The Freelancer’s Organized Guide To Getting Your First Clients
So, you’re looking to get more clients — or even more exciting, your first clients.
Welcome to the club!
Today is the first day of the rest of your career. Let that sink in for a second.
Do you feel that tingling in your stomach? That’s excitement. Today’s going to be a good day.
Here’s a hint for how it’s going to look when we’re done:
But first, let me explain what’s behind this checklist…
The difference between a freelance creative and an unemployed creative person is clients. If you have people paying you to write, design, compose, illustrate, etc, then you’re doing great! But, if you don’t have that yet — we’re here to help.
When it comes to running a freelance business, especially for creatives, the easy part is usually doing the work; the harder part, especially at the beginning, is finding the people who will pay you to do that work.
If we know about anything at The nuSchool, though, we know freelancers, and we know about that freelance life. So we looked at our own experiences, we talked to some of our friends, and we put together a step-by-step checklist for you. You can go into it now, but it will be a lot less overwhelming if you read the post first.
Every day for the next four weeks, not including weekends because weekends are for weekending, you have a task that will bring you closer (and closer, and closer) to nailing your first clients. Not your mom, not your best friend’s band — an actual client who will pay you money to do the thing you love to do.
PS. None of those steps are ‘work for free.’
Obviously you can do this at your own pace — you could knock this whole list out in under a week if you try hard enough. Godspeed.
Stage One: You’ve Arrived, Let’s Party
Who are you?
The first step to going freelance is figuring out what, exactly, you’re freelancing. What do you love doing? What would you be happy to wake up and do every day? The more specific you get now, the easier it will be to figure out your competitive analysis, pricing, and target market later on. If you’re a writer but you also care about social justice, you can look into grant writing; if you’re a painter and you love live music, you can look into live painting at concerts and festivals. Indulge yourself here — we’re building you a career!
Put together your portfolio.
What have you done already in your field that you’re able to show off? Your portfolio should be examples of work you’ve done, whether as a student or full-time employee, that shows off how exceptional you are at what you do. If you don’t have any professional examples, that’s okay! Take the time to work on some samples instead. To make it relevant, you can even take existing projects and show how you would change them up; just be sure to let anyone who sees your portfolio know it’s just your take on their project and not something company-sanctioned/live.
Spruce up your socials.
When you’re a freelancer, you’re first and foremost selling yourself. That means clients will probably (definitely) Google you — and you probably (definitely) want to know what they’re finding. This is a great time to review your Facebook privacy settings; you want everyone out there to see your blog posts and new client announcements, but those same people can live without knowing about the beer-chugging contest you placed first in freshman year. Go through any social networks you might have — Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, whatever — and make sure the person you are there is the person you want to be for your clients. Once your socials are up, start following influencers, people in your field who are widely respected and have huge networks.
Influencers are not your target clients, but you can bet that they know plenty of people who are your target clients. If a powerful influencer recommends your freelance services, you will be flooded with high-caliber clients who can’t wait to see what you have to offer.
Set up your online home/s.
If while sprucing up your socials, you notice that you don’t actually have any, now is the time! You should have a Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter that make you look human — because humans hire humans. And that’s a fact. After getting social, you should also definitely think about a website, blog, and/or YouTube channel. Your website will be the home of your portfolio, as well as your contact info and bio; your blog and/or YouTube channel is where you’ll tell the world (or, at least, your people) your thoughts and feelings about things that matter in your world. Once you have all this up and updated, clients will be able to find you — and all of this work will pay off in a lot of dollar bills.
Write and send your first networking email (friends, family, former colleagues).
You’ve got something to talk about! Get in touch with your inner circle — the people you trust for advice and support — and let them know it’s official, you’re flying solo! Send links to your updated socials, your new website, and your portfolio, and ask them to share. You never know who knows who, so don’t be embarrassed! Plus, no one — really, no one — did this in a bubble.
Stage Two: Spreadsheet City, Population You
Spreadsheets can be found here.
To use the spreadsheets, download the templates to your desktop or Google Drive. It will be excellent.
Who’s doing what you do? Knowing who these people are will help you position yourself, learn industry lingo, and find your mentor next week. Going through their client lists, websites, marketing material, and so on will help you understand the language and landscape of your industry; maybe there are companies in your area that hire loads of freelancers, or maybe you’ll start to see a recurring ‘type’ of client. You never know.
Target Market Analysis.
Last week you figured out what you want to do; this week, you’re going to figure out who needs you to do that. Find businesses that you want to work with and write ’em down — not only will you start to see patterns, but you’ll have a list of potential clients ready to work with.
What’s your break-even rate? Figure out how much money you want to make per month, divide it by how many hours you want to work per month, and you’ve got it. Once you have that, you can figure out how much to charge for every service you provide. Don’t be afraid to get specific or give ranges; this document is internal, and will greatly help you when you’re asked for proposals later on.
Lesson: in this crazy world we live in, pricing is relative; what's cheap to one person is expensive to another. The supermarkets sell economy baked beans as well as truck loads of Heinz; there is a vast difference in the price but they are both basically baked beans in tomato sauce. YOU set your price. Don’t get into a haggling match in potential clients. If the client cannot afford your service then they cannot afford you – simple as that – do they haggle with the person behind the till at Tesco? No? I thought not.
Where the clients at?
Where do your potential clients hang out? This is a list of virtual and IRL places where you can find clients, colleagues, influencers, and industry experts; include Meetup groups, local hubs, Facebook groups, subreddits, forums, coworking spaces, etc. Once you know where the people are, you can be there too — and not only will you be able to scoop up clients quickly, but you’ll be building a network of people who know, like, and trust you, and are eager to work with you.
Write your first blog post.
After four days of research and spreadsheets, it’s back to creative! Whether you’re on a blog or vlog or some other medium that I haven’t thought of, today is the day you tell your story to the world. You don’t have to publish or distribute today; that’s next week’s work, but take the time to write something thoughtful and exciting. You’ll be sending this out a lot next week.
Stage Three: The Outside World Beckons
Seek out your dream mentor.
There is nothing more flattering in the whole world than being asked to be someone’s mentor. Seriously. Also, there is no better way to make someone love you than to flatter them. Go back to that week two spreadsheet and check out your competitive analysis. Choose the friendliest faces, email them, and introduce yourself. Be up front; tell them you’re totally new at this, and you want to learn the ropes from someone more experienced. Chances are, they’ll be happy to help!
Publish your first blog post and distribute the pants off of it.
It’s virtual go time. Dust off last week’s blog post, have a friend read it over, and when you’re overjoyed with what you’ve created, press publish. Once that’s done, go back to last week’s Where the clients at? spreadsheet and start spreading your post all over the place! You want maximum eyes on you right now — sorry, introverts, but the beginning is tough. Don’t be spammy — don’t post an article about design in a marketing forum — but do be shameless. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium, and more. Go big. And don’t stop. PS. There’s a spreadsheet for this in the big spreadsheet document. It’s called Distribution.
Go to your first Meetup.
Put on your dancing shoes — we’re going out! I always bring my phone (duh) to Meetups because, in lieu of business cards, I have a graphic with my name, business, and website that I send to potential clients via email/text — it saves paper and cost and is pretty difficult to lose. Get to the Meetup early to get maximum facetime with all the people! Once you’re there, channel all your strength into smiling and chatter, because in-person meetings are amazing ways to get introduced to helpful people and potential clients. If you really want to knock this one out of the park, come to the Meetup with a bit of research about other attendees you want to meet; ‘creepy’ in your social life is ‘prepared’ in business circles. Be sure to take down some email addresses and phone numbers; you’ll need them tomorrow. Don’t forget that networking is really, really similar to dating, and the same basic rules apply: Wear clean clothes, don’t get too drunk, don’t have food in your teeth, and act like your mom is watching you from far away. She can’t make out every word, but she can catch most of them.
PCC: Potential Client Coffee.
How was yesterdays’ Meetup? I hope you’re not hungover — you should be feeling exuberated! Today, take out your Rolodex (okay, your phone) and make your first follow up. Find someone you really think might hire you and send out something cute and nice, like, Hey! It’s Shayna from last night. Hope you had as good a time as I did! If you’re available this week, I’d love to take you out for coffee and keep talking XXXX. It was such a pleasure to meet you, can’t wait to see you again! PS. I published my first blog post this week — check it out! [link] Ultimately, it’s your choice whether to go text or email for this one, but I’d go with email; you don’t want to be too personal just yet.
Write and send your second networking email.
Have you heard back about coffee yet? Now you’re going to write to everyone else you met, plus any friends-of-friends or suggestions from colleagues, family, etc. Just like yesterday’s email, keep it casual — and take the time to send something personalized to everyone!
Stage Four: Dolla Dolla Bills, Y’all
Write, publish, and distribute your second blog post.
Last time we gave you two days, but you’re no newbie anymore, and you can do it in one. Write a post about something in your field; it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just something you’re comfortable writing about. Once you’ve written something you’re proud of (don’t spend more than two hours on this), press publish and, just like last time, start distributing! Cover all of your socials, and then go back to your spreadsheet of online client hangs and send the post away. Especially if your post went well last time, you should have a much easier time getting this post out there.
Write and send your third networking email.
You’ve sent two of these. You’re an old pro! That’s good, because this one’s the hardest. Go into your potential client spreadsheet and pick out some people you would like to meet, because you’re about to ask them to do that. Don’t stress about it — it doesn’t have to be anything formal. Just a quick intro to you and your expertise, with links to your recent blog post; something that will make the people love you.
Set up and fill up your Buffer account.
Social media shouldn’t be a time-sucker; you’re a new freelancer, you have things to do! Now that you know what your industry landscape looks like, scope the scene for interesting articles that you can share, especially articles by influencers in your field. Why? Because sharing someone’s article makes them <3 you and want to know you, and because sharing hot news makes you look in-the-know. And when you’re in-the-know, you can be trusted. If you do this once a week, you can mostly forget about social from then on, and spend most of your time focusing on building your business.
Having a branded Facebook page and Google+ page is way different than overwhelming your friends with constant business posts on your personal profiles. So, you know, make it happen. If you already have business pages/profiles, write some new social media descriptions, spice them up with professional graphics, make sure they all work together cohesively. For your personal social accounts, create/add new pictures, a new email signature, a new LinkedIn job/position, a new Gmail chat status, a new Twitter background, etc. Be active socially. Be where your clients are and don’t be silent.
Start your side project or guest blogging campaign.
The problem with being a new freelancer is, duh, you don’t have a ton of freelance experience behind you; that’s why side projects are a-mazing. Find something you love or need or think about and make it an example of why you’re awesome at what you do — and if you can get friends to help you, that’s even better. The more detailed your project, the more feedback and publicity you’ll get, just like we saw with Photype.
If you don’t have an idea for a project, a great alternative is to start guest blogging. By producing great content for blogs that already have readership, you’ll fast-track your own Internet publicity, as well as your freelance career as a whole.
Last year one single blog post on Copyblogger generated more business for me than (my other efforts) combined… I found myself on the phone or in email exchanges with CEOs and founders for companies like Hubspot, KISSmetrics, Treehouse and Stripes39. In fact, I routinely turned down work as a freelancer because the demand was so high.
Meet your mentor.
This is the final step to launching yourself into the face of your new client/s. Remember the mentor we told you to find? Today is the day you guys are going out. Why? Experienced freelancers are often offered more work than they can handle, and it’s an absolute joy to have someone you can rely on to take that extra burden. You are going to be that person. Also, experienced freelancers probably got to that point with a mentor of their own, as well as a network of people that will soon become your network.
Here’s the checklist:
If you want to create your own copy, here it lives. You’ll have to authorize my Google script (no worries, I ain’t no hacker), and then you can copy it to your Google Drive and get back to it at your pace to check off the tasks you’ve done.
You’re informed, you’re prepared, you’re ready to go. We’ve taken you through every tiny step of finding more clients; now all that’s left is to, you know, do it.
If you’re ready to supersize your client pool, check out the Marketing For Honest Freelancers email course. We teach you the A-Z of not-sleazy marketing that will land you dreamy clients.
Thanks for sticking with us. Keep us posted on your progress!
Shayna is the Head of Friendship at The nuSchool. Talk to her about veganism, ayurveda, dogs, and, duh, freelancing.
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