Ep. 5 | Freelance Cake Podcast
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Episode 5|

Less But Better - The Marketing Principle That Helps Freelancers Stay Consistent Even When They’re Busy

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In Episode #5, Austin shares the 20 Stories Exercise that helped him build a predictable flow of freelance income. He also goes over the 6 questions you need to uncover which of your current marketing strategies bring you your best, easiest money.

Freelancers have a bad habit of chasing every new marketing strategy on every platform, when we get better results when we do “less but better” – a marketing principle Austin drew from German industrial designer Dieter Rams.

Are you having trouble staying on top of your marketing or is the whole process too intimidating for you? This episode is for you.

Notable Quotes

“When you’re in a car moving really, really fast, the objects passing by the window become a blur. The same happens with our businesses. It’s not until we actually take a break or when we slow down that we get clarity.”

"As time passes, as I develop my business, I want to be a little less wrong… and then a little less wrong."

“Take messy, imperfect action. It’s gonna be ugly but that’s how improvement happens over time.”

"Marketing is probably the biggest lever for your freelance business."

The Puzzling $1 Bills at Starbucks

I live in Knoxville, Tennessee, and near my house, there is a Starbucks. I’m often there working, and I’ve noticed this funny thing…

The Starbucks sits in a parking lot and to the left, there’s a gradual slope down, then a little grassy area, and then the creek.

Often, I would step out, take a call, and walk around. And the funny thing that I noticed was… dollar bills!

I would be walking around and finding dollar bills on the ground.

It happened enough times that I was like, “Why is this happening?”

What could possibly explain why it is always a $1 bill?

So I puzzled over this. It happened plenty of times, and finally…I connected the dots!

The tip jar!

There is a drive-through on the back of the Starbucks building, and if the plastic cube where all the tips are stored falls, a gust of wind will pick up the dollar bill on top, and blow it across the sidewalk and across the parking lot.

It must be, right?

I just happened to be the only bozo out there walking around in this little grassy area, so that’s why I was the one finding the dollar bills.

The reason I tell you that is because of pattern-matching. You notice something often enough that one data point or $1 bill next to a Starbucks becomes a pattern. You start connecting the dots. You match the pattern.

What Does Pattern-Matching Have To Do With Freelancing and Marketing?

We all need more clients. We all want consistent income. We want consistently good projects.

And yet, when people reach out to me, what’s the number one challenge?

Inconsistent projects, not enough clients, and unpredictable income.

When you think about better leverage, what is the lever that could make so many other problems go away?

It’s predictable income.

There’s a quote from a book called Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares that says: “If you can get even a single distribution channel to work, you have a great business.”

Connecting Starbucks to predictable income, this 20 Stories Exercise that I’m going to share is about pattern-matching. It’s about finding dollar bills on the ground.

It’s about a repeatable process. It’s about finding a marketing channel that can consistently produce leads and therefore, predictable income for your freelance business.

How Does the 20 Stories Exercise Work?

I invented this exercise not because I’m a genius but because I was frustrated. I just was not seeing the traction I wanted in my marketing.

So what did I do?

I sat down, thought about my last 20 projects, put them all in a spreadsheet, and then asked myself the question: “How did these projects find their way to me?” I then told a little story about each project.

Sure enough, once you tell the story, you’re gonna see patterns emerge.

Back in the day, there were those posters that if you blurred your eyes, a pattern would soon appear off the poster. The 20 Stories Exercise is kind of like looking at one of those posters where you need to put up all of these stories so that that pattern can emerge out of them.

You’ll notice that there may be some repeatable processes hidden in plain view. You’re probably not getting project leads from 50 different places. And yet, what do we freelancers tend to do?

We chase project leads. We chase every strategy on every platform. We often don’t pick one and go deep.

What the 20 Stories Exercise helps us do is apply the 80/20 rule: 20% of your effort produces 80% of your results.

First, you need to take a backward look at all of the projects that have come to you to figure out what the pattern is, what the distribution channel is (how leads are coming to you).

And then, once you have put your last 20-30 projects in a spreadsheet and told a little story about each one, ask these questions:

  1. What’s already working (in terms of strategies in your freelance offers)?
  2. Where does my best, easiest money come from?
  3. Where am I getting the most leverage? Which effort produces the best results?
  4. How can I double down on that? “Out of 20 projects, if 10 of them came from referrals and repeat business, how do I build a better system around that?”
  5. What’s not working? Then you can stop doing what doesn't work. We will often continue to do things that aren’t working. That’s partly because we’re so busy running and gunning that we don’t necessarily have a regular cadence of reflection, planning, and strategy.
  6. Should I redesign the strategy or should I just stop?

A Marketing Principle + 7 Ideas to Improve Proven Marketing Strategies

There’s a design principle from a German industrial designer named Dieter Rams, which is: “Weniger, aber, besser.”

“Do less but better.”

What does that mean?

When I looked back at all of the money that flowed into my business in the first quarter of 2022, here’s what I noticed:

  • Repeat business and referrals accounted for $32,225
  • Joint ventures accounted for $21,199
  • LinkedIn or leads that came to me because of my activities on LinkedIn accounted for $15,256
  • Organic web traffic that resulted in a sale of some sort, $2,049
  • Email marketing, $2,000
  • Podcast interviews or my guest appearances on other people’s podcasts, $1,500

What am I seeing here?

I’m seeing that repeat business and referrals, joint ventures, and LinkedIn, make up the lion's share of my revenue. So if I’m going to double down on anything, shouldn’t I double down on what’s already working, right?

So once you know what is working, once you find a strategy that is predictably producing some revenue for you, how do you improve that effort?

How do you double down on that effort? How do you improve your results and see incremental improvements over time?

Here are some ideas for you.

Idea #1: Better systems for more efficiency

If I’m already posting once every workday and getting project leads through LinkedIn, what if I posted 2 or 3 times every workday? I could reasonably create better systems so that I am writing more posts in less time.

And then I could design and experiment for Q2 of 2022 where I post 2-3 times per workday, and then I look back and say, “Did that increase the exposure I was getting? Did I get more leads coming in because I had increased the total number of posts that I was putting out?”

You can see a very experimental mindset taking shape: “I’m a scientist in a laboratory designing experiments that have a working hypothesis – that working hypothesis is if I do this, I can reasonably expect to see this result.”

Idea #2: Proactively educate yourself

Proactively educate yourself with a course, a book, handpicked podcasts, handpicked podcast episodes and handpicked blog posts. 

You decide what you wanna learn about in the area of marketing. Then, you go really deep with that.

For example, when I committed to upping my LinkedIn game, I bought a course from a guy named Justin Welsh. He has a LinkedIn course called The LinkedIn Operating System.

He’s got a much larger following than I do. His posts get lots more engagement than mine. Clearly, the guy has something to teach me, right?

Now that I have validated that LinkedIn produces leads for me, why wouldn’t I proactively educate myself and get a lot better in a relatively short period of time by finding people who have significantly more expertise than I do in that specific area? 

Sure enough, after I bought the LinkedIn Operating System, I wasn’t but 10-15 minutes into the course and I’m like, “Wow! I’ve already learned so much. This was totally worth it.”

Once you know what the distribution channel is, once you have found the strategy that produces predictable project leads or predictable revenue for you, double down on that. 

Accumulate more expertise so that you can design better experiments and ultimately get better results much faster.

Idea #3: Develop a checklist of improvements

Freelancing can be overwhelming. It can feel like you’re moving a mile a minute. There’s never enough time to do everything on your to-do list. 

This is why we keep on kicking the marketing can down the road. We turn marketing into a never-ending thing that we’ll think about one day.

I would encourage you instead to pick a system for better efficiency, pick resources to help you build the system and improve, and then break all of those improvements down into a checklist – ideally, a checklist broken up into 15-minute tasks which you can actually schedule.

Why?

Because that checklist of 15-minute improvements is something that you can squeeze into the cracks on any given workday.

Because you’ll find that you’re able to make a lot more improvements much faster with your marketing optimization if you just do one 15-minute task every day.

Idea #4: Do a sprint of focused planning

I do this every Sunday where I sit down with my planner, reflect back on the week that’s just passed, and look ahead to the week that’s coming.

If you don’t have that regular cadence of reflection, planning, and strategy, I get it. Life is full.

But I would recommend that at least once a quarter, you make a CEO appointment with yourself and you ask yourself the questions that I gave you earlier. 

  1. What’s already working?
  2. Where does my best, easiest money come from?
  3. Where am I getting the most leverage?
  4. How can I double down on that?
  5. What’s not working?
  6. Should I redesign the strategy or just stop?

Create space, hold space, and put an appointment in your calendar for planning, so that you can ask yourself those questions.

Otherwise, what happens is something I think of as “motion blur”. When you’re in a car moving really, really fast, the objects passing by the window become a blur.

The same happens with our businesses.

It’s not until we actually take a break, go to a conference, go on vacation, leave the house in the middle of the day and just go for a walk, or when we slow down that we get clarity.

Slowing down cancels out motion blur.

You’re finally able to see what was obvious all along when you stop moving so fast.

So how do you counteract motion blur? You do a sprint of focused planning and ask good questions.

Idea #5: Add individual 15-minute tasks

Add individual 15-minute tasks to your planner, calendar, or project management software.

Don’t just live it up to chance. Don’t think in terms of “I’ll do 90 minutes of marketing one day.”

No.

Do 15 minutes of marketing optimization every day – ideally, in the morning so that you don’t procrastinate.

Idea #6: Take messy, imperfect action

I wish more freelancers were more open about how we’re all just making this up as we go.

I’m 13 years into this and I’m still making it up every single day. I’m still learning every single day. I still feel like an amateur every single day.

You have to humble yourself. I have to humble myself. I have to go find somebody who knows more than I do.

You need to take messy, imperfect action, and realize that it ain’t gonna be pretty, but that’s how improvement happens over time.

Improvement is sloppy. Improvement even feels inefficient sometimes.

When you do stop to counteract motion blur and finally have clarity, there’s that part of you that’s like, “What took me so long? It’s obvious now, why didn’t I see this before?”

I feel that way with podcast interviews. I feel that way with repeat business and referrals. I feel that way with LinkedIn.

Shouldn’t it have been obvious to me 8 years ago that doing less but better was a more effective marketing principle than trying to do all the things but not doing any of them really well?

Maybe that should have occurred to me 8 years ago. I’m gonna give myself grace and then I’m going to commit to doing less but better. I’m going to commit to taking messy, imperfect action.

Idea #7: Be a little less wrong

I still am not right most likely in most areas of my marketing. I’m not going to be 100% right tomorrow.

The way I’ve started thinking about marketing is that as time passes, as I develop my business, I want to be a little less wrong. And then a little less wrong.

That style of LinkedIn post didn’t quite land? Well, what style of post would help me be a little less wrong? Then, that's what you need to do.

Investments That Promote Your Growth

There’s a guy named Peter Kaufman, an entrepreneur and founder of Glenair. I was listening to this talk that he gave where he introduced this idea: variance drain.

I know you’re like, “What the heck is variance drain?”

You’re probably familiar with the idea of compound interest. If you put money in an investment and keep money in that investment, you earn interest. And eventually, your interest is earning interest. That’s compound interest – a way that you grow wealth.

What Peter Kaufman was saying with variance drain was:

If you interrupt the process of compound interest by taking your money and moving it to a new investment vehicle, then a few years later, take it and move it to another location, and then another one – you don’t have to move it but a handful of times before – but now, you’ve created variance drain.

If you introduce inconstancy by moving your money around, what happens?

If your growth was on this one up unto the right trajectory, every time you move your money around, you knock it down to the next trajectory down to another one, and down to another curve.

The same thing happens with freelance marketing where if you’re consistent, then you see the compound interest of your marketing efforts over time.

You don’t know which move is going to be the move, and chances are, it’s gonna accumulatively be a lot of small moves that end up producing results.

But…

  • If you keep on changing your mind about what type of marketing strategy you’re going to employ…
  • If you’re just really inconsistent and you stop marketing…
  • If you market like crazy when you’re short on freelance work but then stop when you get enough work…
  • If you start again and then stop…

All those stops and starts create the equivalent of variance drain. You get knocked down to the next growth curve and knocked down to the one below that.

Remember: consistency trumps everything in marketing.

You don’t get that effect of compound interest with your marketing efforts if you keep on pressing pause on your marketing efforts as a whole.

What Persistence and Consistency Can Do for Your Freelance Business

I wanna take you back to May or June 2021.

I was doing a podcast tour – another way of saying I was just sending a lot of cold email pitches to podcast hosts begging them, “Please let me be on your show. I promise I’ll create value for your audience.”

I got some yeses, but I usually didn’t get yeses until I followed up a bunch. I had to have a system for follow-ups.

I sent a pitch to this guy named Ed Gandia who has a podcast called High-Income Business Writing, a great podcast especially if you’re a freelance writer.

I followed up with Ed multiple times and then finally, I got a yes. He was like, “You can be on my show. You can talk about selling strategy as a standalone offer.”

Great! My persistence had paid off. I carefully wrote this pitch, sent it to Ed, and depersonalized the outcome so when I didn’t hear back or he said, “I’m not sure,” or “Wait,” or “Maybe later,” I kept following up.

The podcast episode dropped in August of 2021 and I got tons of positive feedback and people reaching out to me on LinkedIn, saying, “I heard you on High-Income Business Writing. Great episode. Could I have those 22 Open-Ended Consulting Questions you mentioned?” 

There’s so much positive feedback that I’m like, “I wonder if some of these people would be willing to pay for a workshop where we go deeper?”

So I started responding to people, “Would you be interested in a workshop where I go deeper on this idea of selling strategy as a standalone offer?”

And out of maybe 20 people who’d reached out to me about this episode on LinkedIn or through email, 6 people said, “Yes, I’m interested.”

The workshop didn’t even exist yet – I didn’t create the deck for this workshop until after I had gotten paid – so it was cool that I got paid to create the workshop in the first place.

A bit later, Ed reaches back out to me and we had the following interaction…

Ed: “Hey, everyone in my audience is freaking out about this episode. You’ve gotten a lot of people’s curiosity peaked. Now, would you be willing to show up and go deeper on this topic with my high-ticket coaching group? I’d be happy to explore some sort of barter with you.”

Austin: “Well, as a matter of fact, I have an entire workshop that I could teach your people. But let me make a counter-proposal to you. What do you think about a joint venture where I build out a complete program to teach people how to sell strategy and then you sell it to your audience?”

Ed: “That sounds amazing.”

So I showed up and taught a workshop to his high-ticket coaching group. Ed and I put our heads together. We created this program. I created all the training and all the content. We launched it. It started in mid-February and we wrapped it up in early April.

The coolest thing is that I know based on all of my tracking that that joint venture accounted for a little over $21,000. Ed and I already have several more joint ventures in the pipeline, so that relationship will become even more profitable for us both as time goes on.

Build Better Systems and Commit to Doing Them Consistently

So if you build the systems and if you know why you have chosen this marketing strategy, and then you stick with it, put in the time and effort – even if it’s just 15 minutes a day in the morning – you shut the door on variance drain and get the benefit of compound interest over time, it’s crazy what can happen over time!

I went from sending Ed cold email pitches to us making plans to meet up and hang out. I would count Ed as a friend now. 

So I just want to encourage you, if:

  • you’re frustrated with your income
  • you’re frustrated with the quality of the projects that are coming your way
  • you’re just maybe even considering throwing in the towel with your freelance business and saying, “I’m just not cut out for this!” 

Just know that marketing is probably the biggest lever for your freelance business.

If you want better leverage in your freelance business, say, “I have to become a good marketer too. I can’t just be a good writer. I have to be a good marketer too.”

That’s where the leverage is.

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