Freelancing can be a secret weapon for founders:
Taking on freelance work while building your product can help you keep money flowing in, promote your main product, and develop relationships with potential future customers. Use the guide below to kick things off!
If you have a full-time job, and you're looking to pitch your product to your current employer, these tips can help you figure out how to proceed.
Cofounders Mike Heap and Alex Rainey hit $14,000 in monthly revenue with My AskAI, their custom ChatGPT tool. Here, they share how they came up with the idea and validated it, and how they moved on from their previous company being shut down by OpenAI.
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👩💻 Freelancing While Working on Your Product
by Enda Mac Nally
I can tell you from experience that freelancing delivers the "indie" part of "indie hacking" in spades, creating immediate cash flow while you work on your product.
Freelance on your terms, in a way that benefits your product. This means minimal time investment upfront, making it possible for people to still hire you, and for you to retain independence to build your world-changing product.
Still reading? Good. Let’s get started!
Decide what you want
If you really want to do this on your terms, you’ll need to make a firm decision on what you will and won’t accept.
That means you need to:
- Strictly limit your availability.
- Be clear about what you want from this arrangement.
- Define what you will not tolerate.
- Clearly define your process so clients know what to expect.
Start by asking yourself the following questions:
- How much time are you willing to make available each week?
- What would your ideal project be?
- What kinds of projects are you not willing to take on?
Far from limiting you, these qualifiers can simplify things. They provide clarity on which opportunities you should entertain, and which you should avoid. Prioritize planning things in a way where the work you put in doesn’t consume your entire week, and take you away from your product work.
Set your fee
Your fee matters. It’s why you’re doing this in the first place, and getting paid properly will keep you motivated as you execute the work involved. Here are a few pointers:
- Do not charge by the hour:
Charging by the hour may seem like the most obvious way to value your work, but it forces you to take one eye off the work itself to watch the clock. Charging hourly has the strange effect of pitting you and your client against each other, since it’s in your interest to take more hours to complete the work, and it's in their interest for you to do it in fewer.
Instead, set a flat project fee. This means discussing the client's expectations of the work upfront. What specific outcome do they want? What business impact should this project have, if successful? Consider both the value of the work to them, as well as the time, effort, and expertise you’ll bring to the table. Then, set a fee that you would feel excited to receive for the work described. Be fair, but always include a cushion in case the project rolls on longer that you initially expected.
You don’t sell hours, you sell results. That’s what you should both be focused on. If they really insist on billing by time, counter with a flat day rate.
2. Be ready for people to push back on your fee:
Be patient, and explain why you charge this way. Make sure to express it in terms of the impact on the finished product. You want to deliver the best work for them, and it needs time, effort, and resources.
3. Set a minimum project fee:
Set a minimum fee for your work. Don’t take on loads of small jobs; it’s much better to take on a few, well-paying projects, especially if optimizing for time is the priority.
Do this and base it around your goals, then check in with the marketplace’s expectations. Every job is a negotiation. If a client wants to reduce your overall asking price, try offering additional deliverables instead.
4. Request a third of the payment upfront:
The idea was cash flow, remember? Well, here’s your chance. Requesting part of the payment upfront shows that the client is serious, and not likely to waste your time.
5. Use mistakes as a chance to optimize:
Most first-time freelancers have horror stories about money, whether it’s setting the wrong fee, being underpaid, not being paid at all, etc. These steps will hopefully help you to avoid most of this. Whatever happens, just remember to learn from mistakes, and create a new rule so it never happens again.
Outline the specific solutions you offer
What’s your specific area of expertise, and how does it create value for your client?
Start with specific types of problems that you can solve, then adapt based on which gets the best reception from the marketplace. This aspect can be revised as you go along.
You may find that some of your skills are unexpectedly more valuable than others. All of the same advice that applies to building products applies here:
- Focus on painkillers, not vitamins.
- Speak to a specific niche.
- Use social proof.
Add a service to your current product
Imagine you were simply adding a service tier to the product that you’re currently working on. What would that look like?
This could be fertile ground for many of you to start from, and make sure that whatever freelance work you take on feeds into the product you’re building.
For example, let’s say you’re building an AI bot that composes SEO-proof content. You could offer premium content strategy services to B2B clients. Use each new project to observe how your client thinks about the challenges they face, and to identify the language they use to articulate the issue. They may also become the ultimate user of your product.
Another example: Let’s say you’re building a SaaS product to help startups reduce churn. Perhaps you could offer a concierge audit option, working one-on-one with founders to look at their business traction issues, and help to fix them.
Whatever your area of skill or expertise, there are a few key things you need to do when outlining services:
- Show your expertise.
- Explain how you work (make your process obvious).
- Show the results the client can expect to get.
- Make your fee structure and timeline very clear.
Reach out to your network
There are two things we’re reaching out for, and it’s worth doing them in this order:
- Get testimonials from people who know your work:
This could be former bosses, managers, colleagues, or anyone who already knows your work and trusts you to execute it.
If you have limited professional experience, or have multiple contacts who are all at the same company, try getting each one to speak about a different aspect of your work.
Also, specific is better than general. When it comes to actually writing your request, it can also pay to take a little extra time and write the specific testimonial that you would like them to provide for you. These are busy people, so they will likely just okay your wording.
Be sure to mention the type of freelance work you’re hoping to take on, as they may be able to refer you to someone they know.
Here is a template that you can use:
Hey [NAME], long time no see!
Could I ask a small favor? I’m looking to take on some limited freelance work, on projects where I can help [IDEAL CLIENT] with [IDEAL PROJECT].
Could I ask you for a brief testimonial on the quality of my work?
I know you can personally attest to my strength with [SPECIFIC SKILL OR TYPE OF WORK].
I was thinking something like this:
“[INSERT YOUR IDEAL TESTIMONIAL HERE.]”
I can use the quote outlined above if you’re happy with it, but do feel free to send your own across if you prefer. Really appreciate your help.
Once you have three, put them together with some examples of your work. For the work examples, stick to this format:
- Problem: "Adding profiles manually was a time drain."
- Solution: "I wrote a Python script to do X."
- Results: "This saves you four hours a week to spend on higher value work."
Then, you’re ready to reach out to the rest of your network!
2. Reach out to friends and colleagues for potential leads:
The first major task that every freelancer has is establishing trust with their new client. This is so much easier when you come recommended by a colleague, friend, or former employer.
Start with people who already know your work and your reputation. Be very clear on your limited availability and scope. Don’t be concerned about this contradicting your search for freelance work. In my experience, when people know you’re busy, they may want to work with you even more. It also helps them see that you are a committed, talented individual.
Pro tip: Don’t forget to include your main product in your email signature.
A few final thoughts
Approach this like a product: Test things out, abandon what doesn’t work, and double down on what does.
Be ready to say no: Taking on the wrong project, working with the wrong person, or not being strict about your terms are the main pitfalls here. You need to be confident about giving a firm, definitive "no" to anything that doesn’t fit your ideal situation.
Partner up: Consider partnering with other freelancers or agencies who offer complementary services. For example, SEO copywriters can pair up with UX agencies to offer a convenient add-on for anyone building a new website. This increases the likelihood of opportunities coming your way, without having to constantly send out pitches and project applications.
If you can invest more time, join Upwork and Toptal: These platforms will connect you with clients who have burning needs, but they require a deeper dive. Set up a profile, and commit an hour each day to applying to projects. A word of warning: You may have to take on less-than-ideal work in the beginning to establish your profile, so do everything else first.
If you have a personal website, add a freelancing landing page: You can reuse the copy from your marketplace profile or application letter.
Post on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.: Change your profile to indicate that you are taking on limited freelance work, then post weekly content that shows how you solve specific problems in your area of expertise.
Last year, I launched a course called Go Freelance with Confidence, which expands on all of the above. Check it out if you're interested!
If you have skills you’ve ever been paid for, you can make it work as a freelancer. Where you go from there is up to you!
Would you freelance while working on your product? Let's chat!
Discuss this story.
📰 In the News
from the Growth Trends newsletter by Darko
📈 Here's how to maximize your Facebook ad impact.
💬 You can now share your ChatGPT conversations publicly.
📹 YouTube Stories will be ending next month.
💻 2023's top B2B marketing tech trends so far.
💪 Future proof your startup by building business resilience.
Check out Growth Trends for more curated news items focused on user acquisition and new product ideas.
🗣 Pitching Your Product to Your Current Employer
by Mazindy Hatter
I work at a company as a software engineer, and I built a product that can help automate a specific company task.
How do I go about getting my company to use my product as a service provided by me? I want to keep ownership, of course, and sell the product to other companies. Any ideas how I can do this in a proper way that doesn't make me look bad?
PS: There are no legal conflicts. I worked on this on my own time, using my own development tools. It's my idea, and there has been zero code sharing.
Consider before pitching
Irsa points out a few things to consider before making the pitch:
It's impressive that you've taken on a personal project while working full-time. As an agency owner, I would suggest considering the following points before pitching your product to your employer:
Your role: Whether you hold a junior or senior developer position, you should evaluate the significance of your role within the company.
Identify your reporting structure: Know who you report to within the company to ensure effective communication when presenting your product.
Evaluate the significance of your contributions: Reflect on the impact of your role. Have you made substantial contributions that go beyond your assigned tasks? Assess whether your contributions hold significant value for the company.
Reflect on your performance: Evaluate your performance based on task completion, time management, and productivity. Have you consistently delivered on assigned tasks and made efficient use of your time? Consider any valuable outcomes that you have produced for the company.
If your position holds significance, and you consistently go above and beyond your assigned tasks, pitching the product should not raise concerns. In such a case, you can show that you developed the product outside of office hours. However, if you have a less favorable reputation within the company, it could potentially cause significant trouble.
Go beyond the selling points
SaltyWaffle recommends going into the situation with clarity:
First of all, congratulations! There's really nothing like developing something that scratches your own itch, even by proxy.
Now, this is entirely personal, but I don't like muddy waters. I like everything to have crystal clear boundaries. Start with a basic analysis:
What do you stand to gain as the owner of the tool, not as the employee of your current company? You gain a customer? I'd like to think that your product solves the same problem for a bigger crowd than just the company you currently work for. In other words, there's plenty of fish in the sea.
You gain a marquee customer? Suppose the company you currently work for is pretty recognizable, and you want that sweet logo on your landing page to show who's already using it.
That would be great, but at what cost? If you already have marquee clients, then one more won't really make much difference. If you don't, it might seem like the company is doing you a favor by being an early (big) adopter.
You get paid for your product? Who wouldn't like that? But I wouldn't even consider anything less than twice your annual pay, plus benefits. The money is a buffer, because customers come and go, and it's a lot easier to drop a vendor than it is to drop an employee.
Now, what do you gain as an employee? Your company and teammates will see a boost in productivity. Unless the gain of productivity translates to literal cash in your pocket (a stake in the company), then you're getting the low end of the deal by offering your product for a paid subscription to your company.
Let's look at the worst case scenario: By introducing your company into the mix, you're letting them know that you're working on something else.
I know it's on your own time, using your own tools. The thing is, it's still something that will be noted, and most likely blamed first for any performance shortcomings in your current position.
Am I saying any of that will happen? No. It's the worst case scenario, but it's worth thinking about.
Now, let's look at the best case scenario: As a product manager, I would immediately be very supportive and encourage you to continue to pursue your passion, as long as we were clear about the boundaries.
If your product does make sense for the company, I'd be an advocate without a doubt. If I saw a lot of potential, I would immediately move to acquire the whole thing.
Continue to work on your product on your own time, and let it grow without any influence from your current job. Capitalize on the tool you built to explore career growth.
Steer clear from any muddy waters!
Hacker0x20 says that establishing ownership of your work is crucial:
Before approaching your employer with any ideas or proposals, it's important to clarify the ownership rights related to your work. This step is particularly significant to protect your intellectual property, and avoid potential conflicts down the line.
The response that you receive from your employer can vary, depending on their policies surrounding your situation. Depending on your employer, their response could range from your first sale, to asking you to sign a non-compete agreement. Be prepared for various outcomes.
Don't do it
Steve Taylor recommends not doing it at all:
I would avoid it. There may be elements within the company that react very badly to an employee having the audacity to try to sell them something. You may end up without a job, and still without any customers.
Try selling to other companies first, then to your current employer after you've given notice.
Josef Strzibny agrees:
This won't turn out well in most cases. Imagine hiring someone, then they let you know that they've automated a repetitive task, but it's actually their new SaaS that you should buy.
If you want to pitch it, quit first. Then, a bit later, reach out to a leader in the company about the task, and let them know that you built out something to address it. Offer to let them try it at that point!
Have you pitched a tool you built to an employer? Share your experience!
Discuss this story.
🧠 Harry's Growth Tip
from the Marketing Examples newsletter by Harry Dry
“Creativity is the last unfair advantage we're legally allowed to take over our competitors.”
— Bill Bernbach
Go here for more short, sweet, practical marketing tips.
Subscribe to Marketing Examples for more.
🤖 Mike Heap and Alex Rainey Hit $14K MRR
from the Growth & Founder Opportunities newsletter by Darko
Mike Heap and Alex Rainey cofounded My AskAI, a SaaS that allows you to create ChatGPT with your own data. Indie Hackers recently caught up with them about their journey, so let's dive in!
What’s your name, and what are you working on?
We are Mike Heap and Alex Rainey.
We’re working on My AskAI, a way for you to create your own custom ChatGPT that uses your own data to answer questions, all without code.
Once created, you can share or integrate it pretty much wherever you want, using our embeds, APIs, and plugins. The result is that you and your team, or your users, can get answers to questions on your content, wherever you are.
What inspired you to create My AskAI?
We had already launched an AI fine-tuning product as part of a hack-a-thon for Ben’s Bites at the end of last year, and got a bit of traction with that. However, we found that the learning curve was a bit too steep for most.
We had also seen people making lots of side projects where they were creating “chat with this book or podcast” type of products, and thought it would be cool to make a platform that would allow anyone to do it for whatever content they wanted.
When did you start devoting more time to the project?
At the time, I was looking for freelance work, and Alex was exploring options, having sold his last company. After launching our fine-tuning product, we then offered an option to purchase a deal on a new product (My AskAI) that we were working on.
We got around $5K in pre-sales for the product prior to launching, based on just a short description of what it would do. So, we knew the demand was there.
We also thought that the AI hype train had already left the station, and we didn’t want to miss our opportunity to build some cool stuff. So, at the end of January, we both decided not to look for other work, and focus on My AskAI. Our goal was to hit ramen profitability by the end of May.
How did you validate?
Firstly, when we were helping people with AI fine-tuning products, we were getting a lot of requests to be able to create query bots, or ways to automate customer service.
While fine-tuning could do that, it was not the optimal solution. That’s when we decided to put up a pre-launch purchase product option on our site to see how many people would pay before we built.
We put up a short bit of copy, and managed to get just over 50 people to sign up to a pre-launch at $99. This felt solid, given that it was ~2-3x our revenue for the product that we had already built!
When did you start seeing traction?
We were lucky in that we saw it pretty much straight away.
From the pre-launch (thank you, AI hype!) and the users of the fine-tuning product, we were able to work the mailing list to generate pre-sales. Then, we piggybacked on that for a Product Hunt launch, which went pretty well, too.
How are you currently acquiring customers?
We’re currently trying a bunch of different things, including newsletter ads. We also got some initial users through Twitter and LinkedIn, and we try wherever possible to implement product-led growth initiatives.
Right now, our biggest single source of signups are word-of-mouth referrals, which is pretty nice. It means that you are building something people would actually talk about, and share with friends. Our biggest channel is actually organic, through Google.
Tweeting helped initially, but Product Hunt has a reliable acquisition channel, so we try to launch something there once per month. Posting in newsletters about AI also helped.
We’re at around $14K MRR, and just over 300 users right now!
Was My AskAI your first successful AI project?
We started off with a university personal statement writing tool that we built with fine-tuning last fall. We got it out and got a few paying users, but OpenAI actually told us to shut it down, as it went against their ethics. We still refute this, but it wasn’t a battle that we thought was worth pursuing.
We played around with a few ideas after that, before building our no-code AI fine-tuning product, and launching that at the end of last year. We made around $3.5K in sales in a few months, but have now sold that so we can wholly focus on My AskAI.
Discuss this story, or subscribe to Growth & Founder Opportunities for more.
🐦 The Tweetmaster's Pick
by Tweetmaster Flex
I post the tweets indie hackers share the most. Here's today's pick:
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Special thanks to Jay Avery for editing this issue, to Gabriella Federico for the illustrations, and to Enda Mac Nally, Darko, Mazindy Hatter, and Harry Dry for contributing posts. —Channing