Who is your most valuable client? It's not the one who brings you the most money. Nor is it the one who is most famous. You are your most important client, and that means you need to spend a little time refining your own process each week. Here are five ways to do just that.
Title image by bloomua (Shutterstock).
Your other clients are important, but at the end of the day, you still need to pay attention to yourself. Business magnate Warren Buffett illustrates this in his authorised biography The Snowball, using his partner Charlie Munger as an example:
Charlie, as a very young lawyer, was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, 'Who's my most valuable client?' And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on these construction projects and real estate deals. Everybody should do this, be the client, and then work for other people, too, and sell yourself an hour a day.
Agencies understand this principle: that's why they allocate so many resources to creating their own platforms and products. To build their reputation, they will do cheaper (or free) work to align themselves with more prominent brands.
Although you may have a smaller budget than these agencies, you can do what Charlie Munger did -- spend just one hour each day on your most important client. What can you do as a freelancer to enhance yourself?
1. Look at Job Postings
When I talked to serial entrepreneur and Circa CEO Matt Galligan about networking, I asked him about his brief stint in product management consulting and how consultants could go about finding work. One of his suggestions was that freelancers should look at company job boards for postings in their realms of expertise.
Although this sounded unusual, it made perfect sense as he unpacked the idea: most times, when companies post a job, they are doing it as a reaction. For example, they needed a developer, designer, or a marketer yesterday. This makes for a great opportunity for you to get in touch with the company as a freelancer.
You can tell them straight-up that you may not be the perfect permanent fit for their team, but you can hit the ground running in the meantime and solve the problem for them in the short-term. Not only will you reduce their workload, but you will also be buying them more time to recruit and hire a permanent team member that truly fits.
There's your foot in the door. Even though you might be working on a temporary basis with them, you have the insider's perspective to figure out more of the company or team's problems -- and how you can help them solve these other problems when the permanent staff member inevitably replaces you in your current capacity.
2. Research And Connect With Ideal Potential Clients
One of the major benefits to freelancing is your ability to choose who you collaborate with. Use it to your advantage. As Tim Ferriss once wrote, life is both too short and too long to work with people you dislike.
Email people (or people from companies) that you've admired from afar. (Here's how you can use Rapportive to find their emails.) Use LinkedIn to see if you've got any mutual connections to these people or companies, and see if they can make warm introductions to these contacts.
If you're really resourceful, you will attach a "gift" to these emails to get their attention. For example, as a marketer, I would create slide decks that these prospective clients or collaborators can post on Slideshare, or a graphic they can post on Facebook. As a writer, I would create comprehensive guest post pitches (using templates that look like Ramit Sethi's). This takes research, which means looking at their current body of work to guess what their current pains are -- and see if you can contribute.
If you spend just a couple of dedicated hours per week on this, you will likely be able to reach out to one prospective client a week with one of these gifts. (In a way, it's like a Trojan horse.) If you don't have the time or resources to invest in creating these gifts, then you should be able to reach at least five people per week with an idea of what their problems are and how you can solve them.
3. Learn From Other Freelancers
In his book Why Don't We Learn From History?, B.H. Liddell Hart said "There is no excuse for anyone who is not illiterate if he is less than three thousand years old in mind." While researching prospective clients or opportunities is important, gaining general information can be just as important. When you run your own business, it's crucial that you get exposed to new ideas, which are found in abundance outside of your filter bubble.
Freelancing comes with the ability to read at almost any time. You can also watch interviews or listen to podcasts; the point is to gain information with this time. This luxury comes with a responsibility: while other workers may be able get by with others thinking for them, as a freelancer you have to think for yourself.
Whatever problems you're currently facing, it's extremely likely someone else has faced a variation of it in the past. If you don't know where to start, look into examples of people or companies that have operated under tight constraints and resources, and still excelled at what they did.
4. Build And Ship Things Under Your Personal Brand
Your reputation is crucial for freelancing. It will be the key to generating more inbound leads, for closing current leads, and for networking. Carl Lange put it best:
You would not believe how much opportunity is out there for those who do things and tell people. It's how you travel the entrepreneurial landscape. You do something interesting and you tell everyone about it... Then, the next time someone wants to do something in any way related to that cool thing, they come to you first.
The majority of freelancers tell people what they can do for them. However, your statements will be much more powerful when you can show people what you can do for them. For example, several months ago, I started experimenting with a publishing platform called Medium. Coincidentally, it was just starting to gain more traction around this time, and I had some traffic stats and examples of getting my thoughts featured. I convinced one of my clients to invest time and resources into Medium not too long after that by showing them what I had accomplished on the platform myself.
If you're a freelance designer, you can do stuff like redesigns for apps that have recently launched. Or, you can take a makecation from your freelance work to update a company's entire brand. (This creation can double as a gift for routine #2.)
You can also take time to write ebooks or blog posts to help other people solve problems. Not only does this help refine your own thinking process, it could also help diversify your income streams so you no longer only rely on services.
5. Refine Your Infrastructure
I was getting lunch with one of my closest friends and we started talking about technology and infrastructure. I had pondered out loud whether this could be applied on a microscopic level -- something like a "personal infrastructure" -- essentially the systems one person uses to get her work done. Parts of my system include not checking Facebook until 6PM and going for walks to refresh my mind. One was an idea extended from author Tim Ferriss and 37signals' Matt Linderman, and the other was inspired by an interview with Natalie Portman (time spent on routine #3).
The point of refining your infrastructure is to implement and test some of those cool new systems or solutions you read about online. If you stumbled across a more effective way to send invoices, take this dedicated time to try it out.
During this hour, in addition to thinking about getting work done faster and better, also reflect on whether you're doing what you had set out to do 6-12 months ago. Have you made progress on your goals? Are you closer to working with your dream clients and collaborators? If not, why?
Depending on the constraints you discover through these questions, you can use this hour to take action. For example, if you realise that you don't have enough time, there are several things to ask -- are you inundated with busywork? Should you find a virtual assistant?
Remember, this is only a one hour habit though -- it's easy to go overboard and spend half a day implementing a new productivity system. Don't!
Remember, you are your most important client. While you've still got to pay the bills, don't get caught up in reactionary work -- set aside an hour each day to be proactive and figure out who has problems, connect with prospective dream clients, learn from others, develop your personal brand, and refine your infrastructure.