Captain Collaborator: A Fun and Authentic Way to Build Relationships and Land More Clients

Summary: In this week's training episode, Jenn explains her powerful "Captain Collaborator" concept in detail. She'll show you why it's a fun and authentic way to build solid relationships. And why it can become one of your most powerful sources of new business.

What happens when you combine the power of networking with:

  • Referrals
  • Sharing ideas
  • Collaborating with a select group of peers, and
  • Creative prospecting?

You become what Coach Jenn Lee calls "Captain Collaborator!"

For those of you who don't already know Coach Jenn Lee, she is a heavily sought after keynote motivational speaker, trainer and coach for freelancers, solopreneurs and small business owners. She's a regular guest on Fox 35 News in Orlando, FL, and on several Orlando-area radio morning shows.

Jenn is also co-MC for Spark and Hustle — a multi-city business conference for solo professionals and small business owners that is put together by Tory Johnson from Good Morning America.

You can learn more about Spark and Hustle here. And if you decide to register for any of their conferences this year, use discount code FREELANCERSACADEMY to get 15% off your registration.

What follows is a condensed transcript of my conversation with Jenn. If you prefer to listen to the full audio (35 minutes), you can listen to it (or download it) here:

Download Audio MP3 (right click and select "Save As")

Thank you for being here, Jenn. I know you're a busy gal.

JENN: Thank you for having me! I love coming back to International Freelancers Academy.

ED: The other day you and I we were talking about something it’s a bit different. You gave it the name “Captain Collaborator.” I’m really intrigued, and I want to learn more about this. So why don’t you give us a basic overview of what this concept is about?

JENN: So the basic overview is … and you don’t need to wear a cape to actually make this happen. But the basic overview is, is that in business, we don’t want to look at those who are in our industry as "competition." We really want to look at it as an opportunity to collaborate with one another so that we could all grow our businesses and grow our industries.

I have found that once I started collaborating with the right people that my business soared, and the same thing happened with all of my clients. We’re going to talk about how to do it, how to figure out who the best ones are, what are the do’s and don’ts and how you leverage that so that you can make more money.

Take control and find people you want to collaborate with

Take control and find people you want to collaborate with

So, Captain Collaborator is really kind of that concept. It's about saying, “You know what, I’m going to take control of it” versus me waiting for someone to come to me and say, “Hey, I’d love to collaborate with you.” I want you to put together a game plan to make it happen.

ED: Gotcha. So you take the bull by the horns and say, “You know what? I’m going to strategically pick and contact some key people and try to get something going here.”

JENN: Right, exactly. Make it a plan. Make it something that’s actually part of your marketing strategy.

ED: Let’s talk about what kind of group you would create. Is this a formal group? How would you go about this and what type of people do you reach out to?

JENN: It’s interesting because I think the previous version of this might have been called “Mastermind.” And I know there’s a lot of people who belong to “Mastermind” groups. They’re very effective as well. This doesn’t necessarily have to be formalized meetings or get-togethers. This could literally just be about identifying five to eight people who, on a regular basis, you’re always thinking about one another.

Not from a referral basis, even though some different groups come from it, but from a “Who is it that I’m going to pick up the phone and give a call and run an idea past?”

Or, you know, “I’m feeling stuck in this one particular area,” or “I’m not getting the effectiveness from my social media that I’m looking for and I’m not sure why that is. Is there a collaborator I can call and get some ideas from?”

So, the people I think you would want to collaborate with would are your competitors—people who you perceive as competition. And I think that’s mainly because (and I find this to be true) they are lonely, too.

ED: Yes. We’re all isolated because most of us are virtual, anyway. We work out of our house. We don’t work in an office or with a team.

JENN: Right. I like to collaborate with people who are perceived competition. I’m a business coach, and you can sit and hit six business coaches here in Orlando. I want to collaborate with a handful of them here locally as well as across the country because we’re already thinking the same way. Our clients are basically the same types of clients, our struggles are basically the same types of struggles. So by working together we can understand one another and be able to help one another as well as grow your industry.

I think that’s the missing component that a lot of people aren’t picking up on, is that the more people are talking about, “Yes, I need to hire someone to do my copywriting for me,” Or, “Yes, it makes perfect sense that you always hire someone to do your search engine optimization." Or, "You always outsource your graphic design." The more they’re starting to hear that from a consumer’s standpoint, the more you’re going to get these phone calls.

Does that make sense? You have to kind of make it an everyday thing. It’s like you all know we’re supposed to go to the dentist every six months. That’s like, “Who said that? Who came up with that?”

ED: The smart dentists.

JENN: They all got together and said every six months, let’s all say that you have to get together and come to the dentist every six months.

ED: Let’s talk about forming the group. I want to talk about some actual examples. In terms of the people you contact; I’m curious how you’ve done it. Do you contact people you’ve already met, like in an event or in person? Or, do you kind of stalk some people that you admire in your field and say, “You know what? I really want to connect with that person. I want to see if we can collaborate in some way.”

what am I missing

What am I missing?

JENN: Both. But I start with what am I missing for me. I’ll use me as an example for a sec. So I’m a business coach and everybody who’s got some sort of business, you’re already talking to people that other people want to talk to. And again, this is not necessarily just about referrals, but it’s about understanding the demographic that you’re going after.

So when you collaborate with people who also want to hit that specific target market, they know something that you don’t know. They figured out this verbiage works better than that verbiage.

So that’s an example. For me, I’m a business coach so I want to collaborate with creative freelancers because I’m helping my clients maybe redo their website. So I’m looking for a website designer. I’m looking for someone who knows how to write. I’m looking for someone who maybe is a product person who can help me with my clients that are products people. So I’m looking for those types of people.

If I’m following somebody on Twitter or if I’m following somebody else on Twitter and I happen to see a smart comment, I’m going to check them out. You know, tell me more. Because I like to hang out with smart people. I like these creative, crazy, out-of-the-box, you-can’t-shut-up-about-your-business types. I work seven days a week. Ed knows this. I work all the time. But it’s because I’m crazy curious in my field. And so I look for the same type of individual, the person that’s kind of like, “We’ve got to make this happen.”

So you have to find people that have very similar type of ... I don’t want to call it a work ethic, but where’s their level of business compared to your level of business? And do they have a higher level? You want to find people whom you can elevate up to, whom you can emulate.

Wow, they’re really kicking butt in this area, they have heck of a lot more … people are talking about them more often, and I can see that there are a lot more testimonials on their websites. They must have been in business for several more years. I want to reach out to them. What can I bring to the table for them and what can we do together?

You kind of go into it and say what’s in it for them, what would they perceive to be value from me. It’s not about bartering services. But it’s more about, “Hey, I understand this part of the business because of what I do and you understand that part of the business because of what you do. How can we collaborate together to really knock it out of the park for our consumers, for our customers?”

I do strategically stalk certain people with excellence. I just get high when I see somebody who’s smart. So you have to determine what’s missing in your business and what you can bring to the table for that other person.

ED: Gotcha. This is making a lot of sense. In some cases, you’re saying it could be a competitor but in many cases, it could just be people that you really resonate with — you like their work ethic, you like their work, their style, their attitude, and they provide a service that maybe you’ve hired them for, so you’ve seen their work firsthand. You add them to your stable of contacts and you naturally refer people to them.

JENN: It’s just that naturally happens. You naturally are going to refer people to people that you respect, and that you feel are going to be in good hands. But don’t look go into it with that in mind. I always ask myself: What can I learn from them? I know I can teach them something as well.

I’ll give you an example. There’s an aesthetician that works down the hall for me here in Orlando. She wants to get in front of late 30s, early 40s women who care about their bodies and care about themselves. An aesthetician is the girl that gives you a facial, in case you all don’t know.

ED: Okay. I wanted to ask but I don’t want to look stupid.

JENN: She’s the reason why I look so fabulous. She takes great care of my skin. She went around to the local Gap and the local Lululemon and she said, “Let’s do an event together.” And then she brought in the people that have a fitness studio right across the street from us. Let’s all three of us put together an event together, because the Gap and the Lululemon, what do they want? They want to be able to bring their clients back into the store whether or not they are looking for clothes. Why? Because they know the second that person comes walking back to the door, they’re going to be able to sell them something. They’re going to see the new pants or they’re going to see the new shirt, the bright-colored shirt.

How can we collaborate together to really knock it out of the park for our consumers, for our customers?

How can we collaborate together to really knock it out of the park for our customers?

So they’re adding value to their clients by offering up this great Saturday afternoon get-together to learn all about beauty on the outside with your face and then also staying healthy — what are the five things you can do to stay healthy or extra depth. They came up with something really snappy. That’s an event that I promise you will happen again because they’re going to be able to constantly ask each other what is the demographic looking for. You have a different insight to it than I do. It’s just a little twist on it, which I think makes it more powerful.

JENN: So this brings up another question: How many people do you consider for your "collaborative sphere," or your consortium? You can’t really have more than ten and still stay effective.

I’m always thinking about the people that I collaborate with. I’m always thinking about them. So if I’m talking to somebody else, and they say sometimes, “You know, who you should call? You should call Wendy over at Card Cubby. She’ll be able to help you out with something.” It’s not to sell that person something, she’s got some insight to it, and that’s just kind of naturally you end up with this consortium of people that are constantly thinking about one another and with ideas.

That’s what makes it really powerful — the fact that they are always thinking about ideas for you. They’re reading an article and even though they might be getting something out of that article for their own business, they’re going, “Jenn would really benefit from this! Let me forward that article to her.”

ED: Gotcha. It’s not just a hub-and-spoke model, to put it in another way. It’s not just you at the center with all these people. You’re actually connecting these people together as well, right?

JENN: Yes. That’s why I’m called “The Captain.”

ED: I love this. I love the example of your officemate over there with Lululemon and the Gap because I think that takes it out of freelancing world for a minute. That got me thinking about some ideas. Can you give me another example?

JENN: Sure. Let’s say … I’m going to try to use somebody that’s in your group. You probably have a lot of graphic designers and freelance writers in your group. Is that right?

ED: Correct.

JENN: A graphic designer is usually brought in during the transaction when somebody’s worked with a branding person or they’ve worked with a business coach or they’ve worked with a website designer or they’ve called a printer and said, “Hey, I need new business cards.” Right?

So if I were a graphic designer, I would be reaching out to all of those types of businesses and looking for the rock stars in those areas. Because from a graphic design perspective, what you’re bringing to the table is that you’re helping them understand how branding or how the visual element helps in creating of the brand.

So you’re helping them be smarter by you collaborating with them. They’re thinking about you because they're probably thinking, “You know what? I don’t want to do the darn graphic design, quite frankly. I don’t even know how to ask the right questions.”

And then a copywriter is the one that really understands how to get people to take action through words. If you’re all working together to help this one particular client or to help each other’s businesses, that would be a natural collaboration.

And then I say pick up the phone and have at least two people that do exactly what you do; and you can even do it in your neighborhood and say, “Hey, look, I’m always looking to collaborate and kind of brainstorm. It’s NOT about stealing business from one another. It’s NOT about you stealing my idea. But it’s about how did you do that, that was really cool what you did, show me how to do that.”

And then they’re going to say the same thing to you. And again, it builds your industry when you guys are smarter and more creative and are able to reach more people because you’ve collaborated with somebody. So it's a “two brains are better than one” type of concept.

ED: By the way, I've found that when you’re a service professional, people are really buying YOU. At the end of the day, as long as you have a certain level of skill or better, ALL of us are in the same pool. What the client is really buying is you — your unique perspective, your background, your skills, your personality. Because they’ve got to work directly with you if they choose to hire you.

Sometimes, you’re just not a good fit for this particular client for whatever reason. There’s just not a connection there. But you know that based on what they’re telling you that your friend, Jill, will be perfect for them. So why not collaborate with Jill? She targets the same type of clients you do. But you know based on what they’re looking for, she would be a better fit, so you send them to Jill.

JENN: And based on what you’re looking for in a client as well, not necessarily the client looking for you. It could be your style is not the same as somebody else’s style.

ED: Good point.

JENN: It gives you an opportunity to really be a superstar in that client’s eyes. They might not use you for that particular project or they might never use you personally but they’re going to remember that you took care of them by referring them to somebody else.

 It gives you an opportunity to really be a superstar in that client’s eyes

It gives you an opportunity to really be a superstar in that client’s eyes

You could even say, “Based on what your needs are, I’m not thinking I’m the best fit for you. Let me forward you to Jane who I know based on her experience would be a better fit."

I mean, how fabulous would it be if someone were to do that, right? I mean, how much more powerful are you? And sometimes they’ll be like, "No, I want to work with you!" Maybe they will change their tune or whatever, but you’re in control of that.

I have another example. There’s a woman in Boston, her name is Sue Zimmerman, and she actually owns a retail store and sells stuff online. Anyway, she’s an expert at getting you to kind of connect the dots online with your customer. She traces people in Pinterest and Instagram and Twitter. Well there’s another girl in California, her name is Allie Lapri , and she’s a radio show host. But one of the things that she’s really good at is that she’s really great at building a Twitter following. And actually, she helps a lot of people who have radio shows to get more people to download her shows.

Well, Sue and Allie met through Spark & Hustle, which we’re going to talk about here in a minute. Even though they do very similar things — Allie can teach you about Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter, and so can Sue — Sue can tell you about how to build your following. But they’re both individually more passionate and have real uniqueness in certain areas. They collaborate together and get each other customers and any ideas and keep themselves separate even though they’re talking to the same customers.

So a customer might hire Sue for Pinterest and Instagram because Sue really gets that. And then they might hire Allie for their Twitter following, even though they can each do the same thing. And now this customer gets the best of the best.

ED: Is there a formal structure to this group? Any thoughts on that?

JENN: Well, I think with the group that I’ve collaborated with, we tend to be in touch with one another because we just talk about one another. It might be that I call Jen Puckett, who’s my web designer, I might call her and say, “Hey, girl, I just talked to somebody about you. They might be calling you.” Or, “ Hey, I just had a thought. I saw this other web designer and she’s packaging her websites this way. That might be a good idea for you.”

I tend to be proactive in that area and then I tend to get that reciprocated back. If you go to a more formalized let’s-talk-once-a-month format, it almost becomes a “mastermind,” and then I don’t feel like it’s organic.

I have nine people who I would say are my master collaborators. They’re not just service-oriented business. I have two of them that actually created products, they’re products people, and another person who owns an association. We’re always thinking of each other. They all call me: “Hey, Jennifer, quick question. What do you think if I did this? What would be the implication? How would somebody take that?” And then I’m always calling them: “Hey, if I decide to create this type of program, what do I need to know?” We keep it very organic.

ED: I like that better because you’re right, it would take a different feel if you made it a little more formal in terms of monthly calls. I like your idea, too, of not just sitting back and waiting for people to call you. You’re the one being proactive and contacting these folks on a regular basis.

JENN: Yes. But I just tend to be that person. I’m going to tell all of you that are listening, nobody’s coming to rescue you. No one is going to do work for you. You have to do it yourself. The world is out there waiting for your individual talent, your take on something. So the more proactive you are, the more your phone will start ringing.

There's this thing that happens when you start being proactive and you start really looking at your business more critically and asking yourself the tough questions: How am I going to drive sales? How am I going to get people to think about me? How am I going to get my name in front of individuals and being really curious? That’s how I started out — I did the curious, crazy entrepreneur.

When Ed and I get on the phone when we’re not doing these calls together, what do we do, Ed? We spend like an hour on the phone, we can’t shut up. We’re always thinking of different ways to make things happen. How can we serve our clients better? How can we be more unique? How can we adjust to today’s climate?

ED: You got me thinking about something else. What if maybe four or five freelancers who have complimentary businesses and services got together and offered a webinar or live workshop on something very specific. And what if each person from that group invited prospects from each of their mailing lists. I’m mean, talk about a great way to create synergy, right? You’re now adding value in a big way.

Sure, you know, you’re sharing contacts because all of you are inviting everyone to this webinar or workshop. The whole idea, though, is to add value by everyone contributing their gifts during that event. And then what do you do? I mean, you do something like that and now you have prospects coming to you because of that event — people who wouldn't have know about you otherwise.

JENN: Right. And these other collaborators are always thinking of you because you thought of them.

ED: Yeah, I think the possibilities are endless. My head’s spinning here with ideas. I hate it when you do that to me!

JENN: Sorry, Ed!

ED: Very, very cool. This Captain Collaborator idea has some of the elements of other concepts that many of us are familiar with. But what I like is that you’ve put them together in a unique way to create something very organic and very, very powerful.

JENN: Yes. And also, you can celebrate each other by putting them on your respective websites. I have a link online that says, “Myy go-to peeps.” I have the people who I collaborate with on a regular basis and I put their picture and a little brief explanation of who they are. They’ve done the same for me. It’s us basically saying to the world, “Look! I’ve got a posse. I’ve got a group here that I trust and respect. Give them a call. This is who I would recommend.”

ED: Yeah. It’s all from a spirit of giving, too. That’s the other key point. I love that. Thanks for this idea. And I want to talk to you about what you’ve been up to lately because you’ve been a busy, busy gal. I’ve been following you on Facebook. You’re like in a different city every week. What’s going on?

JENN: Well, I was blessed to have discovered an amazing conference called Spark & Hustle which is all about helping small business owners take their passion and turn them into profit. I partnered with Tory Johnson and we’ve been traveling the country on a day-and-a-half small business conferences where we really get you to sit down, slow down and think about your business in a very different way. It’s NOT a "rah-rah" conference, even though it’s a lot of fun. It’s a day and a half where we put pen to paper, get calculators out, and do hands-on thinking about how to look at your business differently this year.

We talk about competitors quite a bit. We want you to identify who your number one competitor is. Who’s that dream competitor? How are you making money? Did you price yourself correctly? We walk you through a formula with that and then we have this opportunity for everybody to pitch themselves. We call it the “pitch it session,” so kind of like answering that question, that two- to three-sentence answer to what do you do, you get a chance to stand up and pitch everybody and then we give you honest feedback. It’s just a great place. This is where I found all of my current collaborators quite frankly with through Spark & Hustle because they’re curious, strong, hard charging entrepreneurs that are just really creative in figuring things out.

I know we partnered with you guys. I’m so excited. I got Ed a speaking role at the regional Spark & Hustle, which will be in Atlanta, Georgia, and so everyone should come to the Atlanta one. But between now and July, we still have about nine cities left.

ED: I think all the cities are posted on, right?

JENN: Right. Go to We’ve actually negotiated a deal through International Freelancers Academy. Every member of your group will receive 15% off, and you can actually just enter the code, which is “FREELANCERSACADEMY,” and you’ll get that 15% off.

ED: Again, there’s quite a few cities left. If you’re anywhere near Atlanta, I’d love to meet you. I’ll be there. But if there's another city that's much closer to you, this event is worth driving to, folks. And the registration fee is very reasonable. Honestly, I don’t know how Tory’s making money on this thing because it’s really a steal.

You don’t see a lot of conferences where … first of all, it’s a day and a half, so we’re not talking about three or four days; it’s very difficult to get away fronm your business for that long. Plus, this is actually rolling up your sleeves and walking out of this thing with an action plan. I think that kind of format is very effective and badly needed today.

sparkandhustlelogowithTJsJENN: It is. This is the kind of event where people actually drive to multiple cities to catch it again. They drive to Atlanta, and many of them fly to either Boston or New York because they’re looking for collaborators. They’re looking for what we call BBF (business best friend) and you meet different people that have different takes on things and on your business.

ED: What kind of people are going to be there? I mean, as a freelance graphic designer or writer or SEO person, do you there would be potential clients there?

JENN: Oh my heavens! Yes. You can call any of my go-to peeps. My website designer, Jen Puckett — I just made a plug for Jenn — I met her at Spark & Hustle, she is so busy she’s had to hire three people all because of one connection at Spark & Hustle. And then I referred her to somebody and then they referred her to somebody who referred her to five or six people.

Oh, yes. So the room is filled with product inventors, people who create a products, a lot of them have been on the show "Shark Tank." The room is filled with other graphic designers, website designers, lawyers, accountants. There are coaches. It’s a good fifty-fifty mix between service and products, retailers, a variety of different people who are selling chocolates, bakery owners, online businesses, people who are just launching their businesses. So yes, there is business and money to be made right in that room. No doubt.

ED: There’s something about meeting people face-to-face, especially in an authentic way and authentic setting like that. My goodness! The chances of walking away with some really hot leads in an event like this are really, really high. I know because I’ve experienced it firsthand. I’ve gone to some events where I didn’t expect much and walked out with not just a bunch of business cards, but some of them were like “Please call me. Seriously, call me when you get home.”

JENN: Yeah. That’s what you get when you go to a good conference. Nobody’s there trying to sell each other. They’re all there trying to find ways and tools to be successful in their businesses. If you happen to be somebody or something that’s a good tool or a good resource, they’re going to use you because they’re like, “Hey, you’re at Spark & Hustle. You must be a high-caliber person.” Just like I would hire anybody from International Freelancers Academy because they must be of quality because they’ve invested in themselves.

ED: Yeah. Good point. Obviously, we’re recommending this highly. We both really believe in it. I’ll be there in Atlanta in June. Jenn will be at all of them because she’s crazy like that. The discount code is right here on this page, so hope you could take advantage of it. Gosh, even without it, it’s still a steal.

Jenn, any other thoughts? Anything I missed and didn’t ask you? How can people know more about? I mean, of course, they should know by now, but how do they get a hold of you?

JENN: You know what? I have a new app. Did I ever tell you that? I have a mobile app now. It's called Coach Jenn Lee, and it's iTunes- and Android-compatible. You should download my app. I put my favorite tunes on there where you get a little daily "MoGo" from me, which is like less than a tweet. You can see all the events where I’m speaking, pictures, photo galleries and all this good stuff. So yes, there’s an app for that. You can take Coach Jenn with you on the go.

ED: Wow!

JENN: I know. I met that person at Spark & Hustle. She’s a major collaborator with me. She understands mobile marketing. Yes, there’s an app for that.

My final thought is this: You have a gift. You obviously have a natural talent and a passion for what you’re doing. Once you’re committed to making it happen, once you’re committed in what it is that you want to do, the rest is really just logistics. Get out of you own way. Logistically figure it out, and get out there. People are waiting on you. There are people waiting for you right now. You just can’t let your fear stand in the way. If you need knowledge, that’s what we’re here to help you with. It’s kind of signing off moment for you.