How Do You Find Clients?
Chapter 8 of Instant Freelancer
Today we have the next chapter in the free peek into my new book Instant Freelancer: How to Build a Business of One. Finding clients is the scariest part about going out on your own and is one of the main things that holds people back from taking the leap into entrepreneurship. Chapter eight of the book details the one and only way I find clients—leveraging my professional network. I also tell you how to navigate other methods (ads, social media, etc.) in chapter nine (you’ll have to buy the book to get that chapter. :)
How Do You Find Clients?
“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.”
— Albert Einstein
Many new freelancers skip all the steps we’ve already covered and go straight to this step. They then talk to the wrong audience, struggle with presenting themselves to potential clients, and don’t know how to structure their work. This lack of clarity leads to not finding clients and then claiming that there isn’t enough work to go around. This is a myth.
If you’ve done all of the steps so far, you have a good idea of where to find your ideal clients and how to present your services to them. With that said, this chapter will give you some strategies for finding clients in your target market that match your ideal client criteria.
Build a Professional Network
No matter how you approach client acquisition, networking is a must. Freelancers tell me all the time that they want "better" clients. Clients who value them, pay them what they're worth, and give them the freedom to do what they love. Clients who see them as a valuable part of their business, engage with them repeatedly, refer them to other people, and think of them as part of the team.
Whenever a freelancer tells me this, my first question is, "How do you find clients?" And they tell me about funnels, ads, freebies, and their social media presence. When I ask them how they've built and leveraged their professional network, they look at me like I just time traveled from a chamber of commerce meeting in 1972.
The internet was supposed to make networking obsolete. Freelancers (and entrepreneurs in general) have become lazy and brainwashed by the narrative of overnight success built from a single social media post, viral blog, or killer freebie. Why have coffee with just one person when you can make one piece of killer content (and get it in front of a million eyes), and the world will instantly recognize your value?
And it's not just the internet. Traditional marketing strategies have always been a needle-in-a-haystack mentality— you put your message out there to as many people as possible, and a small percentage will buy what you have to offer.
The most common way I see this play out for freelancers is a sales funnel.
Give something amazing and free away to tons of people.
A small group of those people will give you their email address to give them even more free things.
A small group of those people will have a "discovery" or "strategy" call with you where you'll give them free advice and try to convince them why they should pay you to do something that they think you're teaching them to do on their own….for free.
A small group of those people (at this point, it is not even a group, we're talking single digits here if you’re lucky) will actually pay you to do something for them.
Maybe one of these people will be an excellent client, and you'll work with them long-term.
Freelancers get fooled into thinking this is the way to find clients—cast a wide net to find the right fish, kiss all the toads to find the frog prince… here's why that is not true.
Building the right audience takes time. I'm not saying that freebies and content marketing are bad strategies; I use both for the passive income side of my business where I sell things "off-the-shelf," like courses, tools, and templates. But it takes a ton of time and effort to build a dedicated audience organically. Unless you already have a huge audience, you will have to 1) pay someone (most likely Mark Zuckerberg) to get your amazing free thing in front of lots of people, and 2) spend a lot of time making great (free) content and getting it out on as many channels as possible.
The funnel strategy works for products (and huge companies), not freelancers. This strategy might be viable for someone who needs to sell lots of products to break even or has a huge sales team that does nothing but monitor the funnel and do free discovery calls. When your business is built on your skillset and the work that only you do, you need to find a small group of dedicated clients who know and value you, not a bunch of people who just want to consume free content and never pay you what you're worth.
This brings me to the other complaint that freelancers often have, "I'm spending all of my time finding clients and not doing what I love." Well…when you're sifting through your funnel, having dozens of free "discovery calls," and managing your social media accounts, it's hard to focus on your actual work. It's also hard not to see each of your followers or subscribers as just potential dollar signs.
When you focus on actual relationships with the right people, you increase your chances of finding high-quality clients, but you also build a connection with actual humans, which is worth so much more than the money in the bank. When you're a freelancer, finding clients you can marry instead of just date will not only make your work more satisfying, it will remove you from the feast/famine mentality of constantly having to hustle.
The answer is networking.
I hear you saying it, I've said it myself, "I hate networking." I too hate old-school networking, which I define as joining groups and talking to strangers at professional events to gain something. This mentality is just like the sales funnel— you're talking to a ton of people superficially, seeing them as walking dollar signs and then narrowing them down to the ones who will pay you.
The way I'm defining networking here is the process of building meaningful connections with others so that you can support each other. This means you're networking with people who might not be potential clients. When you see people as potential relationships and not dollar signs, you build an authentic connection which can lead to future work, referrals, and in the best cases, a person you can come to when you need advice or support.
Here's how to build and nurture a professional network.
Identify Your Existing Network
Your existing network is the best place to start. This doesn't mean that you're reaching out to everyone you've ever known to try and get them to hire you, it means you're reconnecting with people you actually like, know, and respect to make yourself better at what you do (and hopefully add value for them as well).
Make a list of everyone you know who 1) might be a potential client or know potential clients, 2) does something adjacent to what you do, or 3) runs their own business. I encourage you to think outside of the box on this list. You're not reaching out to them to say, "Hey, I'm running a ____ business now. Can I tell you more about what I do?" You're reaching out to say, "Hey, we haven't connected in a while. I'm running my own ____ business now and would love to catch up and pick your brain about _____ (topic)." The bottom line is that if the people you already know don't know what you do, they won't know to talk about you when someone needs the type of services you offer.
Rejuvenate Your Existing Network
Once you have this list, start reaching out. This outreach needs to be genuine, not just a generic BCC email. Pick the people you want to reconnect with and send them a personalized email, text, or give them a call and ask if they'd like to catch up. Even if it seems like they wouldn't be a potential client, you would be surprised at how peripheral connections can turn into solid client relationships. Plus, it is nice to have an excuse to reach out to someone you haven't seen in a long time and reconnect. When I first did this, it took a couple of follow-up emails for some people, but ultimately, I didn't find anyone who wasn't willing to connect, and everyone I talked to gave the most amazing advice and support. The worst thing that can happen is that someone doesn't email you back. With that said, setting up these meetings can feel like a slog, and when someone you thought would naturally meet with you doesn't, it can hurt your feelings. Remember, people are busy, mean well, and sometimes don't respond. It doesn't mean anything about you or them; it’s just how it goes.
Find the Nodes
I know, cold outreach sucks. I hate doing it too. But this is the best way to broaden your network and build connections. Instead of finding individuals who might be your ideal client, look for "nodes." Nodes are people who already serve your target market in another way, the people your ideal clients go to for advice and referrals. For example, if you're a graphic designer specializing in logos for dentists in Tampa, you don't want to reach out to every dentist office in Tampa; you want to find the Tampa dental association and connect with the person who handles communications. If you're an environmental designer who creates expo spaces, you don't want to reach out to individuals who go to expos; you want to reach out to the expo organizer. If you're a graphic designer specializing in book covers, you don't want to reach out to individual authors; you want to build a relationship with a book editor.
Find the people adjacent to your work who already know your audience and build a relationship with them. Instead of just one new client, this will give you a referral network that keeps going and going. Most importantly, every time you have one of these meetings, end with asking, "Who else should I talk to?" Then you don't have to cold call/email; you can get an introduction from someone, which goes a lot farther.
Nurture Your Network
Once you've done this initial outreach, keep up your network regularly. There are lots of ways to do this. You can establish a regular email newsletter that keeps them engaged in your work. This is a fine strategy but can also feel salesy and leads to people getting burned out on you trying to sell them. Personally, I make sure that I reach out every few months and grab a coffee or just have a Zoom check-in with the people I'm most interested in keeping in touch with. You can also send over "thought of you" emails when you come across an article or opportunity that they might be interested in. Don't use the check-ins to sell them, just talk about life and catch up…ask how you can be helpful.
When you get busy, the first thing that falls to the side is keeping up with your network, which is very problematic. Part of building your business is keeping the pipeline full, and keeping up with your network is one of the best ways to ensure that happens. Therefore, make a plan for how you will do this and put reminders in your calendar, so it happens. I keep a list of everyone I want to keep in touch with and check that list quarterly to ensure no one falls through the cracks.
Since starting my business, I have reconnected with many people, including former colleagues, business partners, and friends I haven't seen for years. I've also connected with new people from all over the globe who have found me through my blogs and recommendations from other awesome people I work with. Did some of these connections lead to work? Of course. Several of these fantastic people have referred me to clients, brought me in on their projects, and even passed on entire projects. But more importantly, I'm cultivating relationships with people that I can now reach out to for advice, a recommendation, or an introduction in the future. Building a network of clients, partners, and colleagues will create sustainable income, differentiate you from other freelancers, and give you a place to go when things get tough, and margins get tight.
Not yet a hustler?
Check out my book Instant Freelancer: How to Start a Business of One for the shortest path to independent work and money in the bank. No venture capital, fancy website, or MBA needed.
Already got a hustle, but want to do it smarter?
© Sarah Duran 2022
Find out more about me and my company, Fruition Initiatives, here.
Image by Khosrork from iStock
The Obvious Disclaimers…
This information is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended as, and shall not be understood or construed as, professional advice. What you decide to do with this information is up to you and all repercussions are on you.