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Getting Your First 3 Paying Clients as a New Freelancer

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If you’re on the fence about leaving the 9-to-5 for a freelance career, before you take the plunge, first consider whether freelancing is right for you. There’s only one way to do that effectively—find a number of actual paying clients. 

Landing one client can be a fluke, two can mean you're just lucky, but at least three will give you the confidence that there are people willing and able to pay for your services, and that you know how to find them.

I had to learn this for myself, the hard way. When I quite my day job, I had only one major freelance client. I was thrilled because the contract was close enough to my salary. But on my last day at work, the new client pulled out. There was no warning and only one week’s notice. That stung. 

I should have had more clients lined up before leaving. I had to scramble my first few weeks of freelancing. But, it's almost a year now, and contrary to speculation, I have not gone running back to my old firm. 

As someone who left behind the 9-to-5 (more like 8-to-8), friends and ex-colleagues now look at me with a bit of awe. The most common question I’m asked is “How on earth did you do it?” I’ve been asked that question so often, I now have a quick, ready formula for them: start by finding at least three paying clients.

In this article, discover how you can find your first three paying clients. Also, how to make sure you've got the right kind of clients as you move forward with your freelance business. 

1. What Problem Can You Solve?

Sites like Upwork and especially Fiverr, show that you can sell just about any skill online. These sites are a reference point into the freelance market. (Note that I'm not advising you to sign up there.Though many people earn a living on these sites, it is often a lowest price war, especially for those who are just starting off. You do not want to be a commodity and find yourself stuck with low paying jobs.)

Instead, take a minute to identify: What are your unique strengths? What are you so great at that your friends and coworkers are always raving about it? If you’re having trouble identifying your unique skills and strengths, try the following two things to achieve some clarity:

  1. Ask your friends and colleagues “What are three things you think I’m best at?” You can use a short anonymous survey via Google Forms to collect this feedback. Keeping it anonymous would encourage your friends to be more forthcoming and honest about the feedback.
  2. Browse through the freelancer sites I mentioned above and take a  look at the highest paid freelancers in each domain. Make a note of what the top freelancers claim as their unique selling proposition. (You can also browse our Envato Studio, which is a higher paying freelance site for graphic designers and web development professionals.)

Once you've identified your unique skills and strengths, comes the next question to ask yourself: 

What problem do these unique skills and strengths, enable me to solve? 

Freelancing, or any business, is not about you. It is about your clients.

You may be exceptionally talented. But unless you can provide a service that a client needs, or solve a problem that clients have, no one will pay you. Identify what kind of pain point, need or want, you can help potential clients address. 

To get started, make a list of ten such real world problems you can help potential clients solve. Then grade each of these by how urgent, how important and how unique they are—plus how well positioned you are to provide the solution. Use this as the basis to target the right clients.

2. Target the Right Market

So far you have identified your skills, your unique selling proposition (USP) and the problem you're going to solve for people. Now you have to identify potential clients. Not just any clients, but your ideal client. 

You're probably eager to leave behind your cranky boss (who pays you a salary each month, no matter how cranky they are). You don't want to land a cranky client who refuses to pay you. 

Spend some time figuring out who your ideal client is. Start with:

  • Are they willing to pay for this service?
  • Are they able to pay (a good price) for this service?

Here is a video where bestselling New York Times author Ramit Sethi shows you how to use these two questions to assess whether potential clients will pay for a service.

Create an Ideal Client Avatar (ICA)

Now it's time to dive into the details of your ideal client. This kind of detailed profile is called an Ideal Client Avatar (ICA). It's a target client sketch to draft and then work from.

Get started by identifying your clients' demographic, then zoom in further and work out a more detailed psychological profile. Here are a few questions you can use to rough out your ICA: 

  • The basics of gender, age, profession, income level, and lifestyle.
  • What do they want or aspire to?
  • What are their fears and frustrations?
  • What are their likes and dislikes?
  • Where do they hang out, in person and online?
  • How do they unwind?
  • How do they make their decisions?
  • How does my product/service help them?
  • Why would they buy my product/service?
  • What apprehensions or objections could they have to my service?

You can download our Ideal Client Avatar - Template as a PDF. Use it as a simple tool to learn more about who you are looking to market and sell to.

Client Avatar Examples

Let's take an example. Say you are a website designer. Don't just leave your ICA at "anyone who wants a website." Narrow it down. Will you target corporations or small business owners? What do they really want from their website? Is it about generating more leads or sharing information or selling a product? What kind of ROI are they looking at? 

Targeting the right audience can make or break your freelance business. For example, a web developer I know taught himself coding and web design after his tour of duty with the armed forces. He figured his background set him apart from other web developers. So instead of mass outreach, he focused his freelance efforts on creating websites for veteran-owned businesses. 

This was a smart move. He already knew these people. He knew how they worked. They trusted him. It was easier for him to reach out to them, rather than compete with the thousands of other web developers on freelancing sites. By targeting the right audience, he eliminated most competition.

3. Connect With Potential Clients

So now that you know your ideal client, what do you think is the best way to reach out to them? Contrary to popular opinion, you do not need a fancy website (unless you're a web designer), a big blog, or a large social media following in order to get your first clients. Those things come much later in the game. Right now, when you’re just starting out, keep it simple.

Your first few clients will always be special. They’re the ones giving you a break, who believe in you before the rest of the world does. Working backwards from that you’ll realize that your first three clients are crafted from relationships. 

Work from your Ideal Client Avatar? Get into their head. Go hang out where they do. Befriend them. Reach out to them. Take them out for a coffee or a drink. If you're interacting with them online, jump on Skype for a chat. For example, if you’re into website design, look up people who recently got their website done by a similar caliber freelancer. 

Ask for a Quick Interview

You can look up closed jobs at Elance or other freelance sites, or contact local businesses that recently got a website. Reach out and ask them for a short interview, either in person or over email. Make sure you don't sound demanding or creepy! Here is an email template you can use:

Hello [Name],
I just saw your new website design, and it is amazing. I especially love the use of [list some features that blow you away}. 
I'm a new web designer, and I was wondering if you could spare some time to help answer a few questions. This would really help me serve your industry better. 
You are definitely at the forefront of your industry, and I love to learn from the best. It's just a few questions, at the end of this email. 
I understand you're busy. This will take only 5 minutes. Thanks so much for your time! I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Best regards,
[Your Name]

Types of questions to ask:

  • Why did you decide to hire a freelancer as opposed to the other options available (for example an agency)?
  • Why did you choose this particular freelancer? How/where did you find him/her?
  • What were the issues, if any, you faced while working with this freelancer? What could have been done better?

Or better still, send it out as a small survey. Paul Jarvis, a veteran web designer, shares how he used similar techniques to build his client list.

It may take you a few rounds to get a response. But once you've interviewed 5-7 people, you'll see a pattern emerge. You'll get to know how these people you want to serve think. And this will help you pitch better proposals to your ideal client, after you get started. 

4. Frame an Offer They Can't Refuse

Now that you’ve actually spoken to your ideal client (rather, a few of them), and know their pain points, it’s time to get ready to pitch. This is where most freelancers (new and old) go wrong. In the pitch, they talk endlessly about themselves, about how great they are—with statements like: 

I can create a website for you. I code perfectly compliant HTML and CSS3. I know JavaScript, AJAX and PHP. As a bonus, I’ll make your site responsive.

Does that look like a winning pitch?

Hint: It isn't.

The potential client you're pitching probably doesn’t know, or care, about these acronyms, or how great your code is. What they really need is a website, one that positions them as an authority in their domain. They need it to engage their viewers enough to click on the call to action button to generate them leads and sales. 

You have to get the prospective clients to feel you understand their problems, their business, their needs and that you can provide just the right solution. That’s what they really hire you for—to fix their problems. Not just create a website for them. 

A good proposal has the following structure: 

  • Problem statement: The client's problem, their needs, objectives and goals.
  • Recommended solution: The recommended solution, strategy, outline of plan, and why you are uniquely positioned to solve the problem.
  • Fee and Project schedule: Project timelines, fee structure, and timelines.

You can use free templates from Bidsketch to make things easier. Here's their template for web Design proposals, with some good examples on how to frame each field.

At this stage don’t worry too much about perfecting the price. Aim for a ballpark that feels right to you. Once you have tested the waters with your first few clients, you can then figure out the details of pricing your services better and negotiating a higher rate. This tutorial on what rate to charge as a freelancer, can show you how.

Conclusion

Remember that it will take a few iterations and tons of proposals to land your first few clients. So take heart. Be patient. Keep trying. Go back, rethink the solutions you can offer, identify a group to serve, and then build genuine relationships with people in that market—repeat the cycle until you succeed. 

Transitions are rarely easy. It takes preparation, persistence, experimentation, and hard work to get your first few clients. Learn from your first clients and grow from there. 

Once you've serviced a number of clients, you will get better at finding the right kind of clients, engaging with them better, drafting winning proposals and delivering services that keep them happy. Over time, you'll enjoy more wins as you grow your freelance business. If you play smart, you can even set up templates and systems to take the grunt work out of it. 

The important thing though is to get off the fence. Go out and try things. Find your first three clients—the one's that will kickstart your freelance business. 

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