Find your first clients (fast)
When someone wants to become a freelancer, they think about making their portfolio, a website, business cards, logo, and personal brand. All of those are legit things, and they help you become a better freelancer. But to become better at something, you first need to start.
Get going. Then get good. — Jack Butcher
If you want to become a freelancer who stays in business, instead of creating all of those assets mentioned above, focus on the most critical task, which is getting your first clients.
Why? Because without customers, you don't have a business. You haven't become a freelancer if you don't have a business. You can be doing a lot of work that will make you think you're making progress (a portfolio, a website, a personal brand, an office?), but in reality, the only thing you need when you start is clients.
Too many freelancers waste time building a portfolio, coming up with a business name, designing their invoices, and doing other tasks that won't help you run a successful business.
Getting your first clients will give you confidence, momentum, and traction to run your independent business efficiently.
There are several ways a freelancer can find their first clients, but after over a decade of working in the industry, here are my two quickest (and most effective) ways for finding clients:
Go where paying clients already are
Go where paying clients already are
Tapping into your network and doing free work for your friends, hoping someone will refer you to the paid client. I did that, and the only thing you can attract by doing free work is more free work.
This type of work won't help you build a successful business. You'll end up stressed, with no money, and will hate freelancing by the end of your life.
Instead, I suggest freelancers who are just starting to go where paying clients are. And those places are… drumroll… freelance job websites!
You can find hundreds of websites offering various freelance jobs. Design, writing, coding, marketing – anything you can dream of.
Finding a few small projects will get you started on your path to becoming a freelancer. Sites like Upwork and Freelancerwill offer some low-hanging-fruit quick jobs (although not a great long-term strategy).
Another decent method to find clients which most people undervalue is cold outreach. No one likes to be sold on something. But cold outreach is a crucial part of getting new leads.
This approach has brought me some of the biggest clients in my career. Here are few ways how not to look salesy and win new clients:
Research potential companies
First, you need to know who to reach out to. Understand who is your ideal client and find those startups and companies on the internet. You can use sites like Angelist, Glassdoor, or LinkedIn to find prospects.
Find the right person to contact
Depending on your creative work, you might want to reach out to different people. As a product designer, I contacted VP's of design, directors, and heads of design. Finding the right person is crucial because this should be the person who can decide to hire you.
Never use a template for sending cold emails! It looks spammy and not professional. Instead, create a personalized message that would reflect the purpose (why you're reaching out), the benefit (why they should read it), and the value (why they should hire you).
Provide value upfront
Clients are looking for what value you can bring to their organization. In my experience, the best way to impress the client when doing cold emails is by providing value upfront. Before sending an email, do your homework:
Find inefficiencies on their website/app
Look for small details that don't work well
Try using their website/app and find usability issues
Find ways to simplify current workflows
What helped me when I started with cold outreach was looking at the client's current product and finding ways to improve it. Yes, you're probably be doing it blindly without knowing the target audience and their preferences, but that's better than not providing any value at all.
These are two ways you can start finding your first clients fast. Both are effective and have benefits and downsides; when you can – use them together to maximize your chances to win new clients. If you think that you need a lot of followers to start freelancing and getting your first clients, check out my article "No followers? No problems."