So you’ve decided to start your freelance business, but don’t know where to find your first paying client. I’ve been there, done that— to say the least. And so have thousands of other successful freelancers. A few years ago I started my freelance marketing business and wasted a lot of time seeking out clients in the wrong places. Knowing where to spend my time and energy prospecting is ultimately what led me to build a massive six-figure freelance business.

The holy trinity of freelancing includes:

  1. LinkedIn
  2. Freelance Job Websites
  3. Networking

So, let’s go over where to actually find high-quality freelance clients, so you don’t make the same mistakes I did in the beginning…

1) LinkedIn over everything.

If you’re in my Facebook group, you know I’m a big believer in the power of LinkedIn for freelancers. And that’s because I can easily attribute well over six-figures of my annual income to LinkedIn alone. Out of all the freelance job websites, networking events, and Facebook groups— LinkedIn is the single best place to live as a freelancer on the internet.

As a new freelancer, you’ll want to optimize your LinkedIn profile so you can start prospecting. Your LinkedIn profile is the most important social media platform you have as a freelancer because it has the most potential to create reliable income for your business. If you’re new to LinkedIn, there’s a few parts of your profile that are extremely important for freelancers.

The main components of your LinkedIn profile include:

  1. Profile photo
  2. Title/headline
  3. Skills/endorsed skills
  4. Recommendations
  5. Experience

After your profile is updated and optimized, you’re ready to go. LinkedIn makes it super easy to search for your ideal client. For example: Do you work with restaurant owners? Law firms? Medical practices? You can search for these people and begin building business relationships with them. LinkedIn is the only social media platform where you can search for your target market, easily find them and then message them. I’ve coined the term “The LinkedIn prospecting funnel” which lays out exactly how to prospect on the LinkedIn platform.

The initial steps of the LinkedIn prospecting funnel:

  1. Conduct a thorough search on the platform for your ideal client
  2. Craft a unique connection message, don’t just connect without saying something!
  3. Send them a connection request
  4. Follow-up within two weeks if they don’t answer your original connection message
  5. Ask them about their business, send them your portfolio, and let them know if you think they could benefit from your services
  6. Get them on the phone. The end-goal is to always get them on the phone, because it’s easier to close someone that way.
  7. If you don’t initially close them, keep them in your network and circle back quarterly.

Messaging that is appropriate:

Connection request

Hi _____,

I’d love to connect with you. I’m a social media marketer and have worked with over 25+ companies over the past three years. I’d love to learn more about your business. Please view my portfolio here: [insert link]

Follow-up

Hi _____,

Thanks for accepting my connection request. I’d love to learn more about [insert company name here] and see if we can mutually benefit each other. As mentioned before, I’m a social media marketer and went ahead and took a look at your online presence. [Insert something you’d improve here]. I’d love to chat sometime this week if you have availability in your schedule. Please let me know when would work for a quick call!

Everyone on LinkedIn is a professional.

Still not convinced you need to use LinkedIn for your freelance business? Remember, nearly everyone on LinkedIn is a professional of some sort. You can’t say that about other social media platforms. LinkedIn is populated with hundreds of thousands of business owners. The earning potential is infinite— and you can directly contact any CEO you find on the platform. 

For more about using LinkedIn, read our complete LinkedIn for Freelancers Guide.

Cold outreach is your friend.

Typically, when freelancers are used to working in a traditional 9-5 they are not comfortable with conducting cold outreach, sales, and pitching themselves in general. This is okay! We all felt this way at one time. But it’s important to note that cold outreach will become your best friend. When you’re self-employed, you’ll rarely get business if you just sit back and wish for it. Getting good at cold outreach is something that separates successful freelancers from unsuccessful ones.

Practice cold outreach on LinkedIn by using the prospecting funnel and getting comfortable with pitching people and building business relationships. LinkedIn is the best place on the internet to send cold messages to business owners because it’s deemed 100% appropriate.

If you want to learn more about prospecting for freelance clients on LinkedIn, click here to read our latest article.

2) Utilize Freelance job websites, especially in the beginning.

Avoid one of the most common newbie freelance mistakes and don’t assume you’re “too good” for freelance job websites, working for less than you ultimately desire, and getting valuable experience. When I began freelancing, I was working for $15/hour and on $400/month retainers. Now, nearly three years later, I work for $75/hour and have multiple $2500/month retainers. Everyone starts somewhere. Building your portfolio and gaining valuable experience is key— and something I attribute a lot of my freelance success toward. I have an enormous portfolio because that’s what I focused on in the beginning. Don’t try to skip steps, especially if you’re completely new to an industry.

There are a lot of freelance websites you can utilize to gain experience and grow your portfolio, but listed below are my top three choices for freelancers.

  1. Upwork
  2. Freelancer
  3. 99Designs

When in doubt, start on Upwork.

Upwork (previously oDesk) has over 1.5 million clients, making it the most widely used platform for freelancers. It’s a generic freelance website, meaning it serves every type of freelancer. On Upwork, you can bid on a certain amount of projects per month and pay a little extra if you want access to more job proposals. It accommodates both short and long-term projects as well as hourly or per-project fees. There are numerous projects posted each day for entry-level, intermediate, and experienced freelancers. So no matter where you are in your freelance career, Upwork will have opportunities for you.

I was able to grow my portfolio through Upwork and work with different industries during my early freelancing days. I highly suggest any new freelancer getting involved on Upwork.

Side note, I also believe in Upwork so much that I now hire freelancers for my own business through it!

Freelancer is similar to Upwork, but not as populated.

Freelancer is incredibly simple to set-up as a freelancer and you can have your profile up and running in under ten minutes. There’s a great payment protection program on Freelancer as well. Overall, it’s similar to Upwork— just with fewer users. It is still ranked one of the top five freelance job websites in the world, so it’s definitely worth checking out.

99Designs was created for freelance designers.

99Designs is an amazing freelance platform that was created for graphic designers. Although I’m not a graphic designer, I have tons of colleagues who have made thousands of dollars through 99Designs. It’s notably the most powerful freelance graphic design platform on the internet. On this platform, you compete in design contests and get feedback from prospective clients. You’re able to prove your talents and become highly recommended over time.

3) Network in real life, too.

Now I’m not saying this is something you necessarily have to do, but it’s definitely something I did. And I picked up a lot of initial local business from doing it. Therefore, I do recommend adding networking to your overall prospecting strategy as a new freelancer.

I’ll also be the first to say that networking in real life can be super overrated. Local mixers and chamber of commerce events can be super corporate and stuffy— trust me, I know. But sometimes we have to do things we don’t enjoy as much to get to where we want to be. So, it doesn’t have to be your long-term prospecting plan, but in the beginning, it definitely helps to grow a local clientele and get the word out in your community. I was able to receive a lot of referrals from working with a few local companies in my area. It’s also beneficial when people around you know who you are and what you do.

How to network locally in your community:

  • Consider joining your local chamber of commerce
  • Search for young professional networks
  • Attend city events and business happy hours
  • Join local Facebook networking groups in your area
  • Google search other networking events local to you

My first client was a local small business who paid me $400/month. I met the business owner at a chamber of commerce event, we exchanged business cards, and I followed-up with an email and linked my portfolio. This was back in 2015 and it surely wasn’t a lot of money, but what it did for my business was well worth it in the long-run. That business owner ended up referring me to two other local business owners and that’s essentially how I grew my freelance marketing business within my local community. Although I don’t network as much as I did in the beginning, I’ll never underestimate the power of building business relationships in person. And you shouldn’t either. When in doubt, network it out.

Don’t overlook your circle of influence.

When people begin freelancing, they often forget that they already have a circle of influence. Your circle of influence includes your family, friends, and previous employers and co-workers. There is likely already someone in your circle of influence that could benefit from your services and offerings, so it’s important to network in non-traditional business settings as well.

When you get started freelancing make a list of everyone in your circle of influence. Perhaps start with the top twenty people you interact with the most. From there, you’ll be able to expand and get more specific. When I first started freelancing, I wrote an email to fifteen people within my circle of influence and let them know about my new business. Include a link to your website, portfolio and any other information they’d need to be able to professionally refer you business.

You never know who might need your services in the future, or who knows someone that could benefit from your freelance business. If they don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t give yourself a chance.

For example: You might be at a family Super Bowl party with friends or family members who could benefit from your freelance services. You’d never know if you didn’t engage in conversation with these people. Use your circle of influence to ask for referrals and meet new potential prospects. Networking isn’t just for traditional business events, it becomes a part of your daily life when you’re self-employed. Although it might seem out of your comfort zone at first, it’ll get easier the more you pitch yourself.

Stay focused on finding your first paying client.

Focus on finding your first client. Because one becomes two and two becomes twenty-two. At How To Actually Freelance, we are big believers in this. Finding the first paying client typically proves to be one of the hardest tasks for new freelancers. It requires hard-work, cold outreach, and real effort. Unlike traditional 9-5 jobs, nothing is handed to you in the freelance world. Paychecks aren’t deposited bi-weekly, so you have to go out and create your own income.

Stay focused on the “holy trinity” of freelancing and you’ll be able to find high-quality freelance clients a lot quicker than the average newbie.

  1. LinkedIn
  2. Freelance Job Websites
  3. Networking

If you feel out of your comfort zone while prospecting, that’s a good thing. Getting started is the hardest part. Keep going and stay focused! Eventually, you’ll be generating a lot of referrals and business will be flowing! Let us know your experience with finding your first paying client in the comments below.

How To Actually Freelance is an educational platform that offers invaluable resources and tools for freelancers, entrepreneurs, and side-hustlers. Founded by six-figure freelancer Linzi Martin, How To Actually Freelance is focused on teaching people how to thrive beyond the traditional 9-5.