#1 Build Authority in Your Niche
If you want to grow and get better clients, you need to look the part. People pay more for specialists. Think doctors, lawyers, plumbers. Every time you have a burning problem you want the specialist. The guy who has the best tools, the best knowledge, the best workflows to give you the best solution.
It might not always pan out, but we are always willing to spend more for the specialist.
So if you want to be able to up your prices, you need to improve your position as an authority in your field. And herein lies the catch 22. Because the first thing your customers will want to see is the portfolio of a specialist. And if you don’t have any authority pieces already done, you’re gonna have a hard time getting to any authority building work in the first place.
Most experts and instructors will tell you to look for the pro-bono work. Where you wave your fees in favor of getting to work on high visibility projects. And, if you are deliberate about it, it’s something that can work.
But most of us will have quite a hard time to find those high visibility projects starting up. It’s not something you stumble upon that often, and doing a lot of cheap projects, hoping one will go big, is not realistic.
So when you are thinking about authority, if you can’t find high visibility projects, don’t get hung up on the portfolio alone.
Stop and take a good look at your field. If you’d grade yourself from 1–7 how good would you say you are? Most of us are like 3–4. Not total beginners, but there is always room to improve to get to that kingly 7 rank.
When you look up, you may not feel very expertly. But, what if you look down? There are a lot more people on the base of the pyramid on the 1–2 levels, maybe half the entire niche.
This becomes a glass half empty half full exercise. Because if you look up from the base levels you look like an expert. You might even feel like a 4 or 5 right now. But how can you exude the expertise without the portfolio?
What are the top experts actually doing? They have books, podcasts, blog posts, interviews, products, websites, public speaking engagements. It’s no longer the portfolio that keeps them on that number one spot, it’s all this other content and the hype that’s built around it.
And you can build content, too. It’s not really that hard. This article here is just that, an authority building piece of content. Something of value that helps people improve in their goals and also positions you as a knowledgeable trustworthy guy.
So how can you build authority without a portfolio?
You write a 10,000+ words in depth article that helps people transform from where they are now to where they want to be.
Let’s say you are a designer. You believe in endurance and you love running. You don’t just write an article on design for everyone in the world, you’ll just get lost in the noise. No, you write about how you can get better at what you love, running, through what you know, design.
There is a lot of content there, and as a designer and passionate runner you can build the link between them. Talk about the history of running and how companies like Adidas and Nike used design to revolutionize the quality of running equipment. How design evolved and what is top notch nowadays.
For example, check out the innovative Nike GO FlyEase below, a pair of hands-free sneakers where engineering meets user experience, a designer could speak hours about it (the accessibility side, the self-explanatory design, the empowering of the user and so forth)
You can go further and compile a list of products that can be on the ultimate runner’s guide. Why certain shapes are better for the soles. Why certain equipment is designed to get better aerodynamics, better feel, less chafing, less strain. Why certain colors are better for visibility in rain or fog and keep you safe while not looking like a clown. Why certain typography fits better on a runner’s back.
You can recommend cool designed products that are used by runners. Think phone holsters, flip belts, running shorts, calf compression sleeves, nipple stickers, waterproof headphones, headbands, hydration belt… There are tons of products out there and you can use your design knowledge to combine shapes and colors to make for a cool and functional outfit.
There are many apps for runners, you can comment their UI/UX and explain which helps runners better and why, and how better design makes that happen.
Your point is to show how running enthusiasts can become better runners with understanding a bit more about design and its importance. Like this, you’ll position yourself as the design expert for runners.
Your article will get more shares and more visibility than if you’d just talk about design in general. You’ll have a lot easier time getting projects with people who love running. And at some point you’ll become the go to guy, the expert designer of running apps/products. I bet there’s some money in that.
Or maybe you’re like me, you prefer comfortable reading to outdoor exercises. Again, you’d build your post around what you love.
A big fan of epic fantasy? You can show how understanding design can help writers create more engagement with their readers.
You can talk about how to design characters, clothes, weapons, monsters, towns, castles, maps. Throw in some of your sketches. How you’d imagine the Mistborn’s world covered in ash.
Show writers how a cool cover design can make them stand out from the millions of similar books on Amazon. What colors and fonts work best on their websites. Maybe throw in some images they could use for free on their social platforms, Vikings and Zombies always do well (free cover downloads for Facebook & Instagram, just need to put their emails in).
Help epic fantasy writers to sell better and create more engaging worlds with your design guide.
And like this you become the expert designer for the epic fantasy writers out there, without having a flashy portfolio.
I know 10,000 words may sound a lot, but that’s the whole point, only an expert could ramble so much on a niche. By writing it you prove the point.
You don’t need to be a writer/blogger to write a long article. The online world is not dominated by Kafkas anyways, your competition is “I Thought I Was Going To Die, But Then You’ll Never Believed How This Polar Bear Saved My Life,” so don’t worry about being a literary genius.
Write about what you love and focus on delivering value. Show someone how they could transform, from where they are now to where they can be if they take your advice.
You’re already an expert at something, you just need content to prove it. Authority is completely free to build and can yield incredible results, so start building it.
#2 Stop thinking in hours and start thinking in story points — Learn a little Agile
We humans are incredibly bad at estimating stuff. We are always optimistic about our own abilities and we heavily rely on an idealistic future self to take all the right actions. This usually backfires, and you end up with a future self pissed off at your poor judging skills.
Now, for me, I have to compound that with the fact that I’m a pro-crastinator. I mean, I am playing the champions leagues baby, I have projects I’ve delayed for years. Not something to be proud of, sure, but the gist is I certainly can’t rely on that flimsy future self.
Enter Agile. Agile is a project management methodology that gets used the most in the IT sector.
It was developed because 70% of IT projects ended in some sort of failure. Apparently programmers and their managers are incredibly bad at judging both the project scope and their team’s abilities. And all that waterfall planning in the void couldn’t really account for the real life that always has some wrench to throw in. Agile was developed to try to better account for real life and real estimations.
Now, before you start rolling your eyes, clearly Agile is not a silver bullet and will not fix everyone’s inherent problems. The theory is sound, but the practice, well it depends on who and how it applies it.
“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is”
― Yogi Berra
Yet, there are things in there that are extremely useful to you as a freelancer.
Agile removes optimistic biases from the estimations and it offers leverage in negotiating project scopes an inflight changes with your clients.
It makes it much easier to accommodate changes in the project’s direction. This is what Agile was meant to do, to close the gap between execution and vision, between technical implementations and business needs.
I know planning doesn’t sound sexy or even worthwhile. If you already know exactly what you need to do, why waste more time noting it down?
Because you’ll need it in order to grow. Freelancing is not only about getting the job done. If you want to build a life around it, that’s just 15%. You have to find leads, build products, manage clients and partners, fix technical issues, do newsletters, create quality video/audio/text marketing content, write great sales copywriting, work on client retention, handle accounting and taxes, do your dishes and keep a clean office, have a positive mindset and be able to persevere no matter what.
Overall, it’s quite a lot of work, getting used to planning things adequately becomes crucial in the long run.
Other than that, you clients will love working with you, because you can give a transparent overview of their project’s progress. If you can show someone every 1 or 2 weeks, “Look here is a progress report and how it takes shape, here is a demo of what I did until now, what is your feedback?”, you’re going to look and feel like a pro.
Yes, this opens the door to more in-progress changes, but those would have come anyways, and you can always set a fee for this feedback sessions, if the changes required push the scope and add additional story points (you can call them credits) then you can negotiate with the client to either up the budget or cut from other parts of the project.
It gives clarity, leverage and allows the project to flow in the direction that is wanted. Your clients will love you for it. Use it.
Here are some advantages to investing 10–20 hours to wrap your head around Agile way of doing things:
- For larger clients it allows you to work/bill in iterations (2–3 sprints per iteration). At the end of the iteration the customer can continue work on the project, or end the project (i.e. : it accomplished its goal). I know (from experience) I can’t estimate well more than a few weeks out, and pay-per-iteration also keeps the cash-flow coming in. It’s no fun to be at month 6 of a 3 month project, and waiting to finish the project so you can bill…
- Agile helps when change happens. I’ve done a ton of fixed bid projects (which you think you can do with waterfall) that have lost me money, because of a customer request in the middle of the cycle. Change happens: the customer can deprioritize a task to get some other work done faster, with Agile you can have a system to bill accordingly.
- Good customer collaboration framework. It keeps everyone on the same page. Doing a sprint demo every 2 weeks is a great way to improve the relationship with your clients. Put yourself in their shoes, who would they prefer? Someone that’s 100% dedicated to keeping them in the loop, or the flaky freelancer who sometimes emails them back, sometimes not.
- Delivering the simplest thing that could possibly work (minimal viable products). Agile promotes this idea of developing something deployable in each sprint. It’s something to keep in mind as you’re working: don’t be afraid to go back to the client and say, “This would be a lot simpler (or more powerful, or whatever) if we did it this way…”
- Keeps client engagement high. You can send your clients an email every day you work on their project. This is like a scrum daily to them: “what I worked on today?”, “what/when I’m going to work on their project next?”, “Is there anything in my way?,” and “Overall, how goes progress?”
The number one issue people have working with freelancers is trust.
The more transparent you are, and more predictable, the easier it becomes for clients to trust you! Implement Agile in your workflow and stand out from the crowd.
Will also come in handy with the next rules which help you make more money, marketing and delegating.
#3. Stop selling yourself and start selling outcomes — Learn Marketing
We have this folklore character in my country called Diddle, which does not appear immediately smart, more of a jester, but things happen in such a way that he always gets ahead, cosmic irony revealed. And one of the stories that stuck with me, is about him and his two older brothers trying to split an inherited cow.
After arguing for a while, they decide only one of them could be the owner, and for picking the winner they would each build a shed and then see where the prize chooses to stay, a fair contest.
So, while the cow is away on the pasture, the two brothers start building early in the morning. They are really invested in it, pouring all their heart and sweat, as hard working men usually are, while Diddle, of course, is safe asleep with not a worry on his mind.
By evening or so, Diddle shows up and decides he should put something up himself, but as he’s not overly enthusiastic about manual labor he just quickly hacks some branches out of the nearest tree to arrange some sort of crude fencing. Not to be said he didn’t participate at all, while his brothers, as elders usually do, call him a fool and make fun of his poorly improvised work.
But it so happens that the tree he had picked was one full of young leaves. And as you can guess, when the cow comes home, it safely ignores the laboriously constructed sheds and, much to his brothers’ dismay, goes right into Diddle’s makeshift version to feast on that fresh greenery. And so Diddle ends up with the inheritance, continuing his adventures, going from one stupidly lucky event into another, irony abounding.
It’s quite amusing if you are not like one of those hard working brothers depicted in the story. Working your ass off, knowing that you most certainly got it, that you know what your audience wants, only to find out things are not quite so.
No matter how well thought out and executed your work is, if people are not aware of it, or do not immediately perceive it as desirable, it will not receive the expected success.
And this is where marketing comes in, a science centered on improving how others perceive you and your work.
It’s not about lying, bragging or scamming people, but about educating them on the value you could bring into their lives. It’s similar to what we talked at #1 point with building a position of authority.
Marketing is not reserved for a special group of people. If you haven’t been to the famed “Marketing School”, it doesn’t mean you can’t do marketing. In fact you market yourself all the time, whenever you apply for a job interview or a project, when meeting somebody new, or making a new connection or networking. In all of these scenarios you’re marketing yourself.
Marketing is a necessity. Even if you ignore it, you still have marketing, it’ll just be random. There will still be a perception of you and your potential value in the client’s mind anyways. And if you are stubborn in ignoring it, you’ll have a very hard time growing your business.
But, how do you cut through all the BS out there?
First, I recommend Seth Godin, you can find many valuable interviews on YouTube, or pick up some of his books on the subject; “Purple Cow” or “This is Marketing”.
Second, focus on the 20% that bring 80% of the results. Focus on selling outcomes!
If you sell yourself and the technical skills you have, you’ll end up selling to middle men. You’ll be delivering all the value, but making only a percentage of the returns. In order to reach the original client, you have to learn to sell outcomes.
Instead of selling what you can do, like this magic flower in Mario, you want to sell the rad shit the customer will be able to do by employing you.
You don’t sell cover designs, you sell better conversion, better click through, better reader engagement. You don’t sell a website, you sell a platform for your client’s customers, a platform where he can exchange his value with the world, a platform that can scale and bring him freedom and security.
You don’t sell him on what you do, you sell him on saving time, making money, better peace of mind, better reputation, better self worth, better legacy, better life.
Sure, there will be some technical work involved, but that’s not what he really wants. It’s just what’s needed to help him transform from where he is to where he wished to be.
If you can sell him on the outcome, you can then sell him on any product that helps him get there! You’re a self directed person, teach yourself a little Marketing.
#4. Spend at least 30% of your tasks in Marketing and begin delegating
The other big issue with marketing, is people think they are doing enough of it anyways. Everyone who’s been a freelancer more than a week knows you have to differentiate yourself, spice up your portfolio, present the best possible self, stand out in some way so you can get the projects coming.
But few spend daily time on it. Having a hundred 5 star reviews is an excellent social proof, but it’s not really deliberate marketing. It’s a result of you working IN your business and not ON your business.
How many hours/points a week do you spend on actively marketing yourself? Do you post on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Quora, YouTube? Do you blog? Do you do interviews? Every week? Every day?
I know, it sounds absurd. Most of us are 99% of our time either looking for work or doing the work. Marketing and promotions doesn’t even make the nice to have list. You probably are spending 2 hours a week or less on it.
That’s less than 5% of your time spent working ON your business.
There are people out there who would pay you ten times your current rate just to work with you. But since you’re not out there yourself, they’ll have to settle on who they find.
It doesn’t matter how good you are if nobody knows about it!
Marketing is not a cost, it’s an investment. If you could get ten times more people to know about you and improve your authority, there is a good chance you are going to get much better clients. But it doesn’t just happen, you need to work deliberately on it. You need to ramp up those marketing points.
Better marketing means better projects. Better projects mean better money. Better money means more time and options for better marketing. The cycle moves forward and pushes you in a better and better position. That’s how you get to become the queen/king of your niche. Build that marketing plan.
You should spend at least 1/3 of your daily activities on it. Building your home platform (website, funnels, email lists, products), building your social status (social posts, interviews, guest blogs, YouTube), stalking clients and building valuable content (blog posts, tools, guides, eBooks).
It’s not easy, but that’s why it’s lonely at the top. There is a lot to be done so you need to have a good project management, see #2.
Also, it’s a good time to start preparing for delegation. You can’t possibly do everything yourself in the long run.
I know, nobody can do things as well as you do, and if they can, they probably charge double, so outsourcing doesn’t sound easy. But, if you have everything broken down and streamlined using a well thought out process, you can find tasks you could hire out. Those 1,3,5 magic points tasks, those which don’t have a high complexity, should be delegated as soon as you afford to.
The more money and demand you get, the easier it becomes to remove yourself slowly out of the equation. Otherwise you will become the bottleneck in your business, and whatever you invest in marketing you will not be able to recoup in projects.
Making a dent in this world requires some form of delegation. Get used to breaking your tasks and standardizing some of your workflows and you’ll be able to bring in outside help.
#5. Build your own products
Like Mr. Warren is saying, if you dream of being free and only working when you want and on what you want, money has to no longer be a problem. Your time and energy have to, first, be untangled from the money making equation, before you can redirect them however you wish.
The best way to do that is to sell your own products, making money while you sleep, eat, enjoy exotic holidays or work on passion projects. The freelancer’s dream, beaches and sunsets, less monitors and eyestrain.
A simple idea are courses, to teach those below you on the levels 1,2,3 of the pyramid, that see you as the expert.
You can build a video series to help them become better and do things almost as well as you. Don’t worry about bringing in more competition. The hungry ones will come for you anyways. Better to have them working with you than against you.
If it all works well, you can get to a point where you are making more money from teaching than from doing. Reminds me of a saying we have “Those who can do, those who can’t… teach” 🙂
This is also good for outsourcing, because you can find more quality collaborators and expand your business’ potential. You can pick up from your best students and offer them the opportunity to work on their portfolio pieces with your clients, win-win.
Another simple idea are starter packs. Take all your setup work you do for clients and you can sell it as a starter pack that helps other professionals jumpstart their process and save a ton of time and effort. You’d also gain authority points for this.
The designer starter pack for the running apps. The cover building starter pack for the epic fantasy books. Alongside your expert piece, create a bunch of tools/products that go hand in hand and boost the steps you are promoting.
As long as you can do technical work for your clients, you have the ability to build your own little products. Doesn’t have to be mind blowing stuff, just slowly untangle your time from your earnings.
#6. Mix in recurring revenue
Recurring revenue is the holy grail all big companies dream of. Actually, perfect retention combined with recurring revenue.
Imagine you’d sell a $1 monthly subscription and every customer you’d ever make would stay with you forever. You’d own that fairy tale golden goose. All you’d need to do is take the money you made the month before and reinvest it in advertising, next month you’d have more users, the old ones plus the new ones.. even more $1 bills to use, burn all of that on growth and keep repeating the cycle until you reach the edges of the internet. Million of users paying you $1 a month for the rest of their lives.
This is why we hear about startups trying to burn as much cash as possible, they are on the run to gather all the possible users before anybody else does the same. It’s a lot cheaper to find and retain customers than to acquire or steal them from the competition, so all that investors’ money gets squandered away and everyone’s giddy and happy. Even when there is no apparent profitability, because sometimes it just pays off and they end up with a billion dollar a month company, and that’s enough to take away the sting out of all the other messes which didn’t pan out.
Let’s get back to earth… perfect retention, similar to perpetuum mobile does not exist in real life. People will not keep paying you year after year after year, well, maybe they will if you are Netflix, but you are not, so stay realistic.
The recurring revenue model is more predictable, offers better returns in the long term and is the system most companies prefer to employ. It gives them a solid position to plan for future growth. There is a reliable budget coming in, month after month.
Think banks, communication companies, utilities, insurances, software giants like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, streaming services like Netflix, Spotify, they all offer subscriptions, even car markers nowadays are trying to get you into some kind of recurring service.
Most of the money you make in your lifetime will go to some sort of recurring payment.
And if all big companies are doing it, you should be too. An easy way is to add a support option. Maybe sell a maintenance & security option (for developers) or a front of the line option where you give priority in scheduling, early access or offer exclusive benefits (like extra credits for those weekly demos, free revisions, etc).
You can do a play on the products you build at #5. Instead of one-time selling them individually, you can have your own digital library platform where customers can access your products for a monthly fee.
If you want to learn how to build such a paywall platform (a Netflix-like library for your content), this is what I teach, check out One Dollar System. You’ll find all the tools, knowledge and step by step guide to get you going, only $1/month.
If you have 1000 users this month and you will still have 900 in the next one, you can easily reinvest the bulk of your money back into the system, upskilling yourself, getting better tools, better hosting, hiring help and paying for ads, because you know you can count on getting most of it back from your current clients plus the extra from the expected growth.
It’s a great way to build sustainable income. Having a thousand users paying for access to your digital products, content, courses and community can give you the freelancer’s dream, the freedom to only work when you want and on what you want.
#7. Focus on building and delivering value
In the end money is just a translation unit for perceived value. Whatever you have or don’t have in your bank account is a direct representation of the perceived value you put out in the world.
So if you want a better bank statement, you need to find ways to deliver more value. Instead of using your work to touch the lives of only a few people, think on how you could leverage the internet to touch the lives of tens of thousands. Instead of judging projects only based on money, judge them on the potential of value you can deliver.
The more you give, the more you get.
This only works if you are in control of the value delivering chain. This is why #5 and #6 have more potential than client work.
The moment you work in a 9–5 job or for a client, whatever value you create gets repositioned as their output to the world. You move on, your work is still there dripping value, but in their system, not yours.
In the long term, if you want to become independent, you need to create your own platform and your own products and serve your value directly without any middlemen.
Don’t be afraid to start. Don’t be afraid to fail. Nobody ever got anywhere without failing first. The more you fail, the more you grow.
Be a little unreasonable and believe in yourself. We miss 100% of the shots we don’t make. It’s not easy to put yourself out there, but for sure it gets you more chances than just having one profile on Upwork or fiverr.
Belief drives action, action creates results, results reinforce belief. If the circle stays consistent your beliefs will become stronger and stronger. This is why “fake it till you make it” works.
You believe you can, you take action, you see that it works, you believe more, you act more… on and on until one day, finally, you become. There is no more fakeness, just honesty. You did the process, you got the results.
The brain’s ability to believe is legendary. It can take any belief, no matter the outrageousness, and reinforce it, bit by bit until it feels truer than truth itself.
We have people out there who sincerely think the earth is flat, and they are some of the reasonable ones, I don’t want to go into religion or politics but I’m sure you know someone.
You have the ability to believe anything, that is a fact. It all starts with belief.
Believe you can achieve more. Believe you can become more. Believe you can offer more. Believe you will make a difference.