It was August of 2017. I had just quit my full-time job as a Senior Graphic Designer and had finally made the transition from nine-to-five to full-time freelance. It was a dream I had always had — to work for myself, dictate my own hours, and generate income from anywhere in the world. There was only one small issue — I didn’t have enough client work to cover my bills.
Up to this point, I had been doing freelance work off and on in addition to my day job, but never consistently enough to support myself and my family. My meager client roster was filled with underpriced, one-off projects that held little potential for repeat business.
Prior to leaving, I negotiated with my employer to stay on as a contractor, which helped with the initial cash flow, but it was still not enough to pay for my monthly expenses. I needed a plan to find new clients and start generating consistent income, and I needed one fast. I decided to take a risk.
Instead of immersing myself in research and delaying what I already knew needed to be done, I began taking action and observing which techniques were most effective for finding new clients. Over the course of the next several months, I learned and developed strategies that were invaluable for the trajectory of my business. I discovered simple ways to prospect new leads, expand my network, land new clients, and even gain a few new friends along with way.
If you have made it this far, you are probably interested in how I turned a $3 cup of coffee into $30,000 of revenue.
The following three areas of focus have been critical to the growth of my business, enabling me to add dozens of new clients to my roster and invoice a total of $100,000 in my first year of full-time freelance. While these are not the most groundbreaking methods you’ll find, they are simple and effective. I hope these strategies will be as beneficial to you as they have been for me.
When I first moved to Kansas City from Denver after traveling full-time for several months, I had very little recurring client work. I had picked up a few projects as I was traveling the country, but I had not yet secured a client base large enough to generate the income needed to cover my basic needs. I was in a city I had never visited and had zero contacts, so I had some work to do in order to land my first local client.
A cup of coffee
Before arriving in Kansas City, I reached out to a friend from Denver who was originally from Kansas City to see if he could introduce me to a few people. I had already cultivated a relationship with him by doing pro-bono work for him and maintaining a friendship over time, so he was more than happy to help me make a few new connections in his hometown. I reached out to every single person on the list he sent me. After a few emails back and forth, I finally sat down with my first new acquaintance over a $3 cup of coffee.
This meeting lead to more meetings, which then allowed me to quickly build a network of new contacts, collaborators, and friends.
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Unsplash
The most powerful marketing tool
By far, I’d argue that the most powerful marketing tool you can leverage as an entrepreneur and creative is relationships. The relationships we have with our clients and new contacts are at the core of everything we do. Without them, our businesses would not exist.
According to Bob Burg, author of Endless Referrals, our focus should be on “…the cultivating of mutually beneficial, give-and-take, win-win relationships… All things being equal, people will do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like, and trust.”
Winning new business really boils down to cultivating and building trust. Having a desire to see others succeed, while also helping with their wants, needs, and desires — even if they may not have the potential to become a future client — can go a long way toward building the trust of your new contacts and developing your client base.
I texted or emailed each new contact I received to invite them out to coffee or drinks. I explained that I was new to the city and was looking to learn more about how to get connected in the community. I also cold emailed several designers via Dribbble and LinkedIn to see who else I could get in touch with. I did not come to these meetings with an agenda or try to sell them on my work. I simply asked them to share their story — how they came to live here, what they do for work, and what their passions and goals are.
People love to talk about themselves, so let them. Ask them to share more and be fully engaged in the conversation.
One single question you can ask that will help you stick out in their minds is, “What is one way I can know if someone is a good potential client for you?” Take note of what they say so you can send referrals their way when the opportunity arises. Many people will be surprised to see how eager you are and will feel like you care about them. (And at this point, I hope you do.) They may ask how they can return the favor. Use this opportunity to share a soundbite of who you are and what you do, but quickly refocus the conversation on them. Use this time to invest in new relationships — your desire to serve others will be returned tenfold.
After your initial meeting, make time to check in with these people every few months — a short email or text will do — simply to see how they are doing and if you can continue to help them in any way. You can even go as far as setting up an automated email campaign to be sent each quarter to your current contacts with industry articles, helpful guides, and case studies. This is a great opportunity to stay top of mind, so when they do have a need for someone who does the work you do or know someone else who does, they will think to contact you first.
Photo by Benten Woodring
You can also use this time to research and further hone your niche and business model as you develop your network. (If you are not yet sure what your niche is, read this). When you meet with business owners or primary decision makers at companies you would like to work with, ask them what pain points they face within their company. Explain that you are currently researching the challenges people face within that industry and how you can help develop a solution. Ideally, you should be passionate about the work these companies are doing and finding new ways to help, so be sure to make that clear.
You can start by asking these three questions:
- How does your company make money?
- What are your pain points?
- What do you need help with?
A friend, business owner, and mentor of mine (whom I was introduced to as I was building my network) used this technique to reposition and grow his IT business, eventually speaking with key stakeholders from every company within his niche in the city and signing contracts with over two-thirds of them.
In addition to gaining the interest of possible new leads, this information could be groundbreaking for how you position your own business and approach the needs of others in your work. You may find you have been providing a service that companies within your niche don’t actually need, giving you the opportunity to reposition yourself as someone who can directly address their pain points. Though it could take weeks or even months to conduct this research, this method could be pivotal for business growth and identify you as an expert in your field.
During this time, I also began to attend local conferences and networking groups in the area, many of which I was invited to by people I had just met over coffee.
If you already know your niche at this point, use this time to hone your focus at events that are specific to the type of clients you are trying to reach and attend as many as possible. If you develop websites specifically for real estate agents, attend a real estate conference or networking event.
One of the most effective ways you can market yourself is to attend events in which you are the only expert in your field in the room.
As I did this, I watched my list of friends, acquaintances, and potential clients grow and compound over time. Within a few months, I knew dozens of people who were eager to share my work with others and introduce me to even more people.
As part of the effort to develop my network within this new city, I began to update and curate my website. Since I did not have any local clients, I began to reach out to businesses and non-profits in the city that needed help with branding and web development, but did not necessarily have the budget for it. I asked them if they would be interested in allowing me to brand their business or organization in exchange for a testimonial or trade work and a few referrals from them. Working on these projects during the slow season allowed me to add new projects and testimonials to my portfolio, make my client roster more relevant to new prospects, and take advantage of professional services that improved my business.
I added pro-bono and trade work projects and testimonials as I completed them. I also took the time to rewrite my sales copy, crafting the content in a way to speak more directly to my target audience.
When updating my website, I made an effort to focus on four things:
- The one specific thing I wanted to be known for
- Removing any projects that did not directly relate to the type of work that fit within my niche
- Using high-quality mockups or photographs to showcase the work
- Using each portfolio piece as an opportunity to share the client’s journey — the challenges faced, the process of working with me, and the end result
A third strategy that will go a long way in helping you land your first client is developing engaging, valuable content with no strings attached. Something as simple as writing a monthly email newsletter, developing a lead magnet, or creating regular blog posts can help you stay top-of-mind with potential clients. Having a body of strong content to point to will allow you to position yourself as an expert in the field and provide further validation of your business.
Alongside the development of my site, I created a simple lead magnet. I repurposed an article I had written several months prior into a minimal PDF and added it to my website. As a general rule, you should not spend any more than an hour or two writing and assembling a lead magnet, since it serves as nothing more than a method to acquire email addresses and increase awareness of your business, so it doesn’t need to be overly involved. A simple five-step how-to guide that aligns with the needs of the audience you are trying to reach can boost awareness of your business and provide the means stay in touch with potential leads.
Any content that you develop should be directed squarely at your target audience.
Avoid the temptation to put yourself or your business at the center of the story and instead focus on the type of content that will directly benefit those within your niche.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Industry news related to your niche
- Opinions on the latest industry news
- Your process and what it’s like to work with you
- Case studies of your work
- How-to guides
- Interviews with experts and business owners within your niche
- Updates from your company
My first client
Within a few months of arriving in the city, I was invited to a business luncheon by a friend and potential client who I had recently met over coffee. I was the only designer in the room and made it a point to introduce myself to the attendees seated at my table, who in turn introduced me to others. At the end of the luncheon, a business owner approached me and asked if I could help design a website for a new company he was launching. Over the course of the next few days, we walked through a proposal I put together, and he ultimately decided to hire me. It had been seven months since I moved to the city, but I finally landed my first local job, invoicing $5,500 for the project. A few months later, my team and I pitched another proposal to the same client for ten times that amount.
After landing that first local job, I have been able to work on many new and exciting projects and strengthen my client base. In the past year, these three methods have allowed me to land six new clients and add $30,000 to my annual revenue.
Even though I have only lived here for a year and a half, the number of people I know in this city has likely reached into the triple digits. I already know as many (or more) people in the creative and entrepreneurial space than many of my peers, which has served me well. I have built trust over time with many of these individuals, some of whom have referred me to others, worked with me, or hired me. Looking back on it today, every opportunity I’ve had up to this point, including the tens of thousands of dollars in new revenue, and the job I now have as a Senior Art Director, came as a direct result of these three simple techniques (and a $3 cup of coffee). All it required was a little boldness, humility, and a desire to get to know and help others.
Many new freelancers I know will not take the time to reach out to people they don’t know and will instead sit at home polishing their portfolio, waiting for a client to email them. Unless you already have a foundation of recurring client work, this isn’t going to happen. The three methods I shared today are not meant to be used independently. When used in tandem, you will find that each builds upon the other, allowing you to efficiently find paying client work.
If you are just starting out in your freelance career and have yet to land your first client, don’t waste any more time than necessary researching what you should do — get out and do it.
You will learn far more by taking action and seeing what works than by sitting at home consuming articles on the subject. (And yes, that includes this one.)
- A relationship is the most powerful marketing tool you can leverage
- People will hire, and refer business to, those they know, like, and trust
- Invite everyone you meet out for a cup of coffee — you never know where it may lead
- Ask business owners about their ideal client, their pain points, and how you can help
- Narrow and refine your niche
- Attend industry events where you are the only expert in your field in the room
- Curate your portfolio
- Share engaging content