How to get clients as a freelancer

A summary for beginners

Sunday, 28 January 2024

I’d like to make one thing clear before we approach The List:

Behave like a professional before you start advertising.

Make a free website, buy a domain, make your profiles, set up the relevant socials, and put some examples of your work out there so people can see what they’re signing up for. People will ask for this to verify your work, and to refer you. If you can’t verifiably demonstrate what you’re capable of, it’ll be much harder to gain the trust of someone to pay you to do work for them. At least look like a professional starting out and demonstrate you are capable of effort particularly if a beginner’s skillset is being advertised.

Okay? Okay. Let us begin:

Do volunteer work

This one is for the nooblancers struggling to get pieces into their portfolios. Do a project for a family member, or a local religious institution, or an underfunded organisation/cause you find meaningful. Having something in use is better than nothing, and you can potentially generate leads from that, too.

Lower your rates

Another one for the super nublet nooblancers. It’s okay to take a pay cut temporarily while you get your network going, especially if you’re still learning, like many students are. Just ensure that you are being clear with your clients about this discounted rate (in case they refer you or want additional work done). After I moved countries I cut my rate (my student rate!) for some time until I built up experience, clientele, and the gall to say no to projects I didn’t to do and people with whom I didn’t want to work.

Tell everyone

Tell yo’ kids, tell yo’ wife, tell yo’ husband. Everyone should know - your family, friends, and friends of friends. They may refer you if something comes up - to other professionals, if not to potential clients. Your existing network should know.

Cold calling and emailing

Cold emailing sometimes works, but be sure to personalise them and make them specific; tailor your emails to the business you’re emailing. Canned templates are easy to spot and usually get deleted instantly as spam.

A step up would be to pick up the phone and call to deliver your pitch.

A bigger step up? Knock on doors and show up at businesses physically. If you’re armed with an understanding of their business needs and highlight it to them, your time and effort may be appreciated enough to get clients.

Networking

This is likely going to be where you find your best clients, whether they’re your first ones or not. Personally, once I found great clients, their referrals brought me other great clients; they were referred to me because the IT department at my university knew me as someone who did custom design and development work outside of my day job.

Relationships need to be built with people. Establish trust and provide value before you ask them for things. This applies to both online and offline. Here are some types of relationships to build:

  • Twitter/X, Instagram, LinkedIn, and other social media sites are underrated for getting projects. You don’t need a popular account to share your work and network well; plenty of people get offered work in DMs after building these relationships with people representing businesses or themselves as professionals.
  • Join local groups in your niche to network with other freelancers around your industry.
  • Start a community of your own with a specific purpose. I’d learnt this when I’d started a community of my own to have fun with tech, but as our reputation grew, so did work requests. Facebook groups are a good example of this and may have communities that operate offline as well.
  • Network with other professionals at local meetups.
  • Agencies often hire and contract out work, so you could let them know you’re available for work. It would be better to develop relationships with them first.
  • Join a co-working space.

Post on your local classifieds

 -especially if it’s free. Post in newspapers if necessary, but online classifieds sites work as well. For me this was Gumtree - I included snippets of my university projects and other paid work in my ad and got responses.

Side note: people offered items or services in exchange for my services. Bartering is underrated.

Freelancing websites

This is here because it should be a part of the list. It is competitive on the most popular platforms and high effort, but not impossible. While I wouldn’t dismiss them, I would make this a later-priority item unless there is a local website in which to stand out. It takes effort to bid and handle your rates, but it’s definitely doable and beginners have had some success.

Special note for web devs and designers

It’s easy to start with WordPress sites and similar, popular CMSes, and in particular themes that use page builders. Over 40% of websites are built with WordPress, and it’s a better tool to pitch to small businesses who want to create and manage their content with a more user-friendly experience than other open-source tools available. These sites are not the most performant, but they don’t need to be for small projects.

A personal opinion here: I prioritise the user experience of my clients over upselling software that would force them to hire someone for small changes, particularly constantly. I pick popular tools and software that are appropriate for my clients’ projects; being replaceable is a good thing - the value I bring to the table isn’t simply the ability to code. My clients refer me and return with new project requests as a result, and because they have the confidence I’ll do right by them and their projects. This is a better reputation to build as a part of your brand.

Lastly…

I have to make another point now as I made my final point at the beginning of this article, so here: have a contract ready to sign. You can prepare one from a free template in the meantime while you start generating leads for yourself. Do yourself that favour: be prepared to actually take on work. Good luck!