OPEN DISCUSSION: How do you find new freelance design clients?

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Recently, I have had a lot of people ask me to provide suggestions on finding new freelance design clients. Whether you are a newcomer to the freelance-design field or you just need to give your client pool a boost, there are many ways to find new freelance clients.

I would like to change things up just a little and leave this topic up for open discussion. Surely many of you have great questions or tips that you would like to contribute, so before I ramble off some of my top tips, let’s hear what you have to say.

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is a web designer, entrepreneur, and the founder of this blog. @prestondlee

Comments

  1. The word of mouth has been my friend for a long time. It’s been working so great that I’ve done almost exclusively local projects, I didn’t have to worry about looking for other clients elsewhere.

    Although lately I’ve been feeling this has to end and I have to go out there and find clients myself, not rely on them coming to me.

    My favourite ‘way’ is simple – I find out about some small/medium businesses in the area, then prepare myself and go to them. Just like that.

    15min talk with business owner/someone in charge. It really works. I’d say better than any ad you may put anywhere in the city.

    I even set some time during the week to walk across the city. I write down names of cafeterias, shops, pubs, clubs, restaurants etc. Then find out if they have/need a website etc – if they do, I go to them.

    Simple, effective.

    • @Michal Kozak,
      This is a GREAT tip, Michal. I actually have recently started doing the same thing. I’ll take a look at small businesses in town, make a list, check if they have a web site, and if not, I pay them a visit.

      Mighty successful.

      Thanks for sharing.

      • @Preston D Lee,

        Great to know I’m not alone in this :).

        Although I gotta tell you – just walking down the street and looking even for small shops etc can be “work-bringing”. Some of them don’t even realize they need a website or how they could benefit from that – so it’s our job then to help them understand that. And land a gig :).

        • @Michal Kozak,
          Thanks for adding that. Any tips on how to actually convince them of that? Plus, do you think all small businesses always need a web site to begin with?

      • @Preston D Lee,

        Sorry, there was no “reply” to your latest response, so I’ll do it here.

        In my opinion, and this is what works for me, the best way to convince any business owner is by showing them real examples.

        Show them what a website did for another business – highlight the differences between the time before (what they were missing on) and after (what they gained, the benefits).

        They want to see actual results, not just hear about them.

        And answering your last question – I don’t think every small business needs a website. Sometimes they may benefit from a website, sometimes it may be business cards, flyers, or something else. And sometimes they don’t really need anything.

        Thing is – don’t try to convince them to doing something you yourself don’t really think they should do, it’s just not fair.

        Look closely to their business, find out if they really need any of your services and if they do, think of the improvement – then present it to them.

        • @Michal Kozak,
          I think you hit it right on the head! Many new freelance designers approach a business and try to explain to them that they need a new web site or a logo design etc etc just because “they do” or just because “their competitors are doing it”.

          The real way to convince someone to hire you for design work is to help them see the possible benefits. Explain how they will reach more customers, increase sales, or build brand recognition. If you can’t provide solid evidence of possible benefits, maybe you shouldn’t worry about convincing them to hire you on.

          What do you think?

      • @Preston D Lee,

        You’re right, that’s exactly my point.

        If I can’t think of the way a website/business card/else could help their business – I won’t’ try to convince them, I won’t even propose such thing. It’s just pointless.

        I mean, I could install a lightbulb on my tennis racket. I could even attach a radio speaker to it. But what for? Will I become a better tennis player? No.

        • @Michal Kozak,
          Ha ha. Excellent point. And I think that’s what a lot of designers forget. We aren’t just people who make things look pretty. We should also be consultants who help businesses grow.

    • @Michal Kozak, Good idea, but most want your work for cheap because they know you are a start-up and looking for clients whereas other designers are too busy to go around door to door, they might be viewed less needy for work.

      • @Behzad,
        That’s also a good point, Behzad. What do you think Michal? I think that if you make it look more natural (ie. walking in for a cup of coffee and finding an opportunity to mention your design services) instead of appearing to beg for work, you can still maintain the image you hope for.

        What do you think Behzad?

        • @Preston D Lee, Great point Preston, I do that sometimes, make sure you got your business card handy. I don’t necessary make it my goal to convert the conversation to a sales pitch but you might just mention that by the way I do such and such and pass out your card. Never mention anything negative about their business, brochure, menu, ad etc….

          • Also a good point. Telling them “their logo sucks” is a terrible way to win them over. I know some designers who try that and it never works out very well.

        • @Preston D Lee,

          I answered in two comments below.

          The rule is simple: if you are professional, then you will act professional – and you will be taken as a professional.

          P.S. Instead of telling them what’s wrong with their logo/website/etc, tell them what can be improved and what benefit will that change bring to them.

          Simple as that :).

      • @Behzad,

        Who said anything about looking needy/begging for work :)?

        It all comes down to the way you do it, HOW you talk with them and present opportunities etc. Don’t be too pushy, look professional, speak professional. Behave like you’re there to help THEM with THEIR business, not like you need projects from them to success in your business.

        Don’t give them all the right answers – leave them with something to think about and COME BACK TO YOU.

        Your job is to put them on the right track, so they can come to conclusions on their own – and ask for your help.

      • @Behzad,

        One more reason I can’t agree with that.

        I’m not a startup – so going around door to door is NOT something that exclusive for startups. Neither it says that you’re needy for work.

        And if some client see you like this, maybe you should make business with them?

        Besides -there is no one model of “being busy”. We are all busy.

        But some may find new clients through the internet, and some may be looking for them locally, going around. This doesn’t mean these freelancers are less busy.

  2. Here in Cyprus, the whole world really revolves around word of mouth. Different people will work differently, but as long as the client is 100% happy, it’s all good – repeat work, or future clients are virtually a given then.

    When I first started working out here, I didn’t realise that, shot myself in the foot once or twice before a client turned round to me, and told me a few home truths. He ended up being rather impressed with how I turned around in such a short time, he sung my praises to two other small companies, who since then, have passed word on to more and more companies.

    Client Relations are king. Keep them happy, and they’ll recommend you. No amount of breath-taking portfolio work will be compared to someone singing your praises.

    • @Dan Howard,
      Client relations ARE king. It’s true. I think clients also appreciate someone who readily admits their flaws and is willing to change. That’s a great one. Thanks for sharing, Dan.

      What else would you share on keeping your clients happy?

      • @Preston D Lee,
        Even if you don’t have any sort of after-care agreement with them, and they want something small (or even major if it’s a slow time at work!!!), do it. Going the extra mile will reap better results than any amount of marketing.

        Take the time to explain the choices – even if the client doesn’t agree with them, hearing the reasons for using colour X on background Y will show them that you:
        a) Know what you’re talking about
        b) Done your market research
        c) Not afraid to say what you think/know is for the best

        Also – recommend companies for printing, or offer it as an extra service, and try to help out with their marketing. At the end of the day, if you have a place on their site to mention your name, you want their site to be a hit, as you’d then could notice an increase in traffic.

  3. I’m fairly new at the whole freelance web design thing but I got my first big break from forums at goodreads. I’ve been in a group with a bunch of authors for a while before I started freelancing (so I knew these people). I offered my services up for 3 free websites, kind of like a contest. After I finished those I posted them up in the forums and people liked them so much they’ve been coming to me ever since.

    • @Ashley,
      That’s a great way to generate some free publicity. It’s the whole “freemium” idea that Chris Anderson talks about in his book. Have you read that book?

      • @Preston D Lee, No I haven’t read that book but I’ve heard about the idea before, pretty interesting stuff. I can definitely see doing what I did translating to other industries.

        • @Ashley,
          Yeah, the whole idea is to give something away in order to entice people to buy something else. Definitely an interesting tactic–especially for designers. But I wonder, how can you maintain a quality image while still giving things away as a promotion? Any thoughts?

        • @Preston D Lee, I think the quality of work that’s done as a promotion needs to be just as good as the real thing. I was lucky enough to work with creative types on these projects, so they pretty much gave me free reign over design aspects, which was pretty cool, and really good for my portfolio.

        • @Ashley, Recently my business has started to pick backup, slowly recovering from the economic downfall in my area. I took some advice from David Airey’s forum and offered my services pro bono to a local Non-Profit Company. The company brings local musicians to retirement homes and hospitals. This has caused a surge in business from the musicians. I have been hired for tow websites, several flyers, and I am working on a CD cover for a musicians first album. I am a strong believer that “freemium” works.

  4. Word of mouth is king for sure! Nothing sells your services better than someone else raving about them. The majority of my work comes via word of mouth, but unfortunately not quite enough and I’ve had to pursue other methods of landing clients. For example, and I mentioned this on another article here on GDB, I get in touch with larger corporations based in the area and submit my name to their vendor list as a source for graphic design and printing services. Twitter is also another good way to connect with potential clients. I keep a running search open in TweetDeck for “graphic design” as well as a more localized search feed. Any time I see someone say “I need a designer!” I contact them immediately and ask what they need help with. These are usually one-off projects, but sometimes you make a solid, long-term connection that leads to more work.
    Personally, I really like Michael Kozak’s method of taking a stroll through town and collecting a tally on all the business’ that may need your services. I am going to definitely work that one out more and more.

    • @Daniel,
      Thanks for sharing, Daniel. I have tried the twitter search option as well and it never really proved all too successful for me. Have you seen a lot of success with it?

      • @Preston D Lee, moderate success, but since it’s a free system, even one job found via Twitter makes it a successful ROI! The best result I’ve gotten via Twitter is a connection with a guy who runs a fairly successful blog, and through an exchange of work-for-promotion, I’ve managed to land several more gigs via his blog. Kind of like a virtual word-of-mouth! But it’s certainly not the best way to market yourself, and should only be another promotional tool in your arsenal.

  5. All but my first two clients have come by either word of mouth or face-to-face networking. Phoenix is a huge hub for face-to-face networking, so it’s pretty easy to find groups to network with. The key point is to find about 3-4 groups you find commonality in, maybe one group that’s exclusive, and hop in! From there it’s a matter of getting involved, getting to know the people better away from the meetings, and consistently showing up to the meetings.

    My first two clients? My first client came to me by way of Craig’s List (I’ve redesigned their entire marketing material from one free ad!). My second client came to me when I redesigned the flyer sent to my son’s school (looked awful); I’ve worked with them for the past 1-1/2 years.

    My next idea is finding a couple of companies to really work with in a target market, such as HVAC or real estate, finding out where and how they network, and see how I might be a part of it.

    • @Lisa Raymond,
      That’s a great point, Lisa. I recently did a web site for a waterpark and thought, “Hey, since I already have a little experience in waterpark site design, why not offer my services to a few other companies in that target audience?” It’s worked pretty well so far.

      Let us know how it goes with the HVAC or Real Estate client base. Good Luck!

  6. Word of mouth. After being self employed for more than 20 years, there is always someone who will pass along my name. Still, I intentionally limit my client base so I can be responsive and effective to my clients and their needs. For some, this seems to communicate that I am exclusive in some manner. Of course, that’s not true, but there are those who believe it makes me more desirable. Funny. Usually I am balancing smaller companies and larger ones at the same time. Everyone can be a sales contact for you. All the programmers, printers, writers and PR specialists you might know. Make sure to cultivate those relationships.

    • @Mark Daum,
      I think networking is a huge part of it for me. That’s a great point. Network with everyone.

      What do you do in order to build relationships with people? Have you found one thing work better than another?

      • @Preston D Lee,
        Over the years I have worked in both design firms and ad agencies. I have stayed in touch with many of the people I worked with, and they are the ones who recommend me later. If you are brought into a project as a “freelance” resource for a project, make sure to connect with everyone who is working on the project; from writers, sales, marketing, etc. Most everyone in our biz changes jobs from time to time, and these contacts will grow in opportunity as a result. Remember, if you’re still establishing your business, your work will come from a variety of sources. Make sure to include agencies and marketing firms as a freelance “overflow” option. Great way to meet other creatives and potential partners.

  7. Design contests are a great source for “getting your foot in the door” with new clients.

    Yes, you may not get paid for every single line you draw (I don’t remember ever being directly paid for networking either!)and yes, not every contest you win will become a long term client. But, there are many creative designers that are finding after providing say a logo via a contest, the client then turns to them in the future for further branding and design services. In the interviews I have been doing with designers participating on design contest sites this is an obvious trend.

    Of course you need to make a great first impression and follow up the contest with the right questions and suggestions. Make sure the client knows you would like to work with them again in the future, and what services you can offer them.

    • @Ade Lack,
      While this is a hot topic in the design community, I partially agree with you. But how would you suggest to play an active part in the design contests and job boards without wasting an enormous amount of time?

      • @Preston D Lee,
        The million dollar question, and one I am trying to get an insight into from interviewing designers who have found success and clients from design contests over at http://Contesterous.com

        Generally if finding clients is your goal, you need to be really concerntrating on the contests that play to your strengths as a designer. For most designers this would involve cutting down on the number of contests they submit to, then spend that time saved communicating with the contest holders they are targeting.

        Don’t forget to follow up with the contest holder if you win or not!

  8. My case is quite different. So far I have only worked on projects through freelancing sites. All my clients are from abroad. I haven’t done even a single project locally since I started working for freelancing sites. The beauty of freelancing sites is you choose the job, you decide the price and time frame and get paid much much better than what a local client can pay you. You save time that goes in finding local jobs and expense like Petrol too. We all work 7-8 hours a day and only we can decide who is going to pay best price per hour. No one can beat International clients in matter of payment. But I agree if somebody is not working at international level then method suggested by Michal and Preston is best to find work.

    So far I have done around 380 small to medium and big jobs and all these clients now feed me with work as I am in their good books. I have never differentiated between a 30$ work and a 300$ work. Work is work for me. I remember I made a flash scroller for a client for 30$ and very next week he gave me a flash site worth 750$. So your attitude plays a important role in fetching the work. All these old clients again send their friends and references thus multiplying my client base. :)

    • @Jay Kaushal, I’m really curious to know how you started getting jobs on getafreelancer. I tried it some time, but it didn’t work. then I thought maybe I’m not trying it hard enough, and I’m not taking it serious. So I spent a complete 4 days on bidding on projects. you know what I got? just a single project, which I spent the money on becoming a gold member. the prices other people offer is so low, and there are so many experienced freelancers there, and if you are the best with the lowest price! still the chance you get selected is so low. I wonder how you could succeed. maybe when you started, it was not so hard to start! do you have any suggestions for me to be able to get works from freelancing sites?

      • @Paiman, If you have read my article on GDB http://graphicdesignblender.com/7-golden-rules-of-finding-freelance-design-work I have clearly explained my strategy to get work on freelencing sites. Patience is the first thing. Even when I started competition was same as it is right now and always remain same whenever you start a new venture. In any new venture, first entry is always tough. But my first aim was to create a client base so I may get work throughout the year. That is what I achieved. I too worked on small projects initially, then went to medium and big. Even today I love to grab 30$ jobs i.e. quickies.

        Initially for first 25 projects my price was also under small projects budget. But once clients knew I have the capability there was no looking back. So, if you take every project money wise then soon you will be disappointed, but if you take a new project as a means to have a new client in your good books then you will be a winner in the end. Clients will fetch more clients for you once you are settled. Freelancing is all about Patience, hard work and continuous efforts. Just remember we are not alone, there are thousand of talented people out there :)

  9. In the hope of what? This is why many junior designers hope for, meanwhile they are not only wasting their resources and time but also conveying to the general public that yes we design for free and next to nothing idea in the hope of getting the job and more?
    Total waste of talent. Again do as you please. There is a great site called No-SPEC , read the many articles on the harm it does to our industry for participating in contests and such. Here is the link. Educate your fellow designers. Also think schools and colleges are responsible to educate their design graduates.
    http://www.no-spec.com/

  10. I am actually utilizing my local community for new clients. If you advertise correctly by word of mouth, fliers and business cards, it can bring some new clients somewhat fast.

  11. I really enjoyed reading this article and the valuable tips. Thank you.

    I often find situations where a small business keeps their cost down by designing their own website through low cost templates. Many also design their own flyers etc from their home printer. Obviously their designs are not consistent throughout, copy and headlines get lost and overall it looks homemade. While we designers know the importance of brand identity and custom made sites/materials etc, relaying this message proves somewhat difficult!

  12. This gave me some great insight.

    One thing that worked for me was finding a niche group and pursuing it. I was interested pursuing a career in computer forensics for awhile and so I found out about local private investigators meetings. Started going there simply looking to network for career advice and came out with people looking to have their websites updated. And now within that community, I have evidence of my design skills directly related to their specialty.

    My advice, find a niche group that you’d like to work with, find a directory of local people in this group, cold-email/call these people, attend meetings/events and just meet them first. Relationship first, client later.

  13. A friend suggested I try Elance and I spent an afternoon on the registration process. Thereafter I was horrified to see that logos are produced for $50 in third world countries, with unlimited changes 24/7. Logo Mills. I have written about this in blogs and comments as something I strongly object to. I think we need to educate our clients that the cheapest solutions in branding are the beginning of a problem. I did proposal after proposal and finally took on a $50 logo job. I spent two full days on it. Because that’s the minimum amount of time to get something decent out. And I won’t do it again. The other networking tips here are very good. Good luck to everybody. Let’s make sure we do a good job of explaining the need for good design.

  14. @Howard Stein “A friend suggested I try Elance and I spent an afternoon on the registration process.”

    – Try Lanzee.com . It cannot be more simpler to register or post a job. And it is free too, of course ;)

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  2. [...] BEHZAD Good idea, but most want your work for cheap because they know you are a start-up and looking for clients whereas other designers are too busy to go around door to door, they might be viewed less needy for work. (View the entire discussion here.) [...]

  3. […] we all know, word of mouth is generally our most effective means of securing new […]

  4. […] your schedule and, unless you fill it quickly, that means lost income for you.Recently, I posted an open-ended article here on GDB asking readers how to find design clients and their preferred methods of finding them. Below you […]

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