Finding your first clients as a freelancer
One of the hardest parts of being an independent worker is finding a steady stream of clients. Finding your first can be the hardest.
There’s no silver bullet for finding your first client, but some strategies you can use are below:
- Use platforms
There are a bunch of platforms and companies to help independent consultants with lead-generation. They differ by industry, but some popular ones include: UpWork, Catalant, Business Talent Group, Turing, Fiverr, PeoplePerHour and Toptal.
In general, I don’t think these platforms are the best way to get work. Firstly, they have way too many workers in their database and not enough clients looking to use these workers’ services. Furthermore, because there are so many workers, it is hard to differentiate yourself from the others listed, as the only review system is based on five-stars and qualitative comments. This leads to downward price pressure — you will usually be paid a fraction of what you would be paid if you sourced the client independently if you use these platforms, and that is before the commission that they take (ranging from 5- 20%). Lastly, the projects tend to be super specific, so you often have to be flexible in how you sell your expertise or be willing to accept projects that are not super interesting to you.
So, in short, make a profile (all are free to join), but don’t expect to build a huge business or invest too much time in these platforms or networks.
2. Ask your former employer
A great source of clients can often be a former employer. Either they can contract with you directly (a great client testimonial for your website!) or they can refer clients to you. This works especially well when your former employer was in the professional services or creative industries. Oftentimes, projects or clients that are “too small” for a company are the perfect starter clients for freelancers! Also, they know your work so will be confident making a referral.
3. Subsidized projects for references
Have friends who could be potential clients? In your first month of business, I would consider doing heavily subsidized projects (~10–20% of the cost you would usually charge) to personal or professional contacts who are willing to give you a shot provided they don’t have to pay too much. The condition of this subsidized rate, however, if that they write up about a paragraph of what it was like to work with you that you can feature on your website and share with future potential clients. People want to see that you are experience and people like working with you, so having at least three completed projects and satisfied clients to point to can catalyze so much other work!
4. Do boring projects for big-name clients
Especially if you are in a consolidated industry, it may be really important to score a specific name-brand client. That logo on your client list (and, yes, on your website!) may do wonders for your business. If this is the case, I would think of the least sexy job you are qualified to do and pitch that to the company. Think of the task that no one, internally or externally, wants to do. For instance, one of my first projects was developing a petty cash policy for a business with significant rural operations. Definitely not page turning stuff — but anchored me in that company who then gave me lots more interesting work once we became a trusted partner.
5. Give referral bonuses to aggregators
Is there an organization that several of your target customers belong to? This can be an investor, trade association, or online magazine. It doesn’t really matter what type of organization it is. What matters is that you connect with them and ask them to refer clients to you. This often works much more effectively when you have already done work for some of their members, who can speak to how they enjoyed working with you and the quality of the engagement’s output. You should give these aggregators some incentive to send clients your way. This can be, for instance, a referral bonus, whereby you would give the aggregator 5–10 percent of the project’s value for each successful referral. However, in these arrangements, clarify that the referral bonus will be paid only after the engagement is completed and the funds have been collected from the client.
6. Blind reach outs
You can, of course, always reach out blindly to clients on LinkedIn or use Hunter.io to guess their email addresses. This usually helps if there is a specific event (e.g., a wedding, a recent fundraise) that you can tie your reach out to, to emphasize why it is timely that they employ your services. In this reach out email, you should state your name, the specific project you believe you can help them with (stating of course that you’re open to brainstorming with them any modifications), a link to your website describing your product offerings, and, where appropriate, attachments with work samples. If you don’t hear anything back in five working days, it is totally appropriate to send a follow-up. Boomerang email tool can help you monitor these follow-ups.
7. Speak at conferences
Another great way to build your client base is to speak at conferences. Shamelessly email conference organizers with a pitch about why you would be a great addition to a specific panel you see listed on their agenda. Include your bio and a link to your website. You will likely have to pay your own expenses in the early days, but always worth asking if the conference organizers would consider covering expenses. As mentioned when building your website, at the conference, represent your brand as the Founder and CEO of X, rather than yourself as an individual freelancer, even if Company X is just you!