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If you’ve ever worked as a freelancer, you know all about the fear and frustration of going out on your own. You know very well how stressful it can be trying to generate steady income during your first few months. It can be one of the most terrifying, yet rewarding, feelings in the world.
What’s even worse is when you quit a steady day job to become a freelancer. Going from steady income, benefits and paid time off to sporadic paydays, zero benefits and working whenever necessary seems far from the American dream.
The good news is, it doesn’t — and shouldn’t — have to be like that for long, unless you allow it to. If you’re in your first few months as a freelancer, here are five steps that’ll help you land your first few clients and find stability.
1. Talk to family and friends.
Whatever you do, don’t skip this step. One of the main reason new freelancers struggle to get their first few clients is they never make a point to talk about their freelance work with friends and family. Maybe they’re afraid to feel like they’re promoting themselves or mixing business with personal life, but as a new freelancer, this should be one of the first things you do.
Maybe friends and family have sent you some type of referral already, without you even telling them what you do for a living, so think about how many new leads you could get if you would just send a few emails or text messages to friends and family asking them if they know anyone who might need your service. This is the fastest way to get clients, and it works especially well in the first few months of your freelance business — while everything is still new.
2. Post on job boards, despite what people may say.
When you first start out as a freelancer, I would go so far as to say almost all of your jobs will likely come from job boards like Upwork, LinkedIn jobs, Indeed (believe it or not) and pretty much any other place people are looking to hire freelancers.
Some people will tell you job boards are a bad way to get clients, but job boards work no matter what other people may say. You just have to figure out who your ideal client is, and don’t waste time on anyone else. Get into a routine of posting a certain amount of proposals every day or every week, and you’ll almost certainly add new clients every month.
Whatever you do, don’t copy and paste proposals. Most freelancers take that approach, and that’s why there are so many people who talk bad about job boards. If you take the time to write unique proposals that stand out, it really just comes down to having the discipline to search jobs and submit proposals on a daily or weekly basis no matter how many times you are rejected.
Related: The Ultimate Guide to Freelancing
3. Go to networking events and meetups.
Another great place to find your first few clients is to go to networking events and local meetings for entrepreneurs. You may hate the idea of networking, and it may seem like a giant waste of time, but believe it or not, going to a local BNI, meetup or conference is a great way to get your first few clients quickly.
Just do your homework ahead of time, and make sure you’re networking with the right people. We’ve all met one or two overly-gung-ho networking types who seem to love networking for the sake of networking. As a freelancer, your time is extremely valuable, so be very intentional about where you’re going, why you’re there and what you’re looking to get out of the experience.
Of course, don’t go in with the expectation that you’ll walk out with your first client after day one, but do take the initiative to make the most of your time spent networking. That means introduce yourself to everyone, bring cards and/or your portfolio, and consider bringing a freebie for the group. You’ll make a great first impression, and they’ll be more likely to remember you when they, or their network, need your service.
4. Create a referral incentive.
As a freelancer, referrals should be your primary source of business after you’ve worked with a few clients and established yourself a bit. So once you’re paying the bills with clients from job boards, local networking and referrals from family and friends, it’s time to invest in referral marketing.
Basically, all this means is do an amazing job for your clients — who are probably underpaying you, but that’s okay for now — then give them an incentive to send you referrals. Discounts off monthly services is a great referral incentive for most freelance clients, but feel free to get creative and try different things. Just remember, referrals are your bread and butter long-term, so invest in them heavily as soon as your stable enough and able to.
5. Create a portfolio.
One of the biggest mistakes freelancers make early on is they don’t get testimonials, build a portfolio or think about doing case studies. These are absolutely crucial aspects of your freelance business success, so start building them as quickly as you can.
A great way to build your portfolio before you have clients is to offer to work for a reputable business or nonprofit for free, document the project every step of the way, and ask for a testimonial once you’ve achieved some level of success with them. Neil Patel used this technique and offered his marketing services for free to a few well-known brands, and now his case studies and testimonials from those companies help land him clients on a consistent basis. And it all started with doing a little work for free.
Don’t waste your time on things like SEO, blogging and advertising until you have an amazing portfolio, testimonials or case studies. Those are all great marketing tactics but they work better as a part of long-term strategies, and right now you’ve got to focus on paying the bills and building consistency into your business.
So, talk to family and friends to ask for referrals, find clients on job boards and anywhere else people are looking for freelancers, go to in-person networking events, create an incentive for happy clients to refer business to you, work for free, and build a portfolio with testimonials and case studies. Do these steps and you’ll be well on your way to landing your first few clients and finding stability in your new freelance business.