Last updated on March 15, 2019
[This is a delicious guest post by Paul Jarvis. --Noah]
Most freelancers start out their business like this:
When it’s laid out like that, you can see the obviously 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.
There’s a better way:
Make a list of 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.
Can’t figure out who to ask? Look at successful freelancer’s websites and go to their client list. That’s a whole whack of folks that have hired someone to do what you do. You aren’t trying to steal anyone’s clients, you’re just want to ask them a couple questions.
Questions to ask them:
People are keen to be seen as experts with advice, and more likely to reply than if you cold-contact them to hire you.
Ask at least 5-10 people to establish a good baseline. Note common words used, common problems and pain points they’ve got and what the top results they expected were.
|(Click here to download Paul’s Contract Template for when you land your first gig.)|
Let’s consider Frank, who’s a web designer that’s 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 clients. Frank wants to work for legal firms that value a progressive online presence.
Here’s how I’d suggest Frank ask them a few questions to see what their online goals are, what’s important to them for a website and the language they use. All law firms have a list of partners/staff so it’d be easy to get some contact info.
[Flattery] I’ve just seen the redesign of your website and it’s brilliant - especially [list a specific feature/function].
[Context] I’m 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.
Here’s an email I’ve sent to people to figure out why they hire web designers:
I see that you just had your website redesigned (which is GORGEOUS by the way).
Just wondering if I could ask you 3 questions about your experience with your web designer - it’ll take 5 minutes max and I can either send you the questions or we can hop on Skype.
Compliment (everyone likes those). Be brief (just a few sentences). Be specific (3 questions, 5 minutes, not a big time suck for them).
Once you’ve done 5 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 (these are answers from creative entrepreneurs with million-dollar or more online businesses):
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 color 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!
Another way to do a bit of quick and easy research is to talk to successful freelancers in your industry and ask them specific questions about how they get the work they do. Think about it this way: would you rather reply to an email from someone complimenting you on your work and success with a quick question, or reply to an email from someone you don’t know, asking you to give them work.
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, not as someone begging for work.
Here’s an example I got the other day (which I replied to right away):
[Flattery] I read your article on sales advice and it helped me reframe how I pitch to clients, thank you!
[Question] I admire the work you do for your clients and was wondering if they’re more receptive to per-project pricing or per-hour pricing (and why)? If you’ve already written about it, just direct me to the article.
[Your name] Paul Jarvis
[Personal] PS: I saw your rats on IG and had a white one when I was growing up!
In the beginning, aim for your just a handful of clients. One may be luck or a family friend (thanks mom!). 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 Re-design a popular website and explain why you’ve made the changes you’ve made. Examples 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 designer (for peers/industry). Second, you’re showing that you understand business and business goals and have specific ideas to make someone else’s business better (for clients). Third, you’re creating the type of work you want more of, based on the style and type of client.
#2 Job boards! We Work Remotely, Authentic Jobs, Smashing Jobs, Upwork, Krop, and even Fiverr. In the beginning, become a fire-hose of pitches. Lead with solving their problem 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 2 months in advance for more than 2 months, my rates should go up. I’ve done this 5 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’ve not got 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.
Notes: 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 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 office. 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 organizations (like AIGA) and associations (like Freelancers Union). If you went to school for what you’re freelancing, then keep in touch with classmates. If you work at a firm before you freelance, keep in touch with the people that worked at the firm - you’d be surprised how often I’ve been hired by folks I had worked with previously that moved onto other companies.
I get at least one email a day from another designer asking me for open-ended advice, telling me their life story in 10-pages, or pitching their work to me (so I can send them leads). I rarely reply because I don’t know them. I also get emails from other designers with beta-access to products they think I’ll like (because they listen to me on twitter) or sending me short and very specific questions that are easy for me to answer. I love replying to those.
I got this the other day:
Hey Paul, I saw your tweet yesterday about how you schedule tweets about your articles - this isn’t public yet, but check out my app [X] and grab a free account using this promo link [X].
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?
Hugs & backflips,
Another idea is to start a podcast or interview series. It’s promotion for the other party, so you may get more response with an offer to feature them. I stay in touch with most people that have interviewed me, because they started out by doing me a favor.
#5 Find the type of people you want to work with where they’re already hanging out. Networking events? Online communities? Find them, go to those places and start conversations. Be helpful, not pushy or salesy.
To list a few online communities for 3 industries:
#6 Create content! The more you talk about your expertise and how it benefits your potential audience, the easier it will be to establish your authority in your field. Start a blog, podcast, Youtube channel, etc. Too many freelancers focus their content on their own industry - create content that benefits your potential clients, not your peers.
The most effective way to become known by both your industry and the people that hire in your industry is by creating content. Start a blog, host a podcast, make YouTube videos, do product reviews, interview folks. Create consistent content that doesn’t suck and you will build a name for yourself.
Here are some specific ideas for what to blog about:
* What’s 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. As mentioned above, free work gets a bad wrap, but when you’re just starting out, sometimes it’s necessary to build your portfolio. 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? I’ve done this when pitching a few charities I believe in who had shitty websites. Charities are great first projects because most of them are great at what they do but awful at anything business.
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’ve given me free reigns. You actually see one of the charity sites I did right here.
Working for free is tricky, but has it’s place. You have to be 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.
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.
Personal Story: 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 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 for how people that hire designers can make the project run smoother. If you’re a developer, build a quick app that helps your type of client 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’ll see you as doing them a favour with the product and know your name.
My friend Nate Kontny created Draft.
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).
To build my name as a writer, I created a free email course on book writing (2,000 signed up for it in the first few days).
#9 Partner up! 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 content makes or breaks websites and I know the difference a professional makes. So I always suggest content experts to all my design clients and most of those clients hire one.
#10 Make a list. With a defined niche, it makes it easier to source out prospects to get in touch with. 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:
Here’s some more picking an audience wisely from Justin Jackson. Here’s the gist:
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?”
This is an idea conceived by Ramit Sethi, called the briefcase technique. Basically, it goes something like this: when you’re pitching a client, bring already-written notes about 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 smart 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 specifically and know how I can help.
An example from one of the latest website pitches I won is below. The client is a writer, editor and writing coach. After listening to her tell me about the website she wanted (and since I had done my homework), I ran through a list of solutions for her. I told them to her on the phone, but I also documented them. In summary:
After spending a few hours going over your current site and researching your industry, here are just a few ideas I have for what I can do for your website:
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.
Let’s take your product sales page and remove the navigation and sidebar. This will make your audience have to focus on the product. We can also add screenshots from it and I can design a really great way to showcase testimonials with photos. This will help build social proof you need to increase conversions. The last website I did for a client that used these techniques increased purchases by 34% in the first week.
You currently have 15 links in your top navigation. If we shorten this to the most important 4-5 (the pages that either capture email addresses, sell products or give your back story), people will more likely get to those pages. We can always link to the other 10 pages in the footer.
Here’s the final result:
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 has a 10-before–10 rule when she started as a freelancer writer. Basically, she’s make sure she has pitched ten publications or potential clients before 10am, every day.
Armed with the research you’ve got from your interviews, when you reach out to potential clients, use that language and focus on solving the right type of problems they might be having. 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.
Is it a lot of work? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes.
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’ve got a friend or colleague who could use your services?
How did you land your first freelance client? Leave a comment.The best or most interesting response posted in the comments will receive a signed copy of my latest book The Good Creative.
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).