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See behind the mindset that helped make me a 6-Figure consultant with my manifesto

NO is NOT a Curse Word

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Don’t Just Be an Imitation

When you get started with any activity you start by emulating those who are better than you.

This process starts in childhood. Maybe it was watching your dad shave and then standing beside him shaving, even though you had no actual need to shave.

Maybe it was doing your hair like that person you looked up to.

You imitated that person so you could be more closely identified with them.

But thankfully, most of didn’t stop there.

BBQ’s and Police

Back in high school I was not the nicest person. Actually, that’s a stretch. It’s a combination of luck and …well, just luck that I didn’t end up in jail for some of the things I did.

One time some friends and I stole a barbecue grill from the backyard of a house near the school, and we started bringing raw burgers to school so we could have a barbecue in the forest (next to our huge lunch fire). This is a very tame example of the stupid I did, by the way. I was actually the person that jumped the fence to get the grill after someone else joked about it.

At that point I was trying to imitate the ‘bad kids’ during the process of defining who I was. If I had stopped imitating people at that stage of my life, then I certainly would have ended up on a much different path than the one I’m currently on.

Luckily I didn’t stop there. I ended up analyzing the path I was heading down and realized it didn’t match with the picture I wanted to create of myself.

Don’t Stop

When I started blogging I found a bunch of people I thought were good writers and I more or less copied their style.

But I didn’t stop there.

When I needed a good client on-boarding process I found a good one and starting using it.

But I didn’t stop there, I refined it to fit with my business.

I hope you don’t stop either. Don’t just take what I say or do and use it blindly. Refine it and come up with something that’s a better fit for you and your business.

If you just stop as a copy of me you can really only expect to be as successful as me. While that may look like a worthy goal, I think you should be more successful than I am.

That means you need to refine things and make them your own. You’re even going to need to try some new things just for yourself to see if they work better than what I do.

Don’t just stop as a copy of the people you look up to. Run your own business and forge your own path.

photo credit: curtismchale cc


Who helps you set your business boundaries?

Setting and sticking to weekly goals is hard for most of us. We find it reasonably easy to let ourselves down in places we’d never dream of letting a client down. We certainly wouldn’t stand for someone we were paying slacking in missed goals.

Then we feel bad and plan to do better.

Is this true for you?

You rely on ‘will power’ to get those personal projects done. Or maybe you said you wouldn’t take any client work this month because you’re feeling burned out.

Then someone calls and has some money and you forget to keep that boundary intact, so you take on the new project.

As you fail in setting boundaries for yourself, you need others who will let you know about it in a caring way. – Boundaries

Who are your ‘others’?

Who are the ‘others’ in your life who help you maintain your boundaries?

My first ‘other’ is my awesome wife. We talk about the business every week and sit down every few months to evaluate our overall direction.

Notice I say ‘our’ direction. While I run the business and she raises our kids it’s still our business. We are partners in every aspect of life.

How about you? When things are tough do you let your spouse in to help you? Better than just ‘letting them in’ are they actually ‘in’ all the time, not just when things are desperate?

Do they know approximately how much is in the business emergency fund? Better yet, do they have access to the business accounts?

Do they know your yearly goals and are you reviewing them together?

If your answer isn’t yes to those questions then it’s time to step into adulthood and truly partner with your spouse.

My Mastermind

My second group of ‘others’ is my mastermind group. We meet weekly to discuss business and our goals.

We also have a Slack group that we use daily when we run into issues that we want group feedback on. Maybe it’s the tricky wording needed to break up with a client, or maybe it’s the push to actually start blocking out time so we can get stuff done.

Whatever it is, I know I can reach out to that group of people — that they truly care about my business and me and they will help me work through a rough patch.

They’ll let me know when I should be saying NO to a customer when I waffle around on actually doing it.

So who are your ‘others’? Are you actually being honest with them so they can help you set boundaries?

If you don’t have ‘others’ or you’re not being honest with the ones you do have…WHY NOT?

photo credit: dunechaser cc


No Freelance Work? It’s a Marketing Problem

Despite hearing over and over from so many sources that there is a WordPress gold rush out there, I regularly hear from freelancers who are struggling to find work.

They’re competent in that they can build a theme and do work that’s standards compliant. They are nice people with decent communication skills. Their projects accomplish client goals. They really want to work and pour time into the various marketing things that everyone tells them will get clients.

But they still struggle to find work, or when they do get work, they get argued down to a $20 an hour rate. On top of that, they offer endless revisions (included in the fee), so their $20 turns into $5 an hour. They’d really be better off slinging coffee.


So why do these competent people struggle to find work in a space where many people (myself included) talk about only sending estimates to 10% of the people that contact them?

They have a marketing problem.

Bob (not his real name)

Just a few weeks ago I reached out to a former student to see how work was going. Was he getting enough work? What was his biggest struggle? His response, in short, was no, he’s not getting enough work. So I asked:

If I had a single project that was perfect for you what would it look like?

The response was 500 words with eight PDF’s attached.

Jill (again not real name)

A second student of mine had the same question posed to her. Her response was better, with about 8 sentences but when I went to her site it was targeted at anyone with money.

Her direct reply to me indicated she was the right fit for my specific project, but her site indicated she was right for any project.

Marketing problem

I regularly send work I could do to someone else because while I’m capable of doing the work, it doesn’t fall perfectly into my ideal project and it does meet the requirements of their ideal project.

Other times I outsource work because I get a client with a budget that’s below what I like to work for, so I send it to someone starting out who can work with that budget.

But I can only do that if I know that exact project fits a freelancer’s ideal, and 500 rambling words with a bunch of attached files doesn’t give me a concise snapshot of their ideal project. At least it doesn’t do that in a way any client would ever bother with.

Two sentences

People — it’s your elevator pitch, so use it. I asked Bob for two sentences.

  1. What is your ideal project? Be specific.
  2. Who is your ideal client? Be specific.

If you can’t distill your pitch down to that then there is no way your prospects can either. All of your web copy and marketing should be focused on those two things.

Once you’ve got that, you can start blogging for those projects and customers.

Once you’ve been doing that, you’re on the way to fixing your marketing problem.

photo credit: pasukaru76 cc


Warm Leads and Steady Referrals

Hands down, my best source of great clients is referrals. These include referrals from other freelancers that don’t quite do what the client needs, or from clients that I’ve worked with directly, who were happy with the work and loved me.

Today we’re going to talk about how to stay top-of-mind with people who already think you’re awesome, so you can depend on referrals.


A few years back I spent 3 months working for a WordPress agency. It ended up being a bad fit on both ends and we stopped working together.

On 2 days notice, I needed more work so I could pay for my house, but had nothing lined up.

To say I was worried about feeding my family is an understatement. Fridge boxes are fun for 2-year-olds to play in, but way less fun for a family of 3, plus a dog, to live in.

I needed money, so I simply emailed previous clients to let them know I had work time opening up and asked if they had any projects they needed done.

Within about 2 hours I had work for the next month.

All I had to do was ask.

Warm Leads

Now this wasn’t the first time in months that those clients had heard from me. I have a system to keep myself on the radar of the clients I love so that I remain top-of-mind for them.

I also put other freelancers I’ve worked with, or who have sent me work, in the same system so I stay near the top of their mind as well.

The person I’ve heard talk about this the most is Michael Port in his book Book Yourself Solid. The basics are to touch base with 5 people a day, all the time.

If you touch base with 5 people a day that means you keep 25 people as ‘warm leads’ each week.

Whoa — that sounds like a lot of work though, doesn’t it?

I’ve got to write 5 emails a day all the time to 5 different people? Who on earth has time for that?

How on earth am I supposed to even find something to say to 5 people a day?

I’d say that my time touching base with 5 people a day takes up about 20 minutes a day. It’s not really that much time and it helps me maintain my six-figure income a year. I’d say that about 50% of my billing is from leads that I keep warm.

That’s $50K from keeping leads warm.

Now do you think you could spare 20 minutes a day?

What on earth do I send?

So what do you say to those clients?

First, you can use canned responses or canned messages to automate part of the process.

For my ecommerce clients I’ll send them a link to an article that I’ve recently found about running a better store. I see an article every 2 weeks that’s great and I’m not emailing the same ecommerce client multiple times in 2 weeks to keep them warm.

So all I have to do is find a new article once every few weeks for them.

For other freelancers or agencies that I’ve worked with, or had referrals from previously, I touch base to see how business is going right now. I’ll tell them a bit about how things are going for me currently (thus turning the canned message into something personal).

That’s about it, usually. I’m not asking them for work every time but usually one of the agencies or freelancers just had something come across their desk that I’d be perfect for.

If I hadn’t been on the top of their mind I wouldn’t have heard about the work so I wouldn’t be getting it.

How do you remember?

But how on earth do I remember to send all of those emails, and who I should be following up on? I don’t try remember any of that — I put it all in a trusted system called Contactually.

Contactually allows me to put all my contacts in different buckets and set follow-up schedules for each bucket. It even prompts me with email content that would be decent for the contact.

If you want to maintain a steady stream of referrals, keep your contacts warm. Getting referrals from colleagues and past clients is going to help your business run well and weather the slow times.


Be a great freelancer and get continual work

I’ve got a special trick to share with you. It’s the secret formula for being a great freelancer who gets continual freelance work. It’s the trick that will help you not only get clients coming back, but assures they will refer their friends to you as well.

It’s total magic and very few freelancers do a good job with it.

Are you ready? Wait for it….

The special trick is: Answer your email within 24 hours every time.


As I sit here in Starbucks and watch Tweets go by, I know that one of the freelancers I communicate with regularly is looking for work. They are specifically looking for WooCommerce work. I also know that it’s not that this freelancer is just waiting for the right project. They need the work to pay bills in the next few weeks.

I just got off the phone with one of their prospective clients and I understand why this freelancer is looking for work. They left the client hanging for 48+ hours on an email response and the client felt like they were forgotten.

This client sent an email and a tweet Sunday evening about a possible project. It’s Wednesday and there is no response on either front.

The prospect emailed me late Tuesday night and I responded Wednesday morning. We’ve now had a phone call and they aren’t even going to bother with the other developer.

I’m the client’s second choice and I won them over in a morning, simply by actually responding to them. Nothing magic — I just treated them with respect.

I’m all for batching my work time. I don’t leave email open all day ever, but batching stuff to only respond to every 3 days is a bit excessive. One of the best ways I found to get clients is to respond to them in a timely fashion.

This issue isn’t limited to prospective clients trying to get in touch with freelancers, either. Every other week I hear about a client who had a developer they were working with drop off the face of the earth.

The last client I took that had 3 freelancers disappear is an awesome client. They pay their bills within hours of getting sent an invoice. They roll with technical challenges as they come up and have reasonable requests.

Most of the clients who find me and have had bad communication with prior freelancers turn out to be awesome. It’s us that’s the problem.

One of the best things you can do to get and keep clients at any point in your freelance career is to be communicative with your clients.


My email update routine means I send the client an update email on Thursday/Friday with what was done during the week and what to expect next week. On Monday I send them an email telling them what to expect for the upcoming week.

Yes, I just said I send 2 emails with pretty similar content within about 3 days.

Then we talk once in a week, every week, where we go over what’s being done and address any challenges that have come up in the course of the past week.

I don’t go into the typical programmer ‘mole mode’ — I keep communicating and communicating. I figure if a client emails me to ask for an update, I’ve failed because they were wondering where I was and what’s up.

The extra mile

Once you implement this strategy, which covers the basics, then you kick it up a notch. Send your awesome clients a handwritten card. Something I’m going to do is start sending my awesome clients a Lego mini figure at the end of our project with my business name on it and a handwritten card.

I keep track of my clients’ birthdays and send them a birthday card, and I also send them one card that just tells them they’re awesome, for no reason whatsoever.

Unfortunately sending those weekly updates will make you some amazing freelancer because almost no one else does it. Adding in the extra cards will push you to a level that most clients haven’t ever dealt with.

They won’t even know what to do with themselves.

photo credit: ntr23 cc

figure skating

Writing Awesome Cold Emails

I said yesterday that when I started out I didn’t end the day until I sent out at least 10 contacts for new work. While I did a good job with my habit, the fact is, I did a bad job writing emails someone would actually read.

I also had a terrible site, so even if a prospect read the email and checked out my site there was little to indicate to them I was a provider worth hiring.

Today we’ll talk about effective cold emails, and later this week we’ll talk about building a website that would actually interest a client.

No ‘Hey’

We all get these terrible cold emails that don’t even have our name in them, right? If you’re like most people, the first thing you do is delete the email since it’s probably just spam anyway.

Don’t be the person who sends those kinds of emails. Take some time to research the person you’re emailing and always address them by name in the email. You’re not just emailing a faceless company, you’re emailing a specific person at that company.

One great way to do this is to use Rapportive. Plug in the email address you’re using and see what other information comes up. Maybe you’ll find a Twitter profile and can track through that to get their name.

Mention relevant content you liked

Although this is a cold email, it doesn’t mean you can’t build some connection right away. During your research with Rapportive maybe you came across a blog that the person you want to email writes. Was there a recent post you really liked?

How about you mention that?

Maybe they mentioned a link on Twitter to something you found interesting. Mention it and include a sentence or two about why you liked it.

This is about showing you aren’t just firing an email blind, but that you’re real person who put some work into making the contact meaningful.

The best thing you can do is follow the prospect on Twitter and spend a week or two interacting before you send the email. Sure, you’re still sending a cold/unsolicited message, but they’re now more likely to recognize your name and thus respond to your email.

More research

Do you have a mutual connection that can make an introduction for you, to change your totally cold email into a lukewarm email? I’ve found that the best tool for this strategy is LinkedIn.

Yes, I know lots of people rag on LinkedIn and it does feel silly to me when my mom endorses me for a skill which she has no way to evaluate me on, but it’s still a very useful site.

If you can get some sort of warm introduction, or even get permission to mention your mutual contact’s name in the email, then you’re way more likely to get a response on your cold email.

Keep it short

The only thing worse than getting a cold email that doesn’t address the recipient by name and was clearly based on no research, is one that is also 900 words long. It’s worse because you’ve potentially suckered the prospect into reading way too much (and possibly wasting more time) before your service/project/idea is rejected.

If you’re going to send cold emails keep your message to 100 words at the most.

The format

Of course the first thing you’re going to say is ‘Hey $name’ (or ‘Hello $name’), but what about the rest of the email?

Here’s the format I use for any cold email to a company I want to work with.

Section 1

This is where you start with the person’s name and any relevant content they had (blog posts, tweets, mutual friend) to establish a bit of a rapport.

Put in that sentence or two about an article they wrote and a link to another one they might find interesting. It’s even better if the article is related to the request you’re about to make. The point is to be helpful to the person you’re emailing.

Section 2

This is the beginning of the meat of the email. Tell them why you’re writing to them. Maybe say that your mutual friend mentioned that they’d likely be interested.

Maybe you see 3 problems with their site that you have a track record of solving. Tell them WHY you’re emailing them now.

Section 3

Now is the time to ask for what you want from your potential client. Maybe you just want to talk more about their business to see if you could help (which is a great tactic since it helps build the relationship and isn’t asking for money).

Maybe you want them to hire you for a site rebuild or conversion work and you’re going to ask them to spend money with you right away.

Whatever it is, now is the time to ask.

Section 4

Finally, sign off politely. Don’t put in 42 affiliate links to everything you could possible sell them. Put in your name, company name, your site and your phone number.

Follow up

Now just because you sent one email, you’re not done yet. When I was starting I followed up with each prospect at least twice, even if they never emailed me back. I’d simply ask if they’d had time to read my email and if they were interested in what I was offering.

If they said no, I’d thank them for their time and move on to the next person on my list.

With cold emails, you’re going to hear NO plenty of times, so just expect it. Don’t get discouraged. The whole point is to get enough work coming in that you can still run your business, so buckle down and do the work.

photo credit: julochka cc

race car

Getting Your First Freelance Clients

The hardest phase for a freelancer is when you’re just starting out and trying to get work. You may not have a reputation yet and even if you’ve been in the industry for a while, no one may know that you’re looking for work.

So how on earth do you get those first clients?

Leverage your network

Even if you’re just starting it’s unlikely that you know absolutely no one in your industry.

If you’re coming out of school you know your teachers and other students. You probably did an internship so you know the business you just interned for.

You know people on Twitter. You have family and friends who know people.

So the truth is, even when you’re starting out, you likely have lots of resources to leverage for generating work — you just have to be bold enough to ask.

One freelancer I talk to regularly gets referrals from her internship. They’re a big agency that just can’t work on smaller projects in the $5,000 range so they send a good chunk of these smaller projects to her. She’s able to keep her schedule 70% full with those referrals.

Some of my first clients were people that my dad knew in the construction industry. I did a bunch of websites for finish carpenters and builders before I landed my first client on my own.

A WordPress-based development shop moved from client work to selling a product. They turned my first year from “barely making it” to comfortable just by sending me clients they could no longer work with. Yes, I still send them gifts and thank them all the time.

Many of my clients now are network referrals; for instance they may know another developer who doesn’t have time for their project, so they work with me instead. These referral projects are valuable, because 99% of the time these clients stay with me. One of my longest term clients was a referral from another developer I knew.

I know we make fun of the ‘my nephew builds websites’ clients, but don’t underestimate the power of your network. Send out messages on Facebook. Contact that uncle who is a photographer and see if any of his friends need some work done. Ask your dad who owns the muffler shop if you can put business cards on the desk of the shop.

Lots of the time freelancers are looking for work simply because they didn’t tell anyone that they had availability, leaving everyone to assume they were full. I now tweet at least once a month that I’m available for new work even if I’m full. Most projects take 3-4 weeks to close, so while I may be busy for the next 3-4 weeks — or even up to 6 weeks — by the time that project closes I’ll be ready to start, or at a minimum, have a 2-week delay.

Get cold

Yes cold calling/email/visiting isn’t the most fun way to spend your time but when you’re starting it’s hustle time. You’ve got to get clients in the door so you actually have a viable business. When I started my freelance business I visited 10 job sites a day (including Craigslist), every day. If I hadn’t sent out 10 contacts for work by the end of the day I went through the local Business Bureau website and started contacting businesses in my city that had terrible websites.

If I hadn’t sent out 10 emails then I wouldn’t go to bed until I got them done. Nothing was going to stop me from being self-employed. Many people I know starting a business simply want work to be dropped into their laps by their freelance fairy godmother.

Sure, we hear about 5-10 people that went freelance and everything just worked — they got work right away and maintain a steady stream of clients. But what you didn’t hear about was the other 100 (maybe even 1,000) who tried the same path to self-employment but are now back at a job. You don’t hear about them because they weren’t successful.

Yes, I still do send out cold emails to some prospects, but I’m just very strategic about it now. I pick the high value targets that will help me jump into a new area with more potential.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about how to send awesome cold emails.

Don’t take just anyone

This whole post has been about how to get your first clients but that still doesn’t mean you should take just anyone as a client. You should define your ideal client and hold each new prospect up to that model client. The more a prospect deviates from the ideal client the less likely it is you should take them.

When you’re starting out you may not be able to be as picky as an established/busy freelancer, but each client you get should be getting you closer to the freedom to choose your ideal client.

photo credit: sergesegal cc


Prospect Red Flags

Something we all want is clients/work. We need client work to pay the bills. How to get more clients is one of the questions I get over and over from freelancers at all stages of the game.

When you’re starting out, your challenge is finding those initial clients and once you’ve been at the freelance game for a while it’s all about generating a consistent flow of work.

We’re going to start today by talking about some of the red flags that might pop up as you work with prospects, because this is an important subject.

No matter what stage in the game you are at, I recommend you don’t work with just anyone that comes along. For example, you should never do work for a prospect that you consider morally objectionable or that makes you feel uncomfortable.

When you’re just starting out, it will be hard to turn away some work, because as we said, work pays the bills. But the longer you work the more you’ll use the word ’NO’, and be comfortable doing so. As you learn to use the word more and more, you will see you’re really building a business that makes you feel free.

So let’s cover some red flags to watch for with prospects — the red flags that may alert you that you need to say ‘no’ to a project.

My son/daughter/cousin

One red flag is a prospect mentioning they have a family member who could do this project for them. A statement like this is often used as attempted leverage to get you to lower your pricing or start the work faster than you said you could.

If they have a family member who can do the work faster and cheaper, then why the hell aren’t they getting the family member to do it for them?

They aren’t getting the family member to do it because that family member either doesn’t actually exist, or can’t/won’t actually do the work. Maybe your prospect’s son did indeed build a website for his video game guild. Sure it works for a guild, but does that mean he can build a website that will actually bring any value to your prospect’s business?

Maybe their family member is just as awesome as you but has a policy that they don’t work with family. Maybe they know that the client experience will be so terrible that they won’t even provide a referral to a trusted friend in the industry.

Whatever the reason, if a prospect mentions this fictional family member to me I always reply:

I’m really glad you have that resource. I guess you’ll have to use them since I’m no longer willing to take the project on.

My idea will change the world

It’s true that sometimes people have world-changing ideas but I get at least one email a week about a world-changing idea. I delete these emails right away.

That’s because 99% of the time the idea isn’t new — I’ve heard about it 3 times this year and built it once last year.

Plus, these world-changing ideas are really only mediocre, but they prospect would like to convince you it’s world-changing to try and leverage some free work out of you in exchange for some equity in the world-changing idea.

Only about 1% of the time will that equity will turn into anything of worth.

I get that the prospect is excited about their idea, but have they done any proper business analysis? Before I buy into a world-changing idea, I want to know if this prospect has 10 years of experience in their industry — and all the contacts that come with that experience — that they can leverage?

Do they have 10 customers willing to pay for their idea? By willing, I mean do they currently have money from the customers — not just 10 people that said they’d be interested in giving them money for their new product or service?

Probably not, and that’s why I’m not interested in working for equity.

I’ve got a friend

Hey, I know lots of people that need web work. Can I get a discount on my work and I’ll send you referrals?

Over the years I’ve run businesses outside of building websites and the single most consistent thing I’ve found is that the ‘bad’ clients almost always knew lots of people that would give me work if I could give the client a small discount.

You know what? None of those clients ever sent me a single referral even when I was dumb enough to give them a discount.

When I encounter this question I just tell the client that I’m sorry, but I’m no longer interested in the project and they can find someone else to work on it.

I do have a friend who offers a discount on future work based on the number of referrals his client generates. It’s something like a 2% discount per referred project over $5K, applied toward the next project for the referring client.

Light on details

Is your prospect barely able to give you complete details about the project? Have they used the phrase “I know it when I see it”?

Don’t fall for this. They won’t know it when they see it, and even if they do it’s going to take 2,000 revisions to get to what they see in their head. If you’re a developer building a site and you feel you need a few more pages of detail (like a proper responsive version of the PSD), then ask for it.

If the client says, “Oh just work with what you have it will be fine” — it won’t be fine. Even if they don’t know it or say it, they DO have a vision in their head of what they want their site to look like but you can’t read minds, so what you envision will be different.

If you work with a client like this, then you’ll go back and forth so many times you’ll end up hating the client when really it was your fault for not pushing for a proper responsive version up front.

Can you please?

Yeah I’d love to work with you but I need you to add in XX feature to the project before I can accept the estimate.

Typically the above statement by the client implies that you add their desired feature without raising the cost. If that’s the assumption (not raising the price) then get ready for more and more ‘scope creep’ as they want to add more things under the original cost.

I always say, “Sure we can do that just let me revise the estimate with the additional cost.” To do this, I start asking them about their perceived value of the extra thing so I can gauge the additional value provided.

What you normally find is that the additional feature, in reality, has little value and the client just wants more work for free.

Arguing about your initial questions

If you’re not using something like my initial email questions, stop here, go read that post and start adding questions like those to your process.

Better yet, get my email templates and use exactly what I and many others use.

What if the client argues or avoids the initial questions, though? I don’t talk to them on the phone without my initial questions answered because I consider their refusal to be a big red flag telling me not to work with the prospect.

You need the questions answered to serve them properly and see if you actually provide any ROI on a project. If they won’t answer the questions they likely aren’t thinking of you as a strategic partner but as a set of fingers to do their bidding. That’s NOT what awesome long-term client relationships are built on.

Tomorrow we’ll jump into how to get your first freelance clients.

photo credit: ericconstantineau cc

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Curtis McHale

Helping you answer the hard questions about your business