When you decide to pursue freelance work, you might not have a clue how to actually find clients. But if you start with research and ask businesses what they look for in freelancers, as well as ask your peers for advice, your network will begin to grow and you'll already know what clients are looking for.
This post originally appeared on OkDork
Most freelancers start out their business like this:
- They decide to pursue their passion and try to get great at what they do.
- They build a website that talks about their expertise.
- They set up their social media profiles and start promoting themselves.
- They wait for clients to come to them.
When it's laid out like that, you can see the obvious flaws. And yet, this is how a lot of freelancers try to start working for themselves. They think that simply being good at what they do is enough to have clients knocking down their door. But you need to be more than good to get attention.
Start by Getting into the Heads of Potential Clients
Research people that have hired freelancers that use the same skills as you have and have recently hired for it. Send them a quick email to see if you can ask them for their advice. You're not necessarily looking to get hired — you're trying to learn why they hired the people that they did.
Can't figure out who to ask? Look at successful freelancer's websites and go to their client list. That's a whole variety of folks that have hired someone to do what you do. You aren't trying to steal anyone's clients, you just want to ask them a couple of questions.
There are a few questions you can ask to get some helpful information:
- Why did they hire the specific freelancer they hired?
- How did they find that freelancer they hired?
- What problems where they having that lead them to hiring a freelancer?
- What are the results they expected from hiring a freelancer
Not everyone will take the time to reply, but people are keen to be seen as experts with advice, and are more likely to reply than if you cold-contact them to hire you.
Ask at least five to ten people to establish a good baseline. Note common words used, common problems and pain points they have expressed and what the top results they expected were.
Let's consider Frank, who's a web designer who has taken a few legal courses in school and really enjoyed them. He wants to figure out what makes lawyers and firms tick in order to get some as web design clients. Frank wants to work for legal firms that value a progressive online presence.
This is Frank's website (obviously just an example). His tag-line is very non-specific and doesn't state what he's trying to accomplish.
Let's say Frank notices one firm has recently redesigned their site. He can ask them a few questions to see what their online goals are, what's important to them in a website, and the language they use. All law firms have a list of partners and staff so it'd be easy to get some contact info. For example:
[Flattery] I've just seen the redesign of your website and it's brilliant — especially [list a specific feature/function].
[Context] I'm a web designer and I was wondering if I could ask you a few quick questions to learn more about how I could best serve your industry.
[Getting to the point quickly] You are definitely a leader in your field, so I'd love to learn what I can — any answers will be kept in the strictest of confidence.
1. What lead you to hiring someone to redesign your website?
2. What were the results did you expect?
3. How did you find the web designer you hired and why did you hire them?
I appreciate your time and I look forward to hearing back from you,
Know that it may take several of these emails to get a response. But there aren't a shortage of companies you can find with a little bit of digging. When I've sent emails like this, here's an example of a response I've received (but let's keep using Frank):
1. Our website was outdated and we weren't able to update it ourselves. Most of our clients also visit our site from mobile devices and it wasn't responsive.
2. We wanted more signups to our firm's newsletter, which leads to clients hiring us.
3. We found Paul (the designer) because he answered a question we had on Twitter. After seeing his portfolio and feeling like his style was a match for our brand, we hired him.
Now you not only know exactly what you target customer wants, expects, and hopes for, but you also know the words and the way they describe those details. This works for everything from writing to design to development.
For your best chance at getting a response, give a compliment (everyone likes those, but don't be fawning). Be brief (just a few sentences). Be specific (no more than three questions). Once you've done five of these quick interviews you'll be inside the head of the type of people you want to work with.
Here are a few examples that I've received when I've asked:
- I hired a designer that understands that sales is the ultimate measure of a good business site. If you don't understand why I need a high contrast colour for the most important button, you can't work for me.
- I've used a freelancer who does a good job at following directions. I decided to just lay everything out myself [wireframes] and hire a freelancer to design it and a freelancer to chop it up and make it work.
- I picked my designer because she took the time to understand my business and really cared about the outcome of her design work after the website launched. I'll hire her again because she quick to reply to my questions and I felt like she had my back.
What you'll probably find is that what you thought was the most important thing when pitching your skills isn't nearly the most important thing a potential client cares about.
Notice how none mentioned price. None mentioned specific programming abilities, responsiveness or trends (like flat design or parallax whatever). These business people want a web designer that positively impacts their bottom line and drives more business for them.
These are obviously specific examples for web designers, but it applies to any type of freelancing. Do the research, understand what your potential clients want and use that when pitching and marketing your work. No existing clients or experience in your industry required!
Ten Strategies to Get Clients When You're Starting Out
In the beginning, aim for just a handful of clients. One may be luck or a family friend (thanks mum!). A few clients means you've established a base of people who'll give you money for your expertise. And just as importantly, you've learned what worked in terms of landing those clients, so you can use it the same techniques again and again.
Here are a few ideas on how to get those first few clients:
1. Offer Your Take on an Existing Product
This is particularly useful for designers. Redesign a popular website with your own unique take, and explain why you've made the changes you've made. You can see some examples here, here, here, and here. Which site should you redesign? Focus on the one the type of client you want to be hired by uses the most.
Why do this? A few reasons: first, you've flexing your chops as a designer to demonstrate your skills to both your peers and clients. Second, you're showing that you have specific ideas to make someone else's business better. Third, you're creating the type of work you want more of, based on the style and type of client.
2. Utilise Job Boards
Try We Work Remotely, Authentic Jobs, Smashing Jobs, Elance,Krop, and even Fiverr. In the beginning, become a fire-hose of pitches. Lead with solving their problem and not boasting about your skills. If you're starting out and just plain need the work, bid on anything — even if it's less than what you want to make. Everyone's gotta start somewhere.
Side note: When I started my rates were quite low. Then I established a rule of thumb: Whenever I'm booked more than two months in advance for more than two months, my rates should go up. I've done this five times since I started and it's always worked out well (as in: I make more but stay packed with work).
Why do this? When you start out you don't a huge network. Responding to as many projects as you can gets your name and portfolio in front of as many people as possible. Even if you spend a few minutes before replying to a posting to learn a bit about the company, you'll be miles ahead of everyone else. If you hear back from the company and they don't hire you, ask if you can keep in touch. This is useful if they have future work or even others they can refer you to.
3. Use Your Existing Contacts
Fellow graduated classmates? Employees from the place you interned? Other freelancers you've established some rapport with? Send short and personal emails to everyone you know, telling them what are you freelancing for, and quickly describing the type of clients you're looking for. You can even offer them a "finders fee" if their lead lands you a gig.
Here's an example:
Did I tell you I've started doing freelance web design? Check out my portfolio here (list free sites or personal projects).
I know how connected you are to creative entrepreneurs, so I'm wondering if you knew anyone who may need a website? I can even sweeten the deal for you by offering you a finders fee as a token of my gratitude.
Mention what you do specifically, where they can see your work samples and the type of clients you are looking for. Be brief, make it easy for them to say yes with a finders fee.
4. Talk to Other Freelancers in Your Field
These people aren't necessarily your competition — they're your community. Introduce yourself. After you establish a bit of rapport, offer to help them or pick up their slack if they're too busy to handle their own workload. There are countless networking events online and in real life. A good way to make connections with industry peers is to show how helpful you are.
Where do you find them? Social media, networking events, professional organisations (like AIGA for designers) and associations (like the Freelancers Union). If you went to school for what you're freelancing, then keep in touch with classmates. And keep in touch with past coworkers. You'd be surprised how often I've been hired by folks I had worked with previously who had moved onto other companies.
Talk to successful freelancers in your industry and ask them specific questions about how they get the work they do. The quick question email technique is a great way to get your foot in the door too. You get a good piece of advice from a freelancer who knows their shit, you become a blip on their radar, and you're seen by them as someone who wants to learn from them, and not as someone begging for work.
I got this the other day, and was happy to offer advice:
Paul, I know you're busy and charge good money for consulting, but I'm just starting out as a web designer and had a question I hope you can answer:
How did you land your first client?
5. Find out Where the People You Want to Work for Spend Their Time
Networking events? Online communities? Find them, go to those places and start conversations. Be helpful, not pushy or sales-y.
To list a few online communities for three industries:
- Designers: Designer Chat, Sidebar, Designer News, Reddit Web Design
- Programmers: Hacker News Slack, Hacker News, Reddit Web Dev
- Writers/Content Marketers: Inbound, Copyblogger forum, Scribophile
6. Create Diverse Content and Make Yourself Known
You aren't a writer if you aren't writing. You're not a photographer if you're just buying fancy camera gear. But more than just working on your craft, you can start a blog, a podcast, or a Youtube channel to help make a name for yourself. Too many freelancers focus their content on their own industry — create content that benefits your potential clients.
Rather than just writing about my summer vacation, here are some specific ideas for what I might blog about:
- Something you wish every client would know about the type of work you do.
- If clients ask for the same things (i.e. make the logo bigger) and they're the wrong questions to ask, what can you teach them about the right questions to ask?
- What are some quick fixes clients could make to their business, based on your expertise?
- What are some success stories or case studies from work you've done?
- What resources can you share with clients? What books can be recommend?
7. Start for Free
Free work gets a bad rap, but when you're just starting out, sometimes it's necessary to build your portfolio and pursue any opportunity that you can get. Working for free is a lot more feasible if you're still at a job that pays, where you can do it on the side.
How would I pitch someone on doing a free site, for example? I've noticed a few charities I believe in had mediocre websites, so I offered my services. Charities are great first projects because most of them are great at what they do but awful at other aspects of running a business. Here's what I'd say:
I'm Paul Jarvis and I help businesses and nonprofits like yours do better and achieve more with their websites. I've donated to you for the past couple years because I know you do awesome work.
I have a vision for your website that will help you: build a large community of supports, increase your donations (and increase recurring donations) and even hopefully get you a bit of press.
Typically I charge $7,000 to design and develop a website, but I'd like to offer your my skills and problem solving abilities for free.
Can we setup a call next Tuesday (or whenever works for you), if you're interested?
Both times I've used a script like this the other party has been so floored that I wanted to help them with their business they have given me free rein.
Working for free is tricky, but has its place. You have to cautious and strategic when working for nothing. But if you're trying to land your first freelance gig, you've gotta do what you've gotta do. Keep these tips in mind when soliciting free work:
- If you are doing a project for free, make sure the client understands that they're hiring you for your vision and expertise. Just because the project is free doesn't mean that your experience and expertise shouldn't be considered.
- Talk to the client before the project starts about potentially getting a few referrals when the project is finished, since they will be happy with your work (make sure this is happens!). Also ensure you ask for a testimonial from them once the job is finished.
- Tell them what your "normal" rate is and tell them that if they're pleased with the results, you're more than happy to work for them again or for new projects at that rate.
- If you are working for free, make sure it's in the niche you want to do more work in and it's the type of client and project you want to do more work for.
Free work, in the absence of finding paying clients, can also take the form of side projects or personal projects. These can be a great showcase of your skills and vision.
I got my first job from a personal project. I created (at the time) the world's largest online slang dictionary. Tens of thousands of people submitted words to it, and it eventually got featured in national newspapers, radio shows and even WIRED magazine. This got the attention of an agency who then begged me to work for them.
8. Create a Useful Product
If you're a writer, create a guide that helps your type of clients create better content. If you're a designer, write a how-to that explains how designers can make the project run smoother. If you're a developer, build a quick app that helps people accomplish a task faster. These products can be sold, but if you're starting out, give them away for free. Make an email course, a printable PDF, even a web app.
Why do this? If you can build something of value, people will start using it and talking about it. If you make something that directly benefits the type of people you want to be hired by, they will see you as doing them a favour with the product and know your name.
Consider these examples: My friend Nate Kontny created Draft, a simple writing tool. Brennan Dunn created a little calculator to show how much per year doubling your hourly rate would bring it (and he has a product for sale too). Tina Roth Eisenberg is so good at creating products like Tattly, TeuxDeux, and Creative Mornings, that she doesn't need to do client work anymore.
To build my name as a writer, I created a free email course on book writing and 2000 people signed up for it in the first few days.
9. Find a Freelancing Partner
Find a freelancer that works in a related field with skills that compliment your own and see if you can work together on some projects. Designer? Partner up with a developer to offer a bigger solution. Writer? Partner up with a designer so you can write the content.
Although I know my way around WordPress, I can't write an app from scratch. So on a few occasions I've partnered up with a developer to build everything from an iPhone app, an intranet from scratch, and even a few Drupal sites. Sometimes I'm the one bringing work to a programmer, but a few times programmers have brought work to me.
I also have a list of writers I trust to get my clients to hire. I know writing makes or breaks websites and I know the difference a professional makes. So I always suggest experienced writers to all my design clients and they often hire them.
10. Make a List of Who You Want to Work For
Having a well-defined niche makes it easier to source out prospects. Spend time each day researching companies that fit the profile. Introduce yourself to them. Even if they don't hire you, they now know your name. How do you pick a niche to focus on? Think about these questions:
- What industry do you actually use products from or enjoy?
- What industry hires freelancers with skills like yours?
- What industry would you enjoy networking in and actually being a part of?
Here's some advice on picking a target audience from Justin Jackson:
I have a friend who wanted to build a product for real estate agents.
I asked him: "Do you hang out with real estate agents?"
He answered: "Well, no."
I continued: "Do you like going to real estate conferences, trade shows, and workshops?"
Again he replied: "No. I've never gone to anything like that. Why would I? I'm a software developer."
"If you don't like hanging out with them now," I asked, "are you sure you're going to want to serve them (every day) from now on?"
Finally, Before You Pitch Anyone, Do Your Homework
This is an idea conceived by Ramit Sethi called the briefcase technique: When you're pitching a client, come prepared with notes on what you would do to make their business better, as it applies to your expertise. People are impressed with anyone that's done their homework.
I've used a similar technique for decades. I always ask as many questions as I can when I'm talking to potential clients to understand their business and think of perfect solutions for them that use my skills. I also show them that I've done my research about their company and know how I can help.
A recent client of mine was a writer, editor and writing coach who needed a new website. After listening to her tell me about what she wanted (and since I had done my homework and researched her), I already had a list of potential solutions. I told them to her on the phone, but I also documented them. Here's what I told her in this specific example:
Your mailing list is only on the sidebar, near the bottom and asks for 5 fields to be filled in. Let's shorten this to 2 fields (name and email), create a landing page for subscribing and put it at the bottom of each article. I've done this on my own site and increased signups by 50%.
Your homepage is 24 paragraphs without headings or breaks. If we re-write this to include headline (20% of people read all content on pages, whereas 80% read headlines) and shorten it to be focused on one clear goal, we can direct people to your product faster.
There was plenty more, but you get the idea. This only took 15 minutes to research, and I know the above points work because I talked to previous clients about how my designs impacted their business. Even if you don't have that data, you can always find industry data online.
The key to winning pitches and making potential clients want to work with you is showing them that you care about their specific business and have ideas for making it better.
When you're starting out it's important to talk to as many people as you can about finding work. Ruth Zive of Marketing Wise had a rule when she started as a freelancer writer: She pitched ten publications or potential clients before 10am, every day.
Use the language from your interviews when you reach out to potential clients and focus on solving the types of problems that others talked about. If you do get a meeting or call with them, use the briefcase technique to show that you've taken the time to learn about their business.
You can also use those people you interviewed as leads for referrals. Once you've put up a website, get in touch with them again. Thank them for taking the time to do the interview and let them know that with their help, expertise and knowledge you've launched your business. Perhaps they have got a friend or colleague who could use your services?
Is it a lot of work? Yes. But starting out as a freelancer takes time, dedication, and perhaps most importantly, persistence. Everyone's experience is different, but the one thing in common among successful freelancers is tenacity.
Paul Jarvis is a web designer, bestselling author and gentleman of adventure. He writes shit-hot tips like this article and other advice on freelancing for his newsletter every Sunday (bonus: you also get a huge discount on The Good Creative when you sign up).