We all know that freelancing is a great method to start earning money on the side or even as a full time gig (like what I’m now doing).
But finding your first freelance clients can be quite difficult if you’re just starting out from nothing.
When I started out, it was almost by accident. Someone asked me about a website and I said I could help them build one. Over the years I’ve fine tuned my strategies for attracting clients.
Some methods below require a little bit of work on your part (which you should have plenty of time for if you’re just starting out), and some are more passive and will start working for you once you get a few clients under your belt.
Using the following 9 methods for finding your first freelance clients in conjunction with each other is the best way to see success with freelancing.
The trick is to be patient and understand that this isn’t going to happen overnight, but if you follow along and work at promoting yourself as a freelance programmer (or designer or whatever) it will happen and before long you’ll have more clients than you know what to do with.
1. Cold calling
First up is an old favourite in the direct response industry and that’s cold calling. Or, “dialing for dollars”.
You can of course outsource this, but I find that when I have cold called in the past most people are more receptive if you do it yourself. Tell them who you are and what you do and ask if they need your services. If not, thank them for their time and get off the phone, they’ll call back if they want to.
Some people can be really rude, but the ones that do respond positively can really talk your ear off. For service based businesses, it’s a good way to make contact and forge a relationship with someone out of thin air.
They’re not always going to want to buy on the spot, but you can then open the door for further communications, emails, etc.
Cold calling also works well when you send a follow up business card in the mail (yes, the post) with a note to say thanks for their time and tell them you’ll be there if they ever need any of your services. People remember this kind of stuff.
The downside to cold calling is that you really need to do it in the morning during work hours. That’s not really going to be possible with people doing freelancing part time, so maybe try this next strategy…
2. Cold emailing
I’m a big proponent of getting directly in touch with people. But I’m also the first to admit that cold calling is hella-scarey.
I have used the cold emailing method to great success in my business and it’s a nice low-touch way to make contact with people without seeming pushy.
Cold emailing can have pretty low response rates, but if you target your audience properly you will start seeing some success if your offer is good.
My suggestion is to make it casual and light. Don’t come in heavy with a “Super Amazing Offer, Buy It NOW!”.. that will only land you in the spam pile never to be thought of again.
My messages look something like this (minus the bracketed stuff obviously):
Hi Jim, (if I know what their name is I put it here, otherwise I just say Hi)
My name is Josh, I run a local Brisbane based web development company called Rymera Web Co. (gives them some context of who I am before pitching)
I would like to register my interest in helping you with any needs in regard to your website. (straight & to the point, then list what I can do for them)
We can help you:
- Audit your existing site so you know what the strengths and weaknesses are
- Refresh your site and update the design
- Implement a content management system so you can manage the content yourself
- and much more…
I’d be happy to have a chat to see how we can get your website working harder for your business. (finish with a non-pushy call to action)
(… followed by my contact details.)
I’m always adjusting this script, but I’ve seen moderate success with something like this. In my industry where a job can be worth a couple of thousand, it’s worth my time sending out 2 or 3 hundred emails to get a 1% response.
Where do you get the emails?
Ahh yes, well I have a few tricks up my sleeve here.
In Australia we have a number of websites that list businesses in the local area. A lot of those websites have email addresses published on their websites. If an email is publicly available it’s fair game.
Some may call this a bit grey hat, but I don’t spam people with repeated offers and am always casual, courteous and non-pushy. That’s the trick with this whole strategy. It’s the digital equivalent of asking a casual question face to face.
3. Freelancing sites
I’ve had mixed success here and these days it’s a lot harder to find consistent work this way, unless you’re just starting out.
Overseas companies have chewed the bottom out of the market so while it’s a good way to get some experience and find clients I don’t really recommend it as a long term strategy.
When you’re just starting out however, it’s a great way to meet people and get in touch for future projects.
It can also be a nice way to build up word of mouth (another strategy we discuss below).
Try sites like:
4. Job board sites
I’m a member of a couple of job boards and I’ve found that the paid memberships tend to be the best because they have a real business behind them with people working hard to attract these job posters to the site.
The trick with job boards is to look for a local job board. In Australia we have Service Seeking which is a great resource for business owners and freelancers like myself doing the work as well as for businesses requiring the work done.
I personally prefer working with other businesses (which Service Seeking mostly attracts) rather than individuals, but you can find job boards that cater to both.
5. Participating in niche product forums
A while back I was heavily into doing work with SugarCRM (I had a 6 month contract job) and became somewhat of an expert on the forums.
To this day I still get emails from people who have seen my posts in the forum showing people how to do things.
While I don’t actively participate there anymore (it’s been nearly 2.5 years) it’s a strategy that has paid off with paying clients coming directly from my participation.
You can do this strategy in any number of product related forums, if you become recognised as an expert and continually participate in the community you will see the rewards from it.
It’s not a strategy that is going to get you jobs straight away but it’s a good way to build up future work.
6. Word of mouth
For freelancers your reputation is a fragile thing.
Word of mouth is a fantastic method of getting new clients (in fact it’s my biggest source).
Here’s the thing.. happy customers tell people how great you are. What I suggest is that you deliver well on the project as specified and then find a way to over deliver above expectations.
Often it can just be a little extra attention and flexibility with your time. I tell all my clients that I quote their job and then they have me until it’s complete.
Not counting the hours is one way to build more rapport with your existing clients which will make them more receptive to spreading the word about you.
What “extra little things” can you do for your clients that they aren’t expecting? It doesn’t have to be something that costs you a lot other than time.
At the end of the day, it’s the client’s decision to work with you again and to refer you to their friends and contacts.
7. Ask your network
Your network is more powerful than you realise.
When I went out on my own full time earlier this year, I didn’t have any contacts (or so I thought).
Once I started contacting people and letting them know what I was doing, the jobs started to come in.
These were people that already knew me and had work or could refer me to people that they knew were looking for a good developer.
Sending a casual and friendly email to your contacts (that means your business contacts, your friends, your family, whoever!) can really be great for getting your first few clients.
8. Do free work
The trick with free work is research. You need to be aware of what the person you’re targeting requires at that point in time.
A shotgun approach will not work here because it may be irrelevant to their needs at the time.
The success of this strategy depends on your ability to find out what that person requires (out of your services) and ask them if you could provide a very specific service to them for free.
I guess you could say this used to be the “foot in the door” strategy. Once you get in there and make contact with that person work as hard as you can to impress them. If you do, then the paid work is sure to follow.
The doing free work strategy doesn’t have to be with famous people either (though it’s cool to say you did work for so and so), you can employ this with local business owners and people or groups you really would love to start doing work for.
9. Have a website
Finally, my last strategy is for you to have some sort of online profile.
People Google your name more than you probably realise. I know that whenever I receive an unsolicited offer from someone I always do a quick background check to make sure they’re legit.
Throw up a WordPress website and list out what your services and rates are. This will let people evaluate if you are for real or not.
When they Google and find your website with a service listing, a list of clients that you’ve helped in the past and some basic information about yourself, you’ll start to see better results from all of the other above strategies.
Finding Your First Freelance Clients
So that’s my top 9 strategies for you to find your first freelance clients. Do you have any more to add to the list?
Perhaps you’ve tried something in the past and had some great success. Tell us about it in the comments below!