Here’s the thing about running a freelance business: It doesn’t matter how talented or experienced you are in your field. If you don’t know how to build a client base, you won’t get very far.
Your client base won’t just pay your bills. The clients you work with ultimately decide the direction your business takes — the projects you complete, connections you build, and opportunities you face.
So, choose carefully.
But before you can fill your roster with high-value clients, you need to know where to find your first prospect.
Where to Find Your Very First Client
Without a doubt, the first one is always the hardest. But when you venture out to find your very first client, one thing is certain:
Often the question of, “Where?” is more important than, “How?”
Meaning, all else equal, it’s not your industry experience, portfolio samples, or sales pitch that will land that initial client. Instead, it’s placing yourself in the right place at the right time.
So, where should you start the search?
1. Freelance Marketplace
If there’s one thing the internet is undeniably good at, it’s connecting people. But social media isn’t the only platform playing host to these connections.
The “gig economy” has blown up in the form of countless desktop websites and mobile apps. Beneath the shadow of companies like Uber Eats and Wag, however, a rapidly growing freelance marketplace has emerged.
At the moment, one of the most popular freelance marketplaces is Upwork. Rounding out the top three are Fiverr and Freelancer.
Realistically, few freelancers can sustain full-time careers on these platforms (though some certainly do!). Plus, these platforms are known for taking large chunks of users’ take-home pay.
Still, though, they’re great places to get your foot in the door and land your first handful of clients.
2. Friends and Family
Because even a single client under your belt can help connect you to dozens more, sometimes the best strategy is to stretch the definition of a “real” client.
Take a moment to think about the services or products you provide. Now, think about how those services or products fit into the lives of those in your social circle.
Are you a web designer whose sister-in-law has a small crafting business in need of a website?
Do you want to break into wedding photography and have a friend ready to walk down the aisle?
Perhaps you know someone through a past employer who could benefit from your social media marketing services?
When it comes time to add this work to your portfolio, there’s no need to blatantly advertise your personal relationship to the client.
You shouldn’t lie or stretch the truth. But there’s no reason to downplay your work by openly explaining the personal connection.
Whether you choose to charge your friends and family full price, if anything, is entirely up to you. Either way, don’t lose sight of how this first client could add value to your portfolio and your business as a whole.
3. Word of Mouth
Maybe you don’t have anyone in your immediate social circle with a need for your services.
One of the most effective (but also hardest to master) strategies for finding your first clients is through word of mouth. And with this strategy, you’re not limited to picking up work from close friends and family.
Basically, you want to let as many people know about your foray into freelancing as possible.
If the grocery store clerk asks what you do for a living, give them a short pitch. Then, let them know you’d be happy to speak with anyone they know who might be a good fit for your business.
Of course, not everyone is a natural salesperson. But combining this strategy with some others for how to build a client base can result in some unexpected connections.
Sometimes, the old-fashioned route is the best one. And when it comes to advertising your services to a prospective first client, you have two options:
Physical or digital. Ultimately, the best option for you will depend on your geographical location and service offerings.
In a time when Facebook and Craigslist dominate the market of buying and selling goods or advertising services, it’s easy to forget where it all started. That is, in print advertising.
Depending on your location, newspaper classifieds could still reach hundreds, if not thousands, of eyes.
You can also put together professional flyers to hang on coffee shop news boards and in other local gathering spots.
However, all this effort will be for naught if your ideal client isn’t likely to live in your town or frequent the neighborhood coffee shop.
When targeting potential clients from far and wide, the internet is your greatest asset.
You can purchase ads on social platforms like LinkedIn or Facebook, or you can advertise your services on job boards or even industry forums.
5. Wanted Ads
When trying to land that very first job, clients can feel like an incredibly rare resource.
But while you’re posting ads for your products or services to the web or local newspaper, there could be a prospective client doing the same from their end.
Just like traditional employers post job openings and “Help Wanted” ads, individuals and businesses often do the same when searching for contract-based work from freelancers. Your job is to find those ads and prove your value over the competition.
In some cases, these postings will be as simple as reaching out to the potential client with your services and rates. Other times, you’ll be expected to present a formal proposal.
When first starting out, err toward smaller, easier to attain jobs. And, of course, watch out for unscrupulous offers and scams.
Here’s a concept you might not have thought of:
Your first client doesn’t need to be a paying one. As in, offering your services to a local charity or non-profit is often a great way to build a professional reputation and portfolio.
Plus, offering free work to your area’s most valued organizations isn’t bad for PR, either.
When you reach out to local organizations about donating your work, treat them just like a paying client.
If they take you up on the offer, put together a proposal, determine what they need from your services, and so on.
Remember: This is a real client. You’re just donating your work instead of charging for it.
7. Spec Work
The subject of spec work is rather controversial in the business world. However, using spec work to land your first client is one of the best times to use it.
What is spec work?
In short, spec work (or “speculative work”) is any work done without guarantee of payment from a client.
Generally, this means completing work based on a client’s needs and specifications but only getting paid if the client chooses to use your work.
Sometimes, clients will ask for completed work in your pitch. Others will launch contests, ultimately buying the rights to the winning design or product.
Every freelancer will encounter spec work at some point in their career. So, it’s up to you whether to use this scenario to your advantage.
How to Build a Client Base You Can Rely On
For long-term stability, it’s not finding the first few clients that’s important. It’s keeping around the ones that matter.
Maintaining a high client retention rate is invaluable to ensuring financial security, career growth, and all-around peace-of-mind. And if clients come and go as quickly as you find them, you’re setting yourself up to spend more time on client acquisition than developing your business.
So, while you invest time and energy toward reeling in your first couple of clients, remember to keep your focus on the future as well.
Yes, much of client retention is about providing high-quality products and customer service. But some of it is also about structuring your business to keep clients around for longer.
Any time you can convert a one-time client into a repeat client, you should. Subscriptions, ongoing maintenance, and consulting services are all great ways to accomplish this goal.
As for the bookkeeping side of handling several clients at once, digital invoicing and payment options are a must. Without them, you’ll be drowning in unorganized paper records that never stop piling up.
Using a program like invoicely, you can manage all of your client invoices and payments, digitally, in one place.
Plus, with the built-in recurring invoice feature, you can manage hands-free billing and payment reminders for every repeat client on your schedule.
Whether you’re waiting to hear back from your very first proposal or just need some inspiration when it comes to finding new clients, discover how invoicely can help make it easier to manage long-term clients.