In this chapter we’re going to talk about finding clients and winning work.
Part One: Finding Clients
The myth of finding clients
The number one question I see asked of successful freelancers in comment sections and twitter replies is “how do I find clients?” - and while I know that this is a really well-meaning question, I believe there is a better question to ask in it’s place. There are hundreds of ways that you could find clients from cold calling, cold emailing, social outreach, paid marketing, etc. but all of those ways put you in a position where you have to sell yourself and convince a client that you are legitimate, experienced, and the right person to work with. There is a different approach that I think is much more efficient, that can help you find clients that are value aligned, and actually want to work with YOU.
I think the better question to ask than “how do I find clients?” is “how do I help clients find me?”
We’re in control of our own narrative as freelancers, - it’s a wonderful position to be in as an independent creative, where you are the one telling a story about your work, your expertise, and your values. We can harness that narrative and help clients find us so that we can flip the script from always searching for leads, to continually receiving leads.
Helping clients find you
Helping clients find you comes down to one key variable - Visibility. Making yourself as visible as possible, across different platforms, communities, and networks, is the number one way to help clients find you. Visibility is essential to success as a freelancer, and it kind of comes down to the old saying of ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’. If you’re a freelancer who’s open to work, but nobody knows that you are, it’s going to be a real challenge to find any leads. The reality is, that unless someone knows you do the work that they’re looking for, and that you’re OPEN to new work, they’re not going to reach out.
Now, this absolutely does not mean that you need to have a huge online following or become a design influencer, but you do need to be conscious that potential clients need to see you in order for you to get work.
Let’s go through some key ways to increase your visibility:
Portfolio as a validation tool
- Building a portfolio is an age-old struggle for any creative. I know you want it to be perfect. But what is better than perfect, is done. And that’s what you should focus on in your first year of freelancing. Your portfolio is a validation tool - all it needs to do is tell someone what you do, if it’s for them, and give a bit of evidence that you’re telling the truth. If you want to go above and beyond this and wow people, be my guest. But at the very least, these are the things you need to achieve.
- This may change slightly based on your discipline, but I’m going to talk about my portfolio specifically here. When I first went freelance, I launched with a very simple portfolio that had a bit of information about me, the services I offered, and had a few case studies. I wrote summaries for each of the projects that were included and had some fancy mockups for each. I think it was worthwhile to spend time on this in the first year, especially before I had a network of people referring me work, and the portfolio worked really well for me. I even got an organic lead who I still work with to this day.
- Beyond social media, your website is a place where you control the narrative about your work, and you can frame yourself in any way that you want to. This is a power and a responsibility, to showcase your work in a way that frames it in the best possible light, but is still truthful. You want your portfolio to be an accurate representation of your work, so that a potential client can come to your site, confirm that you are who you say you are, and see what you’ve done in the past.
- Tobias Van Schneider talked about this in a blog post recently - "What's said again and again becomes my reputation. It just so happens, I said it first."
- I recorded a portfolio review video featuring some great portfolios people sent me on twitter, and I get more into specifics around what to include and what not to include there.
Word of mouth
- All of my initial freelance clients came from word of mouth. I wasn’t even on twitter for the first year I was freelancing, but I was booked consistently. Word of mouth referrals are great because personal connection immediately builds trust between you and your client, and they are generally easier to sign.
- So how do you get a word of mouth referral? Tell everyone you know that you are freelancing. I mean everyone. Open your mouth and tell your friends, family, coworkers, dentist, neighbours, etc that you are a freelancer who does xyz kind of work, and that you’re open to new clients.
- I know this can feel a bit embarrassing at first, and it doesn’t need to be a conversation where you say “I really need work right now, do you know anyone looking for a designer?”, but instead I would encourage you to fit it into a conversation and leave it open ended “I’m working on this project right now for this type of client, I’m excited about it for these reasons, I hope I get to do more work like this in the future”
- Talking about your work with your network signals that you are actively doing work, and that you’re open to new work. When they know someone looking for your skillset, if you’ve talked to them about your work recently, they’ll probably recommend you to whoever they’re talking to. In my first year of freelancing, most of my projects came from other designers I knew who knew that I was taking on website work. I made a ton of great connections, and it had a snowball effect of doing good work for one client, who referred me to another, and another.
Partnerships with other service providers
- This visibility tip is great if you aren’t comfortable telling the general public that you’re freelancing. If you don’t want to tell everyone, tell other designers.
- Making connections with other service providers can be a great way to increase your visibility and get more leads. When I was starting to freelance, I tried to reach out to another designer at least once a week - not with the express intent to ask them to send me leads, but to build a network and friendship with other folks who were doing the same thing I was.
- These kinds of partnerships don’t need to be formal or have any kind of structure, although some do, but I would recommend reaching out to folks who are a few steps ahead of you on their freelancing journey to learn more about their work.
- Those kinds of relationships can turn into leads when they are either fully booked, and looking for someone they trust to send the lead to, or the work is outside of their focus but inside yours. It’s useful to connect with designers with your same skillet, but especially designers with complementary skillsets. If you’re a brand designer, make connections with web designers and product designers. The same goes for copywriters, marketers, or SEO experts. Everyone I know who freelances is constantly looking to beef up their referral list for when they are too busy.
- This is a great way to increase your visibility and help clients find you, without being public facing.
- The last way I’ll talk about increasing your visibility is online. We’re all online all the time, and I’m sure you can think of a handful of designers you follow off the top of your head. Increasing your online visibility is a great way to help clients find you, because it casts a wide net, but can still be quite personal. I think you can find success with visibility on any platform, but it’s probably the platform that you spend the most time on. I spend a lot of time on twitter, and I get a good number of leads from folks who have found me there.
- Because the net you’re casting is wide, you become more visible to people directly looking for your skillset, people who know people looking for your skillset, and peers who are looking to refer you to their clients.
- I think the key to online visibility is being conscious of the para-social relationships your building. I don’t know about you, but there are plenty of times I’ve been in conversation with someone and said ‘Oh, I saw my friend post about that’, meanwhile the friend is someone you've never met IRL and lives halfway across the world but regularly interact with online
- My social media is MOSTLY focused on work, but I pepper in personal pieces here and there to build connections that are meaningful
- Because I have a lot of visibility online, I’m often the first person people think of when they’re looking for Webflow work, or know someone who is.
- I was watching a livestream the other day, and I can’t even remember what it was about, but Keagan Leery made a comment that his goal with sharing his work online was to be ‘unavoidable’ and while that is an aggressive approach, if you’re in the Webflow community he is unavoidable - I see his work everywhere, and when I think of someone to ask about custom code pieces, I think of him.
My Guide for Being Online
I have some guidelines for sharing online that I think have helped me increase my visibility and my leads:
- Try to post a few times a week
- Position yourself as an expert. Don’t talk about being a beginner, or being new, because if you say it people will believe it. No one is going to treat you as an expert unless you treat yourself as one first.
- Try to avoid ‘thought leadership’ type threads - they are usually a thinly veiled attempt to sell something
- Share your work regularly and rapidly - when you finish a project, talk about it, when you start a project, talk about it, when you are excited about work, talk about it, when work is hard, talk about it. Talk about the kind of work you are doing, but also the kind of work you WANT to do. Sharing your work doesn’t have to be a polished video or a complete piece of work, it can simply be an update on your to-do list for the week.
- Never bad-mouth your clients. I mean it. It’s not productive, it will make someone feel bad, and it will never make you look smart.
- Be yourself - you don’t need to put on a polished front all the time. Post your dog. Post your house. Post your oatmeal. Sharing your life makes you more human, and at the root of all work, people want to work with people who are kind, fun, and relatable.
Part Two: Winning Work
Okay - amazing - everyone knows your freelancing, you’re talking about your work online, you’re having meetings with other designers, and a few leads start to come in. What the heck do you do now!?
If you’ve made yourself visible, clients that are coming to you should have a sense of what kind of work you do, what you value, and who you are as a person. This is the benefit of receiving leads vs. searching for them. But, there is still some aspect of sales involved. Any client who comes to you is still going to want to know ‘are you the right person to work with?’, and you need to be able to ‘sell’ yourself and your skills to them. I have never been a ‘sales’ person, it always feels icky, I couldn’t even get through the web design sales course I bought because it made me feel uncomfortable. Maybe you are a natural salesmen, but I am not, and if that is also the case for you, may I present another perspective: education.
Coming at sales from an education perspective has helped me position myself as someone who is knowledgeable, patient, and useful. My approach to sales is to over explain, be as transparent as possible, and give a thorough look at what it’s like to work with me, how I approach projects, and what the outcome will look like. I want a client to know as much as possible about our project, and I trust that they are smart enough to make a decision on their own. I am never trying to convince someone to work with me, I’m trying to give them the clearest picture of what it’s like to work with me, and if that’s aligned, amazing.
I do this by showing my process, sharing a sample schedule, talking through deliverables, going through previous client samples, and providing multiple customer testimonials. That clarity leads to comfort, and clients convert because they are fully educated about what the project will entail.
I structure my proposals in a very simple way. They are made up of:
- A letter to the client expressing my interest
- A project overview where I outline our goals and expectations
- 2-3 project options that include scope and timelines
- My project process
- Information on Webflow, my build platform
- Associated costs
That’s it. You don’t need anything super fancy, although I would never discourage a designer from showing their best if they want to go all out on a proposal. What I will say is that not every proposal you send out is going to land, so there should be some aspect of repeatability among these. In my first year of freelancing, I would write out all of the elements above in a word document, and then transfer to my portfolio template. Eventually, I had sent out enough proposals that I could pick a previous one to start with, swap out a few details, and re-package it for the new client. It will be hard to do this right out of the gate, but if you keep everything documented, you will eventually be able to reuse and recycle the content.
Something to keep in mind with Winning Work is that sometimes you don’t want to win the work. There are so many reasons that you might not want to take on a project, and all of them are valid. When you start freelancing, you may need to take on everything that comes your way in order to earn an income and build your reputation, and I would encourage you to try lots of different things when you start freelancing to decide what you like, but sometimes there are situations where its just best to say no thanks.
I have outlined some templated ‘no thank you’ responses in the notion dashboard based on a few common scenarios when you’re not interested, when you want to refer it, and when you’re not available.
Let’s talk about some of the common reasons why you might say no to a client:
- It’s not a good skill fit: We’ll talk throughout this course about how it can be a good idea to take on challenges that are slightly outside of your skillset, in order to force yourself to learn new things, but if a client is asking for something that is wildly outside your skillset, it’s probably best to say no. When you get yourself into a situation where you’ve committed to delivering something that you really aren’t capable of, you’re either going to disappoint the client and have conflict, or have to outsource it to someone else. Outsourcing can be fine if you’re charging a high enough rate, but if your rate is low in your early freelance days it’s not going to be worth it. Slightly outside your capabilities? Think about it. Completely outside your capabilities? Pass.
- It’s not value aligned: Your values are important, and as a freelancer, you get to decide who you work with. Judging a project based on wether or not it aligns with your values is a totally fair way to select work. This can mean that you don’t take on work in certain industries because you don’t agree with their ethics or output, or just that you don’t like the way someone communicates. This is also why I will always advocate for having a call with a client before you agree to work together. Everything over email can sound fine, but speaking to someone on video call will give you a good sense if the values and vibes are right. Vibes seem like a very woo-woo way of judging a client and a project, but I would encourage you to trust your gut if something about a project feels off. If the client is talking about priorities that don’t match yours, if they are rude or dismissive of your time and talents, or if they’re just a bit funky. All are valid reasons to say no. You don’t need to make a big scene of it, just politely decline and move on.
- You’re already booked: Some freelance influencers will tell you that when you’re completely booked, you should start outsourcing your work. That’s fine, but it’s not the way I roll and it’s not the advice that I’m going to give you. Especially in the first year, but likely beyond, I think that you should be the one completing the work you book, and this is for a few reasons. First, outsourcing work to other people doesn’t mean that you’re going to have a lighter work load. There is still management involved in outsourced work to find another designer, brief them on the project, give them feedback, and coordinate various deliverables. Managing outsourced work is a skill in itself, and if you’re trying to learn how to freelance and learn how to manage people at the same time, you’re setting up a very hard challenge for yourself. If you already have strong people-management skills, this could work out okay, but I would still caution you based on my next point. If you are not upfront about outsourcing work, it will come back to bite you. We’ve talked about how your reputation is your foundation as a freelancer. If a client comes to you for a project, expecting you to work on it, and you turn around and outsource it to someone else without telling them, it’s a breach of the trust that they placed in you, and feels disrespectful to your agreement. There are absolutely ways to outsource work in ways that the client and you are both happy with, I do this frequently with aspects of projects that are outside of my skillset, but the client always knows about it, and I think that’s the big difference. If you’re booked, you can tell a client when your next available start date is, or offer to refer them to another freelance friend with a similar skillset. This can be a great option that leaves the client with a positive image of you, and helps out your freelance pals who may need the work. If you are referring work out to someone else, always check with them first, and give the client a caveat whether you’ve worked with them before. It doesn’t happen often, but if you refer another freelancer to a client and they do a poor job, it makes you both look bad, so I would have some caution around throwing names out for people you don’t really know.
- The budged isn’t aligned: This is pretty self explanatory, but if the client isn’t going to pay you want you want to be paid, it’s okay to not take the work. Like I’ve said before, in the first year of freelancing you may need to take on all the work that comes your way, simply to earn an income and build your portfolio, but that doesn’t mean that you should work for free or for less that your time is worth. We’ll talk about calculating your minimum rate in the money chapter to help figure out what that number is. If you send someone a quote and they say it’s too high, you can negotiate the deliverables to a smaller scope to what they can afford. If they want to maintain the same scope for a lower price, it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it or not. If you’re excited about the project and it will make a good portfolio piece, it could be worthwhile. If the client doesn’t seem value aligned and they are also asking for a lower price, pass. My general reaction when someone says that they can find someone cheaper to do the work is, “okay, then work with them”. If the budget isn’t a match, you can simply say, “unfortunately, the budget you’ve proposed isn’t aligned with my current rates and I won’t be able to take on the work”
Finding clients and winning work can seem intimidating if you’re just starting out. But I really believe that if you’re committed to doing great work, you can find success on your own. It’s hard, but it’s the most worthwhile thing I’ve done, and I feel incredibly fulfilled in my work. In my experience, the keys to finding clients and winning work have really come down to a few simple things - make sure clients know who you are, do great work, and be easy to work with. There really is no secret sauce, it’s just consistency, patience, and the guts to do it in the first place.