It’s the freelancers dream: a constantly flowing stream of long-term projects.
Let’s face it, getting started as a freelancer is fairly easy, in the grand scheme of things.
Almost anyone with a reasonable skill-set can find a single project to freelance on. Most can easily find two or three. But what really sets apart a successful creative freelancer from the rest is their ability to sustain a steady stream of work (and income).
The goal is reaching that critical point where you have enough ongoing work from freelance clients that you don’t need to spend as much time on proposals etc.
You have more control over your working schedule, and likely a great deal less stress about finances too.
How to get more long-term clients is one of the questions I get asked the most often, so today I’ll go through the process.
One of the most important aspects of this, however, is knowing who your ideal client is. You can figure that out using something like my target audience worksheet, which you can download for free here.
From small seeds, a mighty trunk may grow…
The first thing you have to do is change your perspective a little bit.
Although it may seem logical to look for big projects that will require a lot of work over an extended period, in reality very few clients actually say that upfront.
This is not to say that there aren’t clients out there looking for long-lasting relationships with freelancers who they trust. There are definitely many of them. They just don’t say (or maybe even know it) themselves.
Take, for example, my current web developer/techie freelancer.
When I hired him initially, it was to help fix a couple of issues with my website. I didn’t ask him to help improve and debug it for the next 5 years. I didn’t ask him if he would be available in a year to redesign it.
I was looking for someone who could help me fix a couple of things that had stopped working on the site. The developer I found did a great job, and I enjoyed working with him. So, of course, the next time I needed a change on the site, I emailed him. And the next time.
Later, when I needed a new website and some major changes, we worked together to create a plan of action on a much bigger scale. This was over a year since we had initially started working together. And I don’t foresee any reason I would need to use another developer instead of him in the future.
The mistake most freelancers make when trying to find ongoing work, is turning away the small jobs because they don’t think they’ll get repeat business.
As with anything, start small and scale. The best way to get long-term jobs is to do an amazing job on the small stuff, and nurture your relationships with your clients.
First of all, you’ll be able to easily get the small jobs. And the work you do on that small job will probably be better because you’ll be focused on one task and really solve the problem.
Once the client sees that you do great work and solve their problem, they’ll want to work with you the next time they have an issue. Of course, not all small jobs lead to long-term wins. There are of course certain types of clients that are more likely to ‘convert’ into a longer-term partnership. You wouldn’t propose on the first date right?
Having a good idea of your ideal client, using a detailed target audience or buyer persona, is key here. If you haven’t worked out your target audience yet, you download a ‘Target Audience Worksheet’ here, which should help you work it out.
Compare each client and project as it comes through against your buyer personas, and make sure that ‘having a need for ongoing work’ is one of your qualifiers.
Don’t rush your decision – you never know which small task will turn into an ongoing role and don’t make the mistake of charging too little to get the work. Once you start that way, it’s hard to change it.
The secret every successful freelancer knows is that creating a consistent income stream isn’t about more clients. It’s about building trust with the clients you already have.
Trust can be a hard thing to come by online, and you’d be surprised how many clients you come across have been ‘burnt’ in the past by unscrupulous freelancers or agencies.
Building trust with them won’t just bring you ongoing work from that client – they’ll be so happy to work with you, because they trust you, that they’ll even tell their friends about you. Make them successful and you’re golden!
If you get the chance to work with a great freelancer, you’ll notice it’s a bit like working with a friend, or a close colleague, a partner – someone who really cares about the success of the project and the success of your business.
There’s an old parable about a father who decides to hand down his business to one of his two sons.
He decides to pass it on to the younger son, at which the elder son is outraged; “Father, why would you not give me, your first child, your business?”
To demonstrate, the father sends both of his sons to buy 5 more cows from a neighbouring farmer. The elder son returns with 5 healthy, strong cows, and some small change.
The younger son returns without any cows at all. When the elder son sees this, he begins to crow delightedly, “See Father, you were wrong, he cannot even buy 5 cows!”
So the father asks his younger son why he has not returned with any cattle. The younger son replies, “Well father, there were 5 cattle available for sale, each for $2000, but if we were to buy 6, we would be able to reduce the price by $100 per cow. Also, if we are willing to wait, there will be fresh cattle available for sale, of a stronger, better breed. If we’re in a hurry, we could get them delivered for tomorrow morning.”
The father turns to his older son and says, “That’s why your younger brother is getting the farm.”
Most people only do what they’re asked to do. Those who are actively engaged in a cause will go above and beyond to make it as good as possible.
Think about it like this:
EVERY freelancer can create a decent-looking design for a fair price.
How many will take the time to find out if the design actually achieved the desired result? Your clients don’t really want a logo, or a website, or a blog post – they want more customers.
Almost everything you do as a freelancer, whether you’re a designer or a developer or a writer, should boil down to what you can do to increase profits for your clients.
This may not always be apparent but you should keep this in the forefront of your mind.
Creating a consistent stream of work as a creative freelancer boils down to this:
1) Change your mindset and go smaller projects where you can get paid fairly. ‘From small seeds, a mighty trunk may grow.’
2) Know who you want to work with. Make sure it’s on things you care about. Don’t work with anyone else. Seriously – just don’t.
3) Commit to the client’s business as if it was your own. Understand and look for ways you can bring value to their business, whether it be in the project itself, or general advice. People will notice when this is genuine.
4) Go above and beyond wherever you can. Note: I didn’t say ‘underpromise and overdeliver’. This is the wrong way to look at it: actually go out there and above and beyond. This bit is actually not too hard if you follow the 3 rules above properly.
5) Focus on building better relationships with your clients, whether that be in-work or out. Send holiday cards, a ‘Happy Birthday’ note. Follow their business and them and check-in to congratulate them on their progress.
I realise that the above probably seems a little ‘easier said than done’. But that’s kind of the point. It’s going to be hard. You’re definitely going to make mistakes.
The most successful freelancers all struggled for the first few years because they made the same mistakes as you. And we’ve all accepted work we knew wouldn’t lead anywhere just for the money.
But as you build a better idea of who and what you want to work for, you’ll get better at finding clients that you can build a long-term relationship with.
And sweat the small stuff even if it doesn’t seem worth it – you’ll build a reputation that will bring you work better than any marketing tactic.