5 Surefire Ways to Get Freelancing Clients When You’re Just Starting Out

Corbett emailed me a few weeks back asking for my top traffic-building tip, and it was my pleasure to give him one that worked for me. I was doubly pleased when he thanked me by offering a guest post – one of the really good ones. Read. Learn. Enjoy.

Getting your first clients as a new freelancer is a daunting challenge. Without a reputation, referrals or testimonials to convince people to hire you, you have to be creative and work extra hard on getting your name out there.

You could try cold-calling (or cold-emailing), knocking on doors or praying to the freelancing fairies for some work, but there are some better techniques you can use that will be sure to get you clients in a hurry.

Here are 5 tactics that are sure to attract your first client. If you already have some clients, these techniques can also give your existing business a boost.

Prerequisite: you have a website. These techniques assume that you already have a website dedicated to your freelancing business. If you’re don’t have a website, what are you waiting for?

  1. Narrow your focus

    If you spend much time reading about marketing online these days, you have probably heard about the importance of differentiation. Your point of difference (POD) is simply what sets you apart from the competition and makes you unique in the eyes of your potential customers.

    When you’re big and have a long history of satisfying clients, you might be able to get away with positioning yourself broadly. When you’re just starting out however, it pays to position yourself much more narrowly.

    Instead of being just a graphic designer, for instance, be the fun, quirky and human designer. Instead of being a marketing consultant, be the guy who helps you engineer a kick-ass product launch.

    Narrow your focus and you’ll get more clients. Counter-intuitive but true.

  2. Blog!

    Most people know that having a website is imperative for freelancers these days. Not only that, having a blog is a must as well.

    A blog gives you a platform to demonstrate your expertise. It lets you help people in small but meaningful ways through your advice. When you help someone for free, they will think of you when they need more than bite-sized advice.

    Blogging also gives you a way to attract people to your site on a regular basis. If you only have a static site, people will visit once. If you have a blog, some people will come back multiple times a week. Just don’t lose site of the fact that you earn money as a freelancer and not as a blogger.

    Your blog is essentially a marketing tool for your business. All it takes is some time to write helpful posts. If you can’t write helpful advice a few times a month about the problem you aim to solve as a freelancer, you might just be in the wrong business.

  3. Offer pro-bono work for a big name

    Everybody loves free work, right? Well, if you have a relationship with a big name person or business, why not offer them some free work in exchange for a link or promotion?

    I helped my friend Baker from Man Vs. Debt for free with some site optimization and design, and have gotten tons of inquiries and a client through the link he added to Think Traffic in his footer. Win-win.

  4. Run a contest

    This is a great way to drum up interest in your services. Basically, you run a contest on your website giving away some access to your services (a free hour of consulting, a strategy session, etc.) to a limited number of readers. To be eligible to win one of the free services, you ask your readers to leave a comment on the post (great for building community) and/or to tweet about the contest on Twitter (great for attracting new readers).

    Then, you select the winners from the best comments after the contest has been open for a week or two. Announce the winners on your site, and offer a limited-time discount to anyone who didn’t win. You can even write the non-winners and thank them for entering. Some of the winners might also become repeat clients.

  5. Create a product

    The fact that you’re a freelancer doesn’t mean you have to (or should) earn all of your income through services. Creating products can be a great way to earn extra income as well as attract more clients.

    When you’re just starting out, creating a product can be a great way to demonstrate your expertise. A strong product will create the perception that you’re an authority on your topic and can lead to attracting new clients. Plus, when you’re a new freelancer, you might as well do something productive with that extra time on your hands ;)

Do you know other ways to get clients as a new freelancer? Please share in the comments!

Corbett Barr is an website traffic consultant, entrepreneur and blogger. Find out more about he helps clients build high-traffic websites and blogs at Think Traffic.

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Agent X is the name many mysterious and intriguing people take on when they guest post at our site. Their mission is to slip in like a thief in the night, leave you with entertaining, valuable and useful content, and slip away again - without getting caught.

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  1. Another option that I’ve recommended to a number of people trying to break into IT is to donate your services to a non-profit charity. First, these non-profits are often desperate for help, so won’t be too picky about your lack of experience. Second, it looks good to have a couple good causes on your resume. Third, if you handle it right, you can write off the work as a charitable contribution on your taxes (consult your accountant on this one, as I’m not sure what the rules are). It’s not as good as actual cash money, but it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
    .-= Lugh´s last blog ..Bestest. Wife. EVAR!! =-.

  2. Solomon says:

    It’s so timely article as I’m raw and new in a new city as we relocated recently. Thank you so much!

  3. Love #5! Not that I’ve been doing that now since, oh, 1998….. :)
    .-= Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog ..A Secret Expert Glimpse Into PROFITABLE April Fools Day Postings (ie, how to write one) =-.

  4. I agree completely that it’s critical to narrow your focus. You can get really specific and develop a serious position in your particular niche of pez dispenser collecting users of 1974 Scoobie Doo lunchboxes.

    Once your niche can’t get enough of you they will tell others and you can branch out and provide products or services to an even bigger audience while still staying true to your niche.

    If you have a large enough audience, the contest trick is a REALLY powerful route. It will give you a ton of contacts really quickly. Just make sure you pay up in the end.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire
    .-= Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire´s last blog ..Secret Sneezing Customer Makes Small Business Owner Rich =-.

  5. I agree that it’s important to have a website, and I think self-hosted WordPress is the way to go.

    However, not every freelancer should have a blog. As you know, blogs take a lot of time, and may not be the best return on investment of time.
    .-= John Soares´s last blog ..Freelance Writing for Non-Profit Organizations =-.

  6. I read something in Peter Bowerman’s books that has stuck with me: Do at least one “marketing” thing every day. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Just send an email, comment on someone else’s blog, make a cold call, ask someone to recommend you. Often you won’t see any immediate fruit from these seeds, but some seeds will bear fruit sooner and others later. By planting seeds daily, not only do you ensure a steady harvest, you also develop the discipline of marketing, something that a lot of freelancers struggle with.
    .-= Melanie Jongsma´s last blog ..Maundy Thursday: the Great Reconciliation =-.

  7. James – Thanks again for the opportunity to write this guest post. I’m really happy to be connecting with some of your readers. They’re really great.

    @Lugh – Great idea about working for nonprofits. It might be the way to go when you have no experience or have had trouble getting any pro-bono work for businesses.

    @Joshua – Yes! The contest route can be really powerful. It does help to build up your audience a little before you try it though. The last time I used that technique, I uncovered about 50 potential clients and ended up working with 8 or so.

    @John – Blogging does take a lot of time. I haven’t found any good resources about how to calculate the ROI on blogging for freelancers. Do you know of any?

    @Melanie – Definitely agree with doing at least one marketing task a day. One of my favorite discoveries is when I’m reading old posts on a popular blog and find comments left by people who are now HUGE bloggers, but were formerly just starting out like everyone else. Patience and persistence are really important and will pay off eventually.
    .-= Corbett Barr´s last blog ..Think Traffic Made the BIGLIST! Welcome Top Rank Readers =-.

  8. A contest is a great way to do many things. Build contacts, increase readers and followers and even getting freelancing clients. If can really help traffic on your site and bring it helpful resources.

  9. I’ve employed most of these techniques to get my time management consulting company off of the ground. Right now, I’m running an iPad drawing with 1-in-200 odds, to get my first 200 clients. If you’re interested in that, visit http://www.cumalu.com

    One thing that you might also want to include is to engage with people on Twitter. I haven’t been as diligent with this as I want to be, but you can find a lot of interested clients on Twitter. If you’re a backpack salesman and someone posts an update that his backpack just broke, you could be the first person to @ reply them with some sort of an offer. You can find keyword-intensive searches easily from the Twitter search box.

    I think companies need to realize that, in this era, building great relationships with consumers is about getting into conversations. If you’re knowledgeable about your product or service, this will be easy for you.

  10. Thanks for the advice, I am just starting out and these tips are really helpful thank you!

  11. Interesting post. I particularly like #1 and #5 and the tips from @Melanie and @Lugh

  12. The only thing I’d caution readers on (and I learned this the hard way) is that you need to make sure you take advantage of paid work whenever it’s available; marketing is great, but don’t spend all hours marketing and not making immediate revenue.

  13. I think creating a product is a great way to get some more passive income. It’s a lot of cost/time to create it up front but once you get it created, you just have to create updates and support.

    I’ve also done work for non-profits, which give a good backlink to your site for direct traffic and seo.
    .-= Jared Detroit´s last blog ..Get More Traffic From Local Search Results =-.

  14. Excellent post, I have recently come back on the freelance circuit after 6 years and am surprised at how much competition there is out there. As said above, you need to find that balance with spending time on marketing, blogging etc and doing and getting paid work. The hard part of it all is convincing a client to work with a freelancer instead of an agency.

  15. Hi! I’m so excited to be here, you guys have no idea. I’ve been silently stalking your community the past few weeks, reading reading learning learning and waiting for my resignation notice to take effect…

    Now that I’ve worked my ass off to get things wrapped up at the former job, I’m out on my own! Yey! Excited and SCARED… but it’s okay cause I got a 3-step surefire plan and I think I’m gonna be okay… :)

    Step 1: I’m waiting for the money to arrive in my PayPal account to get Write for the Web :) :) :)

    Step 2: I’ve started a blog (thanks for this great article!!)

    Step 3: Getting ready for all the other steps!

    LOL. Thanks heaps guys, and am excited to introduce myself and officially join this community. Finally. Yey.

  16. Doing pro bono work is a great idea–wonderful way to build a portfolio and make connections.

  17. Thanks for the great advice. I have been writing blog content for free for other for more than a year. I have considered doing some freelance writing, but didn’t know quite where to start. This gives me some good ideas.

  18. Never thought of 4. Running a contest. That’s a pretty innovative idea.

    Thanks for the advice!

  19. I’m a bit hesitant to post this. I don’t like being the bad guy, and I’m sure Corbett’s a smart, talented guy with loads of valuable stuff to say, but I really wonder how valuable this post is to people “Just Starting Out”. It sounds more relevant to a semi-established blogger/freelancer, but they’ve probably read this stuff a million times on other blogs anyway.

    1. I’ll give you point 1. It’s almost always relevant.

    2. Blogging is hardly “imperative” to freelancers. Any smart, driven, talented freelancer can likely find plenty of business in even relatively small cities. Reaching the world is one option, but it is far from necessary. Either way, this option takes a substantial investment of time, and by the time they start seeing results, they’ll probably be well past the point of “Just Starting Out”.

    3. I’ve never tried this, so maybe I’m wrong, but finding and convincing a “big name” to allow you to even give them work seems like a pretty big job for someone just starting out. Personally, I’d spend that time finding a small name that would actually pay me for the job. Again, somebody who is semi-established might be in a better position to benefit from this option.

    4. Contest – If you happen to be established and you happen to have a blog/podcast/whatever that people pay attention to, this can be great. If you’re just starting out, who’s even going to notice?

    5. Product – Again, established bloggers seem to go this way. They have a dedicated group of followers, and they’ve already been creating content that people would pay for, sometimes for years. I don’t know of many that start this way, though.

    All of that said, I’m open to being proven wrong and feeling like a jerk, haha.

  20. @Chris – I feel compelled to come debate :)

    1. We agree.

    2. Blogging is imperative, insomuch that it shows that someone is alive, doing well, and updating their website. Many people will measure whether a freelancer is available for work based on his blog activity. I often receive referrals from people and they say, “… you might want to look at this guy… but I don’t know. His blog hasn’t been updated since 2008. He may not be in business anymore.”

    Inactivity or lack of activity signals out of business.

    3. I’ll use my own example here. I contacted Brian Clark. He had no friggin’ idea who I was, just some weenie starting out. And because I contacted him – one of the biggest names out there – I became a regular featured weekly blogger at CB, and the benefits of that are multiple.

    4. If your contest is worthy and you take the time to stand up and shout out to people it exists, it can provide a serious boost. If you throw a contest and don’t invite anyone, of course it won’t work.

    5. Creating a product *before* launching is something I counsel my clients. This is just smart, to have passive income set up before even doing anything else. Sets the foundation for good success :)

    Your turn! Woot!

  21. @James

    Haha, thanks for the comments, James. Here are a few more thoughts.

    2. We might have to agree to disagree on this one. Certainly a dead blog on someone’s website is a bad sign, and when I see them I run quickly in the other direction. I also agree that a blog can open up a lot of possibilities. I think a freelancer, a freelance writer especially, is generally better off with a blog than they are without one, assuming they stay active. That said, I still don’t think it’s imperative. A good idea, sure, but there are other ways to market yourself. Freelancers are creative people and can come up with some pretty creative solutions that don’t involve a blog. And I still believe that the benefits that come with blogging are not as immediate as the subject of the post might imply.

    3. This was a dumb comment on my part. I’m a designer and was thinking from the perspective of a freelance designer. No excuses. Should have taken the time to reread the name of the blog I was reading. Submitting articles to known blogs is certainly a worthwhile way for freelance writers to give free work and get some attention. Still, while it’s certainly a relevant point, I can’t help but think that it’s kind of a gimme for writers who read blogs like this one. Though, if they are just starting out I do suppose it’s possible they haven’t read about how awesome guest posting is quite as often as I have.

    4. I’ll agree on this one, haha. There are ways that don’t involve blogging to get attention for a contest, so the general idea of a contest can potentially be helpful.

    5. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the point of the article. This seems like the sort of thing that is good for someone just starting out to think about and start work on, just like blogging, but is this really something a freelancer just starting out should do specifically to get clients? If you just quit your job or went part-time and started your own business, shouldn’t you be out actually getting clients rather than writing a book or something that you can use to get clients someday? I’m not arguing that passive income isn’t a good thing, or that a product can’t bring you extra attention. Again, there are plenty of blogs out there saying as much, and I agree with them, but this isn’t an article about the goals people just starting out should be working towards. I didn’t get that impression, anyway. Great goal, but probably not the place the person that is the focus of this article should focus their efforts if they’re trying to get clients and pay the bills.

    Open to being proven more wrong!

  22. Excellent article and all good points. I’ve been blogging for a year and naively thought that “if you build it they will come.” In-bound marketing is the new buzz word but in conversation with my blogging buddies have concluded not much business has come directly from blogging. But — and this is a big BUT — I now have a large portfolio of my work and just got my first blogging client (to the point of having a niche). Having a blog has established my credentials for blogging and other writing assignments. It also keeps me sharp and disciplined having to turn out copy, be up on the news of my industry, and providing good advice and ideas. Also potential clients now Google your name before they even contact you. Voila! They can see your most current work online. If you don’t have a blog/website how can they do their initial evaluation of your work?
    .-= Jeannette Paladino´s last blog ..Facial Cues Tell us a Lot About People and Success in Business =-.

  23. That’s a very encouraging testimony, Jeannette. Thanks for sharing it!
    .-= Melanie Jongsma´s last blog ..Maundy Thursday: the Great Reconciliation =-.

  24. Thanks for the article. I would add ‘build your LinkedIn network’ I have had success getting new business from LinkedIn, but it’s all in the approach. Here is a blog I wrote about how to do it http://bit.ly/b654mJ

  25. 6. Comment on people’s blogs

  26. Blogging is very important! It increases your web presences and shows you are serious about your craft. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Very true, especially #1, #2, and #5. Blogs help big time as well as differentiating yourself from your competitors. Those are the two that have helped me the most.

  28. Number 1 was what worked for me. I’ve yet to do any of the other points mentioned.

    I’m a freelance web developer, and up until recently, that’s what I was marketing myself as. I got generic, small, rather picky clients that were a nightmare to deal with. It was stressful, to say the least.

    Most of my own sites are made in CakePHP, so I started using it in a few clients projects. I’ve since decided that working with CakePHP in EVERY project, is what I want to do. I’ve now started marketing myself as a CakePHP developer and started landing contracts lasting a few months at a time.

    Narrowing my focus hasn’t just gotten me more work, but it’s helped me find bigger, more understanding, joyful clients, wanting the exact kind of work that I want to do.

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