The potential client blues

Finding your rhythm as a freelancer.

Lately I’ve noticed I’m more relaxed when talking to clients. I’m not as afraid of saying ‘no’ as I used to be, I have an easier time standing my ground, I feel less anxious and my mind doesn’t go off immediately at the slightest hint of a potential project. It used to be like back in school right before a test. I knew I had it, I just wanted to start as soon as possible.

If you happen to find yourself in that ‘overpassionate ahead of time about something you’re gonna do’ state often, you know what I’m taking about. You start designing in your head how things would be before a person turns into an actual client. It’s a double edged sword though — sucks when it doesn’t go anywhere and you’re stuck with your plans for some cool project.

It’s been a while since I found myself struggling to secure a gig and I have a few tips I can pass on to you if you’re starting out in your field as a freelancer.

It’s all about confidence.

The first thing you’ll need is a solid foundation to stand on. Something that empowers your words with enough reasoning to find yourself comfortable. In my case, like many other freelancers, my first weak point was pricing. I had no idea how to charge and I feared clients would question my ways because of it. Eventually I realized the reason I was indecisive had to do with not knowing why exactly was I charging X amount. Not the actual number but how was I able to justify it.

If you ask around you can find a way to come up with the number, like figuring out how much you need each month and dividing it by how many hours you can afford to dedicate to client work. To me, it wasn’t enough to know the number. It sounded too agnostic to my context — web development. Luckily, one day I heard a friend explain why a car mechanic charges X amount. It may not depict real life but it was good enough for me.

“The other day I noticed my car makes a weird sound. Brought the car to a mechanic and he told me to pop the hood. He heard the sound, grabbed a small tool, spent 5 seconds on it and the sound was gone. He goes “$80.” I asked him “What do mean $80? You barely spent any time and effort.” He told me that he charged that much because he knew how to do it and I didn’t.

Wow. How can you argue against that? The reality is, clients don’t just pay for a piece of work. They pay for your experience, they pay because you know how to do what they need and they simply don’t, they pay for (un)expected challenges you also know how to deal with. In other words, they also pay for the context. Another way to understand this point is with this story about Picasso.

“Does this amount of money represent the time and effort I’ve spent on this project?”

Find whatever lets you build a foundation to stand on. That’s the first step to finding confidence.

They want to take it from you.

Once you’ve got some confidence, it’s time to learn how to deal with the things that will take it from you. For me, one of those things was having too many open fronts. I don’t chase clients because word of mouth has done enough for me and I don’t wanna test my luck. As I mentioned earlier, I hate saying ‘no’. Can I even afford to say ‘no’ to clients? I don’t wanna lose my ground but I don’t wanna come off too rigid. I don’t want to be too flexible but I don’t want the opposite to cost me a client.

My problem was that I would let potential clients take up as much resources in my head as an actual client. I found myself often overwhelmed. The sooner you realize this, the better:

  • There are people that talk but don’t become clients.
  • People that talk but don’t become clients until weeks after you meet them.
  • The ones that become clients but put a halt on the projects and they resume months later.
  • People that plan out the work with you but eventually realize it’s not viable.

The antidote for this is to focus on actual clients and not the potential ones. Don’t let potential be a burden. This is something you can do now, practice day by day. It lets you free your mind and put you in a position where you allow yourself to place most of your energy on the current project. Minimize the risk of ‘concerns’ adding up in your head causing you to use something you like as an escape mechanism. Focus on providing value to the client. That’s the best way to maximize your chances of them speaking good about you: you client enjoyed your work and decided to tweet about it, someone asked them who did the work and they bring your name up or the same client asks for something else you can do. It’s rare for a client to ask for something else to a different person if you did a good job. Unless, of course, it’s out of your field.

Rock solid in front of clients.

This is a bit trickier. You can’t just ‘practice’ something to avoid feeling phased by a client. The good news is your brain knows how to deal with this. Over time, you’ll get used to the interaction and your brain will become a bit more insensitive to the stimulus. You won’t be a beginner anymore — you don’t really need the gig. It’s a very discernible feeling that stands opposite to being desperate. Once you embrace the idea of ‘I don’t need it’, your words gain more weight. You won’t find yourself constantly trying to prove something and it becomes easier to adopt a ‘take it or leave it and we’ll see each other on the road’ motto. Don’t confuse this with cockiness and recklessness. You need to let it grow on you, you can’t force it. You’re not a teenager trying to act cool in school.

Gather lots of patience and let real confidence manifest in your actions and decisions you make. Never let overconfidence speak through your words. There’s a difference between an arrogant person giving off a ‘I don’t care’ vibe and someone who’s confident and understands the freelancing rhythm, enough to let given opportunities go or take them under certain conditions.

Put some thought into your words. I can’t tell you how valuable it is to take your time to respond to a client. Don’t think you need to answer every message instantly. You’ve probably experienced it whenever you regret a sentence 3 seconds after you type it, when you let some time pass and it helps you flesh out what you needed to say or maybe change it entirely for the better.

“Ok, that sounds good for someone who’s already comfortable with freelancing, but what about us that are starting out and can’t afford to miss a chance?”

Well.. I was lucky I could turn a hobby into a job right away, so I can’t really give you much advice on that. In fact, there isn’t really a universal advice for this because it depends heavily on so many variables specific to you and your context. Just like it takes time for your brain to get used to a stimulus by virtue of repetition, it also takes time going from ‘flexible because I need to be’ to ‘I can live without it’. I know you probably don’t wanna hear this but you just have to go through it. Use your head though — don’t get baited by ‘I will pay you in exposure’ type of deals. It’s never worth it. The intuition you’ll gain over time will help you decide when it is worth to give up some ground because it could lead to a great partnership. Whenever you find yourself in that position, try to do it for a project where you know you’re getting some value in return, like learning something new.

Drawing the line.

As I mentioned, the reasons why you’d give up some ground are tied to your context but the point when you’re sacrificing time, effort and comfort seems to be a good sign to know where the line is. That too is very field agnostic so it falls on you to find those reasons constantly as your freelancing status changes.

A streamer in the beginning that dislikes wearing headsets may have to give comfort up because it’s worth it in the long run but after years in the business, they can afford to say ‘no’. A client of mine recommended me to his partner because he’s getting charged too much every year to keep a web app running. He wanted me to host it instead but it’s a different programming language. I had to pass because the headache of figuring out all that in time before the renewal and the extra resources I’d have to use on my server because its environment has to be set up in a particular way, simply wasn’t worth it. What about the idiosyncrasies of that setup? I’m not familiar with the project. Can I reliably implement changes in the future on this old codebase written by someone else in a language I don’t know?

Sometimes is up to the circumstances. Does it cut into your time to build a passion project? Time to work on a regular, fairly paid project? Are your finances good at the moment? The only thing I can guarantee you right now is, those variables will change. Get in the habit of reassessing your context every once in a while in order to draw those lines accurately. Prioritize it and don’t let the client’s act as dead weight on you.

The turnaround in this Texas shuffle.

You and I both know the keys to success are not found in this article but I can only talk about the things I’ve learned before reaching this point, hoping they help you walk the same path. You’ll question yourself in different ways as time goes on. Find a reason to justify the way you do things, figure out how to fight the things that prevent you from focusing on actual work, make an effort to meet other people in your field to learn the ins and out of it, let time show you the signs and remember everything is a matter of tradeoffs.