5 ways to win your first freelance clients (and, yes, they really work!)
It’s not easy to rock your first days as a freelancer. Searching out your first clients can feel like staring across a barren desert, with only a few spiky cacti (or your cat) for company.
The good news is that with a bit of hard work you can quickly turn that frazzled desert into a thriving oasis. How? By following these awesome tips, which I’ve gathered from real freelancers across more than 150 episodes of the Being Freelance podcast.
(Prefer to WATCH? Click the video above for a snappy roundup of the tips, but if you prefer to go deep - read on!)
Tip 1: Tell your people
So you’re embarking on a new journey? Well, you need to tell people about it. The smart place to start is with your friends and family.
Okay, some of them may stare blankly at you as you try to explain what UX or copywriting is. But telling the people closest to you what your freelance business is all about is a win-win.
First, it’s a great rehearsal for when you need to tell other people what you do. It’ll help you refine your pitch and make it really clear. If you can get your family and friends to understand, it’ll be child’s play explaining yourself to people in your industry.
Second, you’re not just speaking to them, but getting your message out to everyone they know – their unique networks. By making it clear what you do, they’ll be able to sing your praises the next time someone they know is looking for someone who does what you do.
Don’t forget all those people you’ve been connecting with on Facebook. This is your payback for looking at their baby and pet pics for all these years. So tell them what you’re doing.
Remember, too, to reach out to former employers. Loads of my guests started out being freelance by working with people they used to work with. Which is why it’s a great idea not to get drunk and upset your boss on your last day.
Let’s see what some my guests had to say on the subject.
“Really tell your friends and family what you’re doing. I went out to people and said this is what I’m doing. I’m writing. Do you know anybody who needs anybody for anything? You start by mopping up the crumbs. Then you start getting recommendations and it moves on from there.”
“Something that often gets overlooked is just letting your contacts know that you’re now freelance, because there’s always going to be someone that needs something. Or a friend of a friend that needs something doing. I told all my Facebook friends with a Facebook post, I did the same on LinkedIn, was very vocal on Twitter and wrote a blog about how I decided to go freelance. The work flowed in!”
“One of the first people I told was my boss from my placement year for university. A few weeks later, she came across someone who needed a freelance marketer. She put me forward and they became my first client. So never burn your bridges! Keep in touch.”
Tip 2: Give freelance job sites a chance
Freelance job sites, such as People Per Hour, Freelancer and Upwork, often get a bad rap. But if you’re not established, don’t have much of a portfolio and aren’t used to working with clients, they can be useful.
You have to put quite a lot of time and effort into bidding and building your rating and reputation. But plenty of my guests started out using these sites successfully and then transitioned away to bigger and better-paid work. So don’t dismiss them before you’ve tried them.
“I’ve always found Elance (now Upwork) a great way to find clients; they’re already there and they’re raising their hand. From there, it’s a matter of standing out from the competition and negotiating a good amount of money. You build your reputation and that feeds more work.”
“Initially, I used People Per Hour, and was taking whatever I could get really; even if it was a fiver for half an hour, just so I could build up a reputation and client base. Sometimes people don’t want to go in on low prices, but you need to build a reputation first. Once you’ve got this, you’ve got more scope to say I’m going to charge more now. Everyone’s got to start somewhere and I think it’s a great place to start.”
Tip 3: Social media is a super-powerful tool
If you’re new to freelancing, treat social media like your new best friend. Start by building connections with people and businesses you admire and would love to work with.
Obviously, you don’t just tweet someone and ask them for work. But you can follow them and get yourself on their radar. Start building a connection by following them, comment on things they care about, and regularly show support for what they’re doing.
As well as potential clients, get to know fellow freelancers. You can build genuine friendships online. Relationships that will support you, with people who might well refer work on to you once they trust you and know what you’re like.
Also - just try searching for those looking to hire. Across all of the social networks you’ll find open posts along the lines of ‘I’m looking for an X to do Y…’
Don’t forget Facebook/Linked In groups, Twitter chats; there’s so much opportunity to help.
“I followed a bunch of influencers on Twitter and regularly interacted with them. I replied to their tweets whenever I had something to say, and retweeted them, so I was constantly in contact with them. That actually brought me an opportunity to speak at an international conference – and that’s how everything got started.”
“Every time someone followed me on Twitter, I’d send them a ‘Thanks for following me’ drawing that was completely customised. One day, I sent a drawing to the right person, which got my foot in the door big time. It was the advertising agency that does T Mobile’s contract with social media – I won a contract as a cartoonist for a year!”
“About 90% of my workload comes from LinkedIn. Early on in my freelance career I’d go on LinkedIn, type in the search box ‘freelance copywriter’ and search for people’s posts looking for copywriters. I’d leave a comment on the thread and send them a message. Now, clients often mention me on LinkedIn when someone else is looking for a copywriter. I’ve not had to pitch for a few months for work.”
Tip 4: Knock, knock, knocking on client’s doors
When I used to work in radio, I wanted to earn extra money and get more experience. So I went and knocked, literally, on the door of an big independent radio production company in a fairly remote, rough bit of London (it’s all fancy now of course).
They were so impressed that somebody had bothered to do that, the Managing Director himself came out to talk to me. I ended up working with them for years and still keep him as a contact in my network.
It doesn’t just have to be physical doors: cold emailing can work too. I’m not talking about blanket cold emailing here. You need to actually research these companies and be personal with them. One of my biggest clients today is someone I sent an email to in my first few weeks of being full-time freelance.
And what have you got to lose, right? If you don’t ask, you’ve already got a ‘no’. Isn’t that what they say?
“One day, I decided to come down to London. So I packed everything up into the back of a very old, decrepit Ford Fiesta. I had a couple of names written down on a piece of paper and I literally went and knocked on a few doors and that’s how I started freelancing. That first month I got in really well with The Times and I think I did 28 days for them in the first month!”
“I wanted to work with companies who had Facebook pages, but didn’t know what kind of content to create. So I created a list of 100 of them and cold emailed them. When I didn’t hear back, I called them. So, cold emails, cold calls, just hard work, to be honest, got me my first two or three clients.”
“I just did everything and anything. I was emailing people, sending postcards, knocking on doors. I already had some contacts, other animation or design studios, and I was getting in touch and saying, ‘I’m available. I’m here if you need anything.”
Tip 5: Meet people – because networking really works
Cliché alert! But people work with people, right? So you need to get yourself out there into networking situations.
Hanging out in Facebook Groups where your clients might be is great. But it’s important not to just live behind a computer screen, wearing your pyjamas and eating Ben and Jerry’s (yeah, for breakfast, what of it?!).
So step out the front door and mix with fellow freelancers and potential work leads face-to-face, in the real world.
One of my very first clients for a video project was a guy from a university who I’d met at my first proper networking event. At my second event I met a fellow video creator who I’ve since hired and he’s hired me. There’s no such thing as ‘the competition’.
Even if you’re a wallflower, don’t get stuck in your pot. Go out and meet people, because it will help you and your business grow.
“At the start of your career, you don’t really have any contacts. So, the reason you’re not getting any work is the lack of contacts. The more people you meet, the more chance you have of working with them in the future. So, just keep meeting people and it will work out.”
“Being a freelancer is hugely isolating and obviously places like Facebook communities are fantastic for building connections. But physically meeting someone and having a cup of tea or a glass of wine, there’s nothing like it.”
So there you go, if you’ve been wondering how to start as a freelancer, that should help. Five great ways to get your very first freelance clients. Once you’ve won them over with your awesome talents, you’ll find loads of new ways to expand the way you get your work, but this is a great place to start.
And here’s a bonus tip: if possible, do all of these five things while still in your full time job. Start building those potential clients and reputation - get the word out - all before you make the leap.
You’ll find loads more genuinely useful advice on how to fire up your freelance business on the Being Freelance podcast. So, go on, hit subscribe wherever you like your downloads delivered from.
Remember that every freelancer I speak to had to start somewhere.
Even the people who seem untouchable and at the top of their game had to find their first clients.
They all started somewhere. Where are you going to start?
Good luck - let me know how you get on!