Deciding to go freelancing is one thing, having enough work and clients is another. The process of finding your next freelance job can be stressful, but it doesn't have to be this way.
There are a lot of (fun!) things you can do to get new clients. In this article we will go through some of the most effective ones, assuming you have the basics in check, like an online portfolio, printed business cards and a proactive mindset. But even if you haven’t, some of these tips can help you get your first clients when you are just starting out.
Networking & Self Promotion
Let’s jump straight in with the dirty words and obvious advice. Tell people around you that you are a freelance designer and that you are always interested in meeting new people or discussing projects for potential work. You never know where your next job will come from — maybe even from your taxi driver! I’ve been offered design jobs twice by two taxi drivers when I told them I was a freelance graphic designer. So just tell people what you do. At parties, on travels, start with your friends and family. You are your business, so always have your cards and a friendly pitch ready. Don’t feel ashamed if you hand it out to people at social events; this is your work and just say you are happy if you can help people with their projects.
This is the most simple advice, yet most people I know who are looking for work miss the obvious opportunities like telling everyone around them what they do, including family and friends.
To find new clients, especially early on in your career, you need to put yourself out there both literally and figuratively. Go to meet ups and social events but choose those with subjects that are unrelated to your field of work. Are you a brand designer? Don’t go to a design event, because you will only meet other designers.
Find events that are in your line of interest; go to a meet up for tech start-ups, fashion entrepreneurs, bike lovers or scarf-knitters. Nowadays everyone needs a logo or a website. You will be able to connect with people who have the same interests, and you simply have to tell them you are a designer. You will be surprised how quickly you can find work through this.
The golden rule of networking is: Go to events that are completely outside of your field. Make sure that you are the only designer at an event and the opportunities will be endless.
PS: A great way to find meet ups is meetup.com. Of course, depending on where you live, you mind know even better what local events are happening.
Ask other designers
Someone gave me this advice once and at that time I thought it was very strange. Why would I ask other designers to give me their work or clients? Aren’t they like, my rivals? Now I know that most designers are awesome people (yes, you) and that a lot of them like to help other designers out. Especially when they are busy, most of them are glad to hand out projects to others. I regularly post job requests on my Facebook wall, because currently I work as a contractor at an agency and I don’t have time to take on other projects. So I’m more than happy to refer these clients to my amazing designer friends.
In general, I’ve learned that the more successful a designer is, the more likely they will give away work because they have way too much of it. So don’t bother your fellow designers who are also looking for work, contact those who are successful and busy. Those are the ones who would give work to you.
You can also knock on the door of smaller design studios and let them know that you are available for work in case they need an extra pair of hands.
Pro Bono Work
A lot of people say that you shouldn’t work for free. And while I know you probably shouldn’t, sometimes it can be really nice to work on a project pro bono.
There are a lot of small organizations out there that don’t have the money or the knowledge to find good designers. Reach out to local organizations that you like (and that you think are in need of design help) and offer to do some free work. Be bold and send your designs to them saying if they like it, they can use it! This will build your network and strengthen your portfolio.
And you never know, in the future these organizations may come back to you with another project and hopefully this time with a budget. This brings me to the next point.
Stay connected to old clients
People like to hire through referrals. If you have done great work with a client, try to stay in touch. Build a good relationship with them, because most freelance work comes through word of mouth. People trust other people’s opinions and experiences more than a nice email, good portfolio or LinkedIn page. Your old clients are probably business owners who know and work with other business owners. It’s basically free marketing — you don’t have to do any outreach, your clients do it for you.
Find your niche
This is something that a lot of creative people struggle with, including myself. As a creative person, (and someone who is looking for work) you usually tell people you can do everything. Designing websites, logos, flyers, packaging, presentations, photography, making collages, we enjoy all of it! Even though it might seem like this will help you find more work, it can actually work against you.
We all know the line “Jack of all trades. Master of none.” Clients usually want something specific and they will find the designer that is best at it. So try to focus on the thing you love doing the most and build your portfolio around that. Be the go-to Food Typography Girl or The Animal Icon Guy. This will help you with build a solid client base especially when you’re just starting out.
But do be careful if you don’t like to be pigeonholed. We’ve written about this in the past on “How to find your own style as a designer”. It’s a slippery slope, but when you’re just starting out, focusing on one particular thing usually helps spread the message and makes self promotion easier.
Become an expert
Share your knowledge by creating content through a blog or a tutorial. I hear you thinking, “But what if I’m not yet an expert?” That doesn't really matter. Even if you are just starting out, you can share your experience because there will always be someone who is even earlier in their career than you. Talk about your progress, your values, your workspace, your latest project. Try to talk about things that your future clients will be interested in. So instead of writing about “How to Make a Website in WordPress,” talk about “How the Right Website Design Can Increase Sales.” This will definitely be of interest to them and it will show your potential clients that you are an expert in your field. Clients love experts! 🙂
Passion projects, or side projects, are something special and can lead to powerful changes in your career. Tobias has talked about side projects a lot on this blog — his “Why Side Projects Should Be Stupid” article is especially insightful.
There are two kinds of side projects: those that eventually take over and become your main source of income, and those which are similar to a marketing campaign for your own services. In either case you want to be careful that your side project is actually driving traffic to your main design services, and not overwhelming you with more work that may not pay your bills.
Passion projects can include pretty much anything; they can be free tools for your fellow designers, e-books with helpful content for your clients, or just something funny that makes people laugh but promotes you as the designer. It’s essentially indirect marketing for you, even though the passion project has nothing to do with design itself.
Side projects are a great way to fill up your portfolio when you’re just starting out. They also show potential clients and partners that you enjoy doing what you do and don’t just do it for the moneyz.
I hope these little strategies help you on your journey to new clients. And don’t forget, not one of us got our dream client right away. It was a journey and oftentimes many clients later that we found the clients we wanted to work for in the first place.
In our next article we will discuss the top tools that help you get new clients, giving you a bit more tactical and practical tips you can immediately act on.