How to Cultivate Patrons for Programming Professionals

Written By Nat Thompson

The names of great patrons throughout history, Medici, Guggenheim, and Pope Julius the Second, bring to mind their support of artists and artisans and the great works this support gave birth to. The Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s David, and other countless masterpieces all came about due to the patronage artists received for their works.

As a programmer, the patronage model can also serve you well.

The life of a freelance programmer can be stressful financially if you are constantly on the hunt for new projects and your next source of income. You reach a point where you feel like a starving artist, living hand to mouth. The key to beating this cycle, as Jeff Goins explains in his book “Real Artists Don’t Starve,” is establishing and cultivating patrons. But I can hear you asking, “I’m a programmer, not a painter, so who would patronize my work?”

While it’s true that you won’t necessarily spend your days in a studio creating works that your patrons will swoop in and whisk away, dollar bills floating through the air in their wake, having a patron will give you the ability to take a product vision and craft it via your own skills and be paid consistently for the work. The patron will provide the need; you will provide the know-how.  

A relationship with a patron is different from a typical client relationship. Clients are much more transactional than patrons. A client may have one very specific need for your services and no potential to grow into a larger relationship. There is nothing wrong with this type of transaction; it is just not the type of relationship that will provide you with stable, long-term revenue.

A relationship with a patron is for the long term. As you undertake more commissions for your patrons, the trust they have in you will grow and they will bring you larger and larger projects to undertake. The right patron will also spread the word about you to their friends and associates, broadening your circle of patrons and making your source of income even more reliable.

If you cultivate these patronage relationships, you will eventually have more work than you have the capacity to undertake. It is at this point you can begin to make referrals to other programmers or, as the masters of old did, take on apprentices and journey people to help you deliver the commissions and expand your earning potential through your own consulting practice.

The steps to cultivating the relationships with patrons comprise three phases: discovery, building trust, and collaboration. The details of each step are mastered over time and refined with each new patron. As you move through the three phases, the value of your patron increases, as does your value to the patron. You eventually become their “go-to” person for specific needs, and if you continue to retain their trust through delivery of quality work, your financial future will be secure.

So how do you navigate through these phases? What are the steps necessary to find a patron, prove your worth to them, and enjoy many years of continued collaboration? Let’s get into the details.

Discovery: How to Find a Patron

The first question to ask when cultivating patrons is, “Who are my patrons?”

To answer this, you need to first look at your skills as a programmer. If you are a web developer, it is unlikely that you will find a patron needing work in the database or infrastructure space. However, you will find patrons that are revamping or building green field web applications. Fish where your bait is most attractive to the fish.

Once you have identified your skills, start brainstorming a list of needs those skills can address. If you are having trouble getting the ideas flowing, start with some of the needs you’ve met in the past. List what you’ve built on previous projects, and usually within a few minutes, your creativity will kick in and you will start thinking about additional needs that you may not have helped address, but know you are fully equipped to address. Try to shoot for a list of 50 needs. It shouldn’t take you longer than about 30 minutes to come up with your list.

Next, start looking for themes within your list. Do a lot of your items revolve around user experience? Is performance tuning your forte?

Come up with an overarching category for those themes. This will be the beginning of how you market yourself to potential patrons.

As an example, here are some items from my personal list:

  • Set up a virtual Kanban board to track development work for projects
  • Write procedures for teams to follow Agile development practices
  • Train team members in writing user stories
  • Train team members in estimating effort using points or relative estimation
  • Serve as the Scrum master for teams

Very quickly, a theme of Agile software delivery emerges.

Write down an elevator pitch for each theme — something you can use to describe what you are good at during the span of an elevator ride. This isn’t a full sales presentation, it’s the hook that gets a potential patron interested in hearing more. It gets you the invitation to lunch or coffee where you can dive into deeper detail.

Continuing with my personal example, my elevator pitch would go something like this:

Potential Patron: So what is it that you do again?

Me: I specialize in Agile software Delivery.

Potential Patron: What does that mean?

Me: Do you have software development projects in your organization?

Potential Patron: Yes.

Me: Do they seem to get bogged down and then spiral out of control, getting bigger and more expensive?

Potential Patron: Well … sometimes.

Me: Would it be better if you could get regular delivery of the most valuable pieces of the software in, say, two-week intervals? Pieces that you could start using right away and not have to wait for the whole project to be finished?

Potential Patron: Well, sure.

Me: That’s what I do. I use an Agile approach, Scrum specifically, with a team of developers that I provide to deliver software every two weeks for a set price.

Potential Patron: What type of software?

Me: Any type. I provide the capacity, you define what you need. We work through your list to decide what we can build in two weeks. Once we’ve got a list that uses all our capacity, we stop adding to the list. Then we start building.

Potential Patron: That’s interesting. I’d like to hear more. Can we get coffee or lunch and discuss how this would work for me?

Me: Absolutely! When is good for you?

Potential Patron: I could do coffee at three o’clock today down the street.

Me: Perfect, see you at three.

Elevator: **Ding!** [Arrived at destination floor]

The elevator pitch isn’t high pressure. It’s designed to get a potential patron curious about what you do. When presented correctly, it leads to further conversation where you can go into detail about what you do, what your potential patron needs, and how what you do can give them what they need.

Once you have your elevator pitch established, you’ll want to create a persona for your potential patron to help you fine-tune your pitch. Start brainstorming characteristics of the ideal person that would need your services.

Ask yourself questions about who that person is. What title does your patron have? What role does your patron have in their organization? What personality type is your patron, introverted or extroverted? How does your patron like to spend their free time? Where does your patron like to get their information? What is the number one concern for your patron today?

The answers to these questions will also help you identify where you are likely to encounter your patrons. These encounters may be face-to-face or they may be virtual. If your patrons attend a monthly meeting of your local Project Management Institute chapter, so should you. If they always read the latest update on a blog or community site, you should be there contributing as much value as possible.

You want to be part of the same professional “scene” that your patrons are a part of. So how do you find these scenes?

The easiest first step is to start with your contacts. Colleagues, acquaintances, and previous clients are all resources worth drawing on. Previous clients have the most potential to become patrons while colleagues and acquaintances are more likely to refer you to a potential patron. Let them know what areas you specialize in and that you are interested in hearing about people, places, and events that match up with those themes. Even if they don’t have a suggestion right off the top of their head, they may encounter something that matches down the road. If you’ve let them know of your interests and that you would appreciate them sharing any of these opportunities, you will start hearing more about them.

The key then becomes participation. You must be present in a professional scene to reap its benefits. Attend the lectures. Contribute to forums. Offer assistance to community members. Be an active, positive participant so that potential patrons recognize you and become familiar with what you do. When you do so, it is highly likely that patrons will begin to approach you with opportunities and commissions.

But what if they don’t?

In case you do not experience the rush of patrons beating a path to your door, you must be comfortable asking for opportunities. Once you are familiar with the crowd in the scenes you are part of, start asking potential clients and thought leaders what projects they are working on. Listen to what they are saying. Make sure you have a good understanding of what they are trying to accomplish and seek out places where the themes you identified could help them achieve their goals.

The natural next step is to present your elevator pitch. Make sure you’ve adjusted it to show how it can meet their specific need. If your original pitch speaks to improving software performance and your potential patron has voiced a problem over a specific performance issue, use that issue as an example of how you would employ your specialty to address it. Help them picture you in the role of delivering the solution that corrects this annoying problem for them.

Ask them if they would be interested in your assistance and explain why you think your involvement would be helpful to them. Don’t be afraid to take on small tasks in your area of expertise. Something as simple as offering to answer questions or be a sounding board for ideas can lead you into greater and greater opportunities.

As you start having these conversations, you are moving away from the discovery phase and into the building trust phase, and it will be important to deliver on promises and commitments you make to potential patrons. Treat every commitment as a sacred promise. That is the first step in building trust.

Building Trust: How to Wow Patrons and Win More Business

The process of building trust with a patron is simple in concept, but requires commitment and focus to execute. The basic premise boils down to: Delight your patron with what you deliver. This requires being clear about what your patron wants, setting appropriate expectations, and delivering on your commitments.

Without a clear understanding of what your patron wants out of your commission, it is highly likely that what you deliver will fail to delight. Don’t be afraid to ask your patron questions or for more information. To avoid confusion, it is best to get clarification face-to-face. An in-person meeting or a video call should be your preferred means of communicating. Ask them to describe not just what features they want, but why those features are valuable to them. This will lead to a more thorough understanding of what they truly want and often more questions to ask.

When you’re done asking questions, repeat back to your patron your understanding of what they are asking for. Describe any assumptions you’ve made and ask your patron to correct anything you’ve gotten wrong. Repeat this feedback loop as many times as is necessary until your patron no longer has any corrections to provide. At this point, you will both be extremely clear on what you are being asked to create.

Now you must set appropriate expectations for your patron. The primary concern they will voice is a need to know when you will be finished. What they don’t typically say — they will just assume — is that what you deliver must be of high quality. Quality varies from patron to patron, but typically includes the following:

  • All features are fully functional
  • The software handles unexpected scenarios gracefully
  • The system performs well under stress loads
  • The system design follows best practices

Discuss expectations with your patron. Understand from their perspective what quality means. Ask them for an example of a project they believe was delivered with high quality. Ask what characteristics distinguished it as high quality. In contrast, ask them to provide an example of a low-quality project and what characteristics did not meet their expectations.

This will allow you to estimate and plan your work more accurately and save you from disappointing your patron if your understanding of quality does not match theirs. With this understanding in hand, you are ready for the last leg of setting expectations: providing an estimate of the time it will take you to complete the work you are being asked to do.

If you’ve never estimated a software project before, do yourself a favor and read “Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art” by Steve McConnell. It will show you there is more to estimating development effort than first appearances indicate. It will add a new set of tools to your toolbox and lead you to more satisfied patrons when you predict more accurately when you will deliver on your commitment.

When you deliver your estimate to your patron, make sure to ask if it fits within their timeline. If they have a tight deadline and need to rush the work, you can talk about what it would require to meet their needs. Could you add more programmers to the project and shorten the delivery timeline? Are there certain features that can be left out of the initial deliverable and added later on? Asking these questions makes it more likely that you will retain the patron and the project even if your initial estimate is outside their desired timeline.

Finally, you have reached the last phase of building trust. While the other two phases are key, this phase will be what your patrons remember about your work and will be the reason they either continue to patronize you or don’t. In this phase, you must deliver on all your commitments to your patron.

Any statement to a patron that includes the words “I will …” is a commitment. You should treat it as sacred. No commitment to a patron is more valuable than another. Don’t make commitments lightly. Think about what you are promising when you say “I will …” This includes contracts, emails, and verbal conversations. Every commitment to a patron, regardless to how it is delivered, should be treated as formally as a signed contract.

If your schedule is overloaded, don’t say “I will get you an update tonight (ASAP, soon, etc.).” Really think about when you will be able to deliver on a commitment and promise your delivery according to what you know you can accomplish. I’m not saying don’t work hard to achieve a difficult commitment, and I’m not saying to overly pad the time you give yourself to accomplish a commitment. I am saying make sure your commitments give you a reasonable chance of success. If you don’t, you are setting yourself up for failure and your patron up for disappointment.

Think about your commitments and do not enter into them lightly. This is the secret to building trust and lasting collaboration between you and your patron.

Collaboration: Enjoying a Long and Healthy Patronage Relationship

Once you’ve built trust, you’ve entered the collaboration phase of your relationship with your patron. This phase has the potential to last for the rest of your career.

In this phase, you and your patron will cycle through project after project, your relationship strengthening with each successful delivery. You will become more than a resource to your patron and your patron will become more than a client to you.

You will work together, playing off each other’s strengths to accomplish greater achievements than you had been able to in the past. The more closely and the longer you work with a patron, the more aligned your thinking will become. You both will anticipate each other’s thoughts and will find it easier and easier to work with each other.

At this point, you have the option to keep your relationship with your patron on a one-to-one level or expand it to include a studio of apprentices or journey people. If you choose to keep it one-to-one, the scope of projects you undertake for the patron will be limited to the amount of time and energy you have to spend on them. If this suits you and your patron, you can enjoy many years of commissions at this level and your revenue will stay at a predictable level.

If you seek to grow your revenue with your patron, you will want to expand your capacity through apprentices and journey people that work in your “studio.” These are programmers you train in your methods and whose work you manage to deliver larger-scale projects to your patron. The formal establishment of a consulting firm with paid contractors is the logical business entity to manage the work of these apprentice and journey people programmers. Your patron looks to you as the owner of the consulting firm to be accountable for the completeness and quality of these projects, but having paid consultants working for you allows you to take on larger endeavors than you could as a solo practitioner.

Be aware, however, that in this scenario, you will have your hands farther and farther away from the work. If you recognize that and are okay with it, this can be a lucrative arrangement. But if it is the work itself that energizes you, this path can quickly lead to disappointment and burn-out for you.

Know yourself. Know your motivation. Choose the path that you can be passionate about following and you will be successful.

And now to you …

Patronage has been the model for creatives, artists, and artisans for centuries. It also fits well with the freelance model of programming. Having a constant stream of work and revenue will keep you from financial hardship. But patrons don’t waltz into your life — you must cultivate them. If you are willing to do the work to discover, build, and collaborate, you will develop relationships that are profitable and enriching.

Stop waiting. Go out and discover your patrons, build trust with them, and start enjoying the rewards that come from collaborating with them.

There’s nothing standing in your way but you.