Sell people problems

At a painful business networking breakfast a while ago the chosen speaker gave us his definitive guide to killer marketing emails (( it was probably a five point plan, they tend to be ))

This five point plan (( told you )) took us through empathy

Are you a terribly important and interesting person? (( it may have been more subtle than this ))

He proposed we ask.

Why yes, yes I am

Our reader would find themselves subconsciously thinking.

Are you in the business of making and selling widgets? (( a friend recently mocked my for my constant use of the term widget in this context. I invited him to find an alternative. I continue to use the term widgets. ))


Why yes I am

They would think.

At this point we have hooked them and we can move on to the next, crucial stage.

Your business is about to go bankrupt. Because of the:

– scary IT thing you do not understand

– terrifying tax thing you do not understand

– stupefying legal thing you do not understand (( delete as appropriate. obv ))

By this point our reader is panicking.

What will I do?

they fret

I’m about to go bankrupt because I don’t understand the scary IT / tax / legal thing

And then you strike

I represent the foremost expert in the field of IT / tax / law and we are prepared, for an appropriate fee, to stop you going bankrupt.

The sense of relief in our reader is palpable.

Call us now (( there’s got to be a call to action otherwise people drift off elsewhere, they’re like sheep you see, successful business people ))


There is a problem with the five point plan to writing a marketing newsletter and it is this: most people will scan it and think

Oh that’s just a thing about IT / tax / some legal mumbo jumbo

And chuck it away.

Because they don’t know that they have a problem.

People don’t buy problems.

If your business relies on convincing people they have a problem so that you can sell them the solution (even if they do have a solution) then you don’t have a business.

Welcome to the club (( try selling social media risk management when everyone else was just trying to sell social media. No don’t )).


Sell people problems

See that guy over there, the one running the bike shop ((push bikes or bicycles not motorbikes, that’s the shop round the corner, don’t mess with him, he’s got some very tough friends)). He’s working hard, trying to keep his customers happy, keep his staff motivated, keep his cash flowing. He’s a busy guy, too busy for the likes of you.

And yet, you need him to pay attention. You have needs yourself, an accountant to feed, kids to send to the cinema, food to buy, a car to tax. You need him to stop for a moment and take seriously what you’re trying to sell him.

You know what you should do?

You should scare him ((I seriously dare you to dress up in a Halloween costume and jump out at him)).

Because scaring people ALWAYS makes them more likely to buy your product ((if you agree with this you are TOTALLY missing the point of this blog)).

So sit down and draft a marketing email ((or maybe a cold calling script: see “Cold calling is a waste of time and people will be mean to you”))

Dear customer, did you know that 25% of bike shops go bust because they don’t have

insurance / certification / training / amazing widgets (delete as appropriate ((obv)).

Your shop will be next unless you buy my

really great insurance / accreditation scheme / training programme / really truly awesome widgets

Call me now ((this is a call to action. Don’t use these if you want to fail at freelancing)) to save your business

But he doesn’t call.

Reason? He’s not scared enough.

Off to Mailchimp again ((other email packages are available but they lack the cutesy messages about bananas))

Dear customer

I was recently volunteering at a prison where I ran into Dave. Dave used to run a bike shop like you but he didn’t take my advice with regards to

insurance / certification / training / amazing widgets / city zoning ((I know nothing about this but it comes up a lot in American drama series and I’m trying to broaden my appeal. Howdy American freelancers))

And it cost him his business, his marriage, his family and eventually his freedom.

This is REALLY IMPORTANT you should be quaking in fear right now.

Call me now and I might consider selling you

insurance / certification / training / amazing widgets / advice on city zoning stuff

But he still doesn’t call

Now across the street you see one of your competitors (you know, the idiots ((see “Your competitors are idiots))) nipping in to the bakery.


they say ((once again after the American audience, next week this blog will be in French, then German))

I was just wondering how business is going”.


says the baker

but I am a bit worried about

insurance / certification / training / amazing widgets / city zoning / the new boulangerie tax” ((let’s reach out to France shall we?))


says your idiot competitor

I can help you with that

Cold calling is a waste of time and people will be mean to you

If you have a real job, especially if you have some sort of management position and it looks like you might have a budget people will call you and try to sell you things.


“Hi. This is Lisa calling from Can I just ask what sort of content management system Hertfordshire County Council uses?”

“I have no idea I say. I work for Herefordshire Council ((That’s Herefordshire Council not Herefordshire County Council. The full name of the local authority is The County of Herefordshire District Council. Dull but true.)) . We have fewer stockbrokers and more cattle. (( I came up with that line at a panel discussion the other week. I’m quite proud of it. This entire blog post is just an excuse to rehearse it for a new audience.))

“Sorry. Anyway we’ve got the greatest content management system in the world. Would you like to see it?”

“No thanks, we’re quite happy with our current content management system”

“OK. When shall I call you back to check whether you’ve got bored with your content management system?”


It’s annoying, it’s intrusive, it’s inconvenient and you find yourself vowing that, when you go freelance, you will not cold call anyone.


Which is laudable ((Apart from the part of you that is avoiding it because you are scared of rejection. Wimp.)) but not the greatest business decision you’ve ever made.


You see companies aren’t cold calling you in order to annoy you. In fact most of them recognise that annoying their customers is likely to lower rather than increase sales.


The problem is that customers tend to be a bit rubbish and they really don’t care about the convenience of their suppliers. Often customers don’t make buying decisions based on a thorough and objective assessment of the market. Often they go with the people they’ve heard of, or from, or the people who called them last week.


And your competitors will cold call.


So, in order to avoid penury, starvation and the slow decline into pressing f5 every 60 seconds to see if anyone’s sent you an email you probably are going to have to cold call people.


But you might try to minimise the pain on both sides ((The both sides thing is important. A couple of Martinis will reduce the pain on your side but will increase the pain on theirs.)) :

– do some research and call people who might actually be interested in your product

– don’t be pushy and do be brief

– if it’s not working, stop it

– listen to what you’re being told and use it to improve your product


Though some people will be mean to you ((Mind they don’t have your advantages. They aren’t freelancing for a start.)) .


It is wrong to exploit ex-colleagues

For the first six months ((you heard, six months)) of my self employment, things did not go totally well. Work did not come pouring through the front door as I had rather anticipated it would. Christmas arrived cold and, in terms of presents, rather limited.

Over the Christmas break my partner gently suggested I talk to one of my friends a talented marketer. We walked the dog and I explained the complexity of my situation ((I had no work, not actually that complex)). He considered carefully.

“Have you actually told anyone that you are available for work?” he asked.

“ Oh yes”. I said.

“Are you sure?” he asked ((it was Christmas, pantomime was appropriate))

“Maybe not” I confessed.

So on my return to work I collated a list of people that I used to work with. People who knew me and, presumably, had made some sort of assessment of my skills. People who did not, so far as I knew, hate me ((though obviously we all have a face that we hide away forever and take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone.)). People who would not be distressed to find out what I was up to ((before LinkedIn was a thing, even so people aren’t glued to your LinkedIn profile: see “No-one cares about you” for more on this sort of thing)).

I wrote a brief tailored email to the effect that I was now freelance and though they probably knew a thousand people who were better than me and could add more value to their organisation I hoped they wouldn’t mind me letting them know that I was now available for hire, should they feel the need to hire me, which of course they probably wouldn’t do, but just in case ((this could have benefited from being clear what I did: see “What do you do?” if I ever get around to writing it)).

It was not the finest example of a marketing email.

It did not have a call to action.

It barely had a hint of a suggestion of the fact that an action could one day be contemplated.

And yet I received a reply by return from an old colleague.

“I was just talking about you” she said “We need someone to draw up a comms strategy. Is that something you can do?” ((mind they took ages to pay))

And, do you know, it was.

100 is the magic number

Ever hired a freelancer? Maybe you hired a designer or a PR guru? Or brought someone in to help you with a particularly knotty HR issue.

And you boggled at the day rate didn’t you?

£200, £500, £1,000 per day? ((not me though, for MY rates you need to get in touch obv.))

And then you did a quick mental calculation and compared that figure to your annual salary.

And then you thought “I’m in the wrong business”.

And then you followed that thought through and took the plunge yourself.

And then you found that you were earning a lot less than you were expected. A lot less than when you were in that job ((working all day for a mean little man with a clip on tie and a rub on tan)).

And then you found yourself here. Hoping that finding out how I failed will make you feel better about yourself.

But it won’t.

Your error was introduced right at the start. When you did that mental arithmetic. Because 100 is the magic number ((obviously three is really the magic number)).

As a rule of thumb even a really successful freelance can’t expect to bill more than 100 days in a year.

Why not?

Well first of all you need to get the work. That all takes time, that web content won’t write itself and business breakfasts are less effective networking events if you don’t attend.

Then when you do get the work it will actually take longer than you said it would ((which is why billing based on days is rubbish see my yet to be written post ‘bill by the hour’)). You can’t bill more so you just have to get on with it.

Then there are administrative things that need to be done. The government requires a tax return for example, the dog needs walking.

And as you start to get busier you get diary clashes. You really want to run that workshop in March but you are already committed, how’s April? May?

And you’ll get no work in August or December.

So you will be doing fabulously well if you bill 100 days in a year.

And 100 days at, say, £400 a day is a decent income ((though obviously it isn’t a salary, lacks sick pay, holiday pay and any certainty it will ever appear again)). It isn’t what you probably thought that consultant was earning though.

If you do want to earn the big bucks try interim-ing or running a proper business ((where you employ people, the secret of making money being that you shouldn’t have to be there while it is being made, though there’s all the stress of managing people, booking leave and generally having to think about others your hatred of which was why you left your job in the first place)). Subjects, sadly, beyond the scope of this blog.

Round up 20th April 2014

In a desperate attempt to get people to read and share posts that everyone has already got bored with and moved on from here is a round up of the top five ((this is arbitrary no actual data has been used to collate this chart)) How to Fail at Freelancing posts.

In 5th place Just walk out of your job. This was the first post so you might have overlooked it. And it took me just ages to write so let’s have another go.

In 4th place Competition, the stuff of failure. Allowing me to exorcise the demons of my hippy upbringing. Though the home-made yoghurt still haunts me…

In 3rd place Spiritual guidance. If you’re just following links from Twitter you’re probably missing out on these little vignettes. This might not cause you to change your behaviour of course.

In 2nd place Your customers are idiots. They aren’t, obviously. Though you may be ((you’re not, please don’t leave, I’m ridiculously needy)).

And the winner is Work for free. Which seemed to touch a chord with quite a lot of freelancers out there. I may not know much but I do know that this is a guaranteed way to fail.

If this sort of thing appeals why take the chance of missing the latest post when you can have it emailed to you free and gratis whenever there’s something to read.

No-one cares about you

You were blooming brilliant in that job. A superstar. The way you handled the Jenkins acquisition, the way you restructured the engineering department, the advice you gave to the board which kept them all out of jail.

In fact you are so brilliant that your skills should not be constrained by the petty concerns of a single organisation. There are so many other boards that need your special blend of skills and experience ((which is a concern in itself)).

Your reputation is such that you bestride your sector like a colossus ((which reminds me that my all time favourite pun is that Thomas Telford was known as the Colossus of Roads. I have something of a Telford obsession. He may feature again in this blog as he was both an early mobile worker and a very successful freelancer. And better than Brunel. If less showy)).

And yet the moment you leave your job everyone will forget you.

Even the people who you absolutely know will remember you ((because you kept them out of jail)) will dismiss you from their memory.

Because the truth is no-one cares about you. They care about their own stuff. You aren’t it.

In a previous job I did a notable and successful job in improving the way we planned for and dealt with emergencies. I got a little internal award for it. My boss was very happy about it. It came up in appraisals ((in a good way)).

I went freelance. My boss went elsewhere and became even more senior. There was an emergency. It didn’t go that well. They needed someone to help them improve it. Someone with a track record and a relationship of trust with one of their senior managers.

So obviously she called me.

Er no ((well obviously otherwise this would be a VERY confused blog post)).

She wondered: “Who would be the right person for this task?” concluded she had no idea and went away for the weekend to a music festival. Where, by chance, she encountered me. And presumably thought “Oh yes, that chap was good at emergency stuff”.

And when she got back to the office she did, at last, call me ((and clearly it was a great success and my involvement was instantly forgotten by all those involved)).

The moral of this story is either

  • no-one cares about you or
  • the secret to successful marketing is to hang out at folk festivals ((it isn’t))

You decide.

Everyone loves networking except you

When I had a proper job I would occasionally get sent to Britain’s fair capital ((by which I mean lovely capital rather than the place with the best fairs though I imagine the fairs in London probably are great because why would the people in charge allow the fairs in the rest of the country to be better than London fairs)) to a conference or a workshop. Always there would be a section in the agenda where the MC would say “we are going to break for networking”. Then there would be a long period where people stood awkwardly sipping almost undrinkable coffee and I would go out for a fag ((standing outside a building smoking is NOT networking)).

After I gave up smoking I would go outside and make terribly important phone calls ((I did go through a phase of texting a colleague so she would phone me and it would look like I was desperately in need at the office)).

Then I became freelance and there was no-one to send texts to ((maybe there’s a business opportunity there ™ me)).

I hated networking. I mean I really hated it. It seemed so cynical, so artificial, so… commercial.

I bet you hate networking ((I’m playing the odds here but the house always wins in the end)).

I’ve not met anyone who LOVES networking. Even phenomenal networkers would rather be at a family party, watching a movie or canoeing ((maybe that’s just me)) than at a business breakfast event just off the M62.

It isn’t a totally comfortable experience and it can go horribly wrong. I remember an excruciating dinner held by CBI Scotland. To be fair to the CBI the dinner was fine, I was the problem. Picture me, uncomfortable in an unaccustomed DJ, sitting next to business leaders almost unable to speak. How they must have hated me. “To my left that MSP who wants me to invest in his constituency AGAIN. To my right a deaf-mute with some sort of neck problem. And it looked like he’d never worn a DJ before”.

I’m much better now ((partially with the assistance of the fabulous Heather Noble from Salt Solutions I can walk into a room without panicking about what everyone else is thinking about me.

Everyone feels a bit like a fraud. Everyone feels that sense of artificiality. Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone would rather be somewhere else.

But the glorious and terrible thing about freelancing is that all you’ve got is yourself. People have to get to know you. They’ve got to know that you exist.

They don’t have to be entertained by you. They don’t need to be your best friend. But they need to have some sense of rapport with you. They need to understand what you do. They need to know that you understand what they do.

Networking is OK. You can do it. You may not ever relish it but it does get easier.