Mar 29, 2021
If you are just getting started as a freelancer or have any ambition whatsoever of starting your own business - the most common question that people have is “How do I actually get clients?”
Even though you've spent years learning and developing the skills necessary to design and code websites or apps — those skills do not usually translate to running a successful business. In order for that to happen, you are going to need to develop a separate set of skills, and start viewing the skills that you already have in a slightly different light.
The first part of this two-part series is going to be geared towards those who are just starting out, and want to know how to get their first clients. Part 2 will be geared towards individuals who already have a few clients under their belt, and want to know how to get more.
Buckle up, because there’s a couple of hard truths coming at you. However, I guarantee, if you are able to persevere through this and embrace the advice, you’re gonna be killing it in no time.
Let’s dive in.
This is an unpleasant truth. I’m not saying I agree with it, nor am I saying it’s how things “should” be. I will argue and fight until my dying day defending that you absolutely, 100% DESERVE to be paid for your work. You know it and I know it. Unfortunately, your prospective clients don’t know it... yet.
Before you go off on a rant about how it is unacceptable that you should have to do any work without receiving fair compensation (which I agree with) — I want you to think about it from the clients perspective.
In a clients eyes, hiring somebody without sufficient evidence that they can be trusted is a huge risk. And this has nothing to do with your portfolio (more on that later.)
What if you do a terrible job?
What if you take the money and run?
What if you fail to live up to your promises?
What if you over-promised and can’t actually deliver on what you said you could?
Even if you know that none of those things are true - a prospective client has no way of knowing that. And that makes you a risk.
You, yourself, are guilty of this too. You are guilty of it because you are a wise and discerning person. Imagine you were walking through the city and a total stranger approached you promising if you gave them $1,000, they would take it, double it, and return it to you the next day. Would you trust them?
I would hope not.
While this example is obviously an exaggeration — it isn’t one by much. You are asking a business owner who has sacrificed their time, money and reputation for their business, to trust you — a stranger.
If the business fails or they spend their income unwisely — they may have to start laying people off. Peoples livlihoods are literally at stake.
It’s easy to assume that any business has money to spare and that what you’re asking is a drop in the bucket for them. But lost time, money spent, and damaged reputations are all things that a business owner will do their best to avoid.
The same is going to be true of you too as you develop your own business. So, all of this is basically to say — while you might know that you can be trusted, you should also understand why a business owner might have reason to not jump on board quite so quickly.
The other unfortunate truth is, there is very little that you can say to assuage their fears. Even though you may sound genuine, the reality is you are still trying to sell them something, and unfortunately, some people (not you) will say anything to get a sale.
So where does that leave you? What are you supposed to do?
At this stage of the game, there are really only two things you can do:
If I were just starting out, the very first thing I would do would be to tell everybody I know, personally and professionally, that I am looking to start a side business. I would tell them that I am looking for freelance projects, and if they happen to know anybody looking, to send them my way.
Being talked-up is always more powerful coming from someone else than it is coming from yourself. If you never have people coming to you asking about your services, it’s a safe bet that you have not been sharing what you’re doing with enough people.
As a rule, clients (human beings in general), are always going to seek safety and security by default. They will almost always go with the less risky option. When given the choice between a stranger that charges less, and a more expensive recommendation from a friend or colleague, the recommendation is almost always going to get chosen. Despite being the more expensive option, because they were recommended by a trusted friend or colleague, they are perceived as less risky.
The only way you can overcome this perceived risk is to take the risk out of the equation.
Without a body of work showcasing satisfied customers who can vouch for you — the only real way for you to take the risk out of the equation is to reduce or eliminate the cost of your services. When you offer to do a project for free — really, the client has very little to lose. Even if you completely drop the ball, the client isn’t really out anything.
I want to be abundantly clear here: this doesn’t mean that you will never collect any payment from the project. I'm only saying that should approach the project with no expectation of payment. After the project is completed, if you were able to provide insane value to the client, they usually want to reciprocate.
I can truthfully say that anytime I've offered to do a project for free, I have always gotten back just as much, if not more, than what I gave. Not always in cash. Sometimes it's in free services. Sometimes it's in referrals & testimonials. And sometimes it's just in seeing someones face light up and how grateful they are.
If you can come to terms with all of this, keep reading, because there is a right and wrong way to go about this. It is true that you might have to do one or two projects for free. But if you don’t want to KEEP doing cheap or free websites, read on.
In discussing this with a friend, it occurred to me that there are really two paths you can go down as a freelancer. You can specialize, and focus on a specific type of client that you feel very drawn to and passionate about. Or, you can generalize, and offer your services to any business who is in need of a website.
Honestly, either path is fine, depending on your skills, interests, and needs. If you've always had a love of architecture, it may be a dream to work exclusively with architecture firms, and become THE expert at architect websites. Or, you might have a personality that gets bored easily, and prefers to have variety in the projects you take on, so you are willing to work with just about any client, provided they are a good fit.
I will say that being a specialist will typically enable you to command higher prices, because you are more difficult to replace. There will be notably less "Architect Website Specialists" than there are "website agencies". The downside however is it will likely take you a lot longer to get established and build your reputation as an expert in your vertical.
On the other hand, being a generalist will open you up to a larger pool of prospective clients. The downside is, it also increases the amount of other freelancers/agencies that you will be competing with, which means it will often come down to which one of you is willing to do it for the lower price.
At this stage of the game, the best advice I can give is: be conscious of the two different paths, but save that decision for after you've landed a couple of projects. Right now, you don't have clients coming to you. You are the one approaching them. So go after clients that you want to work with, or clients who have businesses that you are interested in.
But, don't allow yourself to be "client scouting" for too long. Regularly trying to find and pitch to new potential clients is exhausting. Some people love it — but if you are more interested in building websites, this process is probably going to feel tedious. So the sooner you can get to a point where clients are coming to you versus you going to them, the better.
The other key thing here is to keep an eye out for prospective clients that you genuinely feel need your help. Don’t go after a client who already has an amazing website. Look for clients who either don’t have a website at all, or have a bad websites where you could give them something noticeably better.
And finally... if you read nothing else in this article, read this:
Don’t ever do work for somebody who is asking for a free website.
People asking for a free website are almost always opportunists who won’t value your work, and will bleed you dry. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers”, do work for somebody asking for a free website, and you’ll find someone who puts that theory to the test.
Here’s the thing — there is a HUGE difference between you offering your services for free, and you agreeing to give your services for free. The first says that you recognize your value, but are willing to give your services away because you believe in their mission. The second implies that the client doesn’t recognize your true value, and therefore doesn’t think they should have to pay for it. Never, ever, ever do work for somebody who is asking for it for free.
Also — when selecting a potential client to work with, choose a client that is is well-connected and will be good for referrals. At first glance, you might think that working with a non-profit is a great option. And I’m not saying they aren’t. What I am saying is — be mindful of the clients ability to give you referrals. If they are an organization that has no money to spend on a website, you need to be prepared for them to only be able to recommend other organizations that are in a similar situation. So, while there is nothing at all wrong with offering your services to these organizations down the road when your business is a bit more established — you may want to avoid it as you are just starting out.
I recognize that everything I've talked about up to this point doesn't do much good if you are still unsure about how to even find prospective clients to go after. And truthfully, there's not really a standard way to do it. Here is what I can tell you from personal experience.
First - no matter what city or town you live in, there are lots of organizations and groups out there specifically for business owners to network and connect with other business owners. You have Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, Toastmasters, Business Incubators, etc. Start by looking into these types of groups in your area.
Admittedly, going into this type of setting can feel a little forced, and maybe a bit awkward. But — the idea is to start connecting with other business owners. Even if none of them are looking for your services, just by establishing relationships with them, it broadens your network, and the amount of people who will be willing to recommend you if it comes up.
Additionally, most towns and cities have online business directories. It is worthwhile to browse through these directories looking at each business, seeing which ones have websites, and which ones could benefit from your services.
Once you have identified some businesses that meet the dual criteria of being someone you'd like to work with, and in need of your services — the next step is establishing some type of connection with them.
If you go straight into calling or emailing them to pitch your services... you "may" have some luck, but chances are, your efforts will get ignored. Nobody really likes to be sold to by strangers.
Your best bet is to start by being a customer of their business (if possible). For example — one of the first websites that I did when I was starting my business, was for my barber, who was working out of his wife's salon at the time. I started out as a customer, and already had a decent relationship with him. So when he casually mentioned to me that he was thinking about opening up a new barber shop, without him even asking, I put together a killer website for him that was way better than any of the other barber shops in the area. It stood out, and the shop grew rapidly because of it. But, what really made this such a smart decision for me was the fact that as a barber, he talks to all kinds of people, all day long — including business owners. And now, any time one of them mention his website — he sends them my way. Go for those kinds of clients!
While you might be willing to forego monetary compensation for a project, it’s perfectly okay to ask for other things in exchange for your time. Ask them to give honest and critical feedback. Ask that if they like the work and find value in it that they refer you to others. Ask that they give you a well-written testimonial. Ask that they leave you a review on Google, Yelp, Facebook, etc. These kinds of things are incredibly valuable in their own right, and will really help to establish that credibility and trust that future prospective clients need.
Also — make sure you put a link to your portfolio at the footer of their site, so people know who built it. While you likely won't get a lot of traffic to your site from this — it DOES start getting you backlinks to your website, which are a big deal when it comes to SEO.
For your first couple of projects — even if they are non-paying projects, do an incredible job. Go above and beyond to help the client succeed.
I know that unpaid work can be demotivating, and it can be difficult to not treat it like it’s a huge imposition. Resist that urge. Go above and beyond. Do unbelievably good work, because at the end of the day, if the work you do is lackluster — the client isn’t going to love it, and you’re not going to be proud of it. It really will have been a waste of time, because they’re not going to want to refer you to anybody if that’s the quality of work you’re offering.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a portfolio, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t invest the time in making it as good as you can. I AM saying however that nobody is going to spend much time poring over it or obsessing about the details. As much as I hate to say it, very few people are actually going to see it.
Here’s the thing — business owners who are in need of website services are not out there scouring portfolios, looking to see who has the best work.
What they are actually doing is looking at the websites of their competitors and colleagues, seeing who did their websites, and then hiring THOSE companies to build their websites.
The unfortunate reality is, you are not going to have hundreds of prospective clients reading every word of your website, gunning to hire you.
However, if you DO manage to get a prospective client considering your services, then you will need to have something in place so they have assurance that you’re legit. Don’t overthink it. Do a good job. Showcase your work. Show a prospective client exactly what they want to see in order to make the decision to work with you. But don’t put it on a pedestal or have unreasonable expectations for it. The more time you invest on your own website is time that you’re not focusing on getting clients.
Be a “growth supporter”. If somebody is considering hiring you to handle their website, they see the potential for their website to generate revenue and growth for their business. So, no matter how much they pay you for your assistance, whether it’s $100 or $100,000, they will need to make at least that much back from it in order for their investment to have been worth it.
Knowing this should change how you pitch to a potential client. If the only advantages that you can effectively offer include making a website look nicer, function better, look cleaner, or run faster — those are all abstract concepts that don’t necessarily equate to more dollars. If you can show them how those things WILL lead to more customers, and more income — now you’re talking to them in their own language. At the end of the day, that’s what clients want… someone who is as concerned with their bottom line as they are, and will lead them through the right decisions to help them move the needle.
When you go after anything, whether it’s a job, a sale, or a potential mate, confidence is always key. I say it like it's just that easy — but having confidence is sometimes a really freaking hard thing to come by. Especially when you’re first starting out. If you’ve never pitched to a client before it can be really difficult to project confidence. To do so — you have to believe in what you are selling. Don’t overpromise what you can’t deliver. Keep the focus on what you are sure about.
Here’s a truth for life: it is impossible to have authentic confidence when you don’t have experience. There are some people who can fake it. And you might have to for a while. When you go into a client pitch, you might not be confident in presenting — but there is no reason you can’t be confident in the services you are offering. There’s a huge difference between having confidence in speaking in front of people, versus having confidence in what you’re selling. The first will come with time. The more clients you pitch to, the more confident you will become. As for having confidence in what you’re selling – only you will know if what you’re selling is worth being confident about.
It’s awfully difficult to confidently sell your ability to code a website if you’ve only ever done one or two in your life. This is where you just have to be disciplined about practicing your craft. Whether it’s art, design, development, SEO, UX, photography, or anything — you will never gain confidence with your skills if you know in your heart that you haven’t put the necessary amount of work in. Now, with that said, don’t go to the other extreme, where you have put years of your life into it, and still doubt yourself. There is definitely a balance here.
Another very difficult truth that we sometimes have to accept is that maybe our work isn't very good. Just because we spend a ton of time on it, doesn't mean that it's good.
"Good" only comes with time, practice, and experience. And sometimes, we have to allow ourselves to be bad, until we can get good.
One of the most valuable skills that I possess is my ability for me to look at my work objectively, and see the flaws in it. I obsess over good design, and can recognize when a website is better than what I feel I could produce. Unfortunately, many people lack this self-awareness. As creative people, we often get too attached to our own work, and can’t see when the work is subpar.
This is where peer review and community feedback is crucial. It can sting. It can be demotivating, and sometimes hurtful. But — if you can develop a thick skin when receiving feedback on your work, it will only serve to benefit you in the future, and help you to train your eye on what resonates with people and what doesn’t.
Before you present work to your clients, try posting the work on online communities such as Reddit, Behance, Dribbble, or even LinkedIn seeking honest and candid feedback on your work. There are lots of designers out there who are happy to critique others work, and if you can take that criticism and not get offended by it — you will see the quality of your work improve rapidly.
Getting clients is not easy, and too many people go into it expecting immediate results. The difficult reality is — getting clients requires a multi-pronged approach, and once you start putting systems in place to get clients, it’s gonna take a little while for them to start showing you a return.
In the same way that when you plant a seed in the ground, it takes several months for it to yield you a crop — getting clients will take a while from the time that you first start trying to acquire them.
And just like planting a seed, it will require a lot of watering and tending the soil — otherwise, nothing may come of the initial efforts you put forth.
In this first article, I discussed the preliminary steps to start getting clients, and hopefully helped you to set your expectations accordingly.
In the next part, I will discuss some practical tactics that you can do to find and connect to prospective clients and convert them into customers.
If you liked this article, or got some value out of it, I would appreciate you sharing it with somebody else who you feel would get value from it.
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That's it for today! Until next time...