There’s one essential requirement for any self-employed career, and that’s paying clients. Until you’re making money from offering your products or services, it’s just an idea or hobby. So, it’s vital for you to know how to find freelance clients, in the way that gives the best results for your business.
The same tools and advice can also help established freelancers, who want to increase their client portfolio. Whether you’re looking to increase the numbers of enquiries and qualified leads, find better and more suitable projects, or you want to increase your rates and take on staff. It’s easy to let your outreach efforts slip when you’re focused on delivering the work you already have, but it can be hugely risky.
Even successful and experienced freelancers can have clients and contracts end unexpectedly. And if you haven’t been maintaining your pipeline of new potential work, it can mean a sudden panic as you’re forced to rush around frantically trying to bring in new projects and relying on any savings to pay your bills in the meantime.
Defining your ideal freelance clients
If you want to make progress, then it’s important to have clear objectives. Otherwise, you won’t know if you’re heading in the right direction, or what works best for your business.
Many freelancers focus on the amount of money needed to cover their costs and show a profit each month. Which is understandable, but taking the time to define your ideal freelance clients will help you in achieving that amount, and more.
If you’re aiming to bring in £3,000 per month, would you rather be invoicing two clients for £1,500, or working with 30 businesses which all pay £100? That immediately changes whether you’ll be looking for small businesses, or larger corporate clients, and informs your approach to client outreach.
Would your ideal client offer a very specific and defined brief, or give you autonomy and freedom? Are you intending to specialise by service, industry, or area? Are there any brands and businesses which you’d love to work with in the future?
You can use this information immediately to help attract new clients. Identify businesses which fit your criteria (or find the website of freelancers already catering to them), and try contacting them to ask why they hired external support.
Not everyone will respond, but if you can get a few people to explain what led them to a particular freelancer, how they heard about them, and what solutions they were looking for, it will give you some brilliant pointers to attract similar clients.
Practice your self-employed pitch
You never know when you might bump into your ideal clients. While it may be through a formal process, you could also stumble across them in your local pub, hairdressers or supermarket. So, it pays to be well prepared.
You need to clearly explain how you can help a potential client, why you’re particularly suited to the task, and relevant experience or examples from past work. A good elevator pitch should take around 20-30 seconds, so you can fit it into a trip between office floors or chatting to a potential client on your way to catch a place at the airport.
This can be expanded if you’re asked to email or pitch in-person to a potential new client. Nerves are understandable if you’re standing in front of a meeting room, but practice will help keep them under control and ensure that you get the key points across.
Schedule regular outreach time
Many freelancers follow the same advice as Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, and believe that if they build a website and some social media profiles, clients will come soon after. And a substantial percentage will even give up on their dreams of being self-employed when this doesn’t deliver the results they want or need.
Putting regular time in your calendar to target new business makes it a formal part of your day. And you should give it the same focus as you do on delivering client work or chasing invoices.
If you’re working on projects which aren’t ideal, or relying on job boards and subcontracting, dedicated outreach time is an investment in building a reliable pipeline of client work to build your own brand.
Even if you think you have enough work enquiries in the short term, you should use this time for various methods of branding and promotion. It’s not unknown for clients to postpone or cancel at the last minute, leaving you suddenly short of income. And if you’re lucky enough to be fully booked right now, your outreach can focus on larger, long-term pitches, or securing enough work to take on sub-contractors or employees and growing beyond a solo business.
Building your portfolio or website
It’s possible to become a very successful freelancer without ever having a dedicated website or portfolio. But having a place to keep and share examples of previous work, client reviews and testimonials, rate cards and contact details can make winning new business much quicker and easier.
There are a wide range of options to build your own website, including WordPress, Wix, Squarespace and more. And an even bigger choice of industry specific sites to host your portfolio, especially for designers (Behance and Dribbble are two of the biggest). But the solutions you choose are far less important than what you do with them.
Unless you need to show off your design or coding skills, aim to keep things clean and simple to highlight the important information such as your CV, past projects, and contact details. And don’t forget to keep your phone number and email address updated, or your dream client could be lost in an email account or voice message that you’ll never check.
Securing a short and memorable address for your website or portfolio is generally useful as it makes it easier to fit on business cards, promotional material and in email signatures. All of which can pay off when a client finally remembers to check out your details six months after meeting at a business event.
Many freelancers have been asked to work for free in exchange for exposure, and this can seem like a good deal if you don’t have lots of previous work to share. But why not actively offer your services to charities and non-profits as a way to build up your portfolio, and help causes you support at the same time? They’ll also tend to have more formal experience and support for volunteers, which can be more beneficial than simply giving away your time and effort for nothing.
Start with your own tribe
Hopefully your family and friends will be supportive when you decide to become self-employed. And it’s a great way to practice and hone your pitch. But don’t forget that each of them will have their own network of friends, neighbours, former school friends and colleagues – each of whom could be your ideal client or know someone who is.
Your own former employers and colleagues could also be useful sources of work, particularly if you’re continuing in the same field as your previous jobs. Old bosses and workmates are often some of the most valuable sources of freelance projects and contacts, especially when you’re starting out.
And don’t ignore all of the other people you encounter during each day. While you don’t want to bore people by constantly talking about your business, it’s worth mentioning your services when you’re chatting at the local pub, hairdressers, supermarket, church congregation or gym. You never know when someone sitting next to you might need some freelance help, or be able to pass on your details or business cards to people that do.
Start networking to find freelance clients
Finding online or in-person networking events has never been easier. And they can be a potential goldmine for anyone self-employed. While larger industry conferences might boast the biggest attendance, local meetups and networking events will often give you more chances to build relevant connections.
It’s easy to find relevant events for the self-employed organised by IPSE (including our annual National Freelancers Day). Or to find local community gatherings on sites like Meetup. Events focusing on your industry can be great for meeting other freelancers and learning from their experience, but also look at the events your clients are most likely to be attending.
If you use a coworking space, make the most of it by getting to know the other entrepreneurs and business owners in the building.
Smaller events are also great ways to become more comfortable talking to new people, especially if you’re one of the many people who chose self-employed remote working due to being more of an introvert. Most of the other attendees will be in a similar situation, which makes it a great way to get experience of speaking and presenting.
The idea of standing in front of a room of strangers may seem terrifying. But if you’re able to conquer your nerves when other freelancers don’t, you’ll get an audience of potential clients that they’ll miss out on.
And if there’s not a suitable local event in your area? Why not start one and raise your profile in the process.
White labelling your services, or collaborating
Some freelancers will never find time to master finding new clients, or be comfortable selling their services. But it’s still possible to be constantly fully booked with work.
One option is to collaborate with other freelancers in related fields. If you’re a copywriter, many of your leads might come from friendly designers or SEOs looking for written work they can rely on. And designers often find themselves collaborating with website developers on a regular basis. You might even find they’re more successful in selling your services, and can take on more of that side of projects, leaving you to focus on the parts you enjoy.
Another alternative is to approach more established and respected freelancers in your field for advice, or to see if they might be willing to mentor you. This can be a great way to get insights from self-employed veterans, be provided with accountability on your progress, and also lead to potentially working together in some situations.
Just ensure that any collaborations have a clear agreement in place for work, responsibilities and payment. Communication and respect are essential for good partnerships.
Another option is to white label your services. Which means you’ll be sub-contracting to another freelancer or agency under their branding. Often, they’ll already have client work in place, and be looking to fill gaps in their current team.
In the best cases, this can be a valuable source of freelance work without needing to find new clients. And you might never have to deal with the end client, receiving clear briefs and prompt payment from the agency, allowing you to focus on delivering your best work.
But you can also find that you’re essentially left managing everything, but without the freedom and options you’d have for your own clients.
In both cases, white labelling your services means that you won’t be building your own brand and portfolio. And as the agency or contracting freelancer will want to make some percentage of profit, your rates might be lower (or the end client might be paying much more than your typical cost, and therefore have much higher expectations).
As with a collaboration, it’s important to go into any white label projects with a clear agreement on work and responsibilities to avoid confusion or complications. Even if you’re providing work on behalf of someone else, you can still be legally liable if something goes wrong.
Freelance job sites
You may have dismissed big freelancing job sites such as Fiverr, Upwork or PeoplePerHour as sources of low-paid and low quality work. But as your reputation and review scores increase, you should find more opportunities become available. And over time this can build into a sustainable source of new work to fill un-booked hours, or a foot in the door with clients who might grow into higher paying accounts over time. Especially if they decide they want to block out your time to avoid rivals or competitors benefiting from your skills.
Industry specific job sites also exist for pretty much every category of freelance and self-employed work. If a potential client is advertising on a more focused job board, there’s a good chance they’re looking for a higher standard of freelancer. The flipside is that you’ll need to work hard to stand out amongst other qualified self-employed professionals in your field.
If you specialise in working with specific types of business, such as start-ups, then you can find sites such as AngelList which cater specifically to them. Various software services also offer job boards for experts in their particular applications. So, if you’re intimately familiar with particular marketing software, accountancy packages or project management applications, it’s worth investigating if they have a dedicated area for experts or partners.
Obviously trawling job boards and social media for freelance opportunities can be tiring and time consuming. You can usually sign up for email alerts via most freelance job sites, which can help if you spend some time tailoring your preferences to be relevant. Another option is to check for any industry-specific emails which collect opportunities on a daily or monthly basis.
Using social media to find freelance clients
New social networks are appearing every day, and almost any of them can be used to find work by the self-employed. From Facebook and LinkedIn to TikTok and Snapchat, it’s possible to find clients by making the most of what each platform offers.
General advice which applies across all social networks would include looking for ways to be helpful and informative, rather than repeatedly spamming other users with adverts for your services. If you can establish a reputation for knowing your subject, it will build relationships with quality clients who are likely to offer better projects and higher rates.
From Facebook Groups to Subreddits, there are lots of opportunities to connect with other freelancers, who will often outsource surplus work or requests from clients for services they don’t currently offer. For example, our own Creative Freelancer UK group has opportunities shared on a daily basis, alongside useful and interesting conversations For Twitter users, it’s easy to follow relevant people, and to connect via Twitter chats which can be found by searching for relevant hashtags.
It’s important to try and offer quality over quantity. So, you may want to secure your brand name on each and every social network, but concentrate your time and effort on the most suitable platforms for delivering work. And that choice will depend on both your specialisation, and your personal preference.
Don’t forget to promote your business in print
In the modern digital age, it’s easy to forget that printed material is still a valuable way to promote yourself and find new clients. And it can have an even bigger impact if your competitors and rivals have moved entirely online.
It’s easy and cost-effective to ensure you always have some business cards about your person. And that investment will be useful if a potential client hasn’t got their phone with them to note your email address or number. Or you may be able to leave a pile of cards on a counter or reception desk at suitable locations to advertise your services to anyone interested.
Don’t dismiss flyers as old-fashioned, either. Coffee shops and co-working spaces often have notice boards displaying all kinds of services and information, and could be a goldmine for potential clients.
Local media options are also worth investigating. You may be surprised at the people who still browse through the local newspaper, and press coverage can attract plenty of attention. And the free community magazines delivered to doorsteps can put you in the homes of potential clients for a relatively low cost.
One way to really stand out is to consider hand written letters or cards for existing and prospective clients. In an era of mass mailings and junk mail, taking the time to craft a personal message will stand out.
And if you want to track which print promotions result in new clients, it’s fairly simple to create a new web address for each option to measure response rates.
Use side hustles to attract new clients
Diversifying your income streams can be a useful safety net for any freelancer. But it can also provide an influx of new clients at the same time.
There are a variety of ways you can compliment your main self-employed career, from offering eBooks and online learning courses, to email newsletters and podcasts. Anything which demonstrates your knowledge and skill can potentially attract clients.
Most self-employed experts find that by offering online courses, a substantial percentage of students will realise the skill and effort involved. And come to the realisation that not only does it make more sense to invest in freelance support than doing it themselves, but that there’s a fair justification for your day rate or project estimate.
Creating your own industry resource can help build authority, whether it’s a website, email newsletter or podcast. Especially if you freelance in smaller niches or emerging areas where there are fewer sources for news and information. Even if you decide to focus on a subject unrelated to your main profession, it can demonstrate your communication skills and ability to grow an audience. And you never know which keen gardeners, runners or classic motorcycle enthusiasts might also own a business, and need help.
Collect every review and testimonial
Don’t waste the opportunity of a happy client by failing to secure a review or testimonial. The more social proof you can share of your work, the more likely you will be to convince new clients to invest in your products or services.
Many freelance and self-employed business owners succeed through word-of-mouth recommendations and referrals. But don’t always ensure positive feedback is shared everywhere it could attract new work.
Testimonials and case studies of previous work will make your website or portfolio more convincing. But it’s also important to secure positive reviews on your business listings, including Google My Business (GMB), which is also displayed via Google Search and Maps. Collecting and responding to reviews will increase your audience, and increase the number of people who contact you as a result.
Choosing what’s right for your business and clients
There’s no one right answer for winning work and attracting new clients to your freelance business. Even among rival self-employed businesses, different methods and approaches will both deliver successful results.
This is where defining your ideal clients and targets will really pay off, as you can start to see which routes deliver quality projects and rates. Or if conventional wisdom might not work so well for your particular business.
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