If you’re a brand new freelancer, this is the place to get started. This guide will teach you how to create your first freelance offer and how to land your first client. But I have to warn you, our approach here at HTAF is different than what you’ll find anywhere else.
Other how to freelance articles will give you quick, vague tips like “network” and “create a website.” Some slightly more helpful articles out there will talk about the back-end of a freelance business, like what invoicing tools to use. Trust me, we have read all the freelance articles out there. But none of those are helpful when it comes to actually starting from scratch and getting clients.
It leaves you thinking: Where are all these clients?! Who are these mythical people who will pay top-dollar (or any dollar) for a freelance services?
We got you.
But be warned in advance, it will take gusto and effort — much more so than a regular job will. You’ll have to learn how to sell yourself and stick to your guns.
Not sure which industries have great opportunities for freelancers? Listed below are some of the most in-demand freelance services in 2018:
- Writing, copywriting and editing
- Social media management
- Facebook ads and paid traffic
- Graphic design
- Photography and videography
- Virtual assistance
- Online language teaching
- Web development and design
- Coding and software engineering
- Project management and business management
First, define your services
Before you even worry about getting clients, you need to figure out what you can offer them. This is an important step that most people gloss over, but it can make or break your career. Let me explain.
What most new freelancers do is create a general, vague freelance service based on their interests or their previous job experience. This won’t cut it.
For example, let’s say you’re a graphic designer at an advertising agency. You go freelance, and decide to offer “graphic design” as a service.
Or, you’re working at a restaurant but you know you have an English degree and a passion for writing, so you decide to become a freelance writer.
Worse, you have a handful of skills and decide you’re going to offer “digital marketing services.”
None of those offers will work, because they’ll be incredibly difficult to sell.
We’ll get to the selling part later.
The smarter, scalable approach is to pick a few core service offerings.
This doesn’t mean you can only do those things, but it gives you a clear starting point to have conversations around. You can always offer to do additional things for your clients later, but having a core offer makes it easier to get clients in the first place.
If you’re a graphic designer, pick one or two specific things you can do for someone, such as logo design or brand identity. Those are your service offers.
If you want to be a writer, make sure you define what that means. Who will you write for? What will you write? Blog posts? Sales pages? Video scripts? Commercials? Print flyers? Technical documentation? Microcopy for mobile apps? What does being a writer mean to you? Get specific, because it’s probably not everything on that above list.
People who offer something as vague as “marketing services” are going to struggle the most, because marketing could mean so many different things. This causes confusion for the potential client and more work for you. You’ll end up wasting hours creating unique, customized proposals for every single prospect, and fumbling through sales calls where clients try to understand what you can do for them.
Here are the components you need to have a good core service offer:
- What specific thing you do
- Who you do it for (what type of person or business? Be specific)
- How you do it (do you have a particular process you use? How long does it take you? What info will you need from your client in order to do it? This is mostly for you to know)
- What you charge
For all of the questions, the more specific you can be the better. Here are some great examples.
“Amelia designs logos for consumer-packaged goods companies. Her design process takes three weeks using her signature framework, and it costs $3,500.”
“Dylan offers blog content writing for financial services companies. His starter package includes 4 monthly blog posts, delivered to the client for approval 2 weeks before publishing, and it costs $1500/month.”
We’ll talk more about selling later, but having a clearly defined offer is easier to sell than a vague offer or a generalized skill.
Figure out who your clients are
Before we get into pitching and selling your offer, you’ll need to come up with the best and easiest game-plan to find prospects. But in order to find them and pitch them, you need to know who they are first.
Note: Prospects are we call potential clients, and prospecting is the process of finding and contacting those people. Sometimes we also use the terms leads and lead generation.
When you created your core offer, you should have noted who your offer is for. You should know what type of business it is, what industry it’s in, and what person or people will be your main contact.
- If you’re a writer who creates marketing content, your contact within a business would be the marketing manager.
- If you specialize in graphic design for personal brands, you’ll be speaking with the CEO/Founder/Entrepreneur themselves.
- If you’re a Facebook ads specialist who wants to serve local restaurants, you’d want to connect with the restaurant manager or owner.
Make sure you know who exactly you want to contact. This is important because our next step is going to be directly reaching out to those people and pitching your service offer.
The importance of cold outreach
One of the biggest mistakes that new freelancers make is that they don’t do any cold outreach. “Cold” just means that the person you’re reaching out to doesn’t know you at all.
Cold pitching is talking to strangers.
What most new freelancers do is only look for people who are already hiring. They’ll look for posts in Facebook groups, scope out job websites, look at Craigslist gig postings, etc.
All of those things are good, but only in combination with cold pitching.
If you ONLY spend time replying to job postings, you’re always going to be fighting against a ton of competition. Your success rate is going to be significantly lower, and it will take you WAY more time to find clients.
Cold pitching, on the other hand, tends to have a higher success rate. That might sound counterintuitive, but think about it: when you cold pitch, you have no competition. There is no else applying for the job because the job doesn’t exist, you’re creating it.
If you’re thinking, “But if they didn’t post a job, they don’t need me or want to pay for my service.”
To that, we say, “How the hell do you know that?”
Tons of business owners, entrepreneurs, managers, etc., have jobs that need to be done and no time to hire someone to do them. Hiring someone takes a lot of effort, even if it’s hiring a freelancer for contract work. (You’ll learn this first-hand if you ever hire subcontractors — it’s a huge pain).
To hire someone, you have to write a job post, pay a fee in order to publish it on a reputable job board site, sift through hundreds of crappy resumes, then interview people. That’s a lot of work. So people who have jobs that need to be done don’t always post about them. They just put it off until later or find other people in the company to share the responsibility and deal with it.
The point is, plenty of businesses need your help and would be thrilled if you offered to help them. The worst case scenario is that they don’t reply or say no, and you’re in the same place you were, to begin with. Not so bad, right?
How to find prospects and cold pitch your offer
Let’s bring it full circle.
So far, you should know:
- What your offer is
- Who it’s for
- Why you should cold pitch
All you have to do is put those things together. Find the person who needs your offer and tell then what it is. If they need it, there’s actually a great chance they will buy it. So where do you find these people, and what do you actually say to them?
Find potential clients on LinkedIn
Almost anyone in any industry is on LinkedIn. In fact, it’s one of the best-kept secrets in the world for freelancers. Unlike other social networks, LinkedIn is actually for business networking. People on LinkedIn expect to connect with other people in business, it’s what the platform is built for. You can use LinkedIn to search for people within companies you want to work with, or just search by people’s role or location. You’ve got options!
Connect and send them a message
Once you find some people you want to pitch, go ahead and send them a connection request with a brief message. Your connection-request message can be something like this:
“Hi ____, I’d love to connect with you. I’m a social media marketer and have worked with over 20+ companies in the past four years. I’d love to learn more about your business. In the meantime, you can view my portfolio here: [insert portfolio/web link].
For more about using LinkedIn, read our completed LinkedIn for Freelancers Guide. For a complete guide to all the places on the internet that you can find prospects, check out Where to Actually Find Freelance Clients.
The only back-end stuff you need to worry about right now
Another common mistake that new freelancers make is that they focus too much on the wrong things. We totally get it — starting a business feels daunting, and it’s hard to know where to spend your time and effort.
Our simple philosophy is don’t spend money before you make money when you first get started. Investing in your business is important later, but not when you have $0 in income.
But what most people do is spend all their time on “setting up” the business. They think they need a logo, a fancy website, new headshots, business cards, and stressing about social media content.
You don’t have a business until you have clients. Period.
You can have a beautiful website and perfect social media, but if you don’t have anyone paying you money, you don’t have a business. You just have a weird, expensive hobby.
The only “back end” things you should worry about when getting your first clients are:
- A simple, free invoicing tool
- The email address that you already have
- A LinkedIn profile
For invoicing, we like PayPal, because it’s free and simple to set up and everyone has heard of it. No one will look twice at a PayPal invoice. It’s not sketchy, it’s easy for everyone, everyone wins. If you want to be fancy, check out Dubsado or Quickbooks.
What about legal stuff?
At this point, you’re probably outraged and thinking “What about contracts? Should I hire a lawyer to write them? And don’t I need to be an LLC? Not even business cards?”
Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.
You can find a free template online for your contracts when you first get started. Customize it a bit, and send it to your client for free using DocuSign. If you want to be a bit more legit, you could buy a contract on LawDepot for about $40.
But here’s what’s important to know about contracts when you’re first getting started. Your invoices are probably going to be under $2,000. In fact, your first invoice will probably be under $1,000. Maybe even under $500. Personally, my first invoice was for $300.
If you send someone an invoice for a small amount of money and they never pay it, are you really going to hire an expensive lawyer and head to court? Lawyers are expensive. The process could take months and suck up tons of your time. So if you don’t plan on enforcing a contract with a lawyer, why bother having one? This is an unpopular opinion, but it’s the truth.
Contracts don’t mean anything unless you plan to legally enforce them.
You probably won’t do that.
So don’t waste hours and hours stressing about an iron-clad contract when you first get started. You can get more legit and legal as you scale and actually have money to invest in a lawyer.
Another thing a lot of freelancers worry about on the “back-end” is the legality of their business. But becoming legit as an LLC takes money, and we don’t like suggesting that you spend money before you have made a single dollar. It’s perfectly fine to accept payments as an individual as long as you keep a record and pay taxes later. You don’t have to create an LLC right away, you’re not doing anything wrong by waiting until later on.
Eventually, incorporating your business is something you should do. We’re just saying not to worry about it on day one when you have zero clients and no income.
What about business cards and a website?
Okay, fine. If you really want business cards, who are we to stop you? But know that unless in-person networking is something you love doing and will be a big part of your prospecting strategy, you can probably skip these.
You really don’t need a website when you’re first starting out. I know, gasp. Shock. Awe. But talk to any successful freelancer and ask how many times they have ever gotten a client because of their website, and the answer is probably zero.
Your website will not make sales for you. Only you can do that. If you want a fancy website later on, that’s great. But too many freelancers waste weeks or months perfecting their websites and it just becomes an excuse not to do any work that generates revenue.
Again: a website does not mean you have a business. Clients mean you have a business.
What you can do, however, is create a simple portfolio with examples of your work. You can do this FOR FREE and you don’t need a designer or website professional to help you make it. In fact, you can just read our free guide on portfolios here.
Whew. That was a lot of info. Let’s recap.
That was a long article with a lot of info! We know. But we pride ourselves on going beneath the surface. Let’s look at the actions you need to take to start your freelance business step-by-step.
Before you ever pitch your services:
- Create your core service offer
- Define your ideal customer
How to get clients:
- Reply to job and gig postings
- Focus mainly on cold outreach
How to do cold outreach:
- Find people you want to pitch using LinkedIn
- Send them a message and get them on the phone
- Follow-up via email if you don’t make the sale on the phone