Finding Your First Retainer Lead Plus a Free Worksheet
“I’ve been freelancing since February, and it’s pretty feast or famine. I enjoy it, but I need regular work.”
Ah, the feast or famine cycle. It’s a right of passage for freelancers. Everyone goes through it.
And this is where the appeal of a retainer comes from. You just want to start seeing consistent income.
The problem is, how do you find your first retainer?
There are two paths forward: pitching a retainer agreement to a prospect or selling them to clients whose projects you’ve since completed.
Don’t Pitch a Retainer to Prospects
You should avoid selling a retainer to a new client. Why?
Jarryd Drysdale offers three excellent reasons:
- You wouldn’t know what kind of work to offer on retainer. Only the experience of actually working with them, side-by-side, provides that knowledge. I haven’t been able to get enough out of interviews, questionnaires, or any other qualifying method. The client isn’t always aware of ongoing challenges, or doesn’t expect you could help solve them. So, you need to see these things happening.
- You don’t want to get trapped working with a client who doesn’t follow your advice or who you don’t like. No matter how hard you try to ask clever questions to weed out difficult clients, when you start a real project, there are always surprises. Use fixed-length projects to qualify clients for retainers.
- A new client won’t trust you and will say no every time. You need to build some trust and prove you do good work during a real project before a client will commit to recurring work.
Client relationships are a lot like dating. It’d be crazy to ask someone to move in with you on the first date. And it’d be just as crazy to ask a prospect to commit to a long term financial agreement. Slow down there! That’s a question for date number three.
Pitch Retainers to Your Profitable Clients
So we’re going to focus on finding a retainer lead from past clients. Specifically your best ones.
I’ve seen two kinds of businesses that are ideal for retainers: large size ones that have problems hiring and tiny ones that don’t want to deal with extra employees.
The common thread? They’re both hugely profitable.
So if you’ve had clients like those in the past, reach out to them first.
Are They a Good Fit for Retainer?
You’ll ask the exact same questions as you would when catching up with an old friend. Except, you’re trying to dig for extra information. Specifically to find out if they are a good fit for retainer work.
- Do they have indefinite work that you can do?
- Will they be able to pay you indefinitely?
If there was a chat transcript it would look something like this:
Ryan: hey Sally! How are things?
Sally the former client: Doing ok. How about you?
Ryan: Business is good…
Ryan: We’re permanently in VB for the time being. How about you? How is the Acme Corporation? I take it they secured more funding since you’re still around?
Sally: We got funded in the spring…
[more chit chat]
Ryan: Wow. What did the new CTO do with the team? Did they expand? Cut it down?
Sally: We expanded. We got two more Ruby/Ember devs; A full-time front-end dev…
[closing chit chat]
Notice that the goal here is not to sell. It’s to find an opportunity.
In this case, the Acme Corporation sounds like a bad opportunity for a retainer. Sure they’ve got funding, but they’ve also expanded their team since I’ve been there.
If Sally had told me they’re having a hard time hiring that would have signaled a perfect retainer opportunity.
4-Step Worksheet for Finding Your First Retainer Lead
It’s not really that complicated. It just involves looking for the right opportunities.
To help with the process, I’ve designed this 4-step worksheet to help you quickly identify your best possible leads.Click here to download it for free.
What about you? Who do you reach out to for retainer opportunities? Let me know in the comments below.