Jason Fried’s 13 unconventional rules for getting clients

Note: the rules in this article are derived from researching Jason’s past interviews and blog posts — I didn’t interview Jason personally.

Before building Basecamp, Jason Fried was already doing millions of dollars in client work with his design agency, 37signals.

37signals had a reputation for doing thing differently. The way they got clients and presented themselves was unique. Like David Ogilvy, Jason’s approach to selling is timeless and is with tons of you can follow today to find success.

In particular, Jason’s masterful communication style is clear, direct, and thoughtful. Here’s Jason’s rules for finding client work:

  1. Sell your service like a product. Remove barriers and unknowns.
    Early on, Jason created a service called 37express. The premise was a single-page redesign service for $2,500 delivered in a week. This spoke directly to what clients wanted. “They don’t want huge, expensive, long-term projects where they don’t really know what they’re going to get. They want quick, clear, and affordable.” Always speak directly to what clients want and address their anxieties.
  1. Make your portfolio about ideas.
    Most portfolios are created to look pretty. But 37signals didn’t feature a single picture on their website. Instead, the 37signals website was a list of core beliefs. Why? Because ideas attract the best clients. When clients appreciate your thinking, you move past selling visuals.
  1. Be yourself.
    Instead of trying to hide the fact that they were different, 37signals openly called attention to it. They made their differences deliberate. “The real risk isn’t that you’ll hurt your reputation or lose all your clients. That’s fixable. What you actually have to lose is not being yourself — that’s a bigger risk than not getting traction.”
  1. Say “I” instead of “we”.
    When you’re starting out it’s easy to feel like you have to be overly professional. But you don’t have to act like a big company if you don’t want to. Be you. Leave out the “we” in your proposal and just say “I”.
  1. Make your proposals 1 page.
    Clients hate reading 20-page proposals just as much as you hate writing them. Want proof? Watch a client read your next monster proposal. They skip to the last page because all they care about is how much it’ll cost and how long it’ll take. If they’re getting a proposal from you, they’ve already vetted you. So why waste time on a long proposal?
  1. Focus on what you’re NOT doing.
    You don’t need to do what everyone else is doing. But you do need to give yourself permission to question whether something is worth doing at all. Often the answer is no.
  1. Get things done without worrying about layers of red-tape. 
    When 37signals was making a website for HP they had a meeting to discuss a specific change to their site. Rather than continue discussing the idea or putting the change into a long queue of followups and processes — Jason pulled out his laptop and made the change right then and there. A few moments later he reloaded it and everyone was able to see what the change actually looked like. His clients cheered and called him a genius, but really, Jason just removed a layer of procedure that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Most companies have these layers all over the place. Removing it is a great way to deliver value.
  2. Hire yourself and be your own client.
    This allows you to experiment with new ways of doing things. That’s how Basecamp was created and in a year and a half it was making more money than client services. Be your own client.
  3. Don’t rush away from client work until it’s clear it’s the right choice.
    A lot of client service firms rush to create products, because of what it represents. It’s a move away from selling time for money. That’s great but don’t rush it. Jason only went all in on Basecamp when it was making more money than his client work. Up until that point, clients took up 80% of his time. “We continued to do client work until Basecamp (the product) was earning more money than our client work was. Then the switch was easy. There was no risk in that switch.”
  4. Get a solid budget before you create a proposal.
    If a client won’t give you a budget, they’re not serious. Be blunt. Ask: “What’s your budget or budget range for this project?” If they say “we don’t have one yet” or “we’re just looking right now” or “we want you to tell us how much it will cost” they’re lying. Everyone has a number in mind. They have a good idea of what they can spend or they wouldn’t be shopping in public. Jason trick for getting this number was to say, “Oh, ok. So a $100,000 solution would work for you?” Clients would quickly reply… “Oh no, probably something more around $30K.” And he’d have his budget.
  5. Don’t work with bad clients.
    This is a lot easier to say than do, but you have to mean it. Who you work with is your choice and has a huge impact on your happiness, productivity, quality, and the future of your business. Working with the right clients is absolutely critical.
  6. Know when to say no.
    The wrong client can kill morale, force good employees out, and cost you big opportunities. Working with the right client isn’t work at all — it’s a pleasure. Saying Yes or Noto a client is a business decision just like any other business decision you have to make. Don’t be afraid to turn down work, a lot of times that’s less costly than taking on the wrong client.
  7. Hire your clients.
    Most freelancers and agencies approach client’s like they have all the power. They’re paying you, so they decide, right? Jason discovered that in many ways his future was tied to the performance of his clients. It was a lot like hiring an employee. He wouldn’t just hire anyone. He had to enjoy being around them. He had to hire someone he was proud of. It should be the same with clients. Approach the process more like hiring an employee. Give as much thought to the clients you work with as the people you hire and the spending decisions you make. You’ll be better off in the long run because of it.

Jason and 37signals constantly experimented with new packaging, new ways of presenting their work, and communicating to clients in engaging ways.

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