How To Build a Pipeline of Freelance Leads
Use prospecting, promoting, networking, and thought leadership to never run out of clients
In order to have confidence when raising rates, picking your niche, and setting boundaries as a freelancer, you need a margin. That margin comes from having an avalanche of incoming leads.
This guide will show you where those leads come from and how to keep your pipeline steadily filled with more incoming customers than you can handle.
To get started, let’s look at the four components of business development as a freelancer.
The Pyramid of Biz Dev
When I was looking at an empty pipeline and trying to figure out how I could get as many quality leads as possible, I broke down my “business development” into four buckets:
- Prospecting (responding to ads and RFPs)
- Promoting (posting about yourself around the web, running ads, etc)
- Networking (emailing contacts, industry folks, attending events, etc)
- Thought Leadership (writing, speaking, hosting seminars, etc)
These roughly go in ascending order of easiest to hardest, fastest to slowest, and least-lucrative to most-lucrative. You can think of it as a pyramid, with prospecting at the bottom and thought leadership at the top.
For example, prospecting is relatively easy work (mainly just sending emails) and it can result in getting clients really quickly, but it’s usually not the most lucrative work. You’re competing to be heard among a lot of other providers and positioning yourself as a commodity.
With “thought leadership” at the top of the pyramid, it takes a while to get ramped up, even longer to pay off, and there’s no easy charted course for you. You probably can’t start speaking and writing for large audiences tomorrow, and it’s difficult work compared with sending responses to emails. But once you build a reputation and brand as a thought leader in your space, that’s when you get the best gigs.
I want to break all these down further and give you practical advice on what to do for each of them.
I call responding to freelance ads or RFPs “prospecting”. These are people who are out looking for someone of your talent, and you’re going to respond. That’s it. It’s not difficult or complicated.
The best thing about prospecting is that these people are already actively looking for you, and you essentially are just raising your hand and saying “Hi, I can do that for you.”
Of course, the flip side is that a lot of other people out there are raising their hands too!
Going over the ins and outs of how to get responses to the emails you send responding to freelance job posts is outside of the scope of this guide, but here are some essential tips:
- Keep your emails short — just a paragraph or two
- As quickly as possible, include a credibility indicator if you have one 
- Include 2–3 links to your best-looking work, ideally relevant to what they do 
- Customize the first half of the email so it’s clear you read and understood their post
- Don’t include any rate info to start (you can start including this if you get too many lowball responses) 
- Close with a couple specific suggested times for a followup call. Make it easy for them.
- Don’t get discouraged, this is a numbers game.
- Credibility indicators could be name brand clients you’ve worked for (or even that you were employed at), any stats about financials or growth you’ve helped your clients achieve, awards you’ve won, etc.
- Notice I said your best-looking work. If you built a website that is amazing under the hood but looks like crap due to factors beyond your control, DO NOT INCLUDE IT. Even technical people are biased towards things with good design.
- Reasonable people can disagree, but the default for these emails is going to be no response. I like to skip rate info if I’m not getting many responses to see if that’s what is preventing people from emailing me. Then if I’m getting too many responses from people who want to pay peanuts, I’ll start including it again to weed those out.
Let me reiterate that last point again: don’t get discouraged. This is a numbers game — you have to put in the time to send out the emails. I think that probably only 1–2% of the emails I’ve sent out over the years while prospecting have turned into gigs. Your numbers might be better or worse, but don’t be surprised or discouraged if you have to send out a couple hundred emails before you land work from this.
Here’s an email that I actually sent out:
Hi there, [I usually customize this paragraph for client] I saw your post on Craigslist for an iOS developer with hardware integration experience and wanted to introduce myself, since I have experience integrating several hardware projects with iOS, via Bluetooth and custom hardware SDKs. I'm a native iOS developer and I've done work for clients like Nike, Fannie Mae, Neutrogena, VMWare, Bayer, and dozens of startups. I've launched several dozen complex iOS apps for both App Store and enterprise, which have collectively grown to many millions of active users. [This is a link to a page on my site with some projects, but you could link directly to projects here] More here: [LINK][You could skip this paragraph, it's here to "pre-qualify" them] Just to make sure I don't waste your time, I am looking for remote contract iOS engagements, and I typically work on a flat project rate with a minimum of $xx,xxx, and most projects in the $xx,xxx - xx,xxx range. If the scope is undefined or the project is open-ended, I'm open to a weekly rate of $x,xxx as well. [I find Calendly more convenient for me, but you could also suggest two specific times] The next step would be to jump on a quick call to discuss the project and see if we're a good fit; let me know if any of these times work for you: https://calendly.com/mycompany/calls Thanks! Ryan Waggoner
The next level up the pyramid after prospecting is promoting. For me, this falls into two primary buckets:
- Posting about myself and my services at various places around the web
- Running ads to promote my services
Let’s talk about each of these.
Posting about myself and my services around the web
There are various places around the web where you have the opportunity to post that you’re a freelancer looking for work. I’ll give you four right now that I have personally gotten quality leads from.
- Craigslist resume section
- Hacker News “Seeking Freelance” monthly posts
- TheyMakeApps directory
- /r/forhire subreddit
I’ve gotten five-figure engagements from all but Reddit. I only recently started posting at Reddit but I have several quality leads from there already.
This is a tiny fraction of the potential places around the web where you’re invited to post about yourself and the services you offer. Here’s why you should take advantage of this:
- It works
- The leads are higher quality, in my experience
- You’re competing with fewer people if they actually email you (they probably didn’t email 60 people) so they’re more likely to convert
- It takes a few minutes, but can pay dividends for a long time
That last point is worth reiterating. I posted to TheyMakeApps probably five years ago, when I first started doing iOS development, and then completely forgot about it. Last year, I got a $20k project from someone who found me there.
Some of these places you post once and that’s it, some are recurring weekly or monthly. If recurring, just set up a repeating item on your calendar and repost when appropriate — it literally takes two mins.
Your goal here is to show up everywhere that someone looking for someone like you might think to search. I constantly have people email me randomly saying they “stumbled across” my work. I literally sent an email to one of those leads five minutes ago, and I have no idea where it came from (of course I asked). It’s a nice feeling!
Running ads to promote me and my services
This is a huge topic, and we’re not going to do it justice here — I’ll probably write a full guide to cover it later but here is the basic idea.
Run paid ads on Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, as well as any niche advertising channels that make sense for your market. This will drive traffic to your site, which you then develop into leads.
Now, this is not easy and it’s not free. It takes a while to setup, get dialed in, and pay off. You might need to dedicate at least a few hundred dollars a month before you start seeing results. If you do it wrong, you probably won’t get any return on your investment.
For these reasons, this might not be the best fit for you if you’re in an emergency situation. I’m including it here for completeness, because it can be an important part of an overall promotion strategy.
If you want to experiment with this, the main takeaway is that you should not just drive ad traffic to your homepage, hoping they look around and use your contact form to ask you to work in their project. That is a recipe for wasted ad dollars.
Instead, you need to run targeted ads with a highly specific message and value proposition, give away something of value (lead magnet) in order to get them on a mailing list, and then continue to provide value (lead nurturing) until they they trust you enough to reach out.
For example, I’m a mobile developer and product consultant, and my target clients are funded, mobile-focused startups who are building out their MVP and iterating on it while they gain traction and raise their next round.
For example, I might have an ad strategy that runs ads on places where founders of mobile-focused startups congregate, like particular blogs, or maybe Facebook and Twitter (if I can get the targeting right). I send them to a landing page promoting a downloadable guide on planning the right MVP for getting traction fast, or maybe a 7-day email course on building a mobile MVP for $50k in 10 weeks, etc.
Then, over the next few months, I send additional emails that provide valuable information about various topics related to mobile MVP design and development, with the occasional email (no more than 20%) promoting my services.
If someone on that list reaches out to me, they already have a good idea of what I do, how I work, how much it will cost, etc. They’re pre-qualified and highly likely to convert.
That takes a long time and it’s not something you can easily setup unless you already have all that content. It can work well, but it’s not for the faint of heart so I usually recommend waiting to tackle it.
However, it fits with the thought leadership stuff that we’ll cover later, since writing the content and then using it as lead magnets and lead nurturing material works well.
These two methods make it easy to get leads flowing. However, they are likely to be of lower quality than the leads you can get from the next two categories: networking and thought leadership.
If you’re in a crunch or just got started, focus on the above two methods for the next few weeks. If you’re in a settled rhythm, it’s time to start pushing up the pyramid.
The best freelance jobs come from networking and thought leadership, but those can take time. Let’s see how you can approach them.
Networking is a dirty word in many circles. For me, it conjures up images of schmoozy people at events running around collecting business cards. That’s not what I mean by networking.
When I say networking, I mean two different things:
- Building connections with others in industry and with networks of potential clients who may hire you in the future, or who may refer clients to you.
- Reaching out regularly to your existing contacts, former clients, and potential clients, to see how they’re doing, share useful information, and ask if they or anyone they know needs your services.
Think of networking as intentionally building and maintaining professional relationships for mutual benefit.
The “maintaining” part is important, as is the “mutual benefit” part.
Also, #2 is really a mix of networking, promoting, and prospecting, but I put it here…
While #1 is very valuable and can catapult you into a new level of freelance success, it’s also something that takes time, is uncertain, and is hard to quantify.
#2 is much quicker and easier and something you should start doing today, if you’re not already. It’s probably the best, most reliable way for you to get good work quickly.
The real value here isn’t in the contacts you make, it’s in the relationships you build over time.
To build those relationships effectively, you need a follow-up system.
You need a follow-up system
If you’ve been freelancing for a while, you’ve probably swapped emails, phone calls, and in-person meetings with dozens of people in your industry. Whether it’s fellow freelancers, past clients, potential clients, or just general business contacts, these are the easiest places for you to get work fast.
The hardest thing about landing a new client isn’t closing the deal, it’s getting any response at all. How many random emails from “internet strangers” do you reply to?
But if you’ve already talked to someone in the past, you’re not a random person.
I used to think that there was no point in reaching out to past contacts to see if they needed my services.
“They know I’m here; if they need me, they’ll reach out.”
Think of it like this: I have worked with dozens of other developers and designers over the years on various projects, but if you asked me to name three designers right now, I’d really struggle to think of three names without checking old emails. I just have too much going on to maintain detailed lists of all the different professionals I know and what their status is.
But I need designers all the time! If any one of those designers I’ve worked with emailed me every few months to just check in, share some value, see how things are going, do you think I’d remember their name next time I need a designer? Hell yes.
Also, don’t restrict yourself to professional contacts. I’ve had great referrals because friends and family who know what I do bumped into someone who had a friend with a cousin working on an app startup, and my name found its way to them. It’s ridiculously unpredictable how these kinds of introductions are made, so make sure your name is out there.
This doesn’t have to be complicated, but it’s definitely valuable. Keep it simple, follow these tips:
- If you’re not sure they’ll recognize your name, but you’ve conversed before via email, reply on the last email thread so they have context for who you are.
- Be warm and personal, but don’t be smarmy and act as though you’re randomly popping up for no reason at all. Be honest about why you’re reaching out.
- Keep it short.
- Try to avoid open-ended questions that the person might feel obligated to take a bunch of time to answer.
- Don’t sound desperate! That said, there’s nothing wrong with asking people if they know of anyone who might need you. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed — this is a business, you’re here to help people with your services.
Here’s an example of the type of email I send out all the time. In fact, I sent one like this a week or two ago to a fellow freelance developer and we have a follow up call scheduled to talk more:
Hi Mike,Haven’t chatted in awhile, how’s NYC? I recently moved to Nashville, actually…pretty crazy change :)Just wanted to touch base and see how business is for you. I’m planning out the next 3-6 months and wondering if you know anyone who might need mobile app dev services? Would appreciate any referrals you might have :)Let’s grab coffee again next time I’m in NYC!Ryan
Or let’s say that I put in a bid for a job, but they decided to go with someone else. I might say something like this:
Hi Jason,It’s been a few months since we chatted, just wanted to touch base and see how the project is going. I’m building out my schedule for Q4 and I still have some availability if you have any mobile app dev coming up. Thanks!Ryan
Most of these will go nowhere at first, but that’s OK. You just want to get on people’s radar and then stay there. Over time, when anyone thinks of [SERVICE YOU OFFER], your name will be the first that pops into their head.
By the way, I use Contactually to keep track of all my contacts and when I should follow up with them. There are some people I try and touch base with every month, and others that are every 3 months or every 6 months — it just depends on the relationship.
Your follow up system is a key part of long-term success as a freelancer. Having relationships in business doesn’t just mean the people that you see for coffee every week. You can get tremendous value from the long-tail of a very broad and shallow network. Those “weak ties” that you touch base with once or twice a year are still very valuable in aggregate.
One more thing: don’t be a taker. Spend a lot of time thinking about who you know and how you can connect people in your network that might be helpful to each other. I frequently ask people that I meet with “how can I help you?” and then I really do try and listen to what they say. Frequently, what they need most is not something I can provide, but I know someone who can.
Building your local network
As a freelancer, you’re part of a global pool of talent. There are a ton of advantages from this: you can work for clients anywhere in the world from anywhere in the world, and there are a huge number of interesting clients and projects available out there.
But it also comes with a significant downside: you’re competing with the rest of that global pool of talent. That can be tricky to do well, without seeing your rates plummet.
So don’t compete globally! The world is packed with people who only want to hire someone they can meet with face-to-face. I don’t think that’s usually justified, but whatever, it doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of it.
It can often be far easier to land good contracts by meeting the right people in your own backyard. But you can’t do this from behind your computer, you need to get out there and meet people. Go to local tech meetups, startup events and so on. Even trade shows and events put on by industry groups, your local Chamber of Commerce for example, can be a great way to meet potential clients. Yes, some of the local businesses will want to pay peanuts, but you might be surprised what some local businesses spend on freelance development, design, and writing these days.
I would concentrate your networking efforts for the first week on the follow-up stuff I talked about above, but for the next few weeks after that, try and get out to a local event every week. Start with meetups of people like you if possible, because you’ll feel more comfortable.
Social networking and cold outreach
The other two things I would mention for networking are social media and cold outreach. Both can be extremely effective for the right person, but if they’re not you, that’s fine.
Personally, I’ve had mixed results with both. I’ve found a few things that work that I don’t hate doing, but I’m not going to detail them here, because this post is already long enough!
As with all of the biz dev activities, you’re going to have to try some different things before you find the mix of strategies that work for your industry, your experience, and your personality.
4. Thought Leadership
I want to spend a little extra time here on the concept of thought leadership, because this idea is a mindset that you need to start infusing your entire career with.
Let’s back up a bit and think of the different kinds of freelancers out there.
The lowest-value form of freelancing is where you’re just labor. Someone needs a task performed that they could do themselves or easily find someone to do, but instead they hire you. You can make a living this way, but it’s not easy, fun, or glamorous. Examples might be housecleaning or basic administrative work. Please note that I’m not denigrating these types of freelancers, just pointing out that it’s hard to make a lucrative career out of it.
Moving up the ladder a bit, you have freelancing where you have a specialized skill (like web development) that your client lacks, and you perform that skill for them. Most of the people reading this are probably in this bucket. By and large, you’re doing things that your clients probably couldn’t do for themselves, unless they’re also specialists with similar knowledge and skills.
Most of us spend a lot of time and energy trying to move up within this category of “specialist freelancer”, trying to pick a more narrow niche to specialize in to differentiate ourselves, developing deeper and deeper skillsets within that niche, building our network and brands around it. Ideally, this allows us to charge more as we add more value. This is objectively a good thing, and a major reason why I’ve been able to grow my business to a sustained level of high success.
However, thought leadership is a level above having an in-demand skill that you perform for clients. If you’re a thought leader, you have a brand and reputation around teaching and advising about that skill to others, as well as performing it.
For example, I’m an iOS developer, and my clients are typically startups who hire me to help them build and launch their MVP. I’m a specialist within that niche, and I’ve built up a lot of knowledge, experience, connections, and wisdom around how to do that best.
Until recently, I’ve done a poor job at teaching other people how to do those things and why they matter. This is terrible for me, because when I approach a new client, they think “oh, here’s an experienced iOS developer”. That’s nice, but the ideal would be for them to approach me, because “holy $&@%, it’s Ryan Waggoner, and he literally wrote the book on building mobile MVPs!”
That’s a bit over the top, but you get my drift! If I was a thought leader in my current niche, I would own the space of “iOS developer for mobile-focused startups who need an MVP”. When people thought of that, they’d think of me, or they’d find me quickly if they were looking for that. And then they would approach me.
By the way, there’s an aspect of this that seems unfair to me. I know people who are “thought leaders” within their particular niche or space who are definitely not the most skilled or experienced practitioners of their craft. Even they would agree. But they’re still far more in-demand than the best in their field, and they command ultra-premium rates as a result. I know good programmers who literally charge 10x more than great programmers far more skilled, primarily because they’ve been good at building a reputation for themselves.
That’s not fair. If you’re the best in the world at some task, you should get paid the most in the world.
The problem is that there’s no directory where you can go look up who the best in the world is at any particular task. If you want to assess someone’s quality and you’re not a specialist of the same type, you often have to depend on unreliable signals.
A huge signal for most people is how popular and successful and knowledgable someone seems. If you see someone on stage at a conference talking about mobile UX, and they’ve had big name clients hire them, and they’re constantly being published and they’re sought after as a speaker on that topic, you are probably going to assume they’re at the top of their field. Unless you’re a specialist in the same field, it’s hard to evaluate their skill level directly.
One way to look at this is that it’s not fair. But another way is to realize that these people are giving away a lot of value every day through the knowledge and experience that they’re sharing and teaching. That generosity comes back to them in the form of ever-more-lucrative engagements, which lets them learn more that they can share and teach to others. It’s a virtuous cycle.
Please don’t take any of this as advice to be poor at your craft! You should always be striving to do excellent work and be great at what you do. But if you’re like most freelancers I know, you’re already good enough to be making much more than you are. What’s holding you back is your lack of reputation, because you’re not sharing and teaching what you’ve learned.
By the way, you’re reading this right now because in the last year, I realized that I’ve learned a tremendous amount about building a successful freelance business, but I’ve done a poor job sharing that knowledge. I’m not the most successful freelancer in the world — far from it. But I’ve done pretty well, learned a lot of things along the way, and there’s a lot of value in me sharing that and building an audience around it.
So that’s why you need to strive for thought leadership.
But how do you do it?
To teach well, you need to learn to communicate effectively. Writing and speaking are the two most important ways of doing that, and probably where you should focus your efforts.
How to become a great writer and speaker are well beyond the scope of this guide, but I would urge you to try and get better at both.
It doesn’t have to be a huge thing in the beginning, either. You could start just by teaching some people one-on-one what you’ve learned. At first, you should just start teaching the things that you’ve learned in your craft. Here are some ideas for easy ways to do that:
- Make some screencasts showing what you do and why, and put them on Youtube
- Write a blog post every week answering a question that clients frequently ask
- Reach out to smaller blogs and podcasts in your niche and ask about being interviewed about your craft
- Give a short talk or demo at a local tech event or meetup
- Send out a tweet every day with something you’ve learned that day
- Post frequently on a forum related to your niche, getting comfortable with sharing your knowledge
- Write a 3–5 part guide over the course of a month on how to accomplish a larger task, and post on your site or something like Medium
Pick one or two and do them for a few weeks. See what kind of reaction you get. It might be harder than you expect — I’ve found that teaching concepts I know inside and out to a new audience can sometimes be difficult, but it forces me to better organize my thoughts.
Beyond the direct ways that you can apply thought leadership, you should try and infuse all of your sales and marketing activities with the same principle of teaching your skills, adding value from the beginning, and demonstrating expertise.
Even when you’re prospecting and replying to a freelance job post, you should be positioning yourself as a thought leader. Include a link to relevant blog posts or screencasts that you’ve produced, or suggest tools or resources that the poster might find relevant to the project they’re hiring for.
I’ve really only scratched the surface here of the different activities that make up the biz dev pyramid, but I hope it’s given you some ideas to think about.
How should you divide up your time between prospecting, promoting, networking, and thought leadership? That depends on your pipeline and your preferences.
If you’re booked up and don’t anticipate having trouble getting work in the next six months, I’d focus most of my time on networking and thought leadership. They take longer to get right and see results from, but they’re key to catapulting you to the next level of freelance success.
On the other hand, if you need more work, better paying work, or just better clients, I’d focus on prospecting and promoting to start, because they’re easier to get working and having a lot of leads gives you a better shot at finding some good ones in there.