The hardest phase for a freelancer is when you’re just starting out and trying to get work. You may not have a reputation yet and even if you’ve been in the industry for a while, no one may know that you’re looking for work.

So how on earth do you get those first clients?

Leverage your network

Even if you’re just starting it’s unlikely that you know absolutely no one in your industry.

If you’re coming out of school you know your teachers and other students. You probably did an internship so you know the business you just interned for.

You know people on Twitter. You have family and friends who know people.

So the truth is, even when you’re starting out, you likely have lots of resources to leverage for generating work — you just have to be bold enough to ask.

One freelancer I talk to regularly gets referrals from her internship. They’re a big agency that just can’t work on smaller projects in the $5,000 range so they send a good chunk of these smaller projects to her. She’s able to keep her schedule 70% full with those referrals.

[Tweet “Everyone probably assumes you’re busy, so tell people when you have availability and need work.”]

Some of my first clients were people that my dad knew in the construction industry. I did a bunch of websites for finish carpenters and builders before I landed my first client on my own.

A WordPress-based development shop moved from client work to selling a product. They turned my first year from “barely making it” to comfortable just by sending me clients they could no longer work with. Yes, I still send them gifts and thank them all the time.

Many of my clients now are network referrals; for instance they may know another developer who doesn’t have time for their project, so they work with me instead. These referral projects are valuable, because 99% of the time these clients stay with me. One of my longest term clients was a referral from another developer I knew.

I know we make fun of the ‘my nephew builds websites’ clients, but don’t underestimate the power of your network. Send out messages on Facebook. Contact that uncle who is a photographer and see if any of his friends need some work done. Ask your dad who owns the muffler shop if you can put business cards on the desk of the shop.

Lots of the time freelancers are looking for work simply because they didn’t tell anyone that they had availability, leaving everyone to assume they were full. I now tweet at least once a month that I’m available for new work even if I’m full. Most projects take 3-4 weeks to close, so while I may be busy for the next 3-4 weeks — or even up to 6 weeks — by the time that project closes I’ll be ready to start, or at a minimum, have a 2-week delay.

Get cold

Yes cold calling/email/visiting isn’t the most fun way to spend your time but when you’re starting it’s hustle time. You’ve got to get clients in the door so you actually have a viable business. When I started my freelance business I visited 10 job sites a day (including Craigslist), every day. If I hadn’t sent out 10 contacts for work by the end of the day I went through the local Business Bureau website and started contacting businesses in my city that had terrible websites.

If I hadn’t sent out 10 emails then I wouldn’t go to bed until I got them done. Nothing was going to stop me from being self-employed. Many people I know starting a business simply want work to be dropped into their laps by their freelance fairy godmother.

[Tweet “If I hadn’t sent out 10 cold emails a day when I started I wouldn’t have a business.”]

Sure, we hear about 5-10 people that went freelance and everything just worked — they got work right away and maintain a steady stream of clients. But what you didn’t hear about was the other 100 (maybe even 1,000) who tried the same path to self-employment but are now back at a job. You don’t hear about them because they weren’t successful.

Yes, I still do send out cold emails to some prospects, but I’m just very strategic about it now. I pick the high value targets that will help me jump into a new area with more potential.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about how to send awesome cold emails.

Don’t take just anyone

This whole post has been about how to get your first clients but that still doesn’t mean you should take just anyone as a client. You should define your ideal client and hold each new prospect up to that model client. The more a prospect deviates from the ideal client the less likely it is you should take them.

When you’re starting out you may not be able to be as picky as an established/busy freelancer, but each client you get should be getting you closer to the freedom to choose your ideal client.

photo credit: sergesegal cc

4 responses to “Getting Your First Freelance Clients”

  1. Jason Avatar

    great article. I need to hustle a bit (ok, a lot) more.

    1. Curtis McHale Avatar
      Curtis McHale

      I could do a bit more hustling as well so don’t think you’re alone.

  2. CJ Andrew Avatar

    Awesome article, and right on target. Very good recommendations for anyone just starting out on the freelance route.

    I guess most newcomers to freelancing expect that work will “just come”, but there’s a lot of hustling involved; and not just for beginners either.

    Everyone has to hustle to become and stay profitable/relevant. I will definitely be taking advantage of the advice in this post.


    1. Curtis McHale Avatar
      Curtis McHale

      You’re welcome and I totally think that even people doing it for a while need to hustle. You usually don’t just get to a point where you can stop hustling a bit if you want to keep at the same level you are or get to a higher level.