How to build a network as a freelance programmer

Relationships are the foundation of business, especially freelancing

Success in most business endeavors is largely dependent on the owner’s ability to build and maintain relationships. Some businesses are more relationship-oriented than others.

Freelance programming is one of those particularly relationship-oriented kinds of businesses. An individual freelance programmer is an owner of a professional services business, similar to how a solo lawyer or solo bookkeeper is the owner of a professional service business.

A professional service business is especially relationship-oriented for two reasons.

The first reason is that a large amount of trust is necessary in order for a client to hire a service professional. My client engagements often cost many tens of thousands of dollars and can last many months or even years. If you’re going to spend that kind of time and money with someone, you’re going to want some very good reasons to believe you can trust the person. It’s obviously a whole different ballgame from buying, say, a bottle of shampoo, which requires very little trust and not much money (unless it’s some of that really good million-dollar-a-bottle shampoo). A person has to trust you in order to hire you.

The second reason a professional service business is particularly relationship-oriented is that the service provider and the client spend so much time interacting. The client and vendor have to like each other, or at least they have to like each other enough not to want to fire each other. If you act like a weirdo idiot dipshit toward your client, they’re probably not going to refer you to many other clients. It’s not enough to hit your deadlines and “do great work” and all that stuff. You have to be a good communicator as well in order to maintain the relationship. In fact, many people have told me that they’d prefer a developer who’s a good communicator and just an okay developer over someone who’s an awesome developer but shitty communicator.  A person has to like working with you in order to refer you.

How jobs get filled

The way jobs get filled and the way freelancing gig get filled is pretty much the same. I’ll just use the word “job” to mean either actual job or freelancing gig.

I think most people are aware that most jobs are filled via referral. This goes back to the trust thing. When a company has a need for, say, a Rails developer, the first thing the boss might do is to think of anyone he personally knows who does Rails work. Then he might ask his employees if they have any friends who do Rails who might want to work there. Then he’ll probably reach out to people outside the company to ask the same question. Only if those things don’t produce satisfactory results will he put up a job posting. So the priority list goes like this:

  1. Developers I know
  2. Developers my employees/co-workers know
  3. Developers who anyone I know knows
  4. Strangers from job boards

Obviously, the amount of “trust juice” is highest at the top of the list and lowest at the bottom. That’s why job board applicants often have to jump through a ton of hoops, but developers who are referred from trusted sources might not even have an interview, not even as a formality.

If you think of groups 1 through 4 above as concentric circles expanding outward from the hiring manager, the aim of your networking is to be in the “developers I know” circle for as many people as possible.

The Networking Snowball

“The Networking Snowball” is something I made up just now. It’s how you can build a network if you’re starting from nothing.

I started freelancing in 2011. I was living in West Michigan after having bounced around the country for a number of years, meaning I didn’t have deep roots anywhere. In addition, I was working on transitioning from PHP to Rails (I move I’ve never regretted), so a lot of my old contacts weren’t terribly valuable because they mostly led to work that wasn’t very interesting to me anymore.

Here’s what I did when I started freelancing, which is what I would recommend to anyone who’s starting out or thinking about making the leap:

  1. See if your current or most recent employer will be your first client
  2. Reach out to all your past employers (at least the ones you liked) and see if they’d want to be your client
  3. Reach out to all your contacts and see if they know anyone who could use your services
  4. Start hitting up the job boards for work

You’ll notice that, like the list of hiring steps from earlier, these steps are in descending order from “highest amount of trust juice” to “lowest amount of trust juice”. Who would be more likely to pay you money to do work for them than the people who are paying you money to do work for them right now? And the next best bet is people who aren’t paying you know, but have happily paid you before.

Going through this list of four steps will provide you with your first paying client which will be the nucleus of your snowball. Even if your current employer wants to be your first client, it’s still a good idea to carry out steps two and three and just let people know what you’re doing. If you announce that you’re now self-employed, but also mention that you’re not available at the moment because your services are so in demand, it will make you all that much more desirable in their eyes.

(By the way, notice how I didn’t say it might provide you with your first paying client. It will. If steps 1 to 3 don’t work, you’ll eventually get work if you diligently the job boards and contact a large number of prospects. It might seem like your efforts are futile and you’re wasting your time, but then at some point everything will hit at once and you’ll get some work. You just have to put in the time and effort.)

As part of building your snowball you should always have a mind for “collecting” people. When you start freelancing, you should spin up a CRM account if you don’t already have one. Begin by putting every professional contact you can think of into your CRM. Then, each time you get a client, put everyone at your client’s company into your CRM who you think could be useful to you in the future. This also goes for people you meet at tech meetups, conferences, and whatever other kinds of networking events you might go to.

If you come across a particularly interesting person while working with a client, especially if it’s a fellow freelancer, ask that person to an off-the-clock one-on-one meeting to get to know each other a little better. If the other person is business-savvy, and especially if the other person is a freelancer, he or she will get what you’re talking about and usually be glad to get together compare notes with you. If the other person is a freelancer, you should ask him or her what would be a good referral, and just how you can help in general. Usually the other person will naturally reciprocate the question.

Here’s the next step of building your Networking Snowball: go through your CRM periodically, maybe once a month, and reach out to everyone who you think it makes sense to reach out to. A question that might come to your mind is, “What do I say?” Good question. I like to reach out only to business owners or salespeople and ask, “Is there any way I can be helpful to you right now? Are there any intros or referrals you’re looking for at the moment?” People will usually appreciate this offer for help and reciprocate the question. This tactic is a good one to use periodically, but it’s also a good one to use on the occasions when you’re looking for work. You can elicit referrals from people in this way without looking desperate and without looking like you’re only contacting them because you want something out of them.

How to continue your networking self-education

I’ll leave you with a list of good networking books, in no particular oder:

  • Get Clients Now! by C.J. Hayden
  • Endless Referrals by Bog Burg
  • The Go-Giver by Bob Burg
  • Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty by Harvey Mackay
  • The Little Black Book of Connections by Jeffrey Gitomer
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

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