How to Market Yourself to Startups as a Freelancer

With over 100 million new businesses each year trying to stake their claim in the startup world, the opportunity for freelancers to find fun and exciting new projects is bigger than ever before. Unfortunately, with many of those startups looking to “jump on the bandwagon” and create “the next big thing”, finding the right startup to work with can be tricky.

The wonderful thing about startups is that there are A LOT of them actively seeking talented freelancers. The downside is that they often have unclear goals and very limited budgets which don’t allow you to be compensated fairly for your work. So before you can determine how to market yourself to a startup, it’s important to consider what type of startup you should work with.

3 Types of Startups

While there may be some startups that don’t fall into the following three categories, these are the pros and cons of each startup I’ve had the experience of working with.

“Idea” Startups

These are the startups who will contact you most frequently, but are also the most risky to work with. Examples of such companies include Shoplandia, Heighbor, or LexiCandy.

Pros: There is occasionally a chance they have secured adequate funding and have a truly amazing idea. In that case, you have the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something great and ride to the top with them as an early partner. Equity is sometimes offered in addition to paid services.

Cons: That almost never happens. Many startups are founded by 1 or 2 people with a brilliant idea and who are overly eager to find a designer or developer to help bring their earth-shattering, world-changing idea to life (proceed with caution). They tend to get ahead of themselves and prematurely contact designers and developers before they’ve proven that there is a real need for their product or service in a specific target market. They commonly operate on small budgets and offer equity, experience, or exposure in place of monetary compensation.

“Proof of Concept” Startups

These startups often have a version 1 proof of concept and are in the process of seeking (additional) capital investment. To do that, they look for a freelancer to help take their product or service to the next level. These are companies such as FitLegit, Cinematique, or Boonle.

Pros: By the time they contact you, they have already spent adequate time thinking about their idea and bringing it to life and there is a better chance that the idea is viable. The initial excitement has often faded and they are more likely to have a serious plan for long-term growth and success. Better yet, they have probably gathered some funding from family and friends in order to compensate you for your work. Equity is often still an option here.

Cons: Working for equity is very risky for you and growing a company is very difficult for most clients (more on that later). They often won’t have any customers, users, or proof that the idea will succeed. They still may not have enough money to fairly compensate you and may not like the idea of reducing the scope of work to accommodate their limited budget.

“High-Growth” Startups

These startups often have large amounts of capital investment and are looking for someone who can become a strategic part of their growing team either on a part-time or full-time basis. These include companies such as Uber, Snapchat, Slack, etc.

Pros: They often have good traction in their target market. That can sometimes mean that they already have a stream of revenue coming in to help pay employees who can continue growing their business. They will have a clear, established business model and path to success. These startups are more likely to understand the business value of your work and be able to compensate you fairly.

Cons: These startups are rare and you’ll need an excellent reputation, portfolio, and skill set in order to partner with them successfully. They are often much more picky about who they hire and want someone who is available to be on-site with the potential to become a full-time employee.

Marketing to Startups

Once you’ve carefully considered what type of startup you’re willing to work with, marketing yourself to them is the same as marketing yourself to any other type of business. All you have to do is understand that your clients are already looking for you online. This is especially true for startups. By simply making yourself visible in the places they’re already searching, you set yourself up for organic, inbound leads which means you won’t constantly be in a position to seek out new work.

The key to getting new clients is understanding that they are already looking for you. All you have to do is to make yourself visible in the places they’re searching online.

For designers, that might mean having a paid Dribbble account and maintaining a personal portfolio website. For developers, it might mean having a GitHub or BitBucket account that shows regular contributions and commits. For others, it might be the language used when responding to emails. Regardless of your field, adjusting your language to something a potential client can relate to will always result in more organic, inbound leads.

All that said, this isn’t an instant solution. In the mean time, you can browse for startups on websites like Product Hunt and UpWork to see what clients are posting and looking for. Then, you can reach out to them, send them to your website, or just refine your messaging a little further.

Get Specific

If you want to work with startups, get specific and tell them. One key strategy was changing the messaging on my home page. Instead of highlighting that I was a UI/UX Designer, I instead made it clear that I could design websites and apps that would help businesses grow. Every client can relate to that and I saw a huge increase in monthly leads following the change.

Another strategy that worked well for me was making my footer clearly state “I design websites and apps that help grow startups and small businesses” followed by a “Tell Me About Your Project” button. When someone from a startup or small business read that simple sentence (which was large and visible on the bottom of every page), they contacted me about their project because I was the exact type of freelancer they were looking for. I spoke their language on my website.

In fact, several of my clients mentioned that I was the only freelancer who specified startups, which made contacting me a no-brainer. Over the course of 12–16 months, the SEO on my website combined with a shift in the language I used led to 3–5 inbound leads per week, which was more work than I could handle and put me in control of my income.

(Side note: Don’t be afraid to “alienate” certain clients. I promise the number of leads you get will increase, not decrease when you target a specific audience correctly.)

Why Startups Hire Freelancers

The biggest reason startups hire freelancers (or “contractors”) is because they are less expensive (and therefore less risky) than full-time employees who require long-term commitments, bigger paychecks, and benefits. The reality is that startups are trying to get their new business off the ground on a very limited budget and full-time employees just don’t fit the bill. The majority of seasoned consultants tend to stay away from startup culture for this exact reason.

Freelancers vs. Consultants: What’s the Difference?

Freelancers, however, can be contracted on an hourly basis to deliver high-quality work in a short amount of time. Once the project is done, the startup can (hopefully) continue growing without a commitment to that freelancer. I’ve had the privilege of working with many startups (at various stages of growth) who had $10,000 — $25,000 to invest into the design of their product or service. Those budgets were enough for me to deliver a high quality solution and keep my own business growing. The key is to ask about their goals and budget early on in the communication process to avoid wasting time talking to “idea startups” who lack adequate funding.

Selling a Startup on Value

Most startups don’t have any existing users, revenue, data, metrics, or analytics to work with which makes it difficult to explain how your work will result in more users or revenue for their business. Where an established business could say say “we want to increase sales by 5% this year”, startups are often starting at zero.

So how do you sell a startup on the value?

Startup companies share one important thing in common with every other type of business: they ultimately want more users, customer, sales, and revenue. Since it’s very difficult to sell a startup on the specific financial value of your work and the ROI they can expect, you’ll need to focus the conversation on something else. I found success by making the goal of every project and the focus of every conversation about launching a minimum viable product (MVP) that will do the following:

  1. Impress potential investors
  2. Make a big first impression to their target market
  3. Help them acquire more users and customers
  4. Increase revenue next year

That is what every startup wants to hear and, more importantly, what they need in order to succeed. To sell a startup on the value of your work, you have to think about what they want beyond the “next big thing” to convince them that they should invest what little money they have into you.

Collecting Payments

Collecting payment upfront is a good habit for any type of business, but it is especially important when working with startups. Even if it’s divided into multiple installments, be sure to collect payment before starting work to avoid unexpected conversations about how their business “ran out of money”, “can’t secure capital investment”, or “can’t get enough traction in the market” which are common excuses startups use to hold your payment hostage.

Learn How to Collect Payments Upfront

Working for Equity

Something that’s unique to startup culture is that the founders of the business are often willing to offer equity (a small % of ownership in the company) in place of monetary compensation. While the idea of a bigger long-term payoff can be appealing, working for equity can be extremely risky.

Most startups DO fail at some point and when that happens, the equity you were promised (even contractually), disappears with the business. My recommendation is to completely avoid working exclusively for equity and carefully choose when to accept partial equity in addition to monetary compensation.

In Conclusion

Startups can be fun, exciting, and lucrative to work with if you can discern which to work with in an oversaturated market. Fortunately, marketing to them is the same as any other type of business. All you have to do is recognize that they are already looking for you online and put yourself in a position to be found easily in those places. Get specific with the language you use to attract startups to your freelance business.

Make sure you focus each conversation and solution on impressing investors, getting more users, and ultimately generating revenue for their new business to convince them that investing what little money they might have into your services is a good idea.

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Originally published at on April 30, 2016.

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