You have the skills, the know-how, the excitement, the drive… but without a project to pour your energy into or an idea you want to see come to life, what can you do? (Or maybe you just want to start getting paid.)

Here’s the good news: people want you. Your capabilities are high in demand, and you have the opportunity to make an enormous difference both for yourself and for someone else. But, here’s the less shiny news: freelancing isn’t for everyone.

everyday I'm hustlin'

As a freelance web developer, your success will largely be a product of your ability to hustle and grind. This means hard work, but more so, it means being willing to do some unglamorous work.

hustle (verb): being comfortable doing unfamiliar things
grind (verb): determinedly doing repetitive activities

On the surface, hustle might just look like doing what it takes to get everything done and get it done well, but at its core, it means being open to doing unfamiliar things. Similarly, you might think of the grind as being willing to rise early and sleep late, but what it really comes down to is being tough enough not to let the repetitive stuff wear you down or keep you from seeing the bigger picture.

As a freelancer, what you’ll need foremost is a great deal of self-discipline.

Sound like you? Here’s how to get started.

Start thinking like a small business owner

As a web developer, it’s natural to think of freelance work opportunities in terms of the technicalities and the granular details of what you’re capable of. The first step is to change your mindset. Push your technical talk aside, and consider who you’re talking to. Your selling point to small business owners won’t be in jargon they don’t understand– what they care about above all is the growth of their business.

Now that your developer hat is off, start thinking like an entrepreneur. This means valuing your work in terms of the impact you can make and the growth you can create, not simply the time it will take you to build the thing your client needs. Thinking like an entrepreneur will make you realize that it’s not just about building a website; it’s about helping your client grow their entire business.

You can add considerable value with the skill sets you already have. Just building a website for a small business owner or improving their operations by a small percentage could easily tack on an extra $1,000 of monthly revenue. You also don’t have to limit yourself to clients who are at square one. You can leverage technology to increase traffic, automate time-consuming tasks, cut out unnecessary intermediaries, better convert leads… the list goes on. The magnitude of your influence is up to you– be a great business partner and do your best work, and the improvements you’ll make could be truly significant.

Look where no one else is looking

So you’re ready to talk the talk, but who’s listening? The next step is finding the right small businesses and identifying opportunities you see for them where they could really use your help. What’s the “right” small business? There are two types you will encounter: impulse and destination. Impulse businesses are those that get a lot of their business from passersby acting on impulse, like restaurants. On the other hand, destination businesses get much of their business from customers who actively seek them out, like plumbers. In general, destination businesses will be a better fit for the work you can provide.

You might already have a mental list of some shoulders you can tap, but consider these unorthodox channels before your inevitable “small businesses [your location]” Google search.

1. Angie’s List

Angie’s List is a paid subscription website that crowdsources reviews of local businesses. This is your goldmine of potential clients who are still only getting their business through referrals from a third-party website.

2. Yellow Pages

In the spirit of looking where no one else is looking, yes, really, the Yellow Pages. For some small businesses, this is still deemed a viable way to advertise and do business.

3. Chamber of Commerce

Join your local chamber of commerce! This is the ultimate way you can get connected with the network of businesses in your area.

4. Domain-specific conferences

In the same vein, check out industry-specific events happening near you. Network with the insiders and scope out possible opportunities with the people who know the territory best.

The point is to experiment with new and different things. Do your research, and think creatively and unconventionally about how you can meet your clients where they are.

Be a customer

The most foolproof way to get in talks with a potential client is to be a customer. Unsurprisingly, business owners will be much more willing to talk to you if you’re already doing business with them!

As you think about what you bring to the table, remember to recognize and consider your client’s current goals. When you’re selling yourself, it’s natural to want to talk in great detail about what you can offer, what you can do, what you’re capable of. Don’t forget to listen. Find out and understand what your client wants, then begin to talk about your capabilities and how you can mold your skills to their needs.

Do your research. Learn as much as you can about your client, their business, how they operate, what their competitors are doing, what their pain points are, where they can improve. Be in the loop so you can spend the conversation making suggestions and talking about how you can improve their business, rather than learning from them what you could already know.

“The sale begins when the customer says no.” Be confident and be persistent. This is where the hustle and grind truly come in. And be outgoing. Use good conversation to find ways to build the opportunities you’re looking for.

hello, it's me

Always follow up, and keep in mind that small business owners are usually very busy. Don’t write off a potential client just because your one email went unnoticed. Keep the ball in your court and don’t wait around expecting people you want to do business with to reach out to you. Put the burden on yourself, and make it happen. #hustle

Finally, build relationships with the people you work with. For most small business owners, what you can provide isn’t what will matter most. Their decision to do business with you will largely be based on whether they feel they can trust you and want to work with you. Be the kind of person you would want to do business with!

This blog post is an adaptation of a Firehose student Lightning Talk. See the video of the full talk and follow-up Q&A here.

AuthorKen Mazaika

Ken Mazaika is the CTO and co-founder at Firehose. Previously, he was a tech lead at (acquired by PayPal) and a member of the PayPal/eBay development team in Boston.

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