Getting clients as a freelancer is like a catch-22 problem. If you ask other freelancers how they find clients, they typically say “word of mouth” or “referrals.” How are you supposed to get referrals without previous work? Getting started seems impossible.
If you are thinking about starting a freelance business, you need to be proactive when it comes to getting your first clients. Building your business will get easier with time, but when it comes to your first customers, you have to hustle.
These are the five steps I took when I started my career. I recommend starting this process at least 30 days before you plan on leaving a current position / starting your freelance career, and continuing these habits until you have built a steady pipeline of client work, and doing them in the order presented.
1: Your Current Boss Could Be Your First Client
Employers are the epitome of a qualified client: they are someone that you know sees value in your work and is willing and able to pay for it. Of course, this only applies to employers where you two you have a good relationship. If you are considering leaving your job, contracting for your current employer can be a win-win situation. If can give you a stable jumping off point, and you can help your employer transition someone else into the role and wrap up any projects where you are currently contributing.
When you talk to your boss, sell the benefits to them as a company, and keep the focus off of why you are making the career shift. As a former manager, I know how hard transitioning new people into a role can be a real challenge, especially mid-project. And you’re always ‘mid-project’ in one way or another. By letting your employer become your first client, you solve this problem and provide a significant amount of value.
2: Reach Out To Your Current Network
Getting referrals is a proactive process. It may seem like people sending you potential clients is work landing in your lap as if someone did the marketing for you. The truth is that referrals come when your garden that has been painstakingly nurtured and bears fruit. You need to build relationships with people to generate business. As a general rule, the trick to getting more freelance clients is not to increase the number of potential clients, but the number of potential referrers.
Referrals don’t just come from customers. They come from your colleagues, other freelancers, your friends, or your family. When starting out, it’s a good idea to reach out to these people, let the know about your shift into freelancing. I wouldn’t lead with that as it can come across as needy. Get in touch with people, start a conversation, and mention your change.
As an added benefit, this process gives you a great way to reconnect with old friends.
I’d start by building out a list of potential contacts, created from your phone contact list, email contact list, LinkedIn profile, and Facebook friends. Start with easier conversations such as closer friends and family, and then start reaching out. The results may surprise you. Maybe Robbie from your high school punk band sold out and had a job in corporate procurement.
3: Reach Out To Agencies & Other Freelancers
Now that you’ve exhausted your personal network, it’s time to do some outreach. Agencies have a very direct path to value off of your work: You charge them $X, they charge a client $1.5X+. Agencies reach out to subcontractors for two reasons:
- They have more work than they can handle internally.
- They need someone with a skillset that they don’t have internally.
Reach out to agencies and see if you can be of any help. If they don’t have any work at the moment, ask them to keep you in mind if anything comes to their table.
When working with agencies, you should fit into their workflow as seamlessly as possible. You are a stem cell. It doesn’t matter what project management software you like, use theirs. If they bill by the hour, then so do you. Ditto for fixed pricing. As a benefit, you can learn how more established companies handle projects. It’s a great learning experience. My current processes are a mishmash of what I’ve seen work best with previous clients.
Other freelancers can be helpful in this regard. Not only do they have the same overflow and lack of expertise problems that agencies have, but they also have them more frequently since they are a one-man shop.
Business karma works. As you make connections, pass along referrals to freelancers and agencies that you know and trust.
4: Hang Out With Your Peers
The first three methods were very direct forms of getting business. You could get referrals the same day you start implementing them. These next methods are more indirect and don’t tend to pay off as quickly. Now it’s time to introduce an offensive word to technical folk and introverts alike:
I know, I know, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. You won’t have to wear a tie. Networking just means connecting with others. Find local meetup groups in your area aimed at people like you. If there aren’t any, you could consider starting one. Even a gathering of five people can be enjoyable and valuable.
When attending these events, remember that your goal is simply to hang out. Don’t go to these shindigs with the intent of handing out as many business cards as possible, or even worse selling. Focus on getting to know people and making genuine connections. It is better to walk away from these events with one new friend than a dozen business cards.
If you live in a small town, this may be a less viable option. You can still attempt to get something going on Meetup.com. You may also want to consider traveling to a larger city if there is one a reasonable distance away.
If you are shy, here’s a simple networking hack to get you out of your shell: Everyone knows something you don’t. Your mission is to learn as many of these of things as possible.
5: Hang Out With Business Owners
Now that you are a freelancer, you are a business owner. Getting involved with your local chamber of commerce can be a great way to get to know others in the community. You are also more likely to meet potential clients here.
Again, connect, don’t sell.
These activities can be a market research opportunities. As you talk to people, really listen and learn about their businesses. The better you understand them as people and the problems they face, the better you can serve them. The more value you can provide, the easier it is to get clients.
You may be thinking this sounds like a lot of time and work. You’d be right. On a fundamental level, a business is an entity that provides goods and services to people in exchange for money. Therefore, 50% of resources go towards ‘providing goods and services’ and 50% at finding the people and facilitating the exchange.
To help you put this into action, I’ve put together a worksheet to help you get started. Grab a cup of coffee and a laptop, and take a few minutes to work through the exercises. On completion, you’ll realize that opportunities are abundant if you are willing to put in the work.