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January 01, 2014

Robert Williams, man to watch in 2014

I recently interviewed Robert Williams, founder of Workshop. Over the course of the last year Robert went from full-time employment, to successful freelancing, to launching a successful online business helping other freelancers to succeed using his methods.

What is your background?

My background is in design. I went to an expensive art school - which I now regret, because 90% of the education I use on a daily basis is stuff I learned online (mostly for free).

I worked at a few design agencies after college, then in the marketing department for a large nursery - but those jobs left me unfulfilled and wanting to start my own business. I got that opportunity after I got fired from my job only a few months after receiving a raise, to boot.

I decided that instead of going to interviews I’d look for freelance work full-time. This was an epiphany for me, because I truly became grateful for having been let go from my 9-5 job. I spent my first week literally laying out on the beach everyday - and the freedom was awesome. That was the point where I knew I probably wouldn’t ever hold a 9-5 job again.

How did you manage your freelance work?

Starting my own freelance design shop has been one of the most educational experiences in my life. I realized I had to stand out from the average designer online. This simply wasn’t happening on sites like dribbble, twitter, and behance. On those sites you’re competing with thousands of the world’s best designers and you don’t get to highlight your specific skill.

I decided to delete my portfolio website, and focus on contacting leads 1-on-1 in order to a)  track the amount of people who were replying to me and asking to see my portfolio and b) have more control over how I was presenting myself and my services.

This had pretty great results, I was able to make $30k in my first six months freelancing (without a portfolio website). This fascinated me and I began to study and collect evergreen principles to freelancing. The fact was that most places online tell you to post on twitter and dribbble and ‘get your name out there,’ but for someone just starting out this isn’t the right move.

Okay, so what is the right move for a new freelancer?

I created an optimized system for finding the best leads online quickly, and made templates for stuff like emailing prospects, onboarding new clients, getting world-class feedback and more. Optimizing my freelance business has been one of my biggest passions in the past year.

Recently, I started a new project focused on helping other freelancers do the same; Workshop. I send the web’s best leads to a private list of freelancers every day. I also send all of my secrets and techniques to building my freelance business to members, which has been an awesome experience.

How did you decide to get into this particular business?

I got the idea from desperately wanting this service for my own business. As freelancers, we charge anywhere from $50-$1k per hour, and if you factor in the time is takes to look for work - you’re spending a fortune on finding work. I wanted a service that automated this process for me, but that was high quality. A few other people were doing like a auto-generated lists of leads, but the quality was really low, and not worth the money. It was something that I needed to do for my business anyway so I really liked the idea of charging for this service.

Then, about 5 weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast interview with Ruben Gamez from bidsketch. He said one thing in particular that really resonated with, ‘a lot of people are listening to podcasts nowadays but not many are actually doing something actionable as a result.’

I decided then and there to pursue this idea - and try to grind it out. I put together a quick landing page, using techniques from online courses I’ve taken in the past year including, earn1k, recurring revenue for consultants, 30x500, email marketing for startups, and a few others.

I was also a member of JFDI, a private community of bootstrappers, who really helped me talk through my landing page and iterate quickly by providing me an extra set of eyes (or ten). This community support was integral in keeping my confidence up when people started to question my authority and service. I literally had one person sign up on the first day. I spent like 5 hours finding the 5 most awesome leads I could, and sent them over to him. Luckily over the next few days I got some traction and things began to take off.

What differentiates you from potential competitors?

What I’m doing differently, is 100% hand-curating every single lead I send. I aggregate thousands of job leads everyday and painstakingly comb through them by hand. I have strict, and vigorous criteria for finding the best leads.

The projects are all stuff I would apply to. Nothing that would have a budget of less than $1000 and I make sure every lead is remote, and open to freelancers everywhere. Also, I try to make sure and do a little extra legwork to include things like the company website and contact email if possible.

The result is a list of 5-10 leads that have all the relevant info for a busy freelancer, and none of the fluff. 90% of the work is done for you. All you have to do is reply to these 5-10 leads and you will have a constant stream of people entering your prospect cycle. 

Members no longer have to worry about job boards which were really designed for full-time work anyway, and instead reply to everything from their inbox. I also offer to monitor any job boards members want me to, so you can literally use me as a virtual assistant.

The difference between me and a virtual assistant you would find on places like odesk, is I’m an experienced freelancer myself. No one is going to be able to decipher the great leads from the riff-raff as good as you do, unless they’re a high-paid consultant themselves, which I am. 

What have been your biggest mental obstacles?

Subconsciously it was wanting to see success immediately. I heard people like 37signals and Amy Hoy talk about growing slowly, and totally agreed, but it wasn’t until I actually started this project that I realized I’ve been way too impatient in the past. 

90% of growing a great business is just grinding it out. Sure, you need luck, timing, and help from others, but if you’re not there everyday it doesn’t matter. You can look at this as a negative or a positive. It’s up to you. You can be impatient and give up on all of your ideas… or you can decide to do something regardless of how long it takes. But make sure you charge from the beginning, otherwise you won’t know how you’re doing.

To me, it’s one of the greatest strengths, because I don’t have control over whether someone with a million followers tweets out a link to my website, but I do have control over whether I put in effort each and every day. I’m okay with growing slowly because I’m building, learning, and I want to be in it for the long-term. I also want to create the absolute best service for freelancers and help them build an awesome business for themselves.

Thanks Robert!

Are you a freelancer? Check out Workshop for yourself.

If you read this far you should probably follow me on twitter:


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