How to Get Clients: An Immediate Action Guide for Freelancers

I make my living providing web development, design, and digital marketing services to clients, and I’m no stranger to the struggle.

But lately, business has been consistent and lucrative, something that wasn’t always the case. Thinking about how I got to this point, I decided it might be time to share some feedback. After all, working from home, making good money, and being able to pick your projects is what most of us are after. Being an expert developer, designer, or digital marketer is a great goal to strive for. But of all the talents required to be a successful freelancer, I’ve come to the conclusion that none of them are as important as client acquisition. None of them. No clients means no business.

I’ve stumbled, flat-out failed, visited the unemployment office twice, and eventually found solid ground all in an effort to acquire clients. It’s a bumpy road, but it’s manageable. And if you’re hungry and willing, it can be incredibly rewarding. As a way to help fellow freelancers put a little more money in their pockets, I’ve put together a scrappy guide of personal case studies and step-by-step battle plans for acquiring clients.

“I want to be a freelancer.”

So you’ve made the decision to start providing client services. After your morning ritual, you sit down at your computer with your cup of coffee. Today is your ribbon cutting. But where do you start?

To be honest though, you don’t.

Unless you have a solid budget, establishing a client base from scratch on day one is a great way to find yourself working for someone else. In many cases, including my own, you’ll want to become full-time operational after the client base is established. This means working your day job and moonlighting on the side until you reach your magic number.

Method #1: Elance & Odesk

For a long time, I believed that using these online marketplaces to gain clients was a mistake. I was dead wrong. I came into this arena without any ratings and a higher-than-average price tag, and it has become one of my steadiest and most lucrative streams of clients.

Do this:
  1. Create a well-written profile
  2. Include a high-quality headshot
  3. Play to your locale
  4. Create an on-site portfolio and link to any offsite portfolios, blogs, and social networks you use frequently
  5. When bidding, don’t use generic copy. Address the prospect personally, references project requirements, and ask questions
  6. When bidding, quote them the first time. It doesn’t have to be precise, but ballpark the time and price. Give them something to work with
  7. Provide contact details to include instant messaging, e-mail, and phone. Invite them to schedule a time to talk
Demographic (approximation):
  • Client quality varies significantly, but with a little calibration, you can find some incredibly good apples with long-term potential
  • My market is web development jobs
  • Over 30% of my clients are from my location and have responded positively to that indicator
  • Over 70% of my clients commented on being sold by my portfolio link
  • 40% of clients have only required 1 meeting to get things started, the other half required a follow-up
Difficulty:
  • This market is low entry, but you’ll set yourself apart with a portfolio

Method #2: Cold Calling Small Businesses

I’ve spent a lot of time identifying businesses in my area, populating them in a spreadsheet, and meeting up with a buddy at his office to spend 4-6 hours cold calling leads. The number of proposals we pushed out highly outweighed the number of sales we closed. Maybe that was because this was all outbound, maybe we sucked at closing, or maybe our price was too high. Nonetheless, I’ve still found clients this way and learned a few lessons worth sharing.

Do this:
  1. Goto YellowPages.com
  2. Search for local businesses you’d like to service by category and location
  3. Populate an excel sheet of business name, address, website URL, and phone number (at least 50+)
  4. Prepare a 4-6 hour block of cold calling
  5. Try to get your calls in between 8-11AM (I received more positive responses during that timeframe than any other)
  6. When pitching, offer them a free website audit or online marketing evaluation to get them talking (the margin is up to you)
  7. When pitching, ask them what their current challenges are
  8. When pitching, identify how you can make them money based on their current challenges
  9. When pitching, ask for the follow up
  10. Track your client interactions and notes in your crappy little excel spreadsheet. Trust me.
Demographic (approx):
  • Small business owners have small budgets, but some are smart enough to know they need marketing help and respond positively if sold well.
  • You are not the only person who has reached out to them. They have a nephew who’s been working on their web site for the past 7 months and ten guys from India offering to do it for $11/hr.
  • This market is more interested in web marketing than web design, and many don’t know the difference between the two
  • Offering free proposals and audits received a positive response almost every time
  • I submitted way more proposals than clients received compared to any other client source
Difficulty:
  • Medium barrier to entry
  • Requires that you must be good at sales and communicating complex ideas in a simple manner
  • Requires a good portfolio
  • Significant time investment from the initial call to the closing stage

Method #3: Local Lead Generation

This strategy is for the web developer / internet marketer hybrid and was introduced to me by friend and mentor Trevor Reeves. If your services are specific to web development, you probably know the basics of internet marketing. And if you don’t, or if you just need a refresher, read Moz.com’s beginner’s guide to SEO.

This isn’t an immediate solution, but it’s a lucrative one. The goal here is to create a web site that generates targeted traffic for local business owners. Once that goal is achieved, you can focus on selling the leads to businesses in your marketed areas. This model focuses on a fixed monthly model and can make for some nice residual income. It will also get you thinking about your services from a revenue-specific perspective, a quality every freelancer will benefit from.

Do this:
  1. Buy a domain name [brand/keyword] + [city name] such as PlanoCleanCarpets.com.
  2. Do a little research about carpet cleaning, and identify 15-20 different types of carpet cleaning services and DIY topics.
  3. Take your list to TextBroker or MechanicalTurk and find a content writer to author the topics.
  4. Build a web site using WordPress and a free theme that doesn’t look terribly like a blog or get premium themes from ThemeForest.
  5. Setup a Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google + account with images and branding.
  6. Go over to HootSuite and schedule out 6-7 posts / status updates a week for 90 days for each of the social media accounts. Just look for relevant content worth sharing, and later incorporate the links to your content that is currently being written.
  7. Go buy a mailbox at a UPS location (cost varies based on location and size of box). Google has a manual review team that verifies the location of business owners in Places. If you are using a home address or mailbox, they will remove you from Places. Instead, consider renting or making an agreement with a business office to receive mail, and use them for the business address. You’ll need this for the next step.
  8. Register for a Google Places page using your newly acquired mailing address. Wait a week for your Google postcard to arrive and then confirm your Places page.
  9. Go purchase some link packages from CreatureLocal or Layered Links and point them at your web property and social media accounts. (Note: This isn’t a one-stop solution for link building, and I recommend this only for search marketers who know what they’re doing.)
  10. Goto Fiverr and stock up on 150-200 Facebook likes and Twitter followers.
  11. When you have your content ready, post the majority of it on your web site. Save 5-6 articles to drip-post on future dates over the course of the next 4 weeks.
  12. Signup for a Callfire account, and buy a local phone number for the area you’re marketing to. Forward all calls to your phone number.
  13. Setup your analytics tool of choice, and wait a few weeks.
Additional:
  • By the 30 day mark, you should start to see some indicators that people are finding your site for Plano carpet cleaning services. If not, you chose a sparsely populated area or dicked something else up, in which case fix it (and do some research on the city you’re trying to market to).
  • By the 60 day mark, you should get a few phone calls, just enough to make you remember you have the web site up. Give those leads to a few local carpet cleaning companies. For free. See what happens with the relationship. But build the relationship.
  • If things work out, entertain the idea of renting the web site out to them for $500-$700/mo. (or higher, depending on the lead volume and industry). Change the Callfire number to forward to the client’s phone so you can track the leads. Be sure to create a monthly report for your client to show them the leads they’ve received from your web site.
  • Offer to build their reputation in other targeted areas for a similar deal. Rinse and repeat. This isn’t a fire and forget operation though. If you start seeing revenue, reinvest it to make these web assets stronger. And don’t be afraid to charge more or find other buyers once your web properties become more valuable.
Demographic (approx):
  • Small business owners won’t trust you initially, so build some trust with a few free leads
  • Some owners will have a problem with the TLD name being different than their business
  • Some owners will have a problem not using their actual business phone number
Difficulty:
  • Getting in a good rhythm with this is up to your ability to rank locally.
  • Once you find a good gameplan, you can scale it across many local service providers.
  • Initial setup takes 60-90 days to get moving and see results

Method #4: Scraping & Spamming

I took some time to test the waters of e-mail spamming for clients. I wanted to start finding new approaches to acquiring clients, and thought I’d give this highly illegal method a try, if only for science. Again, e-mailing people from a harvested list is illegal and most certainly against all web app terms of use.

Do this:
  1. Download the Yellow Pages Scraper
  2. Scrape YellowPages.com for 1,000s of local small businesses
  3. Compile excel spreadsheet with business name, e-mail, phone number, and address
  4. Populate .csv into web mailing software (MailChimp, Aweber, etc..)
  5. Send mass e-mail offering marketing services and discounted or free audits
Additional:
  • Industries: Plumbers, Landscapers, Lawyers, Restaurants, House Cleaners, Pool Services, and Pest Control
  • Services Offered: Web design and SEO/PPC
  • # Contacted: ~1,200
  • Timeline: 6 Days
  • Avg. Open Rate: 25%
  • CTR: 10-12%
  • Responses: 7 Emails, 3 Phone Calls
  • Conversions: 2 (Gym owner and landscape service)
Demographic (approx):
  • Identical to cold calling demographic
  • Many responses were more interested in my services for a side business they had, and not the one I had been marketing to
  • Going from e-mail to phone call to close was relatively quick in comparison to cold calling
Difficulty:
  • This is illegal
  • If you can setup a scraper and a mail client, you can set this campaign up
  • Requires fairly decent copy, although you can opt for a more personal, short e-mail

Method #5: Partnering & White Labeling

Nothing beats referrals. Period. Referrals from mom, referrals from your ex-girlfriend, referrals from happy clients, and referrals from trusted companies – nothing beats referrals. Once you get going, you can literally live off of your referrals, but until then, it’s a long march up-hill. But there is a way to speed this up. I’m referring to partnering with agencies or other freelancers, and making projects happens together.

If you run a business or have ever made the mistake of attaching your e-mail address to a web site offering professional services, you know that every overseas company sees the benefit of these partnership and is actively trying to capitalize. The e-mails are annoying, but the concept is gold. My best clients, with one exception, are thanks to third-party referrals.

Do this:
  1. Scrape local job boards, yellowpages.com, and Google for design shops and marketing agencies in your area
  2. Get out your trust excel spreadsheet and build your list
  3. Call and schmooze the gatekeeper (Note: seriously, the receptionist or secretary on the other end has heard it all, be unique)
  4. When you get declined, call again. For a month. Call, and call. With compliments. Send flowers to the gate keeper. Don’t be creepy, be business-cool
  5. Get an appointment with the person in charge
  6. When negotiating, identify their challenges – if you’ve made it this far, it’s a lot less bullshittery than it would be with front-facing clients
  7. When negotiating, be prepared with your portfolio and references
  8. When negotiating, show them your business processes and show them how it solves a problem their company or workflow is facing
  9. When negotiating, offer to white label and don’t decline a few “trust building” projects (don’t accept less pay, but accept less ideal fee structures, etc..)
  10. Sometimes, the best way to earn their business is by becoming their client
Demographic:
  • This varies too much to be as relevant as the other methods
  • This market has the ability to make you lifelong relationships and potential future business partners
  • Nothing beats referrals
Difficulty:
  • This is what every aspiring business owner or freelancer aspires for; a steady stream of referral-based leads
  • This is incredibly time consuming, as with any relationship building absent of an immediate ROI
  • Your ability to understand their business is a must

Creative Talent vs. Exposure

I need to add that the above methods wouldn’t have been nearly as successful had I not put myself out there initially with personal web sites, social media, online portfolios, at business meetups, and by reaching out to people and leveraging the relationships I already had. It takes time to get established, and it’s incredibly delicate. When you work for clients, they are your bosses, and they can (and will) fire you over project oversight, poor communication, or just because someone more talented (and in some cases, more convenient) came along. Be prepared to manage your clients – an entire topic by itself – or you’ll lose them just as quickly.

As an aside, I want emphasize that I’m an average developer and marketer. My strength is in design, but as a freelancer providing all three of these services, I’ve never let my inability to do a job stop me from writing the proposal. What I mean to say is, as a creative entrepreneur who puts obsessive detail into your craft, your talent will be greatly overshadowed by your ability to win clients.

If you have any questions, just ask in the comments. And if you found this guide helpful, please let me know and share it with a friend.

  1. This is by far the most awesome guide for anyone to use if you would like to get more business. Your guide on Method 3 is awesome!!

    • Tom Geoco

      Glad you enjoyed it! Method #3 takes a little trial and error to really appreciate the weight of each step, but once you get it going, it can be very rewarding. Aside from the “formula”, you need to make sure you’re aiming for a sizeable area (at least 200,000 population) in order to see a worthwhile search volume.

  2. Brian

    Hey this was really a great article. Thank you for sharing your knowledge, Tom.

  3. I’m working full time as a graphic designer at a job that doesn’t seem to be going places. This guide couldn’t be any more relevant. I have a few freelance clientele, but not nearly enough to make the leap into “the struggle”. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom!

    • Tom Geoco

      No problem

      Why does it feel like it isn’t going anywhere? Not enough money? Not enough clients? Crappy projects? What are your challenges?

  4. Robertt

    Hey tom,

    Awesome guide! Do you mind if I ask how much money you make as a freelancer? You mentioned going to the unemployment office.

    Thanks,
    – Robert

    • Tom Geoco

      Robert,

      When I first got going, I had a few projects fall out from underneath that put my family in a tough situation. I’ve been there before, and it’s a stressful place to be.

      I’m fortunate enough to break into five figure territory each month, but it’s not without sacrifice and it took a lot of time and hard work to get to this point.

      • Robertt

        Do you use any project management, invoicing, or accounting cloud software?

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