Working the Web: How to Find Projects Online

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Let’s face it: Some of us live paycheck to paycheck—those of us, that is, with jobs. But the independent consultant has to meet his own payroll, which means he’s at the mercy of the economy, with its endless cycles of feast or famine. There are days when there’s too much work for one person to do, and there are days, weeks and months without a project in sight. When you hit a dry spell, as we all do now and then, the Web can be a gold mine of new business. You just have to know how to mine it.

There are three ways to find projects online. The first and simplest is to use the job boards that were designed with consultants in mind, where clients list their projects for bids. The second takes a bit more work. You’ll use the Web to research your prospects and send them a custom pitch. And the last? Get them to come to you through your Web site.

Don’t Free-Lance, Elance
Most of the job boards—Monster, HotJobs.com and so on—cater to nine-to-fivers. But there are scores of sites that help consultants find projects to bid on, from quick and dirty jobs to Byzantine projects that need months of work. By far, the best is Elance at www.elance.com.

Elance was born in the heyday of the dot-com boom, when sites with novel business plans sprang up like weeds. But it survived, and its survival is proof of the site’s value to members, who pay up to $250 for access. (Depending on your field, rates start at $70.) In return, you get the chance to bid on thousands of projects for clients who need everything from database work to help with a firewall. As of this writing, 1,200 projects had been posted in the last week alone, and they range from $200 to $20,000 in fees. Not bad for the 10 minutes it takes to search their database.

Of course, not all of these jobs relate to computers—Elance does everything from accounting to Web design. But sections like Flash, custom apps, database design, system administration, Web programming and roughly a dozen others in the technology field are always well stocked. You can search the listings free of charge, but you can only bid on a project if you pony up the registration fee.

Does it work? I’ve found jobs there before, and according to the folks at Elance, the average user (whom they call a “provider”) makes a 400 percent return on the subscription fee. Of course there’s a caveat: You’ll have to compete with 3,500 other users, so follow these rules to come out on top:

 

 

  • Craft your proposals with care. They’re only a few paragraphs, but remember that Churchill, in sending a letter to one of his ministers, wrote, “I’m sorry to make this so long, but there was no time to make it short.” There’s an art to saying what you mean (and clinching the sale) in just a few lines. It takes a critical eye. You’d be surprised to see how many bidders make typos and other careless mistakes that mark them as amateurs.
  • Check the site every week. If you really need the work, check it every day. In fact, you should make it a habit if you’re in the grips of a dry spell—plan to spend half an hour online, reviewing projects and making bids.
  • Learn from your competition. Bidders are required to post their earnings from jobs they got on Elance. Look at the firms that have made five and six figures and see how they pitch their work. Don’t ape what they do, but learn what you can from their style. Then refine yours to the point of perfection. Remember, there’s always room for improvement.

 

When you’re done with Elance, hit the other sites that offer projects for bidding, including SmarterWork.com, AllFreelanceWork.com, ContractedWork.com, AllFreelanceSearch.com, TechFreelance.net, ProSavvy.com, IAmIndependent.com and ITMoonlighter.com.

Go Hunting
There’s another way to find projects on the Web, and it starts with finding the companies that have them. By now you should know the profile of your ideal client: How big is the company? What are their earnings, gross and net? Are they local or national? Do they have an in-house technical crew, or do they outsource their work? Are they an ad agency, a software firm or a retail chain? And so on. With as much precision as possible, determine the type of client that gives you business.

Now get on the Web and find them. Start with Google and Yahoo, then go to their Web sites and read every word, from the welcome screen to the contact page. Learn as much as you can about their business—what they do, who they do it for and who they compete against. By the time you’re done, you should know their business inside and out. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find a list of the company’s management, complete with bios. One of those names will be the person who’s in charge of the technology budget. Look for the IT director or the CIO. If it’s a smaller company, look for the president or the owner.

Now write a letter and introduce yourself. Don’t make it boilerplate—show that you know the company’s business. You’ve done your homework and you want them to know. Tell them why you can save them time or money, and don’t be afraid to get specific. For example, if you’re an Oracle expert and your target’s a lawyer, offer to build her a database that logs her caseload and checks for conflicts. Mention a case or two that she’s recently won. Make her feel like she knows you.

Why go to all this effort for a single prospect? Simple: The more you customize your pitch, the better your chance of landing the job. Direct mail, which is nothing but a numbers game, has a basic response rate of 1 to 2 percent. The better campaigns get 4 to 6 percent, and I’ve seen a few go as high as 10 percent. That’s not much of a return on your investment. In contrast, a custom, personal letter to a gatekeeper or decision-maker can net a response of 30 to 60 percent. True, it’s time-consuming, information-intensive work, but everything you need is right on the Web.

Get Them to Come to You
So far I’ve told you to get out there and hunt for business. Of course, there’s another way: You can get them to come to you. This means a Web site, as in, do you have one? If not, it’s time to get one. Anyone who’s in the tech business and lacks a good site is immediately marked as minor-league.

If you’re a Web designer or new media guru, you’re in luck. If you’re not, you’ll have to find one, and a good one can be costly. But don’t worry if you’re short on cash—you can still build a good site on the cheap. Point your browser to Template Monster (www.templatemonster.com) for a huge choice of high-quality templates that won’t put you in the poor house.

And there’s no excuse to make the common mistakes that annoy most users:

 

 

  • Don’t make your contact information hard to find. You want people to call you, so make it easy on them. Put your phone on every page at the top or bottom. Be sure to include a separate contact screen with your phone, fax, e-mail and mailing address.
  • Don’t be cute with your navigation. Make it simple and redundant (i.e., at the top and the bottom of the page, in two different forms). Don’t make the user go hunting.
  • Don’t clutter the site with needless graphics. Make sure it loads quickly. Remember, people want information—they want to know what you can do for them and why they should buy your service. And of course, they want to know how much it costs. Unless you’re a designer, go for the cleanest, simplest interface you can find.
  • Steer clear of the infamous banner exchange, where you put someone’s banner on your site in exchange for placement on theirs. They’re useless, and they won’t bring you a dime of business. Worse, they’ll bog down your site with clutter.

 

What you do need—what all of us need—is more business. The Web is rarely a replacement for the tried-and-tr

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