How Freelance Tech Pros Keep Business Coming In

Many a tech pro loves the idea of working for themselves. Freelancing is certainly a trend at the moment; within 10 years, freelancers and contractors could make up roughly half of the U.S. workforce. But whether you love the idea of heading out on your own, or the decision has been made for you because of a layoff, remember this critical point: When you work for yourself, you’re the one who has to go out to find business.

Marketing yourself is a never-ending process. It offers no shortcuts and rarely pays off quickly. However, if you’re clear about your goals and willing to push your comfort level in terms of selling, you can find yourself working steadily on the kinds of projects that interest you, rather than taking what you can get to pay the bills. (And always make sure your clients can pay their bills.)

Quality is Everything

Freelancers throughout the tech world say word of mouth is their best marketing tool. However, “word of mouth” isn’t the same thing as “networking”; it happens when colleagues volunteer your name to a client because they know you can deliver the goods. Given that, the first rule of successful freelancing is simple: Be the consummate tech professional. Understand technology, learn the business problems that surround each project, and know how to communicate with others.

Rich Angermiller, a freelance digital media developer based in Jersey City, NJ, says he’s “consistently busy” working on front- and back-end projects for clients as large as Sprint and as small as a local steel distributor. Colleagues refer him to clients because “I have a good reputation,” he believes, and he works hard to maintain his skills. What surprises him is that a large part of that reputation results from simply paying attention to business basics that other independent contractors neglect.

Besides delivering work on deadline, for example, Angermiller returns calls promptly, “doesn’t disappear,” and takes a consistent approach to each project. “I take client service very seriously,” he said. Even before he moves into designing and coding a project, “I take on the role of account strategist, the person who talks about and understands the client’s business needs.” Since many of his competitors don’t do their homework or observe even basic business courtesies, he quickly gains an edge on repeat business.

Still, Angermiller isn’t satisfied. He’d like to take on bigger projects with more brand names, and observes that “making more business connections is easy to do on the local level, but not for the kind of work that I want.” To expand his reach, he plans to revamp his own website to include more case studies that demonstrate the project challenges he has faced, the solutions he’s developed, and the results.

The only thing delaying him is time. “I spend next to zero time marketing myself,” he said. “I should be spending at least 20 percent.”

Marketing is Part of the Job

Rob Reilly, a technology consultant in Orlando, FL, would agree. Like Angermiller, he emphasizes relationships in his marketing efforts, but spends a notable portion of his time on the road, attending conferences to stay in touch with industry friends and associates. “Just attending a conference and approaching people can lead to opportunities,” he said.

Reilly, who works for clients around the country, is aggressive in seeking out speaking opportunities at technology gatherings. “[That] gives me a lot of access I otherwise wouldn’t have. When you speak, attendees will seek you out, as well, which is great,” he said, then added: “I’ve actually found quite a bit of work as a result of my conference activities.”

Although “marketing doesn’t come easily to me,” Reilly estimates he spends up to half his time on sales and outreach, which includes pinging colleagues, researching potential clients and preparing for conferences. “I think it’s all about getting attention without trying to oversell,” he said. “It’s a tough balance.”

Part of that balance involves developing a mindset to see yourself as much as a businessperson as a developer, designer or engineer. Whenever you’re talking to people, Reilly suggests, it’s important to remember why you’re having the conversation in the first place; focusing on yourself won’t get you very far. “Being inquisitive, confident and outgoing are important when meeting new people and starting a relationship,” he said. “It takes practice to actively listen and then be interesting.”

Customizing Your Approach

One question many independents ask is whether they’re better off positioning themselves as an individual professional or some sort of business. Angermiller tailors his approach to the client and their project’s complexity. If a prospective assignment requires him to assemble and manage a team, his proposal comes from his business entity, Dragonfly Interactive. When pitching a solo project, he focuses on his name.

The reason is that clients with larger projects feel more comfortable when they see a team’s already in place, while those with smaller projects worry that working with a multi-person business will make things more complex than they need to be.

Angermiller’s advice to independents is to do what he’s just beginning to do as he seeks to grow his business: Assign yourself time. “Start small, but set quantitative goals so you can see you’ve accomplished something at the end of the day.”

With that time, “develop your networks and keep in touch with people,” Reilly added. “Put together a portfolio of your work and make it easy to find and review.” You should maintain your own website, of course, but don’t forget the power of actively participating on tech community sites such as GitHub and Stack Overflow.

Reilly also recommends writing and speaking. “Writing for trade journals, industry sites and books gives you credibility and puts you in front of possibly a large—even worldwide—audience,” he said. “Speaking does the same thing, only in a more localized way.”

Most of all, Reilly believes you have to work hard at cutting through everyone else’s noise. “Forget convention in marketing and go try something,” he said. “Experiment, measure, adjust, provide a great product, and repeat.”

What does he mean by “forget convention?” Reilly sometimes presents at conferences as the steampunk Dr. Torq, who builds steampunk micro-controller based gadgets and uses them during his talks while dressed in a top-hat, pin-striped vest, tweed jacket, paisley tie and cotton trousers. “The combination of gadgets and steampunk getup definitely attract attention,” he said. “People will want selfies with you, which is pretty cool. It also breaks the ice for interesting conversations.”

That approach may not be for everybody, but it’s earned Reilly consulting gigs. As he said: Forget convention.