Reaching out to people and finding work as a freelancer
I started my freelancing career as a personal trainer. The easiest way to get started as a personal trainer is to work for an agency. They take a cut of your profits, but they set you up in a gym and show you the ropes. Showing me the ropes meant a two-day workshop on how to find and work with clients. I did the workshop over a decade ago, and the one thing that stuck with me was something called the 6 by 6 promise. They promised that if I did one of six specific things for six hours a day, I would be fully booked with paid clients in 2 months. I used this approach to successfully find clients when I first started working in a gym, I used it again when I set up my own clinic years later, I used it again when I switched careers and became a freelance software engineer.
They gave us a pdf at the end of the workshop, and I’ve held onto it so I can actually show you the original diagrams to explain how this works.
You block out your week into 8 one-hour chunks each day. One of those hours was for lunch and one hour was for planning and paperwork. That left you with a total of 30 billable hours (6 hours a day x 5 days a week).
We had to learn, and then rehearse, six scripts that we could use to approach people on the gym floor. The aim of the game was to use the scripts to start interactions that would eventually lead to filling all 30 sessions with paid training sessions.
There were the soft sells like the ‘Hit and Split’, which meant unobtrusively going up to newer people in the gym and letting them know that they can talk to you if they have questions about their training needs.
Hi, my name is Josh; I’m one of the Personal Trainers here. I’ll be in the gym until 7pm. If you need any help whatsoever let me know. (Then walk away).
There were also some more dubious scripts, like the hard sell dubbed “My Client Just Cancelled”.
My client has just cancelled and the session is already paid for! It’s a £40 session and the club has asked me to offer it to the first member who wants it. “Would you like a £40 session for free?”
You get the idea.
At the start of each week, I’d block out any paid training sessions (PT) I managed to book the previous week. Then I’d block out any free taster sessions (FT) I’d booked the previous week.
If there was any time left I had to use it to work the gym floor (WF) with my six approach techniques.
The most important thing was to make sure I filled every one of those slots with an activity that was driving my business forward no matter what. The goal was to eventually get paid for all 30 of my slots. The approach had a huge impact on me because everything about freelancing was intimidating to me at the time. Rather than sitting around doing nothing, trying to figure out how to find clients, this gave me something specific to focus on. No tricks, no hacks, no shortcuts, just six clear actionable steps that I could use every day to move my business towards being fully booked out.
I used this approach in a gym when I started out. Once I’d specialised as a rehabilitation coach for people who had back pain, I used the same approach in my clinic. Since I didn’t have a gym floor to find clients, I used my professional network instead. A professional network, for our purposes, is anyone that you know on a first-name basis who might know someone that will need your services. That’s a wide berth, half your Gmail contacts and half your friends on Facebook probably fit the bill.
In a gym, I would approach someone with the intention of directly working with them eventually. When I worked in a clinic I had to find work indirectly. I had to ask people I knew if they know anyone that needs my services.
It is unlikely that you will reach out to people who will immediately get back to you with a list of friends that need your help. What usually happens is a couple of weeks after you speak to someone, they end up in a conversation with someone who needs your services, and they remember to mention you. They either get back to you with a potential lead or the lead contacts you directly.
Finding clients by one degree of separation is a lot slower than approaching people directly. For this approach to work, you need to put together a list of 100 to 150 people that you know on a first-name basis. Prioritise anyone you have worked with before, any non-competitors who work in the same industry as you (people that serve the same clients but with different services), and anyone who owns or runs a business.
You only need to stay in touch with people once a year for this process to work. There will be people who you are closer to that you will naturally interact with more frequently, but the aim is to touch base with everyone on your list at least once a year.
l spent 7 years in the fitness industry. Then I made the unexpected switch to becoming a software engineer. I managed to apply this exact same method to find clients as a remote freelance web developer.
I blocked my work week out in the same way. I establish eight working hours a day. One of them for lunch and one for clearing out my inbox. That left me with 30 billable hours each week. The goal was to get paid for every one of these 30 hours.
I never liked how contrived the scripts were in the 6 by 6 original method so rather than actual scripts I’m going to give you six things you can do to book out each of your 30 blocks.
Before we proceed, I must stress that a prerequisite to this approach is having a clear specialisation. Reaching out to people will not work if you are not clear about how you help people and who you want to serve. No one remembers to recommend someone who can do everything with anyone. If you are a therapist that specialises in helping people who have sleep disorders, I’m more likely to remember you when someone tells me they’re having trouble sleeping. I wrote a separate post on specialising as a freelancer and it’s important that you have a specialisation for people to remember you by before you start reaching out to them.
With that said, here are six things you can do to fill up each of the 30 blocks in your week.
- Touch base - The goal here to touch base with someone you know on a first-name basis. If it’s someone you know well, and you’ve been meaning to get in touch for a while, use this as an excuse to say hello and see what they’ve been up to lately.
- Kudos - If someone on your list has done something nice for you in the past and you never explicitly acknowledged it, get in touch and say thank you. Similarly, if someone achieved something or did something that you appreciate, reach out and give them some kudos.
- Ask for help - If you are reaching out to someone who is more experienced than you in some way, or if your relationship with them is primarily professional, you can reach out and ask for help or feedback. Don’t invent stuff up, this only works if it is something you genuinely want to help with something specific. Also, it can’t be stuff you can just google.
- Be helpful - If you know what someone is struggling with, and you know how to help them, then help them. The caveat here is that you can’t spend too long helping any one person. The idea is to maintain a balance between breadth and depth with this approach. On average, you should be looking to invest a one hour block into helping someone. If you decide to get more involved with some people then you can balance it out by making introductions to help other people. Introductions take very little time and can be immensely helpful. Whenever you know two people that could help each other, ask each one privately if you can introduce them to each other.
- Proposals - A proposal is the consulting equivalent of the introductory taster sessions I used to do as a personal trainer. If and when someone gets back to you with a lead, you can move the relationship forward by working on a proposal for how you can help them. This involves outlining how you plan to solve with their problem, what the project’s milestones might be, your final deliverables, how long it will take, how much it will cost and what kinds of options they have. You don’t have to wait for people to get in touch to work on a proposal. There is nothing to stop you from reaching out people or projects you want to work with and asking them if they would appreciate you putting a proposal together on how you could help them. Proposals can be free or paid.
- Paid work - You current clients are your main sources of potential future work. Whether that’s repeat work or via recommendations. You must prioritise delivering an excellent service above everything else. In the case, the word ‘approach’, is not meant in the sense of initiating contact, but in terms of your mindset. You should approach your existing clients with the intention of doing a superb job so that you get repeat work and/or a referral for future work. This is the best way to find work because it is one of the few ways you will get paid to find work. Within the context of being clear about how you can help and what your service entails, aim to deliver a little more than they asked for when you can. This does not mean letting clients walk all over you. Respect your clients and genuinely care about solving their problem. Ask for feedback at regular intervals, when people have complaints, deal with the problem before you do anything else.
Apart from the last one, these approaches are arbitrary. This is how I approach people, but they’re just examples. You can come up with your own six ways to approach people that feel right for your business. All that matters is that you stay in touch with everyone in your professional network at least once a year for this to work.
Once you have reached out to someone, you want to accomplish three things:
- First, you want to find out what they are currently doing. Sure, they might have been a copywriter a few years ago but is that still what they are doing? Maybe they are still copywriting but now they are more specialised in the kinds of people and projects they work with. Find out what they are doing at the moment.
- Second, let them know what you are up to these days. A lot of the time people just assume other people know what they do. Make sure that you spell out how you help people and exactly who you love working with. Make sure that they know you are looking for work and explicitly mention that if they meet anyone who you can help you would appreciate an introduction.
- Third, you want to figure out if there is any way you can help them. You don’t necessarily want to ask them how you can help them directly, that’s a bit of an awkward question. By virtue of touching base and understanding what they’re dealing with at the moment, make a note of what they might appreciate some help with.
There is no pressure to get all this done in a single conversation. You can do this in one phone call or spread over several emails, it’s down to how you know the person and the nature of your relationship.
One thing I would like to add is that if you are getting in touch with someone out of the blue, they might be a little suspicious about the sudden interest. You can put them at ease by being transparent about what you are doing. Let them know that you recently learned that one of the best ways to find freelance work is to stay in touch with people you know and take a genuine interest in helping them out when you can. That’s a good enough excuse to get in touch with someone and find out what you are up to. As long as you’re upfront about it, most people will understand and respect what you are doing. If they don’t like it, they will tell you, and you can cross them off your list.
Whether you are offering an in-person service like physical therapy or a virtual service like web development, you can make use of the 6 by 6 method. I promise that if you spend six hours a day doing one of the six things on your list for each billable hour in your day, then you will be fully booked out with paid work in a month or less. Make sure you prioritise reaching out to any past clients first, then touch base with your closest friends, then any non-competitors in the same industry (so designers and copywriters serve the same clients as a web developer but we don’t compete with each other) and then everyone else on your list.
Ultimately, all of the work you put into reaching out to people should lead to blocking out paid work on your weekly calendar. Failing that you want to block time out for proposals you are being paid to write. Failing that you want to fill your calendar with free proposals that are likely to lead to paid work. The fall back from there is helping people. And if you don’t know how to help anyone then you should be reaching out to the people you know and touch base with them.
The most important thing to pay attention to, the crux of this entire system, is that no matter how many paying clients you have (or don’t have), 30 hours in your week are always booked out. The only variable is how many of those hours you are going to be paid for.
A lack of moment will kill your freelancing business, especially if you are just starting out. Nobody wants to talk to an awkward personal trainer who never has any work. If you are always doing something, if you are always talking to people, if you are always booked out, then the assumption is that you must be good. This applies to your internal dialogue as much as it applies to what people say about you. It applies to virtual freelancers as much as it applies to freelancers and consultants who work with clients in-person. Focus on momentum, and the money will come.
I am not saying you should work for free, what I am saying is that you should never be sitting around ruminating about how to find clients. Instead, divide your week into 30 blocks, and spend each one doing one of the six things on your list: whether it’s paid work, writing proposals, doing free consultations, helping people out or staying in touch with people. No tricks, no hacks, no shortcuts, just six clear actionable steps that you can work on every day that will move your business towards being fully booked out with paid work.
If you’d like to put the 6 by 6 method into action, I am currently working on a tool that helps you reaching out to people and find work as a remote freelancer. The app is called Client Tree and you can learn more about it here. I have done my best to condense everything in this post into an app that shows freelancers how to find clients by word-of-mouth.
If you’d like to discuss this post, Twitter is the place.