Once you’ve picked a freelance niche, you need to land your first client.
If you’re like I was when I started, you’re probably pretty nervous. This whole sales thing can be really intimidating!
And you probably have tons of questions: “Where do I look for clients? How do I assess opportunities? How do I close the deal?”
This article will cover the first part of the sales process and walk you step-by-step through some simple methods for finding your first prospective clients.
Where to Look for Clients
A quick Google search will yield hundreds of different places to look for freelance clients. Some of these sources are fantastic. Others… not so much.
So how do you choose?
Obviously, we want to pick the channels that will be most effective. Broadly speaking, we can analyze these client acquisition channels in 3 ways:
- Deal Value – Does the channel tend to produce high-value projects, with big budgets? Or are most of the deals small and low-value?
- Time to Results – Can you use the channel to land your first client quickly, within days or weeks? Or will it take you months or even years?
- Multiplier Effect – Does the channel get more effective the more you use it? (These channels tend to be more sustainable.)
When you think about client acquisition channels this way, it’s clear that some channels are best avoided.
Low Deal-Value Example: UpWork and Freelancer.com list millions of freelance gigs. But the vast majority of them are low value, and competition is extremely high. Competing against thousands of people for the same $15/hour project isn’t exactly going to make you rich.
Slow Result Time Example: Many people suggest starting a blog to land clients. What they don’t mention, however, is that the vast majority of new blogs get almost no traffic for months! You probably don’t have time to wait around, so this is a huge waste of time.
Here’s an analysis of the top client acquisition channels:
I’ve written about each of these channels extensively in the past, but for this article I want to narrow things down and focus on the single channel that meets all our criteria.
Our goal is to create a sustainable, high-value freelance business as quickly as possible. So we want to skip any channels that don’t consistently result in high-value deals, that take too long, or that don’t have a multiplier to help us scale.
There’s really only 1 popular channel that fits these criteria: building a network.
Not That Kind of Networking
If the word “networking” conjures up images of schmoozing at events and used car salesmen, or just a general feeling of dread, you’re not alone.
I’m an introvert, so believe me when I tell you I hate that kind of networking. And I certainly won’t be teaching that here.
What I will be teaching is how to methodically leverage your existing relationships to get introductions to clients without being salesy. Networking events NOT required.
Feeling better? Good.
Define Your Ideal Client
Before you can start getting introductions, you need to know the types of clients you want to be introduced to.
You might already have an idea of the perfect client in your head. If so, great!
If not, here are a few factors to think about:
- Client Size – Big clients can write big checks. But they also take a long time—sometimes months or years—to close. Unless you have an “in” at Nike, you probably won’t be selling Nike as a solo freelancer. Small clients, on the other hand, are much easier. But if a client is too small, your cousin’s 1-person dog-walking business, for example, they probably won’t have much budget. In general, companies with 15 – 50 employees are typically a good fit for first-time freelancers looking to maximize paychecks while minimizing time to close the sale.
- Sector – In previous articles, I’ve recommended against focusing on a specific industry if possible. Single industries are subject to downturns during recessions, are often cliquish, and can often get boring quickly. Instead, of focusing on a single industry (e.g. online financial software) focus on a broader sector (e.g. online software).
- Team Composition – Depending on what you do, and your type of expertise, you might be well-suited to help companies who are missing a specific team member but have complimentary team members. If you’re a freelance illustrator, for example, you’d likely work well with companies that already have other types of designers on staff, such as ux designers, but don’t have an illustrator.
Take a few moments to think about your ideal client and write down some notes. These are just guidelines, but it’s helpful to know who you’re looking for.
Leverage Your Relationships
Now that you know who your ideal client is, you need to actually meet them.
One of the best ways to do this is to leverage your existing relationships. As the old saying goes, everybody knows somebody.
If you’re thinking, “But I don’t know anybody like my ideal client!”, don’t worry. If you’ve ever played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, you’ll feel right at home here. And if not, it’s pretty simple.
Here’s how it works:
1. Pick 3 People You Already Know
The first step is to pick 3 people you already know from your personal network. These can be friends, former colleagues, teachers, whoever. What you’re looking for is somebody who knows a decent number of people, including some of the clients you’re looking for.
If you don’t know anybody that fits this description, or you’re not sure they know your prospective clients, that’s okay. The goal here is get 3 people, even if you’re not sure if they can help you. Don’t get too caught up on trying to pick perfectly. You can often find from even the most unlikely sources.
2. Ask to Talk
The second step is to ask for a meeting. It’s usually easiest to schedule a phone or video call, but coffee or drinks can work well, too.
Reach out, explain that you’re starting freelance consulting business, and tell them you’d like to get their advice. This step is pretty simple. They only trick here is to avoid explicitly saying you’re looking for clients.
3. Get their Advice
When the meeting roles around, be prepared. You want to summarize the business you’re starting, the type of work you’ll do, and the kinds of clients you’re looking for.
Then ask for their advice.
At this point, it’s time to shut up and listen for a bit. Chances are, they’ll have some great feedback. They may even offer to introduce you to somebody else. Take this opportunity to learn everything you can about what it’s like to work in the industry, do the job, and anything else your contact can share.
4. Ask for Introductions
Now that we’ve heard what they have to say, it’s time to finish things up. The final step is to ask for another introduction.
Your goal is to get 2 or 3 introductions from each one of these meetings so you can grow your network virally. Think about it. If each person you meet with introduces you to 2 or 3 more, your network will grow exponentially. Pretty soon, you’re bound to meet a prospective client.
So how do you do this? It’s simple. Ask them if they know anybody else you can talk to who might be able to help. If they’re not sure, ask about people in related fields or people in your areas of interest. Just get the introductions. This step is the entire point of this meeting, so don’t skip it!
The beauty of this approach, is that unlike typical networking events, you don’t have to sell yourself.
People love to be asked for advice and they love to feel helpful, so they’ll usually agree to meet and make introductions.
You also don’t have to ask if they have a gig for you. When you finally meet somebody who does, they’ll volunteer that they have a need if it’s a good fit.
Why? Because they need you. You’ve already explained what you’re looking for and demonstrated how you’re a good fit. If they have an open position, it’s in their own best interest to tell you about it.
Steal Other People’s Audiences
One of the great things about the technique above is that you can also start by using it outside your own network.
In fact, two of my favorite tactics for getting client intros are variations of this basic technique:
- Work with other freelancers – Believe it or not, other freelancers are a fantastic source of new clients. The trick? Find freelancers who offer complementary services. Here’s how.
- Join online professional groups and hold office hours – Holding online office hours is an amazing way to meet clients who clearly need what you’re selling. Here’s the step-by-step process.
Now that you know how to find prospective clients, you need to know how to close them. So I’ll see you in the next article: How to Price, Pitch, and Close Freelance Deals.