I’m not going to sugar coat this. Getting your first clients as a freelancer is tough!
You’re stuck in a Catch-22. People don’t want to hire you because you don’t have any previous clients. But you don’t have any previous clients because no one has hired you yet.
So what are you supposed to do?
About a year out of college, I was presented with this exact situation. I had 0 clients, 0 industry contacts, and 0 websites in my portfolio.
Yet, I was able to build a freelancing business that grew to a couple hundred clients and allowed me to live a more than comfortable lifestyle. Today, I want to share the exact five tactics I used during that time to get my first five clients. I’m going to make each tactic as actionable as possible so that you can apply them today.
Tactic 1: Reach Out To Friends And Family
My very first client was my dad’s friend.
When I had started doing freelance web development work, I told all of my friends and family that I was looking for work. About a week later, my dad was talking with his friend who had recently fired his web designer and was looking to hire someone to rebuild his website. My dad gave me his number and told me to give him a call. We set up a meeting a few days later and I had signed my first client.
As you’re getting started, tell everyone in your personal network what you are doing. Call up friends and family members. Post to Facebook or LinkedIn.
It can be as simple as, “Hey guys, I just started building websites and am looking for anyone who needs a website built. Do you know anyone? Tell them about me!”
Nothing fancy there. That’s basically all I said. But it works, because you never know who your friends or family knows.
Tactic 2: Do Projects For Little Or Even No Money
Remember, your big dilemma right now is that people are avoiding hiring you because you have no previous clients.
One of the fastest ways to build up a portfolio of clients is to offer your services for very cheap or even for free.
In my early stages, just to get some projects under my belt and cash in my pockets, I went through Craigslist looking for website jobs. I took on a few building very simple sites for between $100 and $500.
Obviously, building sites for this cheap won’t in and of itself allow you to make a living. But what you are really after is that client list that you can use as references, and a portfolio you can show potential clients.
In the early stages, you will need to do grunt work. If you need some encouragement, I recommend you read Paul Graham’s essay “Do Things That Don’t Scale.”
Tactic 3: Join Networking Groups
If you want people to hire you, they first need to know who you are and what you do. You could try advertising, but that can be expensive and difficult.
Instead, join a networking group where your potential clients are hanging out.Most of the time, this will be meetups with local business owners.
Join your city’s Chamber of Commerce meetings. You’ll meet many business owners who are active in their business. Befriend them and make them aware of your services. They may be in need of them, or perhaps they’ll know someone who is.
In addition to attending networking events where your potential clients are, you should join industry networking groups. I frequent WordPress meetups and WordCamps. While I don’t meet new clients here, I do meet many referral sources. I may meet a “competitor” who has too much work and is looking to hand that work over to someone else.
Tactic 4: Create An Email Signature
This is a tactic that is highly underrated. Tactic 1 was all about telling your friends and family about what you do. Tactic 4 (and Tactic 5 in a moment) are all about extending that.
Whenever I send an email to someone, I see them as a possible client or referral source. As such, at the bottom of all my emails, I have an email signature.
It’s nothing fancy. I just have my name, my job title, my website, my email address (just in case my email was forwarded to someone), and my phone number.
Now, let’s say I send an email to a colleague who knows someone who needs a website. They see my email footer and are able to quickly and easily forward my info to their friend.
If you’d like to learn more about creating awesome email signatures, check out Smashing Magazine’s article “The Art And Science Of The Email Signature.”
Tactic 5: Get Business Cards And Carry Them Everywhere
You never know who you will run into.
You could be standing in line at a restaurant, strike up a conversation with the person standing next to you and find out they need a website.
This has happened to me countless times. One random time, I was buying my car and the salesperson learned what I do and asked me to help him with his eCommerce website.
In these situations, you’ll want to be sure you have a business card on hand. Again, nothing fancy or expensive. You can get some cards from Vistaprint for just $16.
The card just needs the same info as your email signature: name, job title, website, email address, and phone number.
Also, be sure to get their card. If they don’t have a card, get their email address or phone number so you can follow up with them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given someone my card and they either forgot to call me or lost the card (luckily, I had their info so I was able to check in with them).
Go Get Your Clients!
Now comes the important part: Put these tactics to work!
If you are still waiting to get your first few clients, start implementing these five tactics. If you have some tips or advice on how you got your first clients, be sure to let us know in the comments below.