How to start getting freelance clients when you have no track record
If you’re starting a freelance career from scratch…where do you go to find your very first clients? Paul and Kaleigh lay out a strategy for finding and getting hired by ideal clients–all without having to go through a single freelancer-for-hire platform.
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Kaleigh: So one of the questions I get all the time and I’m sure you do too, is how in the world do you start getting or finding clients when you have no funds and nobody knows who you are and you don’t have any clients yet, so starting from square one, how do you do it? And I know that a lot of people immediately jump to the sites like UpWork because it’s like, “Oh well here is opportunities for freelancers all in one place, this is probably a good idea”, right? Like that is the thought but the reality of that is the sites like that are really pretty terrible, the pay is awful, there is a middle man in the relationship, so you don’t really get to connect with the person that you are working with there is always this middle platform that is in the way of you really forming a long term working relationship with anyone and it is very much like a race to the bottom, like who can do it the cheapest.
I think that there are a lot of ways you can avoid this sites like that and get around to building your own relationships but then help you build kind of a thriving freelance business and so that’s kind of what I want to talk about. I’m happy to share the things that I’ve done to help my freelance writing business but I’m really interested also to hear the things that you’ve done to get to, especially when you are first getting started like how did you go about that? We will start there.
Paul: So the first day, I quit my job at an agency which I don’t suggest to taking my advice, that’s not actually an advice, I don’t suggest following what I did. But I quit my job at an agency and I was going to find a job at an another agency and I started to get calls from the clients from the first agency being like hey we like working with you more than the agency, where are you going to go work because we will bring our work there and eventually I was like why am I going to bring my work anywhere, I can just work with them.
So I started freelancing with a group of clients and I think that that is obviously it’s good when that happens but does not always going to happen. But I think the first thing is and I think that a lot of times people, you have to validate your idea for freelancing in the first place and I think the biggest thing is, I don’t even think it’s like finding a bunch of clients to just sustain you. I think that is a lofty goal. I think the first thing should just be find a client, one A client, to find one person that wants to hire you to do one thing. And if you can’t do that, it does not mean it is impossible, it just means that it is going to be an uphill battle.
I think the other story I want to share is my friend Alexander friends and she got a good story too which I’m going to share it. She was working at radio broadcasting. She didn’t want to do that job anymore, so she decided to email every single person she knew and say, “Hey, I’m going to start freelance writing. Do you need any writing help or do you know anybody that needs any writing help.” And she got five or six clients that first week and those five or six clients obviously like working with her because she is the one of the amazing people in the entire world. And then they told six people, and then they told six people, and then she has a like a waiting list of two years or something like that. Ridiculous.
But I think it’s that initial like putting out feelers like before you don’t have to start freelancing full time or have to even start freelancing before you put out some feelers to see like is there a demand for this work because you have to treat it as a business. Like you have to validate the idea first and I think that it’s easier and I think a lot of people think that is risky to work for yourself or risky to be a freelancer or an entrepreneur. Where it’s like most people I know that do those things are very risk adverse. I don’t feel like I’m a very risky person and I don’t think you are a very risky person as far as business and money goes. I think that making smaller bets in the beginning and taking smaller leaps I think is always smarter. What do you think about that?
Kaleigh: I think that makes a lot of sense and I love the approach of literally just you have, everybody has a little network of people that they know and so just make the most sense to reach out to those people first and say, “Hey, I’m doing this new thing. Do you know anybody?” Because those people already know you that is the path of least resistance I guess for when you are trying to validate this new thing. I also think that there are a lot of other practical kind of actionable steps you can take when you are getting started and when I was getting started in freelance writing, there was kind of like an I guess like a four or five pronged approach that I took to really get in there.
Paul: That sounds super strategic?
Kaleigh: It does. I was an asterisk. Why did that just come out.
Paul: That was good. I thought that was good. I thought that was really good.
Kaleigh: Thinking visually I guess. You all are welcome. Anyway, so there is a lot of things that I did to really get the ball rolling into really like to start building connections quickly and so I just kind of walk through those at a high level, obviously I get a lot more in depth on those but you kind of get the idea of me just giving here is what I did. So the first thing I did was, I knew I needed to kind of quickly build my authority so the most logical thing for me to do in that scenario was to pitch some big name publication, so places like Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur. Those places that are like you know you see the logo on somebody’s website, you are like oh okay, they must be pretty good then, you know, that is about the extent of the value on those situations sometimes but it is good for that purpose.
So I did that. I used twitter a lot of the times to make those connections with editors and to pitch and that is kind of how I got the ball rolling with that type of work. I also though, I knew I wanted to work kind of in the world of SAS and E-Commerce, so I started pitching to high traffic blogs and publications with in that kind of specific world, so that was places like Kissmetrics and CopyHackers and Conversion Exel. All this places that I knew were people I wanted to hire me were going for information, so if I can get a byline there again that was a good authority builder.
I think it can be scary sometimes to pitch those types of people on those types of businesses and publications but really if you can come up with a fresh angle and you have something to say and you find the right synced way to package that and pitch it to somebody and you truly understand what it is they are trying to accomplish with the things they are publishing it is fairly easy to land those pitches and for people to give the green light on those. So you have to take the time to formulate a very strategic and value packed pitch for those types of publications but if you put in the work and do that they are producing a lot of content. They need good material.
Paul: And they want content.
Kaleigh: Yes, they need your help, so if you have something interesting to say they are probably going to hop on board with it; maybe not the first time, maybe not the second time but if you are consistent stick with it, it is fairly easy to accomplish at least on my experience. Maybe it’s not, maybe it is different now. The other thing was we talk about this extensively, last season there was a whole episode in fact about making friends and building connections with other people who do similar work. Maybe its fellow writers or people who work on similar web design projects, but kind of building that network and joining a community of people who do similar work is a great way to get both referrals or to get overflow work when people get to busy. That is huge. That is such an easy thing to do and as a freelancer it gets so lonely.
I mean you need those connections anyways. You need friends, you need people you can vent to when you had an awful day or that you can celebrate with when you did something really cool, so that is kind of a twofer on that one. And then the last couple of things is like I made sure that I joined a lot of online communities, so like the Creative Class slack channels is a great community. There is a lot of conversations happening there. That is obviously a plug but I’m going to do it anyways because I think it is a great group there is so many good conversations happening there. Facebook groups are another great place where there are a lot of value exchange happening. Twitter Chats if you are in to that, there are a lot of interesting Twitter conversations happening and you know actual Twitter Chats where there is a hashtag involve and all of that. That’s a little bit more strategic I guess. And then going to in person events and meet ups or looking for speaking opportunities where you can go and pitch something that you know. That’s not for everyone obviously I know that Paul you and I are not super in person gathering type people which is fine you don’t have to do that.
Paul: I almost went to a WordPress meet up this weekend but then I didn’t or last weekend but then I didn’t.
Kaleigh: Story of your life, right? I almost went but then I didn’t.
Paul: I almost click the meet up attend thing and I just didn’t do it. It was open in my browser for like a week but I didn’t.
Kaleigh: And that is totally fine, you don’t have to do those things if you are not into it don’t force yourself to it, that is fine, there are a lot of other options. So yeah, that’s kind of the approach I took in a nutshell. And again from a very high level, I did all this things at once and a lot of things started sticking and so things kind of snowballed very quickly for me and I started getting a lot of work. I was making a lot of friends, a lot of connections so that was helpful for referrals and things like that and it went fast and hard and when I had chosen a niche and I really dove in and I think that really helped me get the ball rolling fairly quickly.
Paul: I like all those points, obviously but so I guess I have a few things I want to talk about. So the first is, it is really hard to be comfortable pitching people or whether or not pitching people to just do like publicity piece, just writing an article for a magazine where I’m aren’t going to get paid or pitching somebody who is going to pay you for work. How do you feel about pitching? Has that changed since in the beginning because when you are a freelancer you don’t just do the work you have to pitch the work first to be able to do the work for the money that you want to get from the project. How do you feel about pitching yourself and has that changed overtime?
Kaleigh: I really like the challenge of pitching because it is kind of like a research project you really have to do the homework first and understand, if you look at the kind of post they’ve publish in the past and you can kind of find maybe a piece of news or a trend that is just on the beginning of being popular and you can find something new and interesting to say about that, putting together the recipe of the pitch in that kind of way it’s fairly easy. You know, if you are keeping a finger on the pulse on how things are going within your market that you are working on. And it is kind of fascinating to be able to connect the dots between new things that aren’t being said yet. I like the challenge of that and it’s not easy. It does takes some work and some time; and like I said sometimes you pitch and it flops, nobody cares, nobody is interested but it’s fun.
Paul: And what is the worst that happens in that scenario? You just don’t get an email back.
Kaleigh: Right yeah, that is the worst that happens or they say no and you are like okay thank you anyways. I’ll try again later.
Paul: What about when money is involved? What about when it is like a client that you want to hire you?
Kaleigh: Then it’s a little bit harder to accept the rejection if it doesn’t go through. But I mean it’s always a good learning experience and it’s really good if they will tell you why they are not accepting it. That is like super valuable information that you can then leverage on future pitches or with future clients that types of things, so even though you are getting a no you are still getting something valuable out of it.
Paul: Yeah and people ask me that a lot because they are like I’m scared to give a number or I’m scared if I raise my rates I’m not going to be able to be confident like pitching that number to a client. And when I think about it, for me, I have no problem whatsoever telling people how much something is going to cost but it’s only that way because I’ve done that hundreds and hundreds of times and I’ve been turned down so many times. Where now it’s just like, it is just part of like I’m not nervous to design a website in Photoshops. I’ve done that a ton of times. I’m not nervous to write an article because I’ve done that a hundreds of times. I’m not nervous to tell somebody if they want to hire me this is how much it’s going to cost.
But it was not always like that I think it is like a war of attrition with being comfortable talking about money with people who you want to get paid by. In the beginning, it’s really scary to ask somebody for money for something. It’s really hard, it is so hard but I think the more you do it, the more you get comfortable with it, and the more you see that like the rejections are not really the end of the world. It is just the worst that happens. For me I think it’s probably Oliver Burkeman in his book The Antidote. I don’t know if you have read that or not.
Kaleigh: I haven’t, no.
Paul: About happiness but it is like a very British take on finding happiness. It is very practical and dry humor but it is still really good. But he talks about how a lot of what we avoid is because we don’t want embarrassing rejection and if you think of the most embarrassing thing for me at least would probably be to die in a ridiculous way. Just like publicly die like I’m not wearing any clothes. I don’t even know what happened. It’s just the worst possible things.
But if I think about that and I think about a client saying it’s not the right time to work with you on this project. It’s like, yeah, two things are kind of different, so my life can go on. I can find another client if this client says no, whereas I can’t really go on if I died an embarrassing naked death which I still don’t even know how would I end up with that situation.
Kaleigh: It’s all proper perspective folks.
Paul: It’s all perspective. So I think that the main thing I want to say here is it gets easier. Finding your first client is probably going to be the hardest part of finding clients, probably the hardest challenge that you have. Once you get passed that, it is going to get maybe not a ton easier but you are going to have that experience because you can be really good at designing, writing or development or whatever it is but until you pitched a client you don’t have that experience. But all it takes is to get that experience is to do it and I think a lot of times the cure to fear is action, right?
Kaleigh: You should be a teacher Paul, maybe you are already is, I don’t know.
Paul: I could be, I only remember that because there is one of the things I wrote in a book a long time ago, the people always bring up so that sounds pretty powerful but it totally relates on this situation, where a lot of times like the things we are most scared of or just the things we haven’t done enough, so you just have to. It was just we are talking about in talent episode like the more you do these things the more you get results for clients, the more that you can build the confidence to talk about your talent. Same with this, like the more you pitch clients, the easier it is going to be.
So I want to bring up now if you were starting out and you didn’t have that network or nobody in your network, like you emailed everybody like Alexander friends and nobody said that they need work or know anybody that needs work, so your portfolio is empty, what would be the next step if you have an empty portfolio but this is what you want to do, you want to try it a little bit longer?
Kaleigh: Yes, I think there are two big things I would try. Number one would be to create a portfolio of spec works, so maybe it’s some writing for a client that I want to hire me that really showcases my skills and shows like okay so maybe you need a sales page or maybe you need an email series. Here is would I would do for this client, here is what I can offer, here is what I can bring to the table and kind of that same token, the other thing you could do even if it’s not writing, is to do something like a teardown where you look at a company’s existing materials and you say here is would I would change, or here is would I would optimize to make this better. And somebody like Val Geisler who specializes in email marketing. She does a really good job of this, of just walking through and saying here is would I would do differently. That is a great way to get attention of people you want to hire you, to do something very targeted and highlight something that they have already and to fix it for them.
Paul: I think a lot of times we can make that jump because we know our skill set for why somebody would need to hire us, and sometimes other people can’t, like the companies that we want to hire us can’t make that jump; so in doing something like a teardown or a spec work, even with design, I have many times seen people like redesigning Facebook or redesigning LinkedIn.
And I think that while those LinkedIn and Facebook are probably not going to redesign based on something based on beehunt, that is still making, if you look at the views on those things, it’s like 50,000 people that viewed this redesign. That is going to get the attention of people and that going to be a great portfolio piece because you don’t necessarily need to add in your portfolio especially in the beginning the work that you’ve done. You want to show the work that you could do and how that could be valuable and I think that’s a huge thing.
The other point that I would add to those two points that you made is side projects can be really good portfolio pieces. And I mean, I know a lot of designers and developers who if they don’t have a client they will build software or build a website and sometimes that side project can take off and become like their main source of revenue.
But even if it doesn’t you can say like it’s less of a risk, we talked about this before, but mitigating the amount of risk that a company has in hiring you as freelancer. If you can show somebody that it indicates of a developer, you can show somebody that you have the skills to build a functioning application that they can use, there is less risk because they are like, “She already build an app. Of course I’m going to hire her to build my app because she already made one that I can use and I can see.”
Kaleigh: Right, there is such a low barrier to entry for that, you don’t have to invest a ton of money or make some huge brand out of it. It can just be something that you for this purpose alone or that you experiment with and you test different things on and again that’s a good way for you to build up the results that you’ve produced for yourself if it’s not for a client, you could say I had this side project I produced x, y and z, testing out different types of copy or product descriptions goes on and on. So again that is a great way to kind of test the waters and to get some hands on experience too.
Paul: Yeah and I mean looking at my own career that was kind of like once I started making my own product and understanding how those worked, I got hired just as much for that skill as a designer as like my design skills. I was getting hired because people were like, “You build this course and had this many thousand students. Obviously, I want to hire you to design my course because you know how to do this. You’ve done this and it has worked out.”
So having those skills, those business skills as well, and those like first-hand real world experiences even if it’s just a small thing like how long does it take to write the sales copy for, like redoing the sales copy for one page on a site. Like if it takes a day or two to do that really well or takes a day or two to redesign a website like a landing page to showcase in your portfolio then that sometimes better than just like Netflix Beijing.
Kaleigh: Right, it is action.
Paul: And I think that is another thing is that if you don’t have any work you need to actually, if you want to be a freelancer, you’ve got to put on your freelancer pants and go out and look for work. There are so many people that I know, they are just like, “I don’t have any work.” I’m like, “What are you doing to find work?” They’re like, “My inbox has no emails?” You can’t just wait for people to come to you.
You have to go, like part of freelancing and sometimes a massive part of freelancing is just pounding the pavement and talking to people and seeing if they need your help, seeing if their business can benefit from the skill that you possess.
Kaleigh: Yup. That means putting yourself out there and that is not always comfortable or fun but it is part of it.
Paul: It sure is.Posted in Creative Class, the freelancer podcast · See more articles
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