Whether you’re considering starting up a side hustle or your training wheels are off and you have to build a DIY career quickly, your first big to-do item is the same: You need to get your first freelancing client.
In this post, I’m outlining 8 ways you can get your first client. These techniques will look a little different for everyone based on how much of a freelance portfolio you’ve built. So if you have questions, as always, feel free to ask in the comments!
Watch the video here. Or, if you prefer to read, I’ve got the juicy bits written out below!
The big question
Before you start your outreach, you have an important question to answer:
What work do you want to do?
It’s a simple question, but there are a few layers I want to tease out for you.
First, what do you WANT to do? (More on that in an earlier post) You might be good at something, but that doesn’t mean you want to do it as a freelancer.
It’s better to take the time to start out on the right foot than to get 20 miles down the wrong path. This is an opportunity not only to change the way you work, but also the kind of work you do.
And with that, remember: You don’t need to pretend to be an expert right out of the gate. If you’re inexperienced, just own it. It’s a million times better to say, “This is my skill level, and this is what I know I can do for you,” than to try to fake a bunch of competence you don’t actually have yet.
Finally, when choosing what kind of freelance work you want to do, you might start thinking about niche-ing—finding that one audience or that one specialty you offer.
That’s great for later down the line. But when you’re starting out, a niche can be more harmful than helpful. Start with a list of the things you can do and want to do, and you can narrow it down later.
Alright, let’s get to the good stuff. Here’s how to get your first freelancing client:
1. Announce it to your network
Who is your network? Simply your family and friends. Especially those who are involved in the business world.
A lot of people forget this step. (And by a lot of people, I mean me.)
You don’t have to be sales-y or weird. Just make a post announcing it on Facebook. Then, reach out to a few folks you know you are well connected or employed at companies that could feasibly hire you. Say hi (“Hey Joe!”), say something complimentary to reaffirm the friendship (“It was awesome seeing you last week. Huge congrats again on the promotion”), then explain what you’re up to (“I wanted to let you know that I’m making the leap to freelance photography. Do you know anyone who could use a photographer?”)
Chances are, the answer will be no. But when a need for your skills does arise? You’ll be at the top of their list to recommend.
2. Upwork, Freelancer.com, and Fiverr
These websites are okay for building a portfolio. But don’t be fooled—it’s tough to build a sustainable career there.
Get in, get some gigs, get out. Use it only to build your portfolio and get some testimonials.
Of course, getting a gig in the first place can require some proof. Consider doing volunteer work to get your very first samples, or create some mock-ups to show your skills.
Let me say it again: This is an okay starting ground, but don’t stay any longer than necessary.
3. Cold outreach to local businesses
Cold outreach is when you contact a business who knows nothing about you.
This is traditionally really sales-y, but again, it doesn’t have to be.
Find the owner’s email or connect with them on LinkedIn. Send a short, friendly, to-the-point message about what you can offer them.
Most freelancers without a portfolio will offer their services for free or at a discount and ask that, if the client likes their work, they’ll provide a testimonial. This is a great way to get some credibility. And as soon as you have that proof in hand, start raising your prices.
4. Promote yourself on LinkedIn
LinkedIn has grown a lot in the past few years, and now it’s a great way to connect with potential clients. Here’s a simple formula:
Create posts at least once a week. In the post, teach something in your area of expertise. If you’re a designer, maybe you share a tip on how to use Canva. If you’re a copywriter, maybe you teach how to write a really good call to action.
Add 1-3 relevant hashtags at the bottom of the post.
Then, any time someone leaves a thoughtful comment in response, send a personalized connection request and strike up conversation (I learned this tip from copywriter Michal Eisikowitz, who’s killing it with her LinkedIn game!).
In your conversation, you don’t have to be sales-y (are you sensing a theme?)—just ask questions to learn about them. Eventually, you can express your availability if they ever need your help. If you keep posting, you’ll be top of mind when that need arises.
Watch the video for techniques #5-#8
5. Network with other business owners
Go to meetups and events where potential customers could be attending—or people who interact with your potential customers. This could be a small business meetup listed on meetup.com, or a local chamber of commerce networking event.
At the event, just be friendly! Ask folks about themselves. Make friends. Offer values. The goal isn’t to work the room—you’re here to build relationships.
And when you do talk about your own business, be honest about where you are. Tell them how you’re getting started and what you’re doing to make sure you can deliver good work. Folks love to help an underdog. 😉
6. Facebook groups
Find a few groups where your potential clients hang out—maybe no more than 5. Then, find out what its rules are. Facebook groups tend to fall into two categories: Those that allow self promotion, and those that don’t. Both are valuable in their own way.
The ones that don’t allow self promotion essentially act as a bulletin board. So you can offer your services, then see what comes back. It’s worth a shot.
The really good groups, though, are the ones where people are actively engaging with one another, not just selling to one another. How to stand out here? Be helpful and visible. Start answering questions. Any questions—not just those related to your specialty. This shows you’re active and generous. But also make sure your business is visible. When it makes sense, start sentences that let them know you do it professionally: “Well, as a copywriter…” or, “I actually do this a lot for my own clients, and I have to say…”
You also want to add your specialty to your Facebook bio—that little space that shows in the top left corner of your profile. Throw your website URL in there as well.
When someone in the group needs help with something you offer, you’ll come to mind. Or even better, the other members will remember you and recommend you!
7. Marketing agencies
Many agencies are on the lookout for specialists they can subcontract some of their client work to. This allows them to stay flexible, instead of hiring and firing people every time they get or lose a client.
There’s no single way to start working with agencies. For one idea, you could begin asking around your local freelancer community to find out which agencies work with freelancers. It’s possible to ask for an intro if your relationship with them is strong enough (and if your pitch wouldn’t be stealing their work from them).
Or, you can send a cold email. Search for the company on LinkedIn, then go to the employees section. This will give you an idea of how the company is structured so you can find who would theoretically be in charge of hiring people like you. Then, it’s just a matter of tracking down their email. Sometimes it’s listed on the company website, or on the LinkedIn account. If you can find another employee’s company email, you can also use that structure to guess what your target’s email is—they likely follow the same format.
Then, send a short, complimentary, heavily personalized email that suggests how you might be able to help them. Rinse and repeat—cold emailing is always a numbers game.
8. Other freelancers
Every now and then, you’ll come across a freelancer who’s go their stuff figured out. And guess what? They’re probably turning away more work than you realize, or at least outsourcing it.
As with any other contact, you don’t want to just march up and ask, “Hey, got some work for me?” But as you develop a real relationship, there’s no harm in making it clear you’re available. Some of my best projects have come through my network of freelancer friends.
I hope this has been valuable!
As always, I want to hear from you. What have been some of YOUR best sources of clients? Share them below to help other freelancers follow in your footsteps. Community over competition, always. 😉