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

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

  • Finding new freelance clients

  • Kicking off a new project

  • The design/build phase

  • 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:

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?
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."

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.

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.

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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