Getting paid as a freelancer is hard to figure out… at least at first.
Once you get going, though, it provides a flexibility and freedom that’s hard to beat. Oh yeah, and if you play your cards right, it can pay you a pretty penny as well.
I know this to be true because I’ve done high-end freelancing for some of Silicon Valley’s hottest tech startups—companies that share investors with Facebook, Google, Twitter, Dropbox and many more. Before that, I was a startup COO. I co-founded a company called Serious Business that was acquired by Zynga, ran personnel and operations for Powerset (which was acquired by Microsoft) and was an executive at CrowdFlower.
The combination of these experiences has taught me that there is a lot that freelancers and solopreneurs can learn from Silicon Valley startups. It’s also taught me that there are a lot of ways that startups operate that make absolutely no sense for a freelancer or solopreneur to mimic.
Unfortunately, too often freelancers and solopreneurs apply all of the wrong startup lessons to their own businesses. I’m here to help you sort out which startup tips and tricks are valuable for you and which are not. That way, you can get on with getting paid to do work you love and enjoy the freedom that working for yourself affords.
Let’s take Facebook as our prototypical startup…
Two things Facebook has done since its startup days that have made it the wildly successful business it has become:
- Facebook focused on “viral growth” and scaling its audience before spending effort and focus on “monetizing” (or making money) from its audience. Zuckerberg knew that if he could get the audience large enough, the money would take care of itself.
- Instead of holing up until the site was indestructible and every feature that customers might want was built, Facebook practiced “iterative development.” The product was live to the public well before it was full of features, and the site often crashed. Facebook used this real-world testing (and the sense of urgency that comes with it) to quickly improve its offering with very small incremental improvements.
Both of these approaches worked for Facebook. But what do they mean for you as a freelancer or solopreneur?
One of these practices is the key to your success. The other will likely lead to your demise.
Read on to find out which is which…
Audience before offer?
Do any of these sound familiar?
“Before I try and sell something, I should have a long and proven track record for providing value for free.”
“Once I get thousands of Twitter followers, it will be so much easier to make money.”
“I need at least a few hundred regular blog readers to create a paid service or offering.”
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Yes, Facebook focused exclusively on building its audience knowing that “the money would come,” but here’s one thing Facebook quickly had that your freelancing or solopreneur practice likely will not: millions of dollars of venture capital financing.
Silicon Valley startups are not just out to build a “healthy audience.” They are out to reach massive scale (think many millions of users) because, at the end of the day, their investors are only happy if they can reach a value of $100 million—or preferably $1 billion. Their businesses model is “Billion or Bust.”
My hunch is that as a freelancer or solopreneur, the “Billion or Bust” business model won’t work for you, unless you have a trust fund you’re inheriting from Bill Gates.
If you don’t want to live on Ramen noodles or stay forever stuck at a job you want to quit, you are going to need fund this business yourself. So finding your offer—not becoming a Superblogger or Social Media Maven—is priority number one.
What’s your offer? It’s simple: whatever it is that you intend to sell as a freelancer or solopreneur.
Eff it, we’ll do it live!
If you’ve never watched this clip of Bill O’Reilly screaming “F$%! it, we’ll do it live!” take a moment to fall on the floor laughing:
Sometimes the best way to get something right is to do it with a live audience.
Sure, it’s a little scary, but what you gain is invaluable: real-world feedback. Instead of guessing, you find out immediately what’s working and what’s not. And you have pressure to quickly adjust.
That’s the genius of the “iterative development” approach that Facebook (and many other top Silicon Valley companies) use to build their products. As a freelancer or solopreneur, you can use that very same approach to identify and build out the offer you’re going to use to fund your business.
Here are three benefits of this approach:
- You can start making money now. You don’t have to wait until you’re an online celebrity to get started. Instead, you can test your offer out with a few people at a time. With each test, you’ll learn a little more about your offer and you’ll increase your income.
- Your early customers become partners. If you explain your process appropriately, your earliest customers will partner with you to make your offer better by giving you much-needed feedback. They’ll even pay you to create your offer in the first place.
- You can build the right audience. You’ll quickly understand who your ideal customer is and what’s important to him or her. Now, you can build an audience of potential customers, rather than an audience of people who like to laugh at your cat pictures.
So as a freelancer, though it’s tempting, leave the “build an audience first and worry about the offer later” approach to Facebook and other viral growth businesses. When it comes to building your offer, though, take a page out of the startup playbook and use the “iterative development approach”—do it live and do it now!