This is a 4 part series where I share my musings about how to find (and keep!) clients as a freelance developer. I’ll cover topics such as the main philosophy in finding the best clients for you, tested methods of finding clients on your own and some basic tips in client relationship management that have served me well over the years.
If you’re a freelance developer then sales is an important part of your work process. It tends to be the defining factor of your economic wellbeing. No matter how good your code is or how fast you can deliver, if you don’t know sales then you’re gonna have a hard time finding regular work.
The first thing you need to ask yourself before starting the difficult journey of freelancing is not deciding how much to charge or building a portfolio to showcase your work. Don’t misunderstand me, those are important parts of the whole process, but they will only take you so far.
In my opinion, the most important thing you need to decide on is: who’s your ideal client?
Some of you might think “ Well, anybody who needs a website or mobile app”, but that’s simply not accurate.
You really need to understand this
Do you know who needs websites or mobile apps? Anybody that wants to do business in the 21st century. That means small business owners that want a web presence or a online store, startups that need to develop an MVP, big companies that want to launch a new brand and their current development team is overworked so they need someone from the outside, etc. The list goes on and on and on.
You see, the main point is that the market is enormous and there’s enough to go around for everybody. So you, as a developer, you have the advantage of picking your clients. Now what does this mean?
To answer your question I’ll use myself as a example here.
My Own Story
I’m a Frontend developer with 3+ years of experience. I think my strong points are that I’m good at HTML/CSS and I have a decent design sense so I like things, not only to be functional, but also to look good and to be easy to use, and, most importantly, I’m a fast learner.
Given my profile and the examples given above about who wants a website or mobile app, what kind of client would suit me better? In other words, who out there, wants a Frontend developer that can design decent stuff and is able to pick up any technology very quickly?
My answer to this question has changed over the years so it’s ok if yours changes after a while too. Currently my top answers are:
- Backend developers that don’t want to deal with the frontend side of things and may or may not have a design ready to be developed.
- Web designers that don’t know or don’t want to deal with code.
- Small business owners that need a small website or store and give me technologic freedom on what platform to use.
The order I gave them was intentional. Currently my very best clients are backend developers that need (or don’t want to deal with) design and the frontend.
But I had to figure that out the hard way.
At first I started targeting small businesses that needed a website but I found that I wasn’t (and still am not) very good at communicating the value of my work to people that don’t know code.
The “Aha!” Moment
I remember a conversation I had with a language school owner that wanted a website. I was very excited and was telling him about all the ideas I had for his site and the first thing he asked was “How much is this gonna cost me?” and the second one was “Can you make the site get me more students’?
At that moment it clicked for me. We had different ideas on what value consisted of. To me it was a beautiful website and clean code. To him it was using a cost-effective provider and making more money with his school.
In the end, I didn’t get that client (he went with someone cheaper) but I learned a lot from that conversation. I either learned how to sell my work in a more traditional business sense or find other clients.
This was a difficult choice for me because I was (and still consider myself as) a beginner in programming and I wanted to focus and improve my craft. So I either changed my value proposition or found another type of client that better understood what I could offer. In the short term I decided for the latter option but I know the optimal one is the former (which I’ll talk about more about it in the future).
So now that small business owners weren’t my target market the next in line (for me, at that time) were backend developers. People that understood code and how it was created. So I decided to switch my focus to them, and boy, did it pay off…
The very first advantage that came from switching to backend developers was that, once I was on board of the project, I didn’t have to sell every single idea to them. They trusted me and my skills as a frontend developer because we weren’t competing, one complemented the other. Of course, I couldn’t just work on all the ideas I had but if we brainstormed together then we could decide on what to focus on first depending on which (budget or a deadline) was more important.
Another great advantage was being able to pick their brains. You see, right now I sell myself as a frontend but my main goal in the future is to be full stack. So being able to work with a backend developer, see his code and ask him questions about it was as good as gold. Remember, one of my motivations for switching to this type of client was that I wanted to better my craft and opportunities like these were very valuable to me.
One disadvantage? I had to lower my hourly rate. Since they sometimes subcontracted me I couldn’t charge higher than them. It irked me at first but I was comforted by the way that this was short term and the value of the experience was worth it.