May 19, 2020
1. Reach out to your ideal customer
2. Team up and offer services with another freelancer
3. Understand the best way you network
4. Sign up for an online platform
5. Do it all again. And again.
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There are thousands of websites and articles dedicated to providing freelancers with the tools they need to better market themselves, get an overflowing pipeline of customers, or find their first clients. There are even expert panels who share their advice for freelancers to get started. But the beauty of freelancing is there’s no right or wrong approach to getting started and finding your first clients. There are, though, some things which have been tried and tested by quite a few people, with varying degrees of success.In my experience, two of the most important things freelancers can do to get their first clients are:
Explain what you do, and the value of your work in a few words.
Understand how your customers interact with freelancers and when.
The first point involves being able to articulate what you do and how it solves a problem for a particular type of company or person. This could be based on your expertise in a particular industry or years of experience developing a trade or skill, or based on a network you’ve built up over time.
Are you a designer that can turn around branding kits quickly? Fitness coach who has hundreds of happy and healthy customers? Great! Share these stories and examples with your prospects early. Don’t have any paid work to point to yet? Pro-bono and volunteering work are just as reputable, and a great way to add variety to your portfolio when starting out.
The second is all about researching and understanding how your customers think, and more importantly, act when they understand they have the problem you’ve set out to solve. This provides the person you’re talking to assurance that you understand the problem they are facing, and can quickly build trust through empathy.
Now that you’ve clearly explained what you do and know who you should be talking to, you’re ready to start reaching out to prospective clients.
People generally want to help others, and most of the time, people can offer their advice and experience if they can’t offer anything else. By asking the right questions to someone who matches the job title or experience of someone you think hires freelancers in your position, you’ll be able to gather a lot of insights into how the industry works, and what you’ll need to do to close your first client. If they’re not the right person, there’s a chance they’ll point you in the direction of that person.
If this is a cold outreach there’s a chance that the person won’t respond. But if they don’t respond, try reaching out to someone else who you think could help, and revise the message that didn’t get a response. Tracking which outreach messages get responses means you can go back and look for patterns at a later point.
Asking questions that are specific and actionable, no matter how well you know this person, will make it easy for them to provide the information you’re looking for. It also makes you look like you have prepared and put thought into how your customer thinks, and is an easy way to build trust with them.
The ideal outcome from this? An in-person meeting to discuss a project or collaboration.
Part of being a freelancer means having a good support network to help you when the times are tough. Alongside your family and friends, finding someone who works in the same industry, and who wants to work together, can make starting out much easier. It also means you can split the work that’s needed to get clients - networking, prospecting, negotiating, and invoicing. Hopefully you can both then get back to why you got into freelancing in the first place - doing great and interesting work!
Alternatively, finding someone who has complimentary skills to yours can bring a larger added benefit to clients, and maybe even mean you can charge higher rates. For example, if you are a designer, finding a copywriter to team up with can make it easier to approach agencies and corporates by being able to offer a full marketing services package. Management consultants can team up with researchers and UX experts to provide clients with solutions they can start implementing faster and more effectively.
Coworking spaces, networking events, and freelancer-specific meetups are great places to meet a lot of people in a short amount of time. Alternatively, reaching out to people on social networking sites, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, can also be a fast way to make the first connection.
Networking is finding a balance between meeting your potential customers where they spend their time, whether at events and conferences or through online, and where you feel the most comfortable. There are some people who love going to nightly events and can walk out of a two-hour session with business cards from tens of people. Other people are better in a one-on-one setting, and prefer having individual meetings.
Part of the fun of freelancing is challenging yourself and venturing out of your comfort zone. So even if you might have to attend a few networking events each year, make them count and have a plan in place to take the meeting to a setting where you thrive.
There are a number of platforms who advertise themselves as online platforms where freelancers can find clients. Upwork and Fiverr are two of the most popular websites, though it’s worth looking up sites which cater to different areas of expertise. For example, Toptal for developers and management consultants, or The Dots for designers and creatives. They have networks of businesses already built up, and can ease the pressure of doing prospecting from day one.
These websites generally charge a commission as part of their services, so set your hourly or project rate taking this into account. Also, be sure to check the terms and conditions of the platforms regarding what’s needed in case you go full-time with one of your clients in the future (and how long in the future their terms and conditions last, regarding yours and the client's relationship. Otherwise you could be locked into using the third party platform for years to come, and with little added value).
Once you’ve found a channel that works, write down the steps it takes until your first day or project with a client. You have created a process that you’ve proven works to get new business!
Now, it’s all about repeating these steps until your client roster is full. This won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen for every prospect. Be patient and continue to follow the steps you’ve already outlined. Sooner rather than later, your time will be fully booked, and you’ll have clients booking your time months in advance!
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