When it comes to finding and winning clients as a freelancer, there isn’t much I haven’t tried; I graduated the school of hard knocks with several scars and the odd badge of merit. So when it comes to giving advice to freelancers who were maybe where I was 8 years ago, I speak from a position of experience.
My stance on Elance (and freelancer exchanges as a whole) has been largely unchallenged to date, not least because it’s a topic I don’t talk about very often. One of the key differentiators I live by is my point blank refusal to get embroiled in the small stuff and be a part of the over-cooked (or worse still reheated) ideas and opinions you’ll get from a lot of freelancer advice sites. You can find plenty of places to get ’10 weird tips’ on the font size you should use in your proposals or which keywords to choose for your oDesk profile.
Freelancelift isn’t one of those places.
As always, this should not be taken as elitist, inflammatory or ignorant. Quite the opposite, I have experienced the ups and downs (and downs, and more downs) of freelancing so I believe I have a duty to tell you everything I know if I believe there is a better way. In doing so I give you the opportunity to NOT make the same mistakes I did.
Here’s an excerpt from my book; in this chapter we’re talking about building attention and interest in you and your freelance service, it pretty much sums up my take:
We live in a noisy world. Whether it’s the irresistibly tactile Facebook notification icon or the audible blip of your email client, everybody wants a piece of your attention.
The same is true for your prospective client. Their time is limited and ability to pay attention severely exhausted. This is compounded by the fact that there have never been so many easy ways to seek answers for the pains and problems they have (that your service would ultimately remedy).
This makes for a cloudy online environment and your dream client has developed self-preserving defences, which guard against advertising, information overload and general interruptions.
Most freelancers see this ‘noise’ as a barrier, “how the hell is anybody going to find me among this herd?” More often than not, this pushes them into channels like Elance or oDesk. “Well this should be more productive, people are actually looking for freelancers on here, right?”
This is flawed logic. We feel some comfort in the fact that potential clients are being attracted to this honeypot every day. We sense that at least we have a chance of making a sale here without actually understanding what type of sale we might make and more importantly, to whom.
You’re voluntarily blending yourself into the herd, and in doing so procrastinating, putting out fires short term while holding off doing the longer term activities that will land you your dream client down the line. By treading water in freelancer exchanges you’re willfully attracting bad apples.
My first time around as a freelancer I played the same mind games with myself, “hey this guy has earned like $900k this past 12 months on Elance I must be able to at least get a slice of that?”
What I neglected to inform my naive former self was that this was in fact a 60-person web development house based in India whose average project fee was $200.
Do you really want to take on 20 projects a month just to meet your financial goals?
I thought not.
So how do we multiply our exposure, build attention and look at this cloudy online environment as a help rather than hindrance?
Excerpt from ‘Stop Thinking Like a Freelancer’
Phase II – Multiply your exposure & build your platform
I am acutely aware however that this is my own personal opinion, based on my own personal experiences and I’m always happy to be challenged, or air another point of view. So I was delighted to receive a really awesome email yesterday from Carol Hampshire, top 5 among 200,000 graphic designers on Elance, currently doing great and generating over $10k a month in revenue.
I could have replied politely, then quietly swept this ‘inconvenient opposite experience’ gently under the rug. But I didn’t, here it is:
From: Carol Hampshire
Subject: I’m a top bracket freelancer on Elance!
I have just watched your video (5 reasons top bracket freelancers aren’t on Elance) and although I do agree with the points you made, it looks like I am one of the exceptions.
I am a top bracket freelancer on Elance (in the design & multimedia category) and attract similar top bracket clients, therefore eliminating the bad apples and all that goes with the normal exchange sites.
I am able to pick and chose which projects I want to work on, projects that bring me creative license and fulfillment as well as high financial reward.
My income in November last year on Elance was in excess of $11,000.00 – not bad going for an “Elance” freelancer.
In fact many of my clients would tell me I am by far the most expensive, but they still award the project to me.
So I must be doing something very right and have a good strategy in place for this success.
The rewards from being on Elance have been wonderful, I own two properties in South Africa and relocated to a wonderful beautiful seaside holiday town. So yeah – living the dream and all that…
I have been able to successfully explain the value of the service a client would get working with me in a proposal and I can back this up with hundreds of testimonials on Elance.
I am ready to double my income in the coming months with even more innovative strategies that might not include Elance in my future, but its been a fantastic platform for my business.
Did I have to work my ass off and take on some shady clients on Elance to get to this position- YES!!
But having said that, this is a normal process for every designer to go through before they have finally reached a top bracket and learn valuable lessons the hard way.
Its a pity that you do not have the strategies to create an empowering video showing your tribe how to succeed on exchange sites instead of knocking a potential way for them to thrive professionally, creatively & financially as I have done.
All the best from South Africa!
You can probably imagine me receiving this email and cracking a smile, it really was a slam dunk of an email correspondence… I’m so happy to have smart freelancers, from all over the world consuming the ideas I’m putting out and feeling comfortable enough to question what they’re being told.
So I was inspired, to at least give a fair debate as to the potential benefits of Elance and oDesk and work a little harder to assert my ultimate opinion that freelancer exchanges are not the right place for you if you’re looking to make the breakthrough into top bracket ($5-$10k+ per project) freelancing.
So let’s start with the positives. Here is where Elance, oDesk and the like can bring benefit to your freelance business:
- Low barrier to entry
One of the key drawbacks in my opinion has always been the ‘great normalizer’ effect of an identical profile page for every freelancer. But what this also provides new freelancers is a low barrier to entry, which doesn’t require the build of a web presence of their own.
- Genuine access to revenue opportunities
It is beyond question that there are hundreds of jobs awarded to freelancers every single day. The combined potential of all of this ‘ready to spend’ revenue is huge. Far more than one person could ever wish to receive.
- Some great client opportunities.
I use Elance, a lot of my peers in the entrepreneurship space use Elance, I even use Fiverr sometimes and if someone does a great job for me then there is the opportunity for that to continue outside of the confines of a freelancer exchange.
For a new freelancer, these benefits are really attractive. From there is a whole abundance of drawbacks, but I’m not going to highlight those directly. To do so would take me into the realm of the freelancer advice I push back so strongly against.
Instead, I want to argue my point in a different way… giving you the big picture reasoning behind choosing to (and advising other growing freelancers to) cut freelancer exchanges out of my growth strategy entirely.
How great clients are born
My philosophy on freelancing is that ultimately, great clients should come to you. You should have built enough exposure and be doing enough great work to ensure you’re never without new client opportunities.
Here is the eventual flow I teach freelancers to achieve:
1) Define a specialist client market & reflect that in a website of your own
2) Put in the work to be known in this space and demand attention
3) Spark non-sales relationships with no brainer ways to get in touch
4) Transition to a more commercial conversation
5) Put together great proposals which look awesome and justify value well
6) Make the initial sale then build a longer-term, mutually beneficial partnership to reduce reliance on continually winning new business.
Having a client acquisition flow like this is the key to developing project fees of $5k, $10k and more.
Here is where freelancer exchanges work against this methodology:
We’re all ‘identicalancers’
On freelancer exchanges there isn’t a whole lot of room to develop a central presence which is tailored to your style and message. Instead, we’re offered an identical profile to everybody else and are strictly forbidden from providing links to external locations which may do a better job of giving the client a picture of us as a person, not just a faceless service provider.
No control over client market
I strongly advocate developing a vision for a dream client. In doing so, I’m proposing finding a smaller sub-set of an audience to double down on. The benefits to this approach are numerous, it’s much easier to become visible, demand attention and make the sale with a smaller pool of prospective clients.
This is impossible to achieve on freelancer exchanges, the platforms are configured to encourage a mass market environment.
A lack of ‘discovery’ opportunities
One of the key traits of the effortlessly successful freelancer is their ability to really immerse themselves in the client’s vision. To work diligently and develop a collaborative solution with this end goal in mind.
This is more difficult on freelancer platforms, as the prospective client tends to be prodded into developing quite a rigid brief. Moreover, the bidding process is heavily focused on quoting a price, up front or as early as possible. This leaves little room deep discussions around vision and the ultimate client goals.
A restrictive platform
It’s vital to their future revenue opportunities that platforms like Elance, oDesk and Fiverr keep all dialogue inside of channels they can monitor. This means that relationships cannot be taken outside of the system, for fear of losing the project commission.
Of course, these rules are often circumvented but the platform is policed vigorously with these guiding principles and the deterrent of a closed account can make life uncomfortable when aiming to speak freely, providing external links for review, recommending dialogue over email or looping a client into your project management system.
Inability to start a non-sales relationship
An important element, when developing a long-term, commercially viable partnership is an informal start to the relationship. I advocate developing a website which speaks to a prospective client worldview and maps out the beneficial outcome before offering a no-brainer opportunity to start an informal, non-sales relationship.
This might take the shape of a short book, cheat sheet or sample service that the prospect would engage with prior to making full contact. This type of interaction and prospect nurturing is impossible on platforms only set up to manage time & resources.
No opportunity to demonstrate flair with a proposal
One of the game changers at Tone (the agency I now head up, built from freelancer roots) has been our decision to develop highly impactful proposal and pitch materials. It has seen our success rate almost double, and from speaking to clients it’s one of the influential reasons we were chosen.
It is possible to attach documentation to support your bid on platforms like Elance, but it isn’t the norm. Moreover, this is a time-consuming process and when you’re proposal 14 of 85 it becomes harder to justify the time investment.
So for most, settling for a simple text based proposal often becomes the status quo, reducing the ability to show flair in your approach and separate yourself from others.
A project mentality (rather than a partnership one)
Finally, freelancer exchanges are fundamentally built to serve a ‘labourer’ mentality. A project is outlined, a bid is placed, a project is complete, job done.
This goes against my general recommendations, which are to put in the work early in a relationship to build trust, develop a longer-term plan and work together collaboratively long-term.
In summary then, it’s prudent to point out here that I have no real vendetta against freelancer platforms. They do the job of ‘introducing work to workers’ well. The types of people I teach though want to be more than ‘workers’ or ‘laborers’.
They have a fire of ambition, strive to exercise creative flexibility and create professional freedom.
I feel that freelancer platforms are not calibrated to deal with the growing service provider looking to build a platform in a space and benefit from long-term relationships.
So my advice is to use freelancer exchanges as a stepping stone, a thoroughfare. As soon as you can, build your own voice, demand your own attention and own your own future.
I’m building a small, unique army of service providers and together we’re knocking down big goals, on a monthly basis in Freelancelift Pro. It’d be great for you to become one of them.
I’d love to hear your comments, do you rely on freelancer exchanges? Or have you recently outgrown platforms like this? Looking forward to hearing from you.
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