“Hey mom, I need to borrow $500. Again.
Just to get through some of the bills this month.
I’ve got some promising leads in the pipeline though, so this should be the last time.”
(It wasn’t the last time)— Past Zach, circa 2011
I scrapped by for the first 7 years of my freelancing career perpetually broke, always needing the next client.
I was constantly juggling which bills were most vital to pay immediately, and which I could pay late without getting my service canceled.
(Usually car and home repairs got pushed to the bottom of the list.)
💡 Fun fact! (Probably unrelated) My car wound up broken down on the side of the road all the damned time.
I always needed more money, and because I had slim margins and wasn’t very good at running my business yet, it meant I always needed to get new clients in the door.
The constant pressure of always needing the next gig caused me to prioritize doing work that was “good enough” instead of “as great as I could possibly deliver.”
It wasn’t until I decided to throw in the towel on freelancing and get a dev job – while still freelancing on the side – that things started to improve for my freelancing business.
Having a steady income from a job meant that I no longer needed to always be getting new clients just to keep the lights on.
With this new freedom and breathing room, I decided to take on less projects, and focus on doing the best damned job I could for every client I worked with.
And about a year into this new modus operandi, I started to “get lucky” more.
Within two years of working the dev job, I reached my “job quitting goal” of $6k/mo from my freelancing side hustle.
And after quitting and going full time on my business, that income grew to $15-$20k/mo within another couple years. (It went down once I decided to down-scale my agency and work part time as a solo freelancer.)
🎯 What you’ll leave this post with…
My goal today is to reverse-engineer my “lucky referrals” to give you a framework you can apply to your own freelancing business to “get lucky” more and maximize opportunities that come your way.
My first big lucky break
I had this one client, Rick Mulready, who was a fledgling internet marketer and was really struggling at the time. (He’s ballin’ now)
He was in a mastermind group + friends with some really popular bloggers and podcasters.
He mentioned me to a couple of them, and I did their sites.
They enjoyed working with me, and told their other big internet marketer friends about me.
One of the clients Rick referred to me was a podcast called Entrepreneur on Fire.
They had a large audience of newbie podcasters who had taken their “how to start a podcast” course.
Naturally, these new podcasts all needed websites. (In the course, they advocated for setting up a website for your podcast.)
And who better to hire for your podcast site than the dude who did the site for your teacher, eh?
Soon I found myself doing several sites a month for new podcasts, along with big projects every few months for other industry leaders.
And – again, probably unrelated – I soon no longer found myself standing by my broken-down car on the side of the road.
This big lucky break I got could all be traced back to that one gig I did for Rick while side-hustling at my day job.
That one gig literally led to multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years when you trace through its entire “referral lineage.”
I don’t say this to brag; I say it to drive home the potential value of a good/lucky referral.
This section illustrates why my #1 piece of advice for any struggling freelancer is this:
Do everything in your power to deliver the best. fucking. experience. possible. to your clients.
If you do that for long enough, you WILL be successful.— My #1 advice for other freelancers
Another lucky break
I also got lucky with a big “referral stream” of financial advisor websites.
Very different industry than podcasting, but similar causality chain…
The causality chain here:
In 2014, I did a site for an advisor named Alan Moore.
That same year, he co-founded a company called XY Planning Network.
After working with me on his personal advisor site, he hired me to come in and improve the XYPN site that someone else originally built.
I worked on the site, they were really happy with it, and the referrals began to flow.
Soon enough, I sorta became the “financial advisor website guy,” and between that and the podcast + internet marketer sites, I had enough work coming in to sustain a small 3-person team.
The sitch with XYPN was similar to that of Entrepreneur on Fire…
Whenever a new advisor joins XYPN, they get access to a lot of training materials.
In those training materials, XYPN strongly advocates for setting up a website and publishing thought leadership content on your blog.
But who to hire to make the website?
“Oh, maybe the guy who did the website for that organization that I just paid thousands of dollars to to tell me how to start my business.”
What my lucky breaks have in common:
Both of my big “lucky referral breaks” came from getting an “in” with figureheads that…
- Were big advocates of getting a good website
- Had an audience of people getting started who were paying customers for a premium offering (I believe the podcast course was $2k, and XYPN was a few hundred dollars per month.)
The challenge of reproducing this kind of win
If you read those stories and are thinking something like…
“Cool stories, bro-dawg. I actually can think of a good industry leader in my niche that I want an “in” with; I’ll send them a cold email.”– You(?)
…There’s something challenging for you to consider.
In both of these examples, the projects that ended up sending me tons of referrals came from a previous connection or previous project, vs. me cold-emailing them directly.
In the past, when I have tried reaching out directly, I ran into one big challenge:
😨 The Challenge
If you cold email someone who doesn’t know you at all, you’ll often have to (/choose to) work for free/cheap to get your foot in the door.
…But if you work for free/cheap, it can be very difficult to transition to work that’s paid — especially work that’s paid well.
(For a deeper dive into the pros & cons of working for free/cheap, check out this post by Arvid Kahl.)
How to reproduce this kind of win yourself
“So if cold email’s not actually the way to go, wtf should I do?”– Also you (?)
I sort of stumbled into the successes listed above, and luck was a big part of it.
But I know you don’t want to wait around for luck. You want to be strategic.
So if I were to make a recommendation for how to reproduce my success here, I’d encourage you to consider implementing the following things, starting today…
1. Deliver your BEST possible work, for every project, starting *right now*
I know I mentioned it earlier, but it deserves a spot as a proper <h4> in the list. 😉
Invest time into improving your skills, such that people are getting an epic deal when they hire you.
And do everything in your power to deliver your absolute best work for every client.
If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this post, it’s this point right here.
It’s not sexy or exciting, but it does work.
Delivering amazing work for a long enough amount of time gives you more surface area for luck to run into you.
But assuming you’re already doing this, the rest of this list has things you can “layer on top” to improve your odds of getting a lucky referral.
2. Implement a structure for referral incentivization
This will give your past clients subtle, self-interested motivation to send referrals your way.
3. Make sure you’re getting testimonials from every client
Each client you don’t get a testimonial from is a missed opportunity. These days I get testimonials from ~100% of the clients I work with.
Check out my process for ideas you can implement if you’re getting testimonials from 80% or less of your clients.
4. Set your intentions
It may sound kinda “woo woo,” especially if you think the idea of the law of attraction is B.S….
…but all talk of “universal manifestation” aside, having an intention of where you want to go will influence how you see opportunities, which in turn influences your behavior, and thereby changes your future.
So if you want to work with awesome clients, having at least a vague vision for where you want to go is the first step to getting there.
- What kind of projects do you want to work on?
- What’s your “dream client” look like?
- What sorts of skills (or portfolio pieces, or connections) do you need to build in order for you to be the obvious best choice for one of those clients to hire?
If you find that your “dream client” is in a certain industry, it may be worth exploring specializing in that niche.
In my case, I had a long-standing intentionality of doing websites for internet marketers at the tops of their fields, and that naturally influenced the sorts of opportunities I pursued and connections I made.
5. Start making strategic connections (in a value-forward way)
If you have a vision for where you want to go, the next best thing is to immerse yourself in that target market, provide value wherever you can, and make strategic connections with the players in the space.
‼️ The big thing to keep in mind when making strategic connections ‼️
If you’re looking to build a relationship with someone you don’t already know, the biggest goal you should have going in is to give value, not take it.
(And linking them to a blog post of yours that their audience might enjoy, or offering to help their clients with XYZ service, doesn’t count as giving value. Challenge yourself to try to think of ideas beyond this.)
Ideally, find a no-strings-attached way to help their business, and really try to get into their shoes about what their needs & goals are and how you can help them get there.
There’s another nice post by Arvid Kahl about cold outreach on twitter that you may find useful when thinking about this.
A few examples of this from my 11 Ideas for Getting Clients Without Prospecting post are…
- Writing thought leadership posts for industry-leading blogs within your niche
- Partnering with agencies who offer similar services so that you’re their recommended partner for the type of work that you do
- Becoming the trusted customization partner for a SaaS that allows deep user customization but doesn’t offer it in-house
It’s also worth considering not trying to form relationships with the “biggest fish” right off the bat, especially if you’re still working to build a track record. Instead, consider targeting building relationships first with the “smaller / medium sized fish” and eventually working your way up.
Why, you ask? The biggest players in a space are likely constantly bombarded with partnership requests, and will often ignore almost all cold emails.
The cool thing about forming these sorts of relationships is that they can grow in fruitful and unexpected ways over time.
For example, if you write a great guest post that people love for a thought leader that your niche, it gives you all that borrowed credibility of appearing on their blog AND a foot in the door to later approach that thought leader with a partnership deal, i.e.
“Hey Blogowner, seems like people are really digging that article I wrote for you and a lot of them are asking for website setup help. I was thinking it’d be cool for us to launch a service together where we help people set up their first sites; happy to send you a kickback of $200 for each client you refer or white label it under your brand or blahblahblah”
6. Consistently “stack the bricks”
I got this concept from Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman, and I love it.
The idea is that if you want to build a big-ass wall, you need to consistently stack the bricks to get there.
Brian Johnson says it well in this +1:
“Work diligently, patiently, and persistently…
And you’re bound to be successful.”
Building a big wall takes persistence, intentionality, and strategy. It also just straight-up takes a while.
It can be tempting to think that with the right approach, results will come immediately, and that you just have to find that “right approach.”
When I was younger and just starting my business, I bounced around from strategy to strategy, always looking for a quick result; never sticking with anything long enough to give it time to grow.
I’ve now come to appreciate that the only “right approach” there seems to be is consistency + long-term commitment.
Something that’s worked well for me here:
Set goals based on lead measures, not outcomes.– Goal setting technique that works well for me
For example, I want this blog to grow.
But I’m not setting a goal of “get 25,000 website visitors a month” or something like that. That’s a useless goal for me; it would only serve to overwhelm me, especially if I see the goal date drawing closer and I don’t see myself on track for it.
Instead, I’ve set a short-term, action-driven goal based on something I can directly control: content that I publish. In my case, I’ve set the goal of publishing 60 pieces of content by September 30. (I don’t know that I’ll reach it in time, so I may need to tweak it!)
It’s trackable, in my control, and moves me closer to the “results-based” goal of growing the blog. (The logic being that more helpful content will naturally result in blog growth.)
Another similar approach that’s also worked well for me is setting goals in terms of hours spent per week on a specific type of task. Again, it’s directly in my control, and when done consistently and for long enough, it has the power to create huge results.
(So the example of my blog would be something like “Spend 20 hrs this week writing posts for KickassFreelancing”)
If you’re trying to build novel and fruitful business relationships, it’s going to take time. I spun my wheels a lot over the years working with people who seemed like dream clients / partners, but didn’t turn out to be. It was only with enough repeated tries that I eventually found some success.
7. Work *ON* your business, not just *IN* it.
It’s classic, somewhat generic advice, but it bears mentioning.
Things like sending an email newsletter to your past clients, nurturing relationships, writing thought leadership content…
These all take time, and if you’re used to being motivated primarily by “client fires that need to be put out,” it’s easy to deprioritize.
Spending time consistently to build the foundation of your business, rather than just filling orders, is an important step to setting yourself up for capitalizing on good opportunities and “lucky referrals.”
A simple exercise you can do is ask yourself…
“What’s the most important thing I could be doing right now to take my business to the next level?”
And spend a certain amount of hours per week – be sure to set a specific goal and track your time – doing the “out of your comfort zone work” that will move you towards that.
If you can swing 5-10+ hours a week working ON your business, that’s awesome, but if it feels overwhelming, pick something smaller. The main thing is that you start and don’t stop.
👟 Action Steps
With all these ideas fresh in your brain, it’s time to implement.
I recommend that you pick a few of the low-hanging fruit, easy-to-implement ones first and get those going ASAP.
And then for the more ongoing, habit-oriented ones – like working *on* your business, strategic outreach, etc. – you implement a new habit into your work day where you spend the first 30 minutes each day, before checking ANY work notifications, working on this new habitual activity.
Once you have a habit built around it, pick another and implement that new one consistently.
Keep layering on new behaviors, and soon enough you’ll be a lucky-referral-generating machine!
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