Did you ever have a business opportunity staring you in the face, but you missed it?
I have. This year.
Did you ever get told to do networking, and dread the very idea?
I did, just a few months ago.
Did you ever almost give up on running your own business, because you were too focused on what you do (technically) and were confused about how to get the revenue from it?
That was me.
Do you ever get told by friends and family to get a stable job, and give up on the idea of running your own business? (What freelancer hasn’t been told that?)
Do you ever tell yourself to get a “real” job, just so you can have the security of a regular income?
Well, you’re not alone. I’ve been working with freelancers pretty intensely over the last year, and many of them—most of them, in fact—go through the “I should just get a job” fears.
Now, in some cases, maybe that’s what they should do. But in other cases (most cases, in fact), their difficulties really come down to:
- not enough of the right clients
- undercharging for their service
- lack of confidence
That’s not all the problems they face, of course, but that last one is costing them emotionally and financially.
This lack of confidence manifests itself in a number of ways, such as:
- undercharging for their services (because “why would anyone use my service? It’s already been better by someone else.”);
- or not willing to speak to new clients (because “I’m a technical / creative person. And I don’t know how to sell myself.”)
Now, maybe you’re one of the tiny minority who never doubts the value you bring to clients, never suffer a lack of confidence, and never undercharge.
But, just in case you’re not, you’ll probably benefit from reading my 2016 year in review. Here it is.
Technical expert; Business newbie
After building my reputation over many years as an IT infrastructure specialist, I was finding a few things frustrating.
- I had to work through agencies
- I was charging out at hourly rates
- Payment terms were often poor
There were plenty of good things about this setup of working through agencies. For starters, I felt I didn’t have to sell myself, as the agencies already had the gig and were looking for someone who could do the work.
However, as I was getting to know end clients really well (as you do when you work alongside them for a while on big projects), I was starting to wonder what the benefit was of working through agencies.
Work faster; earn less
Charging out by the hour was particularly frustrating. The faster I worked, the less I got paid. You can only increase your hourly or daily rate so much, and usually that only happens at the beginning of a contract. If you apply your years of experience to save a client with 200 stores some 60 hours of planned downtime (as I did recently), then billing your own effort by the hour just doesn’t make sense.
Billing for my time just wasn’t taking advantage of my expertise. I saved 200+ stores from being out of operation for basically three days, and it took me a couple of hours to do that. So what was my hourly rate again?
And yet, at the start of the project, I would usually face an agency offering my services at a low-ish rate, and I was left with a take-it-or-leave-it situation.
So I started the year by trying to narrow my focus and attract higher-paying clients directly. In other words, bypass the agencies.
“Technical Expert?” Yawn.
Now, that step involved talking about my business and my technical skills, but not in the generalist terms that you often see technical firms doing.
For example, I see IT service firms with slogans or taglines such as:
- “Making complex simple.”
- “Optimise your business operations.”
- “Work smarter and faster.”
None of those really help a client recognise their expensive problems in the service providers’ website.
So I moved to being the enterprise infrastructure for M&As (mergers and acquisitions). Still a bit technology focused, but at least CIOs in the midst of a company merger (or demerger) would recognise they were in the spotlight and need someone to call: a trusted advisor.
This had the advantage of being:
- direct to end clients (not via agencies)
- prepaid month by month (which solves the slow payment terms problem); and
- paid for my smarts, not my hands-on work.
This last bit means that a big company will pay me to help them with advice and my industry experience.
However, there was an area of business staring me in the face; and I almost totally missed it.
I was still thinking too much like the hands-on guy, looking for clients with IBM midrange systems (my field of expertise).
Then, about mid-2016, one of my business mentors told me to start networking.
The whole idea turned me off. What was the point of going to local meetups with small business owners who were not my target market at all?
Yes, I got some business cards printed up, but somehow I felt that networking was going to be a waste of time.
I was so wrong, because I had completely misunderstood what networking was meant to be.
I thought I’d have to create an elevator pitch and hope against hope that someone would say: “wow! That’s exactly what we need! We have a budget of $XXX,000 and we were looking for someone to spend it on.”
It was only after networking with the wrong people—in other words, people who would never become my clients—that I saw the amazing value of having discussions when you’ve got no skin in the game. I saw that networking was a giant game of join-the-dots, and once I got into the wrong places, instead of trying to network with my peers or with my direct prospective clients, my outlook opened up. And so did my leads.
I met some local business owners, and even some senior managers in larger companies who I knew would never be my clients.
And that’s when the penny dropped. It was an “aha!” moment that both drew on my extensive technical problem solving experience, and my years of working in big companies. But I almost didn’t notice it.
You see, my years of experience working across lots of different industries, in large and medium businesses, also gave me a wealth of experience that I never realised was valuable.
I was thinking of the technical expertise I was able to bring, in doing an upgrade, or migrating data out of the on-prem systems into a hosted data centre (don’t be worried if you don’t understand the technical language here).
But all of a sudden, I found that these conversations with senior managers were not technical. At least, not in any detail. I was learning to listen to them about their frustrations, often to do with working with other teams in their companies, or with external vendors. I was starting to share some thoughts about how to communicate to their customers, and what to say when speaking to IT service providers.
Did that ever open some doors!
Now, I had moved from being the technical guy who was trying to get a foot in the door. Instead, the pivot of my business was being the technical guy who senior managers can talk to without having their eyes glaze over.
And—what do you know—people running IT service companies have started asking me to become their resellers. Just about every week I’ll have some IT service provider—maybe a freelancer—ask me: “how do you get in the door of these big companies?”
In the last two months, I’ve had at least six smaller IT business owners ask me to partner with them. They offer to pay me in equity, or in sales commission. I’m seen by them as the go-between; someone who can get to the decision makers in big companies and have a non-technical discussion about their business problems.
Now, this is actually a great market position for me to be in: a sort of conduit between IT service providers and bigger businesses.
I wrote a single email to the organiser of a conference which is about technology for procurement professionals, and next thing I’m giving the opening talk at the conference in Melbourne, in February 2017. (If you’re not clear on what procurement is, they’re the people making buying decisions on behalf of big companies.)
Pivoting My Business
Here’s the big takeaway from 2016.
Your technical skills are only a part of what you do and what you should offer. If you have a lot of experience in dealing with people (even non-technical people), then you’re probably going to be even more valuable to them than you could ever imagine.
When you start seeing yourself as the conduit between business and technology, the conversations become much more natural. People prefer to work with people who talk their language. If you’re talking with technical people, you can understand their techspeak. But you can also translate that into terms that the business or stakeholder will understand.
So, here’s the pivot: instead of defining your technical expertise, focus on the “business outcomes” that your client needs. For that matter, focus on your own business outcomes, so that you can start with some lifestyle or profit goals, then work backwards from there (number of clients; amount of revenue from each project etc.)
That’s what I’ve done and already, late in 2016, I have some early January meetings with people who control big budgets. They need to talk to a tech guy who can translate technical solutions into business outcomes.
Where is this all going to lead in 2017? It’s too early to say, but the first step is that I’m helping technical firms set some real goals in their own businesses, and then I’m guiding them through the process of connecting those goals to new clients.
That means good-bye to vague goals like: “I want to grow my business”, and hello to goals like: “I’d like to have three projects worth $XX,000 by the end of March.”
Then we walk through some concrete steps to get their foot in the door. How to identify the industry, business, and decision maker. How to get a conversation started, and then lead it to the first step of a paid engagement.
Similarly, I’m positioning myself to offer something similar to the managers in big companies. What are their specific points of frustration? How would they measure success?
So, all in all, it’s been a roller coaster ride for me in 2016; but things are looking bright for next year. That’s thanks, in part, to my very kind, wise and experienced mentors; as well as to my determination (some might call it stubbornness) to build that bridge between business people and technical people.
If you feel the urge, let me know what you think of this new direction, and share with me the one or two big lessons you’ve learned from this year.
I hope for a bright 2017. I’m very positive about it, and I hope you are for your own situation, too.
Master the Value Conversation