Without a shadow of a doubt, finding a consistent stream of new clients is the main challenge for most freelance designers, and actually most freelancers in general, for that matter.
I guess you’d like to land a deal from Coca-Cola or Chrysler to redesign their whole online presence right during your first month on the job, wouldn’t you? That would be great indeed. But as you’d imagine, it’s not very possible. And that’s a good thing because you probably wouldn’t be able to handle such a gig anyway.
Now, I’m not trying to say that your skills are not up to par, it’s just that designing a huge site for yourself (where you’re the owner, the mastermind) is an entirely different process than designing a huge site for your client.
The former involves just the design part, the latter forces you to communicate effectively, bill effectively, send invoices effectively, set deliverables effectively, get mutual understanding on the goals, set budgets, and on and on and on.
These are all the skills that you just can’t learn by simply reading about them.
That’s why getting small scale experience is crucial.
This is part two of a three-part miniseries on how to get started today and have a real, profitable freelance design business within 12 months. Sorry, no get-rich-over-night advice here. This three-part series will then be turned into an ebook (we hate lame ebooks too, so it’s not just a standard PDF; it’ll be packed with custom design, bonus content, tools, resources, and more.).
The first part was all about getting your wheels rolling: handling the initial business setup, your content game, building a presence on social media, finally joining a community and making it one of your main business tools. Check it out to get the full picture of how we’re going about structuring a shiny new freelance design career.
Okay, back to the process! Here’s how to start small and why it’s a good idea.
Month #3, #4 and #5: Starting small with simple work
Like I said a moment ago, starting big right off the bat is too challenging for most people, unless you have excellent communication skills (or work management skills, client management skills, accounting skills, etc.) that you’ve obtained from one of your other careers.
And by the way, it’s not about starting small because it’s easier to find smaller gigs. It’s all about starting small to learn the steps required to deliver results successfully.
When you’re doing those small jobs, you get time to adjust your processes, your rates, your tools, your whatever. This time period really is invaluable.
Also, you’re starting to earn your first money – so you get the “oh wow, this is possible” -kind of sensation in your stomach, which fuels you to go forward.
And yes, I truly do believe that you should spend the entire three months (or even more) doing this. In all likelihood, finding your very first gig can take a couple of weeks on its own, so you might not be able to start the actual work in the first month.
Okay, how to land those deals then?
You’re at the right place to find out all about this! There are a lot of individual posts on this topic at Design Blender. Feel free to check them out and jot down the methods that seem the most in tune with your style. I encourage you to try out a couple of them and see which works best for you, then devote yourself to becoming a master at it. I mean, really milk that one top performing method to make it even more effective.
Now, during those three months, you’ll also be mastering what can be called the art of the pitch – sending client proposals and getting them approved.
This is yet another reason why going after small jobs initially pays off in the long run. For instance, if you fail to estimate the cost of the project well, losing money on a $500 job won’t feel as bad as losing money on a $5,000 job.
In the end, treat those three months as your learning time. Learning how the business works, what clients like to see, what’s the best way to get paid, what about invoicing, how not to get ripped off, and so on. This is all the knowledge you need to go forward.
Extra. Month #4: Your first client management effort
Month #4 – 30 days after you’ve started looking for gigs – is a great moment to begin implementing some form of client management.
For some reason, client management in itself is a greatly unappreciated practice among many freelancers. And unfortunately, bad client management is also the easiest way to lose a client that you basically already had in your pocket.
Real fail-proof client management is something you learn over time, but just to get you started, consider taking care of these two main elements:
- CRM software,
- exclusive email newsletter.
Managing your clients through Gmail is pretty doable, I give you that, provided you only have two or three clients, and they stay with you from day one until the end of time. But even if you have one new client coming in every month, staying updated with everything will quickly become a big challenge.
CRM (client relationship management) software is something that will help you with that. A good tool will allow you to manage all your email communications, set remainders, keep track of proposals, manage contacts themselves, set tasks, and do loads of other things. In a way, it makes sure you don’t overlook any of the important stuff when dealing with clients.
Highrise is the CRM I’ve always recommended. And I still do. However, I’ve heard some voices about the tool being discontinued or integrated into Basecamp in some way. In short, its feature isn’t 100 percent certain, so proceed with caution.
Now the other part – the strange looking part – having an exclusive email newsletter. If you’ve been online for any amount of time then you know that newsletters are mostly known to be a tool for web publishers, bloggers, and marketers, so how to use them as a freelance designer?
It’s somewhat simple, actually, but it’s based on an idea that’s not that obvious at first. Basically, when any client hires you, they do so because you have a skill that they don’t possess – you know how to use design to achieve business goals. So one of the ways to share the benefits of having this skill with them is (obviously) by doing stuff for them personally, but the other way is to offer free advice.
Whenever working with a new client, shoot them a quick message asking if they’d like to be included on your exclusive newsletter where you share various advice on [BLANK] (it’s up to you to make it sound attractive).
Mention that the newsletter really is exclusive and that you have only, say, 15 people on it – your other clients.
The big idea behind those two elements is this: you use the CRM to handle all business-centered communication, and then you use the newsletter to stay in touch, offer free value, and make sure they remember you when they need some more work done.
Now, when it comes to actually sending the newsletter, I used to do it via MailChimp, but right now I’m a big fan of a new service – Sendinblue. In short, it’s just like MailChimp in almost all aspects, except that their free plan offers autoresponder functionality.
This is a great tool to welcome every new subscriber with some short course-like content divided into three or four messages that go automatically every X number of days. When you do something like this, you’re providing a ton of value to them right off the bat and reassuring them that they’ve made a great choice – both choosing you to do their work and also getting on the newsletter.
Month #6 and #7: More focus on getting recognition
Let’s face it, doing only small-scale work won’t make you extremely successful in the long run, so we need to step things up a bit.
The key to opening the “higher-end” gigs door lies in gaining more recognition.
It may sound quite unfortunate, but some clients looking for people to handle bigger tasks won’t consider hiring anyone who hasn’t proven to be well known in the space and doesn’t have strong evidence of their expertise.
This all goes back to having some great content on your own site for people to admire. But in this case, we need to plant the seeds a little more broadly. This means that we need to seek out some recognition and publicity on other places around the web.
There are two methods I can recommend for this purpose:
- Writing guest posts.
- Doing co-authored projects.
Let’s start with guest blogging. To some extent, everyone is familiar with the concept. But here, we’re going to be doing guest blogging with a very specific purpose in mind.
The goal is to get you in front of your target audience – your clients.
In short, try landing guest post spots on blogs where your clients are likely to hang out.
For example, you almost certainly know design, but posting on web design blogs has very limited reach in terms of getting your brand in front of clients. Prospective clients usually don’t read design blogs.
A much better idea: business blogs, marketing blogs, and so on.
Another thing; the topics of your posts. Try thinking about the things that your client would enjoy reading. For example, “How to Use CSS to Create a Responsive Slider” is not something a typical client will be interested in. On the other hand, “What’s Wrong About the Design of Your Site That’s Costing You Business” is a completely different story.
So just to summarize, when you’re searching for blogs and picking the topics you’re going to write about, always answer the question: “Will my clients see this post and will they be interested in reading it?” If that’s a yes, go for it.
Of course, you want to link to your site/portfolio from those guest posts (to get direct traffic).
Just to get you up to speed, here’s a huge list of blogs accepting guest posts in many niches.
Now to the other strategy – doing co-authored projects.
What you’re reading here is pretty much a co-authored project. Preston provides the platform, consulting and his expertise, I (more accurately, “we” – CodeinWP) provide the content.
The idea is to reach out to someone that has some form of access to your target group of clients (for instance, they read their blog) and to offer a co-authored project where you take care of everything content-wise.
This can be an e-book, or an online guide, or a resource pack (icon pack), or anything else that makes sense at the moment.
The win for you is obvious – you get exposure. The win for your partner is just as obvious – they get great content that their audience will enjoy.
Another win for you is that you can say in your portfolio that you’ve worked with So and So on Project X.
Use months #6 and #7 to get this new recognition. It won’t pay off right away, but it’s a great long time investment.
And of course, when you’re doing so, also keep working on your smaller gigs and jobs to stay in the flow.
That’s it for the second part in the series! The next one – also the last one – is all about spying on people, improving your business processes through automation, plus how to go after bigger projects.
In the meantime, what’s the biggest challenge you’re facing in your design business right now?