the Inuit, but that doesn't make a sustainable business model.

Create value, learn to describe that value. That's not sales, that's understanding the value of what you do and being able to communicate it.

If you disagree walk into a car dealership. If you walk out with an expensive car you don't need, that's sales. Sales is bullshit. A CTO understands technology and can create value. Sales is not necessary. Value sells itself.


I disagree with everything you wrote. There are hundreds of companies that offer inferior products and crush competitors with superior offerings. They do it through sales. SAP and Salesforce are two of many examples. No one I have ever met says "we love SAP" or "we love Salesforce" yet both are known leaders in their spaces. Why? Has nothing to do with describing value and everything to do with sales.

> Sell something that sells. Sell what other people sell because that is what sells.

I haven't heard it phrased this way, but something about this strikes me as deeply profound and correct, and not just in this particular situation. The most successful companies I've ever worked at did the same thing -- selling something that other people sell, but just selling a better version of that.


Or not even a better version. Right now I sell accounting services (working on moving to CS), but each accountant can only have so many clients. In a service business, there's a capacity of clients per provider. So people can sell the same thing, without really competing for the same clients. It certainly helps to be pretty decent at it and deliver what the client wants.

Yup. Freelancing means marketing. Been there, done that, don’t ever want to again.

I ran an hourly recruiting business that generated nearly all of business from referrals. I never really figured out how to do outbound sales when charging for time. The thing that was great about inbound leads for my business was that closing the deal was easier because the customer had a pain point they need solved yesterday.

The business grew from just me to 15 people just from cash flow in 2 years. The thing that scared the crap out of me was I knew if to the referral pipeline dried up, I'd have 15 people to pay with no outbound sales process to keep them busy.

I had an opportunity to cash out and free myself of the angst associated with not being in control of where my business comes from. I took that check, taught myself to code for a couple years, and am now on employed as a dev.

There are plenty of days I question whether development is the right career for me, but I like it a lot more than I don't like it. There are zero days where I miss having to meet payroll for 15 people for a word of mouth business.


> Selling into a niche works when you've found the niche is organically through experience.

This guy gets it.

If one is fortunate enough to experience such a realization, they might just have found a genuine opportunity to solve a real problem, the right way.


100% Agreed.

I've been doing consulting on and off for over a decade (with a few full time jobs along the way) and in that time I have found two clients as inbound leads due to my website. On the other hand, calling people or emailing friends or asking people I've worked with in the past if they know anyone who might need help has generated enough leads to easily sustain a small business.

Work really hard to make sure your first few clients are extremely happy, but don't do that by undercharging. Charge your old annual salary divided by 1000 or so, or at least what you think a typical salary for you would be if your old job paid market rates if it didn't.

Get your first few clients to write you a testimonial and agree to be references for you so that future clients can read what they said and ask them about you to get over the "new consultant" hump.

Those first few clients will be probably your best resource for new work -- people change jobs all the time so make sure people at your clients' companies know your name and what you contributed. They'll move to new jobs or have friends who ask them for recommendations and if they think of you you're in a really good spot.

That said, my website is terrible and I don't think it matters. I am busy but not swamped and I'm happy with the stuff I'm working on though my one big regret is that being remote-only limits my ability to help with more hardcore chemical engineering or materials development projects. I like building stuff but it's just not realistic if I'm not at least 50% part time, and I can't really blame my clients for that. It's a back and forth conversation to figure out what you can provide. I'm disabled anyway so while this is frustrating I think it's probably just for the best sadly.

TLDR; Don't worry about your website as long as you have one and a company domain email address so you come off as doing this as a thing rather than using your aol email address ;-) But your first few clients will probably be from friends of friends or luck, so make sure to do a great job for them and make clear that you're open to and appreciative of referrals.


Thanks for this excellent reply. I want to print this out and stick it up on a wall.

Would it be an idea to team up with someone who loves to do sales?

Isn't there a service for freelancers to find jobs?


Freelancing is generally about doing things that are billable. A team of two people who can perform billable work works well when one of the two likes sales. A pure salesperson is the wrong scale for one person with billable skills. Again this is freelance/consult/contract. It’s not a high growth startup. One grows linearly the other geometrically.

Platforms for freelancing operate in the economic where successful sales are not worth doing in house. They connect clients with tiny budgets to freelancers who are so bad at selling that the tiny budget is attractive. EverythingForFiveBucks.com doesn’t spin up a lot of multimillion dollar multi-year projects. That’s the kind of scale where full time sales might make sense.


Furthermore, the further you get from "I will build you a website for $X with these features" and the closer you get to strategic advice, high-value troubleshooting, etc., the harder it is for a sales person to go off and sign a deal with minimal involvement on your part.

At some scale, administrative assistance/client service is helpful, but in my experience dedicated sales for consulting at small scale often doesn't have a huge amount of value.


Most of the ones I've seen subcontract you out in one fashion or another, so they're constantly taking a cut of your billing (or... you're getting a cut of their billing). I don't recall seeing a 'service' that is just warm, qualified leads where you do the rest. They may exist, but I can't recall any, and I'd bet I know why. The qualifying/warm part is where you get to some degree of trust between two parties - for them to explicitly turn around and sell that to someone else they don't really know - it can potentially damage their brand. If they need to get to 'know' you as well (vetting/testing/etc), there's little reason for them to give up either end of that relationship - they're in control at that point.

To me, the main reason is nobody has a big pipeline of good shovel ready projects. Or rather anyone with such a pipeline would be better off keeping those projects in house instead of leaving money on the table for a freelancer. The hard part is selling. Doing the work is fungible.

And here I was thinking that math and physics were the most important subjects in school. Now you are telling me that sales is even more important? Why don't they teach it?

As someone who absolutely hates sales, I'd be happy with a service that takes, say, 10% of my income but takes care of all the sales issues.

find a subcontracting firm, and get in there. I've worked with a couple, and while they don't tell me what they bill me out at, in one case I was pretty sure there was a 20% buffer they'd built in. I suspect in other cases it's probably more like 25-30% - you'll get billed out at $100/hr, but they'll pay you $70/hr. But in those cases you don't own the relationship, nor necessarily have much visibility in to the business relationship. You're just a pair of hands at that point.

If you’re ok with 10% fees, you’ll do well to get an App Store like 30%. And if 30% fees drives off half the freelancers so what?

Freelancing and product development are two different things.

Also, getting an app in an App store requires a high-risk investment.

Further, I wouldn't want to support Apple's developer-unfriendly ecosystem.


Rent extraction is only one thing however.

Was there any particular sales technique you used? And how did you identify good prospects?

No and poorly. After much reflection I figured out why I failed the ways I failed all those times I failed. Since then I've assessed my skills, personality, experience, business network and capitalization against what it would take to succeed as a consultant doing the things for which I might consult with the prospects I am likely to encounter.

Knowing that selling is necessary is not the same thing as being in position to sell. I have a realistic, i.e., pessimistic, view of how well all those factors match to the relevant markets. It's probably in inverse correlation with my ability to write comments like these here...or this is how I avoid selling.


Is there a sales 101 for nerds?

Yes, there are tons of resources but I'll try to offer some simple tips.

1. Sales is a lot like golf. You can make it so complicated as to be impossible or you can simply walk up and hit the ball. I've been leading and building sales orgs for almost 20 years and my advice is to walk up and hit the ball.

2. Sales is about people and it's about problem solving. It is not about solutions or technology or chemicals or lines of code or artichokes. It's about people and it's about solving problems.

3. People buy 4 things and 4 things only. Ever. Those 4 things are time, money, sex, and approval/peace of mind. If you try selling something other than those 4 things you will fail.

4. People buy aspirin always. They buy vitamins only occassionally and at unpredictable times. Sell aspirin.

5. I say in every talk I give: "all things being equal people buy from their friends. So make everything else equal then go make a lot of friends."

6. Being valuable and useful is all you ever need to do to sell things. Help people out. Send interesting posts. Write birthday cards. Record videos sharing your ideas for growing their business. Introduce people who would benefit from knowing each other then get out of the way, expecting nothing in return. Do this consistently and authentically and people will find ways to give you money. I promise.

7. No one cares about your quota, your payroll, your opex, your burn rate, etc. No one. They care about the problem you are solving for them.

There is more than 100 trillion dollars in the global economy just waiting for you to breathe it in. Good luck.


YES!

Sales is also knowing who to target and when.

For example: early-stage startups should be looking for early-adopters.

>> Early adopters don’t need as much proof as the early majority in order to buy.

>> They take risks on products because they can. They’re often in senior positions with budgets, hold considerable social capital in their company, and can identify a specific use case need.

>> Early adopters take risks on new products because they know how much they can gain & motivated by competitive edge

>> Early-adopters are also project-driven. They are interested in the shortest time-to-value with a limited amount of resources on their end. Do not try and sell the farm and future value where results take 6 months and beyond.

>> Early-adopters are also the first group to generate real revenue.


Being valuable and useful is all you ever need to do to sell things. Help people out. Send interesting posts. Write birthday cards. Record videos sharing your ideas for growing their business. Introduce people who would benefit from knowing each other then get out of the way, expecting nothing in return. Do this consistently and authentically and people will find ways to give you money. I promise.

This doesn't fit my experience at all. People just expect me to do things for them for free out of the goodness of my heart, and expected that even when I was literally homeless.

I've never entirely figured out why that is.

If people just found ways to give me money because I do useful stuff, I think I would have long ago stopped being poor. But I'm still poor and I routinely get treated like I'm some kind of beggar for trying to find some way to monetize my work.

So I think there's probably a bit more to it than that.


In my experience there are two components at work, the character of the customer and how technical you are.

Some clients just expect free work, you can try to train them otherwise, but it will be an uphill battle.

I've also found that the more technical you are, the more they expect free work. Almost as if they assume it won't take much effort on your part so they shouldn't really have to pay for it.


I've also found that the more technical you are, the more they expect free work.

Thank you. This is a helpful thought for me.

I'm in a small town and I have better technical skills than most people around me and I'm not even charging that much, but I can't seem to get taken seriously. This is something to contemplate.


This might seem like a dumb question, but is it possible that "not even charging that much" leads to "can't seem to get taken seriously"?

The reason I ask is that over the years, I've been on both the buying and selling side of technical products and services. And I've noticed it's common that extremely price-sensitive customers won't take you seriously no matter how little you charge.

On the flip side, customers who understand the ROI they'll get from your work often won't balk at prices higher than you think are reasonable.

But I know that it's not always possible to just start charging more, depending on what you sell and who you sell it to.


This may be a factor, but I also initially worked for a non-profit. That's the majority of my paid work on the ground in town here.

I'm relatively new to town and I am a freelance writer and blogger by trade and I know something about creating an online business because of it. I feel like if I am too critical of what other website people do who are more long-time locals, I'm basically cutting my own throat.

There's a lot of factors and they are hard to tease out. I feel like no one online would likely pay me to help them set up a blogspot site. I spend a lot of time on Hacker News and people here role their own and probably wouldn't see any value in paying me for what I know about the backend of blogspot and how to do design work in that venue.

I'm more technically inclined than most locals and there's a big chasm between me and them on trying to convey why what I do has value. I can see value in it, but I don't know how to explain it and I am not good at sales. I have experience doing volunteer work and I sort of fell into doing more of that, which I can't really afford to do because I'm a dirt poor freelancer. I need to find a way to improve my income.


A good way to combat this is to focus the conversation on solving the business problem and less on the technical solution.

I think maybe the difference/nuance is where you mention people expect you to do these things.

The activities I mentioned arent expected. In fact, they are usually unexpected which makes them all the more special.

Not sure that helps specifically but it did occur to me as I read your post.


The only explanation I have for that expectation is that I'm a woman. It's not an explanation I like because it gives me no means to solve the problem. It's also not universally true that all women are dirt poor, so I would like to think there is some solution, but I don't know what it is.

My experience with doing nice things for people that they didn't expect is that they either latch onto me as a mommy figure and treat me abusively or conclude I'm hitting on them and they would like to hit that. The idea that I'm just social and warm and I see this as a diplomatic thing to do seems to never occur to people. They always and consistently interpret it as extremely personal and latch onto me in a problematic fashion and it doesn't go good places for me business-wise that leads to money.

I've been trying to sort that out for years and I feel I have made some progress, but it's far from a solved problem.


If you want to go from deals worth thousands to millions instead then:

8. Take them to lunch, dinner, and karaoke.

Relates to #2.

It's all about people, relationships, and trust. Once you have that you have everything you need.


One of the best posts I've read on HN ever. Thanks Colin.

> 4. People buy aspirin always. They buy vitamins only occasionally and at unpredictable times. Sell aspirin.

This one is strange to me. I've bought vitamins regularly for 20 of the past 25 years and haven't bought Aspirin (or Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, etc) even once during that same time period.


Its metaphor for "people buy solutions to problems they have much more than they buy preventative care."

Illustration purposes aside, I've interestingly never bought or taken aspirin in my life, and I'm middle aged.

Aspirin seems to be a generational marker -- people under a certain age have likely never encountered aspirin. It's like the 3.5" floppy disk Save icon -- most people of the current generation know what it means but they've never seen the real thing.


> Yes, there are tons of resources but I'll try to offer some simple tips.

This is a great post!


Well done

Parent comment is pure gold and condenses more theory on sales than you'll ever need. Embracing it is the hard part: How many of us are willing to pay the price of making sales our first (or the only) priority?

my $.02 - Sales is similar to finding product-market fit. Exhaust your network doing pain discovery interviews. Ask lots of good questions. You can't pitch a solution until you really know what their problem is. Circle back to prospect 1 after you've talked to prospect 100. Hack value for the customer before you hack growth for yourself (ie branding). Do a great job for one client and ask for referrals to others who have similar problems. Repeat customer pain discovery.

How do you do the customer pain point discovery?

ABC Glengarry.

I've had a successful career as an independent consultant for the last six years and in my experience branding hasn't been a primary concern at all. As @brudgers already pointed out, sales should be your top priority. Until you're fully booked you should be speaking with friends, acquaintances, and strangers every single day to find work. Your next priority should be delivering the absolute best work you can, so that you can stop making cold calls and start fielding inbound leads. Your past clients are your best source of new business. Even better, keep your clients long-term so you're not kicking off new projects all the time.

I don't think this matters as much as what I mentioned above, but I'll answer your questions:

* Maintain your LinkedIn, Twitter, AngelList profiles just enough to back up your credentials when a potential lead google's your name.

* Don't waste your time blogging unless you plan on committing to being the "go-to" individual for a very niche technology/service. You'll read successful content creators advising the opposite, but for each one of them there are 1000 who never got traction, didn't publish anything valuable, or simply gave up.

* Your most important asset is your reputation

* Use your "personal brand" for as long as you can (i.e. until you're hiring other people). Building a reputation is hard enough, don't make it harder on yourself and others by adding misdirection when it's really just you behind the curtain.

* My niche for the most of my career has been "early-stage startup needs product-minded engineer to wear many hats". There has never been a shortage of rewarding work for me, but your mileage may vary.

Good luck! Happy to chat some time if you want to dig deeper. Contact info in my profile.


Been consulting for seven years. Congrats on your decision to try it, and best of luck to you.

Bits of consulting advice here, from answering similar questions in the past:

https://www.gkogan.co/blog/consulting-advice/

And here’s a summary of my first year as a consultant, with lessons learned:

https://www.gkogan.co/blog/how-i-learned-to-get-consulting-l...

And why you should call yourself a consultant rather than a freelancer:

https://www.gkogan.co/blog/freelancer-or-consultant/

For your last question I think you’re thinking about it wrong. People care primarily about their problems and whether or not you are the person who can solve them. And their problems sound more like “We need to launch X by end of quarter but we’re not moving fast enough,” or “we have a talented team of engineers but continue to have production issues that are causing us to lose customers.” Their problems do not sound like “We are lacking a part-time Rust developer!”


I generated ~105 leads from social in the last 18 months for https://contentdistribution.com by (inconsistently) building a brand over the last 2-3 years.

I have had people wire me a lot of $ within 24 hours of talking to me, because they spent a year reading my content before reaching out.

I'm working with companies backed by A16 and Peter Thiel because of my personal brand.

It works, but it takes time.

- Delete your friends from HS and college. Anyone that you'll never talk to 1:1 again, and don't see yourself reconnecting with. When they don't engage with your social content, it lowers your overall reach

- Join Facebook Groups and connect with your target audience. Like 1,000 - 2,000 people. Doesn't have to be all at once

- Post long form content in your status. If you are going to link, drop the link in the 1st comment. FB / LI want to keep people on their platform and reduce reach of external links.

- Be vulnerable. Share vulnerable stories that are actually humble brags.

- Drop knowledge in the group. If the audience who hires you is non-technical, don't talk about super technical stuff. Talk about how you saved the day, or accelerated development, or worked on something that helped win a deal, or developed a process that whatever

- Share wins

- Keep doing it. 2-3 times per week for 2-3 years

- Write down everything in your head on your blog that you repeat. If you have specific positioning on you, or how you do things - document it in the blog.

- Use this content once a lead engages with you to differentiate yourself and build trust and credibility before you hop on the phone

Ultimately consulting services are hard to differentiate.

People like to work with people they like, and people they think will make them look good.

Focus on excelling at both.

A lot of people who will hire you, won't hire you today.

But if you're stay top of mind over the next 2-3 years, an opportunity will come up.


> I'll quit my CTO position in a few months to become a Freelancer

I'd suggest that you should consider a transition from FTE to freelancing over some (fixed?) amount of time vs. a quick change.

Depending on who your prospective buyer is, I would also reconsider using the "freelancer" title. I equate freelancer with the quick, sub-$1000 jobs that are advertised on various "gig" sites. That's not really a pool you want to swim in as it artificially constrains your rate ceiling.


Rightfully said, I transitioned from Upwork/Guru to solely Fiverr & get incoming requests on a daily basis around my niche, been earning twice of what I earned previously doing even less work. Went from service to product basically.

As unfortunate as it is my experience resonates with that advice. Move to the mindset and business practices of a consultant and you won't need sites like UpWork. It is a good source for temp work but it is a totally different market to consultancy. At least that was my experience.

From my admittedly difficult and possibly anomalous past experience as a freelancer for five years or so..

The most effective and long-term impact I saw in establishing my personal brand was releasing or contributing to open-source software.

It's where I proved that I can produce value for a sizable userbase, write documentation, maintain and keep improving it, overall doing professional work. I had full control of the presentation and aesthetics, for my personality to come across, and for people in the right places to notice my work.

Some freelancers achieve similar effect with consistently producing quality articles and blog posts, about niche topics they're interested in.

It depended on a lot of unpaid work, but I write software like I eat and sleep, so I kept releasing more into the world. Mostly I was just lucky to have made the right kind of software that a big enough market needed - which I didn't know was in demand, but stumbled into it.

In retrospect, that was a way to market and advertise my brand, the skills I can offer. There must be an easier way to do it, other than hard work and luck, but I was inexperienced and had to pay my dues, until I had a regular stream of clients.

The thing I did right, I believe, was to plug myself into a fairly niche community (or marketplace), and make personal connections with owners and decision-makers in the businesses.


I would humbly suggest that if you don't have answers to your questions, it is not yet time to quit your day job.

As other folks in this thread have suggested, being a successful freelancer / contractor / small-business owner, etc is all about dolla dolla bills. It all starts and ends with sales. Your brand, the marketing associated to it - everything is about building connections and making the cash register go ding. Yes, ideally you want to also be competent and produce quality work, but a lot of people who are really good at the tech part are not necessarily good at the bringing-in-the-bacon part. Figure out how you are going to create your pipeline and the actual steps of everything you said, IE: the mechanics of what to do, will follow. Get all that going before you jump into freelancing.


I'd start by not calling myself a freelancer.

You are a business solutions architect with heavy emphasis on technology.


I bill myself as a "consultant".

Depends on your market but generally people hate job title bingo that obfuscates what a freelancer actually does.

Happy clients are the best branding. I built my business almost exclusively on referrals, which not only filters out clients that would not be a good fit, but also provides reputational policing for agreements: The option of a client considering not to complete their side of an agreement has additional negatives due to the relationships involved. Likewise my service/product reflects on the referer, as it were, providing me another incentive to deliver massive value. And the referer gets the bonus of having been part of a successful solution.

Win-win-win.


There's a lot of great advice to be found on this page. I'll just add one thing: your location matters. If you are in places where there is a high scarcity of engineers and good economic conditions (like western europe), it's more the question of how do I select for something that's in line with my wishes and ambitions. If you are in area where there is less of an fortunate situation for engineers, the question would be more: is it possible to move or find high quality remote clients.

By specializing. I develop mostly for mobile and also work on smart contract architecture/servers for early stage startups. I don't do any "content-marketing" on LinkedIn, but just reach out to early stage startups seeing if I can help them. In my experience leads are best generated when you have a previous experience that shows to the client that you can develop the architecture/application. Then, if you sit down in an hour or two and hash out what a basic MVP would look like for them, they're confident you can deliver the product because you can explain how it would work on a technical level. Of course, that architecture will most likely change/improve as the product moves along but as long as you can show an iterative and constantly improving approach that's what matters.

Having a niche is a really great path. That niche can be a specific framework you like, it gives you great visibility over other consultants and gives you a community to bootstrap your role in the market.

I think it's important to add, the reason for this is because greenfields work is much, much harder to get started with. Finding a client to trust you to build their entire platform from day one? Very hard sell. Being hired to do feature work and bugfixing in the existing platform is much easier. Having experienced hiring and selling here, I can say knowing someone specializes in the specific framework is an excellent signal over someone who doesn't (all things being equal). Remembering we are not hiring or selling full time employment so the requirements differ a bit.


Do you track down their email or just send a message on LinkedIn? How customized are the initial communications (e.g. common elements per type of work or type of company)?

I don't cold email/message strangers, though I have heard that can work. I just contact people I've worked with and ask them about opportunities. Only exception is I do reach out to YC startups.

Freelancing and personal brand are not necessarily helping each other. You can have an amazing personal brand with zero income, or vice versa too.

However, personal branding can help in other situations, both socially and mentally.

- Definitely not linkedin. Personal web site. Not on medium, not in some random microblogging platform.

- Blog posts can work wonders. My personal web site ranks quite well on certain SEO keywords, and they generate quite good contracts. Don't focus on SEO, and don't blog unless you know you'd enjoy it.

- My own name. My business model is to work closely with the clients. Most of my clients are quite friendly, and I buffer the technical stuff from them (such as choosing the right stack, and even AWS billing sometimes), so we can establish a good level of trust.

- I suppose it depends the type of branding you want. Unless you are doing a very nice thing, focusing onna specific trait makes you stand out and gives you a leeway to set better rates.

I was freelancing for almost 10 years, and have never set foot in an office with a regular job. I wish you all the best in your endeavors. I know first hand how difficult it can be sometimes, specially when the market is saturated. Trust takes time to build, so I would say your first few clients will take a leap of faith, to which you need to do a wonderful job back.


Clients want one thing only: A business-problem solved right now.

Clients aren't googling "JavaScript tutorial" to find a technical blog post for their specific freelance project. Clients don't care if you're on UpWork, on Toptal, or where you come from.

They usually post a job online and wait for freelancers to come to them, instead of actively searching for the "best" applicant.

Also, most clients don't ever fully go through your portfolio anyway.

They're getting blasted with dozens (sometimes hundreds) of applications. They just don't have the time.

So what can you do?

If your goal is to land a freelance project you want to quickly showcase to the client what you’re capable of creating as soon as you contact them.

The best way that I’ve found to do that is to build a series of small, understandable projects (bits of code hosted on Codepen, GitHub, JSBin, etc.) that a client can look at without much effort.

And then presenting them in a way that the client can easily understand how it helps them.

I put together a free email course of just a handful of lessons that teaches freelance web developers exactly stuff like the above...

If you're interested check it out at https://remoteleads.io/course


I would actually say personal branding is not as important early on as niche specialization. For example, you're not just a Rails developer, you're a Rails developer who specializes in building MVPs for SaaS products.

Also I wouldn't focus on content as much right now. It takes a long of time to create and market content that gets meaningful traffic and unless you do keyword research right (or get lucky), it may not even bring in people who need your services.

Instead, you need to ask yourself: where can I find people who need my services? Example: Angellist, accelerator programs, etc. And reach out to them with an idea of what you can help them build. Here's a good template for this: https://artofemails.com/new-clients#developer

Do not wait for them to find you because this is how the feast and famine cycle happens.


There's a flip side to be careful of though. I've known consultants who were probably the world experts in, say, the performance of a now long-dead computer architecture. You do want to specialize to at least some degree. But even if you've found a nice niche, be aware it may not be there forever.

I have been consulting full time for about 8 years, mostly with NYC and SV startups. Here's what I use for branding:

- LinkedIn - Youtube channel - Udemy courses

I work through an LLC structure but my clients view me as an individual contractor, not an agency. I don't blog or incessantly tweet for exposure.

Like others mentioned, it's all about sales. I have gotten very attuned to identifying warm leads, nurturing them and closing. Because of that, I don't "spray and pray" either. Each month I contact maybe 3-5 outbound leads and on average 2-3 get back to me. From that, I close 1-2 and sub out to junior devs. Average contract value is around $40k.

You have to sell, there's no other way around it. Not only do you have to sell, you cannot be afraid to sell otherwise it will show. I enjoy the selling process, in particular the "close" - that's like hitting a game winning shot. I'm doing a sales call on Tuesday with another SV startup which I have no real bandwidth to take on. I'm doing it mostly to stay sharp and to a degree, for fun. The sales process is actually fun for me. That's how far you have to go with sales if you want to thrive as a consultant.


I get all of my work from personal referrals. (3 years freelance DevOps) If you've worked as a CTO you probably know 200 people who know and respect your work. Reach out to your network and tell them you're available and what you want to focus on. I assure you, you'll be swimming in work before you know what hit you.

I got started practicing my pitch by going to a conference and telling people I met what I thought I was about. That got me ready for customer meetings. I've never talked to a potential customer who said no. Once I started, every customer has asked me to come on full-time, several customers have suggested my rate is too low. (it's about what I'd make total comp + benefits if I went back to a FAANG company full-time). I have now welcomed 4 different people to work alongside me and we're still swimming in work.

I have a shitty website I stood up in an afternoon and zero marketing budget. Forget branding, forget marketing. Use your network and practice describing the things you're passionate about. And I suppose, be passionate about things that actually create value. And then be excellent to your customers. It's a small world out there. Word gets around.


The followup question - how do you find short term (and premium pay) gigs? It seems most clients try to have you as a long term team member - with all the processes and agile bullshit.

If they’re paying a premium rate, does that really matter? I also find that premium pay partially solves the issue as no one wants the expensive consultant to be wasting their time.

You didn't say what you would be doing as a freelancer. If it's something like CTO-in-a-box, the easiest path to success is a network of people who already want to employ you before you leave. In this case "personal branding" is just a good reputation with people you already know.

For example, being good friends with a few VCs may be all you need to have a very successful consulting career.


I freelanced for 5 years. No personal brand. Old website. Referrals are everything.

As much as I like having a nice website and maintaining an up-to-date Linkedin profile, I have to admit that it's very true.

Word of mouth does 90-95% of the work. 5% might be related to me having a linkedin profile.

I've been freelancing during most of my dev career since I started in 2008.


My friends in photography seem to consider this a solved problem. Granted I have no idea what the details are, but you may be able to find suitable answers by searching for what is considered a good portfolio as a photographer.

I recommend writing a technical book on whatever subject that most fascinates you. Choose a topic based on where your passion is, and don't worry too much about sales.

I'm just curious, but why do you recommend this? Is it so you can have a name for yourself in your chosen passion? Is it to show you are competent?

Not the parent but the pro argument would be along the lines of a lot of people still assigning (a probably outsized) degree of credibility because you've written a book on a topic. And, secondarily, it does show you can take on and complete a significant project.

The con speaks to the other comment about selling. Writing a book takes a lot of time which could be spent on other things more directly related to building a business. (And the book itself probably won't make much money.) A website/blog with even a modest amount of good content may go almost as far as a book for a lot less time.

Don't get me wrong. Being published, especially through more credible publishers, can be good for one's career. I'm pretty sure it has for me. But, on the other hand, I haven't had to trade-off revenue vs. writing time.


That, and I have met a lot of interesting people who I would not have met otherwise.

I am a small fish in a small pond in my chosen career, but writing helps my own understanding. Explaining things helps understanding.


I once strapped in this branding game, and though I gain something out of it, the biggest gain is that I rediscovered myself — what I do actually really like and expert in my heart and what I think I like or being an expert.

Banding is an interesting game. But don’t start with how. Start with what. Ask yourself why you do you need to brand, and then what you can brand, and then what you really want to brand.


Persinal branding means shit next to sales skills.

Can you sell? If not, dont quit just yet. Go learn sales first.

How?

Start by reading the sales book Jordan Belfort wrote.

Then practice.


The Wolf of Wall Street? Perfect time for a favorite parody - "The Wolf of Buzz Feed" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vU1EiKys_Uk

Yes, the very same guy. He is not a role model in any way but the guy knows how to sell and how to explain how to sell in plain words.

His book really helped me improve my sales skills. Other books like Jeffrey Gitomers red sales book are too wishy washy. Even classics written by Zig Ziglar pale in comparison to Belfort's book.


Maybe the same headhunter firms that can get you a permanent (higher level management) position, can get you a temporary position.

Write a blog, do podcasts, videos, books, something like that.

Put yourself out there.

Otherwise you will be at recruiters mercy and they usually just have crappy jobs to offer.


Focus on:

1) Dialing in a profitable offer 2) Building a predictable source of leads 3) Building a repeatable sales process

1 offer, 1 channel, 1 sales process

Good luck!


hi, for the Freelancer Meetup Vienna (Austria) I gave a talk about that topic. Later turned it into an article. https://medium.com/@franz.enzenhofer/positioning-for-freelan... (Medium non-paywall link). Feedback very welcome. Maybe it's the start of a book.

ExCTO? You're not a freelancer. You're a consultant. Full stop.

However you position yourself it comes down to trust. Can they trust you? Can they trust you'll get the job done. Use your previous work history as validation.




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