Feb 5, 2016

The art of finding clients: a freelance designer’s guide

Find out how and where to find new freelance clients, and get some tips on managing your project calendar.
Taking the leap into freelancing proves incredibly rewarding for most. But its strongest draw — the freedom that comes from being your own boss — can also be its greatest challenge. After all, when you’re going it alone, you’re striking out without a guide.

We’re here to provide the missing freelancer’s guide.

In this guide, we’ll cover four key phases of the freelance designer’s workflow:

  1. Finding new freelance clients
  2. Kicking off a new project
  3. The design/build phase
  4. Ongoing support and billing

By the end of the series, you’ll know what a typical freelance project is like, plus pick up a host of tips on making your next project a success.

How to get new clients

Of course, every freelancer’s journey begins with finding clients.

And if you’ve never tried to find freelance clients before, it’s less than obvious how to get started. So here are the techniques I’ve used to keep myself booked with projects months in advance.

Create a lot of things

It’s super simple. To get new clients, you need a portfolio that shows you have what it takes.

And the inevitable response to that question is: “How do I get clients if I need client work to show off to begin with? You’re not making sense, Mat.”

If that was your first thought too, step back and look around the web: Many of the best designers’ portfolios aren’t filled with client work alone.

Of course, they do feature client work. But if you take a look through Dribbble, the majority of the work you see stems from random, creative projects built for the heck of it.

You don’t need someone to pay you to design a website.

In fact, if you’re solely motivated by money, it’s going to be really hard for you to build a career. Yes, money’s important, but the best freelancers truly love the work they do, and take pride in every project they take on (whether for clients or for fun).

So get out there and build stuff. If you’re a web designer, build some free web templates to showcase your talent. Are you a writer? You should have plenty of writing samples to share. Graphic designer? Put together some icon sets or something.

You don’t need clients to build a portfolio — so get on it.

Do free things

I know, I know — I said the bad four letter word that starts with ‘F’. Free.

I see so many freelancers undervaluing themselves, it’s hard to give this advice — but it works if you’re just getting started.

A great way to get long-term clients is to offer some of your services for free. For me, this meant reaching out to local startups or businesses that had subpar web experiences, and offering to rebuild their website.

For projects I really liked, I would sometimes even build the homepage of their website before reaching out to them. Then I’d send them an email with a link, saying (in essence): “This is what I had in mind for your website. If you like it, it’s yours.”

Early on, this was how I got the majority of my clients. Some of whom are now my favorite (and highest-paying) clients. It’s a long-term play, but the payoff can be worth it. Even if the relationship doesn’t turn into a long-term one, you’ve at least built something portfolio-worth.

Be easy to find

The web is massive. Millions upon millions of sites, many built by freelancers just like you, clamor for attention. So the least you can do is make it easy for people to find you.

Have you googled your name yet? Do you show up on the first page? If not, it’s time to work on your SEO. If your name is a common one, aim to rank for your name plus your service (i.e., mat vogels web design).

Pro tip: Google your name in incognito or private mode to get less-biased results. You’ll definitely rank for your own name in a browser that knows who you are.

Ideally, your portfolio will rank really highly on that search, but links to your social media accounts, Dribbble portfolio, and other related sites are also super helpful. Just make sure those other links point back to your portfolio and/or other easy ways for people to learn more about you and get in touch.

The most effective and professional approach is to build a website of your own. A place that showcases your work, personality, and brand—and that you alone control.

I highly recommend Webflow (but, hey, I might be biased). I’ve yet to find a more powerful tool that gives you unlimited customization, while still making it easy to manage and continually create new content.

How to fill your calendar

One of the biggest stresses of the freelancer life is (not) knowing when your next project will be. Because our work is sporadic and we don’t have the luxury of salary, lining up future projects is a super-important step in becoming a successful freelancer.

I keep my project calendar full at least 2 months in advance (but no more than 4). This relieves me of the worry of knowing where my next paycheck will come from. I don’t schedule more than 4 months out though, because I like to keep my options open to new projects.

You should also gradually increase your rate with each project, which complicates things if you schedule too far out.

Now, many of you may already be rolling your eyes, because you’re not even thinking past your next project.

I get it, and I’ve been there too. But the goal is to get to a point where this isn’t the case at all. In fact, the hope is that after a while you’ll have the freedom to only take on the clients you want, at rates you’re comfortable with, and within a reasonable timeframe.

Let’s find out how.

Charge more monies

Double your hourly rate. Right now.

I get it. That can feel pretty uncomfortable. But that’s how you should feel about your current rate: Uncomfortable.

You should be right on the edge of charging too much. Push right to your comfort zone, then add a little bit more. See what happens.

Worst-case scenario: You don’t get the gig. But that’s okay, because you would have been doing it at a discount.

Best-case: you get a project at twice your last price.

Now, depending on how ambitious you are, you’ve just doubled your income. (Hooray!)

If you need $3,000 a month to cover costs, you can either take on 3 $1,000 projects, or 1 $3,000 project.

It’s always better to take larger projects that pay more and take longer, than to suffer death by a thousand cuts … (Ahem!) … I mean lots of small projects.

Referrals are your best friend

The single best way to get new work is through referrals.

In fact, I no longer do any work that doesn’t come from a referral.

Why? Because I only work with clients I like, and if a previous client sends me new work, there’s a good chance that I’ll like this client as well.

I’ve also found that referral clients will wait longer to work with you. This is hugely advantageous, since it helps build out your project calendar.

The best part about referrals is that they require no additional work on your part. No marketing. No outreach. Do your job right, and you’ll be flooded with referrals in no time.

Closing note

In the end, the most important thing a freelancer can do is act. Do good work. Make it easy to find and share your work. And never stop moving.

You won’t start finding hordes of clients overnight. Freelancing bliss may take many months to achieve.

But if you follow these tips, you’ll find it.

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Mat Vogels

Mat is a web creator and evangelist at Webflow. Follow me at @matvogels.

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