A great benefit of freelance websites is that businesses have taken the first step and told the world that they are looking for help with a project.
Without Upwork, it is a time-consuming task and when we reach out to businesses, many of us are unsure if we’ll be rejected or come across as shitty.
Upwork solves that challenge for us, at least in part.
The other side of the coin is that we narrow the field of potential clients down significantly.
If we can rely on these numbers as well, Freelancer.com does somewhere near $20 million in sales per year (although a part of that might be from freelancer fees).
I couldn’t find any good sources for Fiverr but their revenue appeared to be about $100 million in 2019. There are also smaller freelance sites out there but they won’t change the point, so let’s move forward.
That means that Upwork, Fiverr, and Freelancer’s portion of the entire market is somewhere around 0.16%. Although this not 100% accurate, let’s assume that all the other small sites and job boards particularly made for freelancing come out to about 1% of the freelance market.
Of course, there are freelance projects we don’t have access to without special connections but it is impossible to find and judge those.
That means when you commit to using a freelance website like Upwork, you are saying yes to 1% and no to 99% of the freelance projects out there!
The idea itself is good because we don’t want to target every business, we just want a nice slice that is small enough so that we can dominate it and big enough to earn what we dream of.
The challenge is that these freelance websites have a certain stigma and branding to them, so they attract a certain type of client. Maybe that’s your preferred client but if it isn’t, don’t assume that they don’t exist just because you can’t find them there.
In fact, it seems statistically unlikely that you will find them there!
So where are the rest?
Some might be using different websites but it is likely that they don’t know who or where to ask for help.
They might also have been meaning to do something about it but got busy with more urgent things or they might not have realized that they needed help in the first place.
The tiny difference between Upwork and email (that changes everything)
You might be familiar with how Upwork and other freelance websites work: send a proposal for a project, perhaps jump on a call with the potential client and hopefully land their project.
Today, we’ll look at a technique you can use to land clients without depending on freelance platforms for profitable projects.
There are a few different options: job boards, Facebook groups, building something that drives inbound traffic, and a whole lot more.
Most of the other options are impractical because you face the same challenge as Upwork: you’ll depend on them for work and when there aren’t any, you’ll be struggling again.
You don’t get the freedom you are looking for.
Inbound clients (meaning when they come to you) are great but the challenge is that it takes a while before you’ll start seeing anything and it requires a whole lot of other skills you’ll need to figure out.
You’ll need to publish content on a platform (your own blog, LinkedIn, etc.) which takes time to learn and implement. It is a lot to look after if you are also working to land clients now.
The freedom we want from freelancing is not dependent on any particular channel to get clients and earn money. Being dependent is the opposite of freedom.
In this example, I’ll use the most flexible tool I can think of: email but the approach can be tailored to any weapon of choice.
Many of us feel weird about contacting businesses that aren’t clearly hiring and coming across as salesy, so I’ll cover how to approach that after this section.
Let’s begin by looking at how you can reach businesses on freelance websites like Upwork and via email side by side. That way you can better understand how you can “convert” your Upwork proposals to land clients outside freelance websites as well.
On Upwork we browse projects, find one we like, send a proposal, maybe we’ll even jump on a call with the business and hopefully, they will hire us.
Reaching out with email is a similar process with a few distinct differences:
We first have to decide on which businesses we want to help. We should decide that before going to Upwork as well but there aren’t that many options when you can’t decide which projects are created.
With email, it is more complex but also allows us more freedom to choose who we’d like to work with.
When we’ve decided exactly who we want to help, we’ll send them a note, introducing ourselves and asking if we can share some ideas with them.
If they are interested, we’ll share ideas with them and recommend a phone call to get a better feeling if we’ll be a good fit. After that, we’ll summarize with a proposal and the client hires us.
In both arenas, we aim to go deeper with fewer potential clients because we know that most other freelancers do the opposite and mass-contact many businesses with generic messages.
With the emails, we have the opportunity to go much deeper with the potential clients because we simply have more options and know more about them. I made this side-by-side comparison, so you can get an overview:
As you can see, the two processes are similar except at the beginning. Many freelancers use the proposal on Upwork as the actual proposal when in reality it works better to use to share ideas.
If you have already been doing that, the two funnels are almost the same.
The difference is that because freelancing is a relationship-based business, it will often be too early to summarize what needs to be done because the client doesn’t trust us yet. By running ideas by them first we get an opportunity to speak more with them and build trust.
Before we get into the secret sauce of how to make email work to land clients, let’s look at how you can overcome that weird feeling of contacting someone who hasn’t created a job ad yet.
If you are curious what winning proposals can look like, click here to get 3 real proposals winning projects worth $500, $1,200 and $5,000
How to get over the weirdness of contacting someone who didn’t post a job
Here’s an example of an email I sent to a business that I had never spoken with before and landed a job earning me $1,068 for an article.
Unlike most emails we see out there, it wasn’t salesy or spammy. This is the exact email I sent to get in touch with the business owner at first:
As you can see, this approach is different from the typical spam emails we normally get. I spent time making it personal and I wrote it specifically for him.
Look at this post I found on Reddit. So many people hate sending emails to businesses they don’t know.
So, why are some people OK emailing strangers while others are not? Why do we think that businesses hate hearing from us? Is it because we have only experienced spam emails like this one?
Or is it because we are afraid of being rejected?
The point is that emailing businesses you haven’t spoken to before doesn’t have to be icky. You can create a great experience for everyone while earning good money. It’s not about us taking something and the receiver giving it to us. It has to be a win-win.
The reality is that it is all about mindset. I’ll show you three techniques you can use to get comfortable reaching out to businesses and offer your freelance services.
We don’t have to be salesy or spammy
We’ve all seen spam emails like these:
And through our jobs, most of us have gotten unsolicited emails like this one, too:
Getting one of those feels like someone saying “hi stranger, I don’t care about you but here’s why you need to care about me”.
Most of us don’t want to come across that way and would never dream of acting like that face to face with someone. In fact, many people sending them out probably don’t even realize how it sounds or they might feel pressured to send them.
I’ve found that we often dislike those emails because they are not relevant to us. If you get an email about your dream shoes being on sale, wouldn’t you at least look at it?
Just because many other marketers act spammy doesn’t mean you have to do the same. This is your freelance business and you can choose the approach you prefer.
Some freelancers prefer to send out generic emails because they don’t worry if other people think they are spammy, while others prefer to build deeper connections with the businesses they are reaching out to.
The business might already be looking for someone like you
The reality is that some businesses are already looking for someone like you to help but haven’t found a good fit yet. Or they might be too busy and don’t know where to look.
After completing the project in the example above, the client asked for my help with an entirely different project because he didn’t have time to do it.
Of course, not everyone is looking for help and in some cases, it just isn’t a good fit. When that happens, most people will tell you politely or not reply at all – it’s rare that they’ll send a negative email.
In fact, out of 247 emails I sent during an experiment, only one sent a slightly negative email back. On the other hand, several other people said nice things even though they weren’t interested. Here are a few examples:
People want to hear from you
I’m sure you’ve had situations where someone asked for your advice. Whether it was your grandparents asking how to turn on the computer or your friends asking for a restaurant recommendation. When they ask, you’ll help them right?
The difference with cold emails is that many business owners want to ask for help but don’t know who to turn to. If you knew that they were looking for help with something you are good at, would you offer to help?
I bet that many of us would — that’s what happens when a company puts out a new job ad and we apply for it!
So why is that the only time we do it? My guess is that we don’t want to come across as annoying because we hate when people are annoying to us. We might also not want to be rejected and feel stupid.
It’s funny how differently we as a society have decided to talk to each other via email. We are much nicer to each other in person.
Can you imagine meeting a stranger in person and talking to him like a spam email?
“Hey there, I work for New Corp. and we would like to call you to tell you about our services. What is your phone number? And could you give us the CEO’s email address? We can install a new system in one hour and do anything you want!”
If you’ve ever been to a networking event, you’ve probably experienced people machine-gunning their business cards at you and trying to sell you right there on the spot.
Luckily, most people are not like that. If people reject a warm, thoughtful, message from you, it’s on them. Not you.
Avoid the trap of tools
You’ve probably already had some freelance projects, so I’ll assume that you’ve found your idea and pricing. Even if it isn’t perfect, ‘good enough’ is good for now.
People tend to recommend you to get a website, be on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Because “it can’t hurt”. But when we only have limited energy it CAN hurt!
When we do a lot of things, it’s easy to get distracted and confused about what will move the needle and earn us more money.
So before we move forward, I wanted to point out that to land clients via email you don’t need anything but an email and a way to get paid.
It doesn’t even have to be a professional email address. A Gmail will do.
The only other thing you need is a way to get paid like a bank account or a Paypal account. That’s it!
The secret sauce: read the mind of your future clients
I once had a job as a phone salesman and I had to call random lists of businesses every day. Most of them were irrelevant, so there was a lot of time wasted.
To avoid that, we freelancers benefit from qualifying our leads first.
Often, businesses will post the number of customers on their website. If we can find that, we can usually also find the pricing on their website and if we multiply the number of customers with the average product price, we’ll get an idea about their revenue.
It won’t be an accurate representation of their business but it’ll give you a ballpark idea to go by. The key here is not a particular size but rather to weed out the worst leads: those that are clearly too small to pay for our services.
Because we’ll go in-depth with our targets, it saves us time to research them upfront so we can avoid those that can’t afford us anyway.
Quick and dirty client research that works
Understanding your customers deeply allows you to earn more than your competitors.
It gives you enough ammunition to approach them in a personal way that will make them feel like you really understand them and their challenges.
Everyone is busy with solutions left, right, and center but the pros know that understanding your customers is at least as important.
Even if I stood on top of a mountain and spoke to a group of hungry freelancers, less than 1% would do this one thing. So, don’t feel like it might be too late — this is deep human connection and it will never be outdated.
The simplest way to go about it is to speak with people that are similar to your dream client. You could for example connect with them on LinkedIn and ask them questions such as if they have hired a (your service) freelancer before and what their goals and challenges are.
Email script (don’t copy-paste it. Tailor it and make it your own):
I’m X and I do Y for a living. I don’t have anything to sell but I’m researching businesses like yours and I’d love the opportunity to ask you a couple of quick questions.
I imagine you are busy, so it doesn’t have to take more than 10 mins and I can work around your schedule.
If this is OK for you, I promise to be respectful of your time. Would it be OK if I send you a few different times that might work for a call?
When you have done that a few times you’ll start to notice a pattern in their responses. The deeper you dig with them, the better results you’ll get when you work to land similar businesses as clients. I like to speak with five to ten businesses and the more the better.
Often, they will first tell you politically correct things, such as that they want more sales.
If you dig deeper, you could learn that a startup founder might feel pressured by the investors and the board of directors to grow the company, and you might spot an opening where you can help.
Qualifying potential clients without being salesy: separate the warm from the cold
Now that we know they can likely pay for our services and we understand their challenges, it’s time to qualify those that are interested instead of spending a ton of time on ideas for businesses that aren’t interested.
We’ll do that by qualifying them via email. I’ve had good results using Ramit Sethi’s script:
[Introduction] I read your article about X and noticed that you’ve recently started using videos on your website.
I’ve been doing video editing for three years and I’d like to offer to help you edit your videos and get them optimized for the web.
That would make them look more professional and load faster, which is important for your readers. And you’d free up time that you could use to create new content.
We can discuss the details, of course, but first I wanted to see if this is something you might be interested in.
If so, would it be okay if I sent you a few ideas on how to help?
The purpose of the introduction is to show the person that we took the time to get to know them and that we are not like everyone else out there.
You’ll read about many people out there suggesting that you use a similar script or approach. The difference is that most people are too vague with the introduction in the first line.
They might write something along the lines of “I like your blog articles, really great stuff”. That is too generic.
Don’t copy-paste this script exactly but rather tailor it to sound like you. As a rule of thumb, if you can copy-paste the introduction, it isn’t personal enough.
In a world where everyone will try to spend as little time as possible, we can make our future clients feel special by showing we took the time to get to know them – they will recognize the effort.
The next sections in the script describe who we are and how it is relevant to them. Remember, no one cares about us but we know they care about themselves, so let’s focus on that to get their attention.
At the end, we gauge their interest by asking if we can send them ideas. If we don’t hear back after e.g. two follow-ups, it is probably not the right timing for them.
Impress future clients with your ideas and show how you can impact their business
When someone is interested in hearing more, research their business well and impress them by going in-depth with your ideas.
This is where it pays off to be a freelancer that can help with execution rather than a consultant that only offers advice. You can spill as much knowledge as you want with two benefits:
- You can show that you are an expert on the subject
- You can impress them by giving free advice others would charge for
You’ll want to focus on their core business problems and how your ideas help with that. In some cases, you might even offer a free sample or mock-up.
If you are a designer, you could send them a mock-up.
If you are a writer, you could send them some relevant keywords you could write about that might help them get traffic from Google.
If you are a marketer, you could also send them some keywords for either Google, Youtube, or the app stores (if they have a mobile app).
If you are a developer you could send them ideas for how they could make their website load faster.
The goal is not for the client to hire you right when they see the ideas – they just have to be interested enough to want to speak with you on the phone.
Filtering the gold from the sand with a call
Your social skills will make the biggest impact during the call because freelancing is a relationship-based business. The purpose is for us to understand the client’s needs and get them to trust that we can help them do a good job on their project.
I like to aim for speaking 10-20% of the time and have the client speak about their business for the rest of the time.
It is common to feel nervous about the phone call. It might help you to think of it simply as a coffee meeting on the phone. You don’t have to sell them on anything if you think it isn’t the right fit for them.
This is about exploring if it might be a good fit and learn what kind of challenges they have.
The better you understand them, the easier you can bridge your services to their business, and the more profitable projects you’ll land.
It can be done via email but speaking with them almost always gets you better insights and you can feel out if they might be the type of client you want to avoid.
It is always a great idea to prepare for what the client might ask you. Usually, they will want to have:
- A deeper look at the ideas you sent them
- Your background and relevant experience
- Your fees, timeline and next steps
You’ll also want to prepare some questions to better understand their business such as:
- Who are your best customers?
- To get customers, what have you tried? And how did it go?
- What is your business goal this year?
- If we work together, what would that look like on a daily basis?
- Have you worked with any freelancers before? How did it go?
- What are your biggest sticking points/bottlenecks right now? How have you been dealing with them?
- How much time do we have to get this done?
Win the deal with a proposal
If you agreed to move forward on the call, it’s time to put together a proposal.
It could be as simple as a recap of the ideas you agreed upon on the phone call along with price, timeline, and how frequently you’ll update the client on the progress.
Below is an example of a fairly long proposal with four projects and you could make it shorter, especially if you talked about fewer projects.
The text is copied for convenience if you are on mobile (some details are replaced with ‘X’ for privacy):
“Oh, this is great! It looks like optimizing them could be an easy traffic win for us! Thanks for sharing, X. I didn’t include anything SEO-related in the proposal below because I figured it would be too many things at once considering the points we have already talked about but I’m happy to help with that, of course.
You mentioned that your goal is to get more customers to go from learning X and extend the X to 2 months.
The projects we spoke about (X) will impact driving new customers more than improving the retention.
You did mention the focus on driving a larger pool of customers, so I think I’ve found a pretty good approach for us to start out with:
I figure that there must be a particular reason as to why customers X. It is probably hidden either in the data or in the head of the customers. So, it might take some digging before we can decide the best solution to solve it.
I’m cautious to go open-ended into a project like that because it is so easy for it to become a time-waster with no real result for us. I could drive that project with the lowest priority while focusing on the other projects first as tasks like scheduling 1-on-1 interviews with customers can take a bit of time (I like to knock this out in a few days but it is just not always possible because the customers aren’t available).
Of the other projects, all other things being equal, X will be the quickest to get us results. I can start by getting them up and running first and then move on to focusing on improving the performance X and the collaborations with X.
For X, as I understand, it is mostly a project for developers since it seems to require that we call Apple/Google’s App Store API as they run with specific X internationally. Is there anything, in particular, you had in mind? (We can easily run tests with ads internationally if needed)
You mentioned that we might not be ready to move forward on some projects because of X, so I envision the next 2 months could look like this:
Keep in mind that I don’t know exactly how much past data, etc. we have available so I’ve given a range below. In my experience, planning the projects out first makes it much easier to execute and will ultimately save you time and money when I execute as it helps us know that we are working on the big wins rather than something with little impact.
Month 1 (Feb/Mar)
- Test X in-depth to understand if it is a viable channel for us at scale (e.g. with X for 30 days)
- Investment: X
- Marketing X
- Investment: X
- X collaborations performed the best in the past
- Investment: X
- X: via data and customer interviews, figure out why many customers drop off X and prepare an action plan with solutions for how to double it
- Investment: X
Month 2 (Apr) – it is tricky to be highly specific here because it depends on the outcome of the first projects. I’ll need to potentially create a new proposal for you based on the outcomes and what you prefer to move forward with.
- Continue the X test until the four weeks are completed
- Marketing in X: Execute on the big wins based on the plan
- X: Execute on the big wins based on the plan
- X: Execute on the big wins based on the plan
Depending on what you prefer, I can, for example, have a weekly update in your inbox when you wake up every Friday morning (and we can tweak the communication style as we go to whatever you prefer).
What do you think?
If you’d like more proposal examples, click here to get 3 real proposals winning projects worth $500, $1,200 and $5,000
- When you learn this approach to landing freelance clients, it offers you more freedom than freelance platforms ever could
- Understanding customers well is the most important part because you’ll know how to help them and that is what they’ll pay for. Not whether you reach out via Upwork, email or something else