This blog post is all about starting out as a freelancer. I’ll outline the steps you need to take to make sure you are as successful as you possibly can be and explain how to grab that first real client. (Who isn’t your dad’s mate’s brother’s wife’s uncle’s dog’s friend–try saying that drunk?)
I think that the main reason that new freelancers fail is a lack of real life experience. You may have great skills on Photoshop or at coding, but if you don’t know how to be a decent account manager all you will ever do is work site to site, never quite managing and meeting expectations. This won’t be due to a lack of quality in your work, but in the way that you sell yourself.
What you have to remember is that being a good freelance designer/developer (or whatever your freelancing specialty is) only accounts for about 75% of the skills needed to succeed. The other 25% are project and account management skills. If you know what to say to a client and generally how to manage their expectations, then you are already one step ahead of the game. You just need the experience to do that.
The main point of this post is to get you started out as a freelancer. So, let’s get going.
Step 1. Your Portfolio
If you are really new, you may not have any commercial work to show. How do you counter this? Well, it is a tricky problem. Clients like to see examples of your work, and if you don’t have any on your site, they probably won’t take a second look.
My suggestion is to offer three to four free sites (or heavily discounted sites) to local companies, or even better, local charities. Find things like your local hospice or even small businesses like Bob’s Plumbing. Offer them a free site. Get three or four of these discounted and free sites under your belt and within a month or two you will have some great work to put in that portfolio.
I am not going to harp on about what makes a great portfolio. Everyone has a different view on that. Read one of thousands of posts on ‘how to get a great portfolio‘ that are posted all over the internet, and follow their advice.
The only advice regarding portfolios that I have is this–make your portfolio your own! Don’t use a generic template. Add your own style and character to it in some way.
Finally, once you have your style and your site running, go get 500 business cards printed from a decent printer. Make sure they are decent cards, and not branded with the printer’s logo and name on one side. If you look cheap, then you are cheap. Look professional and that is what you will come across as being.
Let’s move on.
Step 2. Get Real (Paying) Clients
The BEST advice I can give you for picking up new clients is this–make a spec sheet. A spec sheet, or a speculative work sheet, is something I have used at a couple of agencies. It is basically a spreadsheet that lists the company name, contact at that company, number, email and website (if applicable).
Once you have a spec sheet with 20 to 30 companies on it (all in your local area) then go to them. Don’t call them. Don’t cold email. Get yourself in that building and talk to someone. It is much easier to put the phone down or delete an email than it is to close a door in someone’s face.
Walk up to the building, bold as you can be. Be confident and ask to see the manager. If that isn’t possible, then depending on the size of the company see someone in marketing, or at least chat with the receptionist.
The key here is explaining you are LOCAL. You are not some mass outsourcing agency. You are a local freelancer looking to work with the community.
If you can chat to the manager then and there, that’s great. Tell him/her that you appreciate them taking a few minutes to chat to you (but do not apologize about it) and just give a very, very brief overview of what you do.
Example: “Thanks for taking a few minutes to talk to me. My name is Rob Fenech and I am a freelance web designer from just around the corner. I wanted to come and introduce myself and offer my services to you should you need them…”
So now you have to judge the prospect. Do they look interested? Bored? Annoyed? Body language is a key in selling face to face.
I can’t tell you how to play out every scenario, but you don’t want them to feel like you are pressuring them. Just introducing yourself first is a good start. If they are keen and chatty, then start asking about their existing website (or about whatever specialty you are trying to sell them).
Do they have a website? When was it built? What do they use it for? Is it working for them?
Rarely should you chat about the look and feel of their website to a client. They generally don’t particularly care that you can make their website look nicer. What they care about is that you can make it rank higher, or that you can make it generate more business. And, of course, you can do those things…right? So, that is how you must sell to the client. You have to explain that what you intend to do is going to effectively earn them more money than it costs to hire you.
Don’t be disheartened if the first handful of prospects say ‘thanks but no thanks.’ You can also expect a couple of them to get a little rude. But, as long as you keep up your appreciative demeanor at all times, you’ll be fine.
Once you find a client who just eats up what you are saying (they come along about once a week), or someone who was thinking about getting a new site built anyway and sees it as fate that you walked through their door–well, then you are in business.
Never jump straight in with a bid for the site. Asking questions is the key. Ask about the audience. Who will view the site? Ask about the content. What is the site all about? The more you ask, the better prepared you are.
Once you have all of the information needed and the client is 90% sure that they’re getting a new site, you are ready to give them a quote.
Step 3. The Quote
I quote based on a daily rate. And, I suggest that is what you should do too. Find your base daily rate (I won’t go into the whole ‘what should I charge‘ debate now) and use that rate to determine how much the site will cost.
You will get better at judging the length of a project as you go, but for me, I usually say that it takes one day for design and two days of coding for a basic CMS site with no more than ten pages and no more than four unique templates.
But, this changes all the time, depending on the project. That is what I consider to be my ‘site base rate.’ That is the figure I have for doing sites for clients and I will not touch a site for less than that even if it is a two-page easy peasy site. That is my base rate and I stick to it religiously, and you should stick to whatever your base rate may be.
Now you have the figure in your head. The trick here is to present it so that it doesn’t sound like loads of money that will hit the client all at once.
The way I do it is break the quote down into three parts: a deposit, a mid-point fee, and a final payment. My usual split is: 25%, 25%, and 50%. So, for a £2000 project, the client needs £500 to start it, £500 when it is over 50% complete, and £1000 upon final upload and completion.
Always expect private clients to haggle and bid with you. Some freelancers inflate their prices by 10% or 15% so that when someone haggles, they can reduce the price by that amount without actually losing out and the client thinks they got a great deal. I don’t like to do that myself, what I usually do is tell the client this: “Most freelancers charge 10 to 15% more so they have some haggle room, but I don’t do that. I charge what the job is worth and no more, no less. So, there is rarely haggle room on my quotes.” But you should do whatever suits you best.
Where Do I Go From Here?
So there you have it. You have just landed your first client. Now, make sure that site is the absolute best and does everything that it should do and more. Local businesses chat with each other and recommend people to each other a lot. If you do a good job, you may get more work via word of mouth.
One final point: always, always underpromise and overdeliver. This is key. Never say “the site will be ready on Friday” and finish it on Monday or Tuesday of the following week. Clients hate that. If you underpromise “The site will be ready by Wednesday next week” and you get it done by Monday (overdeliver), then the client will love you for it.
Remember, the key to being successful isn’t all about your skill in your freelancing specialty. It is largely about your account management skills.
How did you get your first client?
Share your story in the comments.
Image by _tar0_