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How to Land Big Fish Clients with No Cold Calling

Thomas FuchsThomas Fuchs

Is there anything worse than cold-calling?

Not only is it stressful — *cough* I mean… character-building — it doesn’t work for the kinds of prestigious clients you really want.

Neither does sending in your résumé, no matter how awesome your cover letter. True, having contacts deep inside the organizations is great — if you’ve already got em. Which, I’m assuming, you don’t, just like we didn’t back when we got started working for huge fancy companies on huge fancy projects.

We’ve consulted with some of the biggest…

Before we quit consulting to start Freckle, my husband and I had worked for some of the biggest names in the biz (back then, at least):

and more…

And we did it without all the prerequisites you’d think we needed…

We didn’t have the advantages you’d expect.

We didn’t go to Harvard or Stanford. We weren’t members of a secret society. We didn’t live in Manhattan. We didn’t have buddies deep inside these bigcos. We also didn’t have a huge team, a huge portfolio, or a CLIO, or a super famous figurehead like Sagmeister or a well-known name like Razorfish or Stamen. Hell, we didn’t even have degrees in our field.

And yet we landed big fat contracts at these companies for cutting edge projects.

We didn’t even beg. They came to us.

How did we make that happen?

The power of “I Want That!”

We didn’t wait for these companies to come up with an RFP for a project, and then respond with our proposal. We didn’t wait for them at all.

It worked like this:

  1. We built useful & intriguing side projects — on our own time, as our own clients.
  2. People inside these bigcos saw our side projects, and thought: “Wow, we could really use this for our stuff.”
  3. They contacted us about repurposing our existing work for their own uses.

We didn’t use words. We didn’t use sketches. We didn’t use plans.

Most people are too busy (or unimaginative) to take in your written or verbal ideas — or even sketches! — and imagine how they might turn out, how they might be useful… how they might make them, your client, look super smart for their boss.

That’s why you should skip the “ideas” all together and make things that your future prestigious client can stumble across. So they can see them.

Use the power of Show, Don’t Tell.

Don’t rely on their skills for imagination, or willingness to read your manifesto. Make something they can see and try. Then they can experience it. Then they’ll want it.

Then they’ll start knocking on your door.

Here’s how Show Don’t Tell-ing worked for us:

Now, in the spirit of Show Don’t Tell, I’m going to show you the side projects that lured those big names (that is — the people inside those organizations) to us:

  1. 2005+: The tutorials I wrote for Ruby on Rails and then the design posts that followed it up… made me a go-to when people working with Rails needed a designer who “got it.” Example, example, example, example.
  2. 2006: Scriptaculous, and its shiny animation demos, made Thomas a natural choice for anything heavily interactive back when Ajax was the hottest thing since sliced bread. This led to Nokia and Barnes & Noble for us, among others. Check it out.
  3. 2007: Twistori, a little side project I tried to sell to Twitter in concept… they didn’t want it, so we said “Fuck it” and built it ourselves. This attracted interactive ad agencies and led to Pepsi, which led to many others.Check it out.
  4. 2009: Freckle Time Tracking itself generated a lot of requests for consulting. (But we’re a product biz now!)
  5. 2011: Every Time Zone, leads to requests for licensing and consulting to this day. Check it out.

We’re not the only ones who have used this strategy to great result, though.

Our friends at Less Everything did very well indeed with their open source social network, Lovd By Less, ages ago, back when they did consulting. Many of our friends have “accidentally” founded careers and businesses on the backs of open source work, icon sets, design templates, a series of great blog posts.

This is the same powerful technique behind the idea of writing a book for the reputation. Or white papers. Or designing a project for your portfolio. Or blogging regularly. Or webinars.

But when you focus on making a thing for your potential clients to try and to use — not to just sit there in your portfolio looking pretty — it works even better.

Potential clients will see it. They’ll want it. They’ll contact you. They’ll hire you. You do well by them, you make them look good, then they’ll talk about you to their friends.

This is how it starts.

How to get started Show Don’t Tell-ing today:

It’s really dead simple, because it’s less about cold strategy and more about doing what you got into this business to do anyway:

You’ve got some fun ideas to noodle with — some creative stuff you’ve done for fun, or thought about doing but were “too busy” with client work to finish. Whether it’s a tutorial, a WordPress template, an icon set, a microsite, a library, a screencast, a little OSS app…

Something a client can use. Something your desired clients either need or will find tantalizingly cool.

Do it. Finish it. Ship it.

Share it with your acquaintances.

Rinse and repeat.

True, you won’t ship a side project today and get your most desired clients knocking on your door tomorrow. It takes time.

But if you do good work and you do it regularly, not only will you enhance your skill-set, not only will you build your reputation, you’ll also create an whole highway system of “onramps” that a client might serendipitiously find leading straight to Destination You.

So, remember: Show, Don’t Tell.

Build that little side project. It won’t “pay” today — but it will pay off tomorrow.

Thomas’ work on Prototype.js, Zepto.js and Micro.js has made him a certified JavaScript Guru. Before founding Freckle, Thomas was consulting with some of the world’s best known companies on their craziest interactive JavaScript needs. A Ruby on Rails core alumni, he is passionate about creating the best user interface experience possible and penned the Scriptaculous JavaScript UI library to share the love, counting sites like Apple.com and Nasa.gov among its users. Thomas’ master plan: work toward a more delicious web using open source goodness.