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How to Market Yourself to Startups as a Freelancer

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Over 100 million new businesses each year are trying to stake their claim in the startup world. That means the opportunity for freelancers to find new and exciting projects is bigger than ever before. But with so many businesses trying to create “the next big thing”, finding the right startup to work with is tricky.

Many of these startups are actively seeking talented freelancers, but they often have unclear goals and limited budgets. That means it’s hard to get fair compensation for your work. Before you start marketing yourself startups, you’ve got to consider what type of startup you want to work with.

3 Types of Startups

Not every startup will fall into the following three categories, but I wanted to share three common types of startups you’re likely to be contacted by.

“Idea” Startups

These startups will contact you most frequently. However, they’re the riskiest to work with. For example, I’ve worked with companies such as Shoplandia, Heighbor, and VinTrades to help turn their ideas into a reality.

Pros: There’s a chance they have secured funding and have an amazing idea. In that case, you have the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something great and ride to the top with them as an early partner. Equity, a percentage of ownership in the company, is commonly offered in addition to paid services.

Cons: It’s rare that new startups have funding and an idea worth pursuing. Many startups are founded by 1 or 2 people with a brilliant idea and who are overly eager to find a designer or developer to help bring their earth-shattering, world-changing idea to life (proceed with caution). They tend to get ahead of themselves and prematurely contact designers and developers before they’ve proven that there is a real need for their product or service in a specific target market. They commonly operate on small budgets and offer equity, experience, or exposure in place of monetary compensation.

“Proof of Concept” Startups

These startups often have a version 1 proof of concept and are in the process of seeking (additional) capital investment. To do that, they look for a freelancer to help take their product or service to the next level. These are companies such as FitLegitCinematique, or Boonle.

Pros: By the time they contact you, they have already spent adequate time thinking about their idea and bringing it to life and there is a better chance that the idea is viable. The initial excitement has often faded and they are more likely to have a serious plan for long-term growth and success. Better yet, they have probably gathered some funding from family and friends in order to compensate you for your work. Equity is often still an option here.

Cons: Working for equity is very risky for you and growing a company is very difficult for most clients (more on that later). They often won’t have any customers, users, or proof that the idea will succeed. They still may not have enough money to fairly compensate you and may not like the idea of reducing the scope of work to accommodate their limited budget.

“High-Growth” Startups

These startups often have large amounts of capital investment and are looking for someone who can become a strategic part of their growing team either on a part-time or full-time basis. These include companies such as Uber, Snapchat, Slack, etc.

Pros: They often have good traction in their target market. That can sometimes mean that they already have a stream of revenue coming in to help pay employees who can continue growing their business. They will have a clear, established business model and path to success. These startups are more likely to understand the business value of your work and be able to compensate you fairly.

Cons: These startups are rare and you’ll need an excellent reputation, portfolio, and skill set in order to partner with them successfully. They are often much more picky about who they hire and want someone who is available to be on-site with the potential to become a full-time employee.

Marketing to Startups

Once you’ve carefully considered what type of startup you’re willing to work with, marketing yourself to them is the same as marketing yourself to any other type of business. All you have to do is understand that your clients are already looking for you online. This is especially true for startups. By simply making yourself visible in the places they’re already searching, you set yourself up for organic, inbound leads which means you won’t constantly be in a position to seek out new work.

The key to getting new clients is understanding that they are already looking for you. All you have to do is to make yourself visible in the places they’re searching online.

For designers, that might mean having a paid Dribbble account and maintaining a personal portfolio website. For developers, it might mean having a GitHub or BitBucket account that shows regular contributions and commits. For others, it might be the language used when responding to emails. Regardless of your field, adjusting your language to something a potential client can relate to will always result in more organic, inbound leads.

All that said, this isn’t an instant solution. In the mean time, you can browse for startups on websites like Product Hunt and UpWork to see what clients are posting and looking for. Then, you can reach out to them, send them to your website, or just refine your messaging a little further.

Get Specific

If you want to work with startups, get specific and tell them. One key strategy was changing the messaging on my home page. Instead of highlighting that I was a UI/UX Designer, I instead made it clear that I could design websites and apps that would help businesses grow. Every client can relate to that and I saw a huge increase in monthly leads following the change.

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Another strategy that worked well for me was making my footer clearly state “I design websites and apps that help grow startups and small businesses” followed by a “Tell Me About Your Project” button. When someone from a startup or small business read that simple sentence (which was large and visible on the bottom of every page), they contacted me about their project because I was the exact type of freelancer they were looking for. I spoke their language on my website.

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In fact, several of my clients mentioned that I was the only freelancer who specified startups, which made contacting me a no-brainer. Over the course of 12-16 months, the SEO on my website combined with a shift in the language I used led to 3-5 inbound leads per week, which was more work than I could handle and put me in control of my income.

Tip: Don’t be afraid to “alienate” certain clients. The number of leads you get will increase – not decrease – when you target a specific audience. Clients want a specialist, not a generalist.

Why Startups Hire Freelancers

The biggest reason startups hire freelancers (or “contractors”) is because they are less expensive (and therefore less risky) than full-time employees who require long-term commitments, bigger paychecks, and benefits. The reality is that startups are trying to get their new business off the ground on a very limited budget and full-time employees just don’t fit the bill. The majority of seasoned consultants tend to stay away from startup culture for this exact reason.

Freelancers vs. Consultants: What’s the Difference?

Freelancers, however, can be contracted on an hourly basis to deliver high-quality work in a short amount of time. Once the project is done, the startup can (hopefully) continue growing without a commitment to that freelancer. I’ve had the privilege of working with many startups (at various stages of growth) who had $10,000 – $25,000 to invest into the design of their product or service. Those budgets were enough for me to deliver a high-quality solution and keep my business growing. The key is to ask about their goals and budget early on in the communication process to avoid wasting time talking to “idea startups” who lack adequate funding.

Selling a Startup on Value

Most startups don’t have any existing users, revenue, data, metrics, or analytics to work with. That makes is nearly impossible to explain how your work will result in more users or revenue for their business. An established business could say, “we want to increase sales by 5% this year”, but startups are often starting at zero.

So how do you sell a startup on the value?

Startups have one important thing in common with every other business – they want more users, customer, sales, and revenue. But you can’t sell a startup on the financial value of your work and the ROI they can expect, you’ll need to focus the conversation on something else. Instead, make the goal of every project (and the focus of every conversation) about launching a minimum viable product (MVP) that will do the following:

  1. Impress potential investors
  2. Make a big first impression to their target market
  3. Help them acquire more users and customers
  4. Increase revenue next year

That’s what every startup wants to hear. More importantly, it’s what they need to succeed. To sell a startup on the value of your work, you’ve got to understand what they need beyond the “next big thing”. That’s how you’ll show them that investing in your services is a smart business decision.

Collecting Payments

Startups are risky. You’ve got to protect yourself from their unknown future. Collecting payment upfront is a good habit for every client, but it’s especially important when working with startups. You should collect payments before starting work to avoid unexpected conversations about how their business “ran out of money”, “can’t secure capital investment”, or “can’t get enough traction in the market”. These are common reasons freelancers fail to receive payment from startups.

Learn How to Collect Payments Upfront

Working for Equity

Something that’s unique to startup culture is that the founders of the business are willing to offer equity. This small percentage of ownership in the company can subsidize or replace monetary compensation. While the idea of a bigger long-term payoff can be appealing, working for equity can be extremely risky.

Most startups DO fail at some point. When that happens, the equity you were promised (even contractually) disappears with the business. Don’t work for equity alone and carefully choose when to accept partial equity in addition to monetary compensation.

Final Thoughts

Startups can be fun, exciting, and lucrative to work with if you can determine which to work with. Fortunately, marketing to them is the same as any other type of business. Clients are already looking for you online. All you have to do is make yourself more visible in the places they search most. Get specific with the language you use to attract startups to your freelance business.

Make sure each conversation is about impressing investors, getting more users, and generating revenue for their new business. You want to show them that investing what little money they might have into your services is a smart idea.

Last updated on April 10th, 2020

About Matt Olpinski
I've been freelancing since 2009 and have worked with over 100+ clients including some of the biggest brands in the world. I later started my own company Matthew’s Design Co. and now teaches 50,000+ freelancers each year how to succeed through his personal blog, newsletter, and community for freelancers.