When they go cheap and global, double-down on premium and local
Transcend the rat race and let your unicorn shine.
I hear a lot of complaining about the gig-economy. Sites like Upwork and Fiverr have ruined freelancing. Now we all have to compete with a global marketplace of dirt-cheap labour from countries with less developed economies and lower rates. Or so they say.
They’re not wrong. Competing on price sucks when there’s someone across the world willing to undercut you and work for peanuts. Beating a global market is difficult when there are millions of people who appear to offer similar services as you (oh, and they’ll also do it for less).
How do you stand out?
The answer is, don’t play the same game. That rat race — down in the dirt of cheap contract labour — isn’t the only way to freelance. In fact, it’s the worst way. Professional freelancers don’t do gigs.
Professional freelancers don’t do “gigs”
Are you expendable, temporary help, or a valuable long-term business partner?
If competing with cheap remote work sounds too daunting a challenge to win, that’s because it is. You can’t win that game unless you’re one of the people who’s location offers such low cost of living that you can make a comfortable income off those scraps.
The system is designed to push prices down. It turns everyone into interchangeable commodities. It’s rigged against true freelance success. Only the bottom feeders are happy there.
Search Google or Medium and you’ll find too many “experts” claiming they can teach you the way to make a killing on these gig sites. All you have to do is fine-tune your profile, master the rating system, and learn how to send tailored proposals that get noticed. Buy my course or watch my webinar and I’ll make you an Upwork rockstar!
It’s like tuning a bicycle to win your local wheel-a-thon, and you think you’ve hit the winner’s circle. Meanwhile, professional freelancers are driving Formula 1. Or investing too much time in winning the little leagues when you should be training for the World Series.
Start playing the right game, and your competition disappears.
Go local, not global
When I started freelancing I lived in a small town of 10,000 people. I found my first clients without having to look beyond the city limits.
Fast forward a decade and a half. I live in a much bigger urban area, and I’ve worked with clients from all around the world. But even today, most of my clients are in my home city. And that’s by choice.
I could have packaged up my experience and portfolio and chased after large international brands. The budgets would be big and the projects prestigious. I probably would have landed a few of them too. But I didn’t even try.
Why? Because local clients build stronger relationships. When you can look someone in the eye and shake their hand while you explain your rates, that personal connection builds instant trust and comfort. When your client can reach you by phone or video during normal business hours it puts everyone at ease knowing nobody will go AWOL.
In contrast, timezone, distance, language, and cultural differences can be instantly offputting to clients who’s top priority is maintaining great communication. (Those tend to be great clients, BTW).
Local work builds lasting partnerships. But just as importantly, it narrows your competition.
Where you might have been competing with millions of others for the same global gig, you’re now competing with a handful of others for that new local client relationship. Plus, the opportunity for in-person communication and shared community interests gives you a chance to showcase your unique value far more than remote proposals ever could have.
Local work lets you position yourself as an expert, not a commodity.
Be an expensive expert
How do you raise your rates and get more (better) work, rather than being sucked into competing on price to win low-margin jobs (from worse clients)?
Pricing is a tricky thing. As a freelancer, it’s difficult to compare yourself to others and get validation of your value and rates. Therefore, most of us undervalue our services and lack the confidence to raise prices. When we do raise our rates, it’s too infrequently and too little.
And then there’s the fear.
If you’re already struggling to get enough work to keep busy and hit your income targets, there’s a very valid concern that raising your rates will scare away too many potential clients, and you’ll get less work and be worse off than before.
My experience hasn’t shown that. I’ve never had a decrease in work inquiries or a mass exodus of clients after raising my prices (if anything, I’ve seen increases).
A huge part of that is perception. The psychology is simple. More expensive things are assumed to be of higher quality and value. Creative services are no different.
The most obvious way to stand above the overcrowded market is to elevate yourself from their price bracket. Use price as a filter to weed out the type of client whose primary concern is getting the cheapest deal, no matter who it comes from. You won’t miss those clients anyway.
Are you working for cost-clients or value-clients?
Knowing the difference will mean everything to your freelance business.
If you want to be seen as an expert, not a commodity, you have to charge an expert’s price. But that requires justifying your high rates with tremendous value. It requires building a reputation that creates instant trust. Constant learning and broadening your skills to increase your worth. And most importantly, it means being the utmost professional and fervent communicator.
If your price isn’t built on that foundation, you’re a pretender. And that’s even worse than those willing to work for $5, who are at least honest with what they have to offer.
Who are my best clients?
My best clients are local small to medium business, tech companies, or design agencies who put pride into the quality of their own organisations and want their partners to have an equal level of attention to detail.
They are people who value relationships and honest communication over cutting corners and squeezing profit.
They are local experts themselves, looking to collaborate with other local experts to build ideal partnerships and awesome products — because they know working with the right people is paramount.
They are all clients I wouldn’t have gotten if I had been distracted by the allure of a global market, or got sucked into the game of competing on price. Instead, I shifted my market positioning to local and premium, and that’s just the kind of clients I attracted in return.
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Hi, I'm Benek Lisefski. Since 2001 I've run my own independent design business. Join me as I unfold 20 years of freelance business knowledge: honest advice and practical tips to help you take your indie career from good to great.
MediumTop writer in Design, Business, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.