10 counter-intuitive rules for starting a freelance business that you’ve never heard before

10 counter-intuitive rules for starting a freelance business that you’ve never heard before


I’ve been running online businesses for about a decade. For most of that period, I did what everybody else did.

I sold myself. I talked about benefits and what I offered. I made special deals and discounts. I advertised.

I was desperate, and I tried everything.

But this year things started turning around. I learned some neat tricks by watching TED talks and attending the WDS Summit. I restructured and rewrote. And the orders started flooding in.

Now I have total control over my freelance businesses, I work on my own terms at my own pace, and I’m growing several profitable side businesses.

If you’re starting your own small business or online freelance service and you want to get started right and make money from day one, here are my top ten tips.

1) Start with what you believe, not your USP

The USP – unique selling position – is dead. Sure a tagline or powerful and memorable subtitle is still important, but there’s too much competition. You don’t stand out by telling people how you’re different. You stand out by actually being different, by what you do and don’t do, or by the value and quality of your products or services.

But the most powerful (and becoming popular – now that you know it, you’ll start recognizing it everywhere) way of getting people to do business with you, is to start by defining your beliefs. Make them big, noble, inspiring beliefs, that people can support or like. They may not appeal to everyone, but those people they appeal to will be ready to do business with you.

2) Less is more

Keep it simple. Start with your values and services, what you offer. Don’t “sell” or “explain.” Reduce your website content by half. Get copy editors to polish and hone. Cut out unnecessary words. (On one of my sites, I kept using the soft term “Why don’t you go ahead and sign up?” rather than “Join today!” Get ride of all the clutter. Use one image. Get people focused on the message. Hook them with a powerful title, start your writing with a question, story or anecdote, then ask them to do something (engage, buy, share… ).

3) Be a person, not a company

People don’t want to do business with a faceless company or with shiny stock photography. They want to see a real person. Get a decent picture of yourself and your staff. Use your real names. Stand behind what you do. There’s no introverted way of doing business online. If you’re going to do it at all, it’s got to be 100% authentic and real. We make mistakes. We fail. We show emotion, use poor choices, sometimes make typos (although WordPress now has spellcheck!). Don’t be big, be small. (Even huge companies are learning this. They try to be human by running ads about one great staff member and how they helped a customer in need).

4) Compete on value, not price

When you’re starting out, it’s easy to undercharge. You do research and set your prices at around average, or maybe lower than average. Sure it can work, but it’s not worth it. You don’t want the customers who are looking for a deal and want something done cheaply. What everybody says (and I didn’t experience it until this year) is that the higher you charge, the more people respect you and your time.

When you price high, there is an immediate impression of success and quality. Sure they may think you’re overcharging, but they will still think you must be able to charge that much. The truth is there are two ways to make more money online:

offer discounts

5) Work for free

When you’re just starting, you need testimonials, happy clients, and a portfolio of your work. You could do this by charging a low introductory fee and raising prices later. But it’s better to price high and then offer free work or big discounts, because it seems like you’re doing them a favor, rather than the other way around. If I offer some free work to somebody and they see high prices, they’re more likely to accept. It’s a more valuable offer. Try to work with companies, bloggers or celebrities. Tell them you’ll do some free work in exchange for a link from their site, or a recommendation or testimonial. You’ll also be able to say you’ve “Worked with famous person A, company B and celebrity C,” which is damn impressive social proof.

6) Qualify, don’t convince

Rather than convince people to work with you, be choosy and selective. Qualify your message by saying “We are interested in working with exciting, intelligent people serious about taking their business to the next level” and “if you aren’t committed to reaching your goals, we probably can’t work with you. We only have time to work with dedicated people.”

Ask them to “apply” for the opportunity. (I saw this best used recently at Exosphere. (I even applied, but I can’t be in Chile this fall, need to be in Taiwan/Philippines.)

7) Be unavailable

I thought my business would suffer when I had to shut down because I had too many orders. Instead, while being closed my email list has been growing steadily. I don’t think I’ll ever “open” for business again. Instead, a “Not taking new clients right now, please join my waiting list” is incredibly powerful. People want what other people want; show that you’re successful and valued and others will want to work with you.

(A lot of these ideas clicked for me looking over Paul Jarvis‘ site for web design.)

8) Advertising is for suckers

Advertising = always losing money. You will need to pay for every customer you get, and it never gets easier. It has it’s place, but for the same money spent on advertising, you could be doing more fun and more effective things.

But to start out, write 5 long articles that shows you’re an expert and insider in your field. Make them in-depth, comprehensive, useful summaries. Really spend time on them. Then write 10 long articles to guest post on other blogs in your field with an established following. Guest blogging is the new, #1 way to market yourself. You can do it almost immediately if you have a nice site and a few good articles, a great “about page” with your beliefs statements.

9) Do something fun, new and shareable

Most companies and freelance businesses fail at social marketing because 1) advertising is dead and 2) nobody wants to promote your lame business for you. Social networking your business won’t work. Instead you have to create a fun event or opportunity that people can get involved in, and reward them with incentives. It doesn’t matter if these people will become clients. It matters that people are talking about you, sharing your website, and associating you with this new cool thing. Clients will appreciate you more and realize how much value you’re producing. Big companies these days are making surfing contests or sponsoring social scholarship programs; then they sell the media or make an advertisement talking about this cool project they sponsored (rather than focusing on their products.

On my editing company I run writing contests, and have a “typo hunt” program where readers can get $5 for finding a typo in a traditionally published book.

10) Newsjack

This idea is a combination of two books I read recently: “Trust me I’m Lying” and “Newsjacking.”

Basically, watch what’s going on in the news around you, find a way to make it into an interesting twist or story involving your company. Write a blog posts and use the relevant Twitter hashtags. Done right, you can steal someone else’s thunder and redirect a popular topic. This has to be done carefully, and not in a spammy, self-promotional way. It’s basically keywords on steriods: find what people are searching for, write a blog post using the same keywords = get more traffic. You need to be creative and flexible and responsive, but this can generate a ton of traffic.

What are your favorite tips and tricks for promoting your freelance or online small business?


Art by one of my favorite artists, Leigh Cooney.

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