How To Find Freelance Jobs That Are Not Advertised
As I sat down to write this article, I realized something you may find shocking. Since I started doing freelance web development in 2013, only one of my gigs has been advertised. I found my very first gig on the forhire subreddit. All of the others were never advertised.
Freelancing is a great way to get started as a professional web developer. I’ve found that most developers look for a permanent position by default, which results in loads of competition for each opening. Even if you know a permanent developer position is your ultimate goal, starting with freelancing can help you stand out among the glut of newly self-taught developers and bootcamp grads with no real-world experience.
Permanent positions are harder to get because they’re understood to be long-term commitments. It’s much easier and less risky for companies to hire a freelancer for a quick one-off job. Additionally, companies that can’t afford the salary and benefits of a full-time developer can swing a few thousand dollars to build out the projects they really need. This leads to more freelance gigs out there than full-time developer positions.
The difficulty is in finding the good freelance developer gigs. Marketplaces like Upwork have aggregated tons of gigs in a single place, but they’ve also brought in a glut of competition, making your chances of winning any one of them very low.
The cool thing about an unadvertised gig is that the job is generally yours to lose. If you bid for a gig on Upwork or any freelancing platform, you’re just another application in an ocean of applications. Being a tiny fish in an ocean of freelance bids is not the situation you want to be in as a freelancer because each attempt takes time. You need to read the project description and craft a proposal suited to that project.
This can take hours. The more competition you have for each of these, the more difficult it is to win. This makes your conversion rate lower, and you can’t recover the time it took to bid.
Here are three approaches I’ve used to finding (and winning!) unadvertised gigs.
Talk to People
Go to the places where the kinds of people you want to work with hang out. Meetups, industry events, conferences, and networking events are all great places to meet people. Online, you might find forums where people discuss their businesses.
If you’re not sure what kind of people you’d like to work with, here are a few tips:
- You can define your “people” in terms of the vertical they operate in (e.g., accountants, barbers, musicians, logistics companies), the stage their company is in (e.g., startups, small businesses, enterprise), or the technology you will use to build their solutions (e.g., Rails, WordPress, iOS, COBOL).
- Draw inspiration from your interests, but don’t limit yourself to them. Having “passion” for your projects can help get you through some rough spots, but plenty of great opportunities might be ignored if you let your passion dictate your path.
- Pick someone who will earn money as a direct result of the software you build for them. As much as you might want to work with people who like to do crafts as a hobby, you’ll have trouble getting them to pay much for your software.
When you’re talking to people, make sure you’re not trying to sell. Take an interest in their businesses, and once they trust you, they’ll share with you the problems they’re having right now.
I’m not especially clever about this. I’ll ask them relatively straightforward questions. Here are a few examples:
- What’s the biggest problem you face with your business?
- What part of your daily routine makes you want to destroy your computer?
- What’s the best software for _____? (Fill in the blank with whatever it is they do. By saying “best,” you’re creating an opportunity to ask about its weaknesses.)
If you’ve fixed a similar problem in the past, tell them about it.
Knowing the problem that someone’s experiencing is the easiest way to figure out how you can help them out (and pretty much land a job that wasn’t even advertised to begin with). You may have ideas for software to fix problems they haven’t even thought of. Not only could you uncover a gig they haven’t advertised, but you might uncover a gig they themselves didn’t know they were looking to hire for.
You’re not likely to get hired during this conversation, but when they get back to work and start dealing with the problem again, you can bet the person who took an interest and had an idea for a fix will be top of mind.
I love working with startups, so I put this into practice primarily by hanging out at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, an organization that supports entrepreneurs and runs startup accelerators in my old hometown. I went to their monthly networking events, their accelerator demo nights, and other events they put on. Since as a freelance web developer, I’m also an entrepreneur, I fit right in at the events and had many of the same struggles as the other attendees. This gave me some common ground to start forming relationships.
Nowadays, I attend lots of startup meetups and go to conferences from time to time.
Put Yourself Out There
Luck is a powerful ally. Despite what you believe about luck, you do have a part in it. You can’t predict precisely when luck is going to shine on you, but you can put yourself in as many places as possible to increase your chances of reaping its rewards. Developers much smarter than I have referred to this strategy as increasing your “luck surface area.”
In general, you want to be visible and let people know what you are doing (without being annoying). Specifically, you can achieve this in a number of ways:
- Talk to people on social media, making sure your bio reflects what you do.
- Share things you learn via a blog.
- Talk to people in real life, and let them know what you do (even if you’re not in a businessy setting like those described above).
This has led to work for me in several cases. Two are particularly memorable.
I picked up one of my best clients by tweeting about a developer conference I would be attending. They replied and asked if we could meet, saying they needed some help. Who would have thought a tweet not asking for work or even explicitly mentioning what I do would lead to work?
My second example is even more unexpected. I went out of town for a conference. I booked an Airbnb—just a room in someone’s house. (I love this because you actually get to meet the person and talk with them. It turns what might have just been accommodation into a real human experience.) Through talking with my host, I learned he was in the process of starting a business. I ended up doing some consulting for him on his web application to help him get started.
I put myself out there often for payoffs like these. I didn’t make these things happen, but I did take the actions that allowed them to … alongside many others that led to nothing.
Build a Reputation
You can start putting the first two approaches into practice today, but this one takes a while to spin up.
If you can become known for what you do, people will think of you and come to you when they have a problem they believe you can fix. They’re not going to advertise these jobs; instead, they’ll invite you to bid because they believe you’re the best person for the job.
You’ll cultivate many reputations. Some are more broad, while others are more specific. You might be known as:
- a person who always hits deadlines.
- a person who always communicates project status and delays early.
- an expert at scaling applications for insane numbers of concurrent users.
- an expert at automating business tasks.
- an expert at integrating applications with the Facebook API.
The more narrow the reputation, the more you start to look like the only sane choice for projects in the space of your expertise. By establishing a reputation for yourself, you’ve eliminated your competition.
Some of the ways you can do this will overlap with the previous approaches:
- You need to be visible.
- You need to share what you know.
- And the most obvious thing you can do is to create incredible results for your clients.
Once you have the chance to work with a client and help them achieve the results they want (or better), this will lead them to tell other people about you. The other people will want those results too, and they’ll come to you when their business needs you.
Skip the Competition
To get to those unadvertised freelance developer gigs, you need to hang out with your target customers, put yourself out there so people will come to know you for what you do, and build a reputation that short-circuits your prospective client’s decision-making process. Using these techniques to find unadvertised gigs will leave you with a much more efficient freelance sales pipeline.
Instead of being one of 100 bids for a gig, you’ll be the solution to the problem. Say goodbye to the days of wasting tons of time applying to these gigs only to lose the job.
You probably won’t get every job, but by positioning yourself as a solution to problems before they are advertised, you’ve at least jumped to the front of the line for a prospective client’s shortlist.