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Ask HN: How do you sell yourself as a new freelancer to clients?
105 points by pbj on June 25, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 59 comments
I've decided that I want to start freelancing doing web design for local businesses/organizations. It seems that established freelancers or people with extremely good portfolios don't have much problems finding work due to the amount of referrals they get. But for someone starting from scratch, is there a secret sauce to getting your first few customers? Currently I'm just introducing myself and handing out cards to office managers of businesses.

I've decided that I want to start freelancing doing web design for local businesses/organizations.

Much like how in product development we talk to customers prior to building stuff, I'd suggest verifying that you have an addressable market for a service offering prior to defining what that service offering is. "Freelance", "web", "design", "local", and "business" are five things that you said in that sentence which might be distinctly suboptimal.

Consider alternatives such as "I am the world's leading expert on WordPress sites for heritage language Asian schools." That sort of thing potentially resolves a lot of customer identification and marketing problems, and lets you charge much higher rates than generic "local business web-dev", even though you might just be doing web development and heritage language Asian schools may all be local businesses for some value of local.

(By the way, just my biases talking, but when I think "local business" the phrase "the best possible customers for programmers because they love paying five-figure invoices in a timely manner after competently managing reasonably specified projects" does not exactly jump to the forefront of my mind.)

> I am the world's leading expert on WordPress sites for

I'd tune out the second I saw such a marketing boast; the odds of being pure b.s. are through the roof.

The idea is that you google 'wordpress sites for heritage language asian schools' and this guys blog is the only thing on the SERP for the informative, expertise-demonstrating content he's got there. At no point does he have to be explicit about being the foremost expert in this or any other niche.

Right. Or, when you're talking to a potential prospect who has just been referred by your middle school teacher, you say "I know you've got a web site at the moment, but it probably got done by somebody who does web sites for dog walkers and legal firms. Do you ever look at it and think it was written by someone who just doesn't get you, and what you do, and what your parents want in a school? Think that maybe the site doesn't understand that Mrs. Tanaka is terrified that Sakura won't ever know her grandmother if Mrs. Tanaka picks the wrong place? I know where Mrs. Tanaka is coming from. I've spoken to her a thousand times. This is all I do: making Wordpress sites for schools just like yours. Want to hear about three things I can do to improve your website?"

I wasn't critiquing the specialization, I was critiquing the claim of being the worlds leading expert. Going for the long tail doesn't require lying.

Way to read into it. That was totally beside the point. The point was just to specialize. The example pitch was exactly that; an example.

If you were the director at a heritage language Asian school (whatever that is) who just wants a website that represents the school well, you might find it more compelling. Not everybody is as cynical as you or I. Because of this, pointing out "This wouldn't work on me" isn't particularly illuminating unless you are the target audience (and maybe not even then).

So said the Inuit, when presented with "the world's coldest ice cubes". The problem, it turns out, isn't the marketing claim.

I think this assumes your portfolio, if any, can actually prove that specialty. You might even need to do some free work, assuming you are just starting, in order to advance the idea that you are specializing in some area.

Or you could simply begin to learn everything there is to learn about that niche. I think the point Patrick is making is that knowing your own specialization is as, if not more, important than your customer knowing it.

If you're "a programmer" then your customer base is pretty much anyone who needs software. That doesn't help much because you're back to the same question: "who needs software?"

If you're an expert on sites for heritage Asian language schools then it's much easier to find schools->Asian language schools->heritage Asian language schools. Odd though it may seem, it's easier to market to a small, well defined niche than a large amorphous blob of "potential customers."

So, is anyone reading this looking for an expert in on-vehicle liquid spray control systems? :-)

... and lets you charge much higher rates...

At the risk fo stating the obvious, this is not automatically true. Specializing makes for easier marketing, but not necessarily higher rates. Some clients just don't have a lot of money to spend.

Specializing allows you to target the ones who do. Cast a wide net across "local businesses" and you're going to get a lot of boots and toilet seats to keep your tuna company.

To this, I'd like to add that once you get those first few clients, get very serious about customer service. Expect to take a call any day at any time, and if you can't, always call back the moment you can. Believe it or not, this alone will put you miles ahead of the competition.

Starting off a freelance career by pitching for gigs in a narrow niche market seems like a potentially challenging strategy for someone with no track record to back it up

Quick tip - if you want clients with reliable, steady work and a way to hone your skills and build out a nice portfolio focus on design / interactive / marketing agencies and skip the local businesses. Mom and pop shops who would hire a web dev based on a business card are some of the WORST clients.

Make a nice portfolio site of whatever you have available, and compose a nice cold email being very honest about who you are ("I'm just starting freelancing and can do XYZ") and then look up every single marketing / design / interactive agency in a 100 mile radius and send them a cold email. Even if they don't have work you'll go in their list of available freelancers and may get a response a month later, or referrals etc.

Try doing the same for any sizable business in the area. Particularly the type that would have a dedicated marketing / interactive or software department.

Basically the goal is to lock down clients with steady work and that have infrastructure and experience dealing with fresh freelancers. Its going to give you far more bang for the buck/effort than handing out business cards door to door.

I think this a sound strategy in the beginning to keep the lights on. In the end, though, there's more glory when you land and maintain the clients you want with no middle man.

Agencies definitely worked for me. If you are good, it can be steady work without much of the risks.

I was not going to was not going to post my advice until I saw how many people here were saying the opposite. Do not, under any circumstances, work for free.[1][2]

When clients agree to work with you, they risk more than money. They risk their time, their peace of mind, their ability to be proactive in a changing environment. The best clients are the ones who realize that. As such, they will be uncomfortable with the thought of your working for free, since the unsustainable nature of your position endangers their peace of mind. They're happy to throw money at you to protect what really matters to them.

In terms of practical advice, if you don't yet have a network, I recommend checking out oDesk, Elance, and other sites. Don't try to underbid providers working from developed countries, and don't spam every buyer with proposals. Just write personalized, specific letters containing some of the details you would be thinking about as you went about solving their problem. Before you know it, you will have more work than you can handle.

[1] I don't consider wedding videos, etc. made as a gift to fall under the category of freelance work. If this is what you do for a living, it's fine to gift your services, but trying to leverage free work into a sustainable career is an awful idea.

[2] The exception is support. Phone calls are free. Bids/proposals are free. Your work, the value you provide, is decidedly not.

"...Do not, under any circumstances, work for free..."

Totally agree with this. It ha been my experience that well paying customers are the best kind. They are more respectful of my time and less of a headache. The people that want thing low cost or for free are happy to drain your time for really no good reason.

This theory is why I also charge a certain flat fee upfront to get started on any client work. It gets the client emotionally invested in the project since some of their money is in the pot. Most of the time when I have done things without upfront payment or free work, the client is lazy to get me necessary graphics, text, authorization, etc. to do what I said I would do. Then it still reflects badly on the freelancer.

When I freelanced I got 100% of my work from referrals. My simple marketing strategy was to:

Finish every project on time. Finish every project on budget. Answer all email within an hour (sent during the day).

When you do that, your clients love you and talk about you.

Start with a low hourly rate. When you reach 40 hours booked every week, double your rate. You will loose about half of your clients, but still be making the same amount. If you are good, you will fill it up again. Double it again. Continue with your comfort level.

Most referrals actually come from other professionals (i.e. no I'm busy/too expensive, but there's this new kid that looks pretty promising.)

So what should get the ball rolling for you is to build one really great portfolio site at the top of your ability, making it as good as you possibly know how to make it.

Be prepared for it to be taken apart by a keen eye all the way down to someone checking out your HTML/CSS/JavaScript (don't minify!) to see if it's good quality.

Then find your local frontend/freelance community and stand out, be confident, tell people to check you out, approach top-notch guys and ask them for feedback and you should be all set ;)

If I was looking for someone to do web dev work for me, and I went as far as checking out their portfolio site's HTML/CSS/Javascript, I'd say that not minifying code would reflect badly on them. Certainly forgivable if everything else checks out, but still a mark against them.

Good point.

Then perhaps minify and add a comment referring to http://daneden.me/max-css ?

Instead of conjecture, here's how I got started as a freelance dev, starting 6 months ago.

You need a decent portfolio site

Design and build in in WordPress or something similar. Prove your design chops here by having a well-design, functional, and more importantly clear message to potential customers. You want to let your customers have confidence. It doesn't have to be amazing. Mine certainly isn't. http://andrewheins.ca/

Your first job might be among your social circle

Mine was the Tae Kwon Do dojo I attended. They were paying WAY too much for hosting, so they let me make a site and change their hosting. They now pay 1/10th the hosting costs. Demo that site on your portfolio.

Next, you start bidding for work

FreelanceSwitch.com was the place that landed me the most work, but Craigslist and the bevy of other sites work well too. The ability to communicate clearly with your potential clients and bid within a reasonable range are key here.

Build your portfolio on low-end jobs

You will low-ball at first. That's ok. Raise your rates after each job. Quote by project, not by hour.

Find other freelancers with complementary skills

Being a dev, I latched on to a few designers who didn't want to have to code all their work. They can offer full solutions, I get paid. It's a great relationship.

"Next, you start bidding for work"

Other than FreelanceSwitch and Craigslist, which sites do you use? I'm genuinely curious, as when we launch matchist.com at the end of the summer, I'm hoping it's on the list of places you can find quality work.

Key lesson I learned the hard way:

1 good ongoing client is better than 100 one-off projects with different clients.

There's a huge overhead to finding and onboarding a new client/project. Instead find one good ongoing contract, and put all your extra energy into creating a product that can scale.

Freelancing is a dead end road, but you can use it as a tool to bootstrap your own lifestyle business.

see also: Four Hour Workweek and Start Small, Stay Small

> 1 good ongoing client is better than 100 one-off projects with different clients.

I mostly agree with you, except much of the freelancing allure stems from working on new and exciting things, avoiding burnout and boredom. So I'd modify that statement to:

3-4 good ongoing clients is better than 100 one-off projects with different clients.

Edit: didn't read the last half of your comment. If running a startup or building a product is your primary goal, then I absolutely agree with you.

I take into account the overhead by charging 50% premium on the first 20 hours with the client.

Start proving yourself anyway you can, right now. You need to start building a kick ass portfolio if you want the referrals to come rolling in.

Take on pro bono projects for charities you respect, shitty lower-paying clients and launch a side project that demonstrates your skills in a real world use cases.

Work into every conversation that you're a freelance designer. It's a big deal.

My last piece of advice is to network with quality people. Stay far way from the insurance agents and MLM'ers; they're looking for the quick sale and they will connect you with people that want the same. Make it a point to get to know _business owners_ and people that call the shots--the ones writing the checks.

Oh, yeah. One more thing: This isn't gonna be easy. So, good luck! :)

Perfect advice. In addition to this, get a lawyer to write you a contract to go along with your invoice.

I was doing freelance web work for the past 4 years while being at university. If you don't have an established network of contacts that might benefit with some jobs it's very easy to end up with some "bad" (not sure what other word to choose) clients. Apart from the standard marketing stuff, here is a few things I learned :

- Strong portfolio is a must. If you don't have any freelance work done yet create some templates and mock designs.

- Get to know some other web-creators around you. Some of them are so overloaded with work they might pass some jobs to you.

- When clients look for somebody to get a website done, they quite often contact universities. The job is being then emailed to all the students. For me, it was a goldmine. If you're currently not at the university, befriend somebody who is. Those jobs are not paid a lot, but will help you to build your portfolio and meet new potential sources of income.

- Do stuff for free. If you're not working on something for money at the moment, do some web-charity work. You will get some experience, both in web development itself as well as in dealing with clients.

- Craigslists/gumtree : only if you're very desperate. I did find some local freelance jobs there. Most of them were crap. Once I even made a website for an obscure escort agency. However, you can still advertise there but be prepared to handle some time-wasters.

- Local business centers (in scotland we have www.business.scotland.gov.uk) seem to be a good place for networking too. They do quite a lot of meetings and are happy to connect various start-up/companies/freelancers together. One of my good friends started like that 4 years ago - now he has more work than he can physically handle.

Hope this helps!

Ah, forgot to add - smashingmagazine.com is a great resource, I learned a lot from it.

Back when I used to freelance, here is what I learned: you have to fake it til you make it. :)

I got my first clients by cold-calling. He was probably my two hundredth cold-call. Later that week I ended up with a $1,600 check in my pocket, a 50% deposit on a $3,200 contract.

Also, you need to learn basic SEO. Google "Colorado web design" and you'll find me at rank 3: http://www.broadsighted.com

FYI I'm not freelancing anymore, so no one accuse me of advertising. I just wanted to provide OP with a real life example...

When I was getting started out I had a lot of success going to local tech meetups for the technologies I worked with. After showing up to enough meetings that I was a familiar face I did a few presentations. Afterward I was approached by group members and a couple small local dev shops looking to sub out overflow work.

If you are new to freelancing find web developers that need some help (subcontract). Some developers hates web design but have projects that need it. Email a few and see what happen.

Do 5 to 10 jobs for free. Not skimpy stuff either... really put the time in, overdeliver, and bust your ass on these and go for real excellence. It'll pay for itself. At least, it's been good to me. Here's some good questions to measure your success by --


Measuring Production/Service – Questions To Ask At The End

“Did they give a testimonial? On a scale of 1-10, how glowing/awesome is the testimonial?”

“Did they give us referrals? How many? How many sales did that lead to?”

“Did this job become an outstanding addition to our portfolio? Why or why not?”

“Did they purchase any relevant upsells or services?”

“Subjectively, did it feel like it ‘went well’?”

“What was the cost in time and money to do the work? (Did any of the money/time cost relate more to general asset-building, knowledge, etc, than the fulfillment itself?)”


If you play it right, you'll have 5-10 awesome testimonials )(you can actually say, 'What do you think of my service? What do you think of my promptness? Friendliness? Looking out for you?' Etc, to get quotes on relevant topics. You'll also very likely get at least a couple referrals out of it (aim for 3 on average per client to start, you might not hit it depending but it's a good target), and probably 1 or 2 of them will choose you for significant work later. It's really just a win, if you don't mind hustling and working. Sadly actually, some of your best free clients you'll have to run down and really bust your ass to get them to even agree to take your work for free! But it's worth it, it works.

Never work for free. The reasons are many, including: Clients not willing to pay for design will have no respect for you or design. On the other hand, you could get skewed customer experience information. You are undercutting other professionals and by the way, those other pros are where a big piece of your business will come from as a small shop. You won't know how much to charge your first client. You'll probably charge too little.

There's a lot of great advice here already. As a long-time freelancer, I'll try to add my tiny part:

I'm always amazed the influence that personal projects have on which kind of work comes through the door. There's a reason why many companies have a public 'labs' page. Featuring these projects will pull in clients that appreciate your sensibilities (I believe these are the best clients to have).

btw - the fact that you're on the first page of HN is a good start!

You may also want to consider directly marketing yourself to web agencies. Many agencies use freelancers when they have an overflow of work.

Do free/cheap work for a few non-profits. Almost every area will have some highly respected non-profits in the area that will be greatly appreciative of upgrading their web presence. You get a network, a portfolio piece, and a testimonial. The keys are: * Craft your story from the beginning. Think about the before and after and how you can best spin this for your services, and make sure your work is based on feeding that storyline. * Be explicit about how they can help you. Are there sponsorship opportunities? Who's connected on the board? Non-profits typically understand how this works and will be willing to work with you. * Be explicit about scope. They'll want the world, of course. Make sure you table their wish-list to "Phase 2" and really focus on a defined deliverable you can include in your portfolio. * Most importantly, do a damn good job.

As others have mentioned the website and portfolio are a must. It's ok if there isn't much on there yet, just some idea of what you can do is usually enough.

While you work on your portfolio make sure it's obvious what people can hire you for, i.e. your speciality. A 'web designer' might do front-end or just photoshop design or maybe your special power is making interactive doodads with jquery. Specialities are helpful, or alternatively a list of actual practical things you do, and help people see if you are a fit for the problem that needs solving.

Some tips from a freelancer who has started out "real freelancing" 9 months ago (and some years of contracting work before that):

- Don't restrict yourself to the local market. Businesses in other countries might even pay more than your local businesses (e.g., pay in Vienna is quite meager if you don't have the connections and have a small portfolio, while job markets in UK are so sucked empty that you can get your first gigs there).

- Emailing does help to get jobs. Don't just send them your CV (I think CV is optional), do go the extra mile and cherrypick your special skills, things you would emphasize on if you had only 10 seconds to pitch. People want you to make their life easier, and it starts with short, uncomplicated emails.

- Don't assume there will be hard feelings if you demand "too much". Demanding high pay makes you look more confident and experienced. If they can't pay, they will tell you and be happy if you lower the rate. Also, think about what you want as a minimum rate beforehand, and don't go lower than that, or you will hate the job. Another alternative is to set up a fixed price, based on what you think you can create value-wise. If you are in a developed country, please don't EVER go lower than $50/€40 or you are just ruining everybody's job market.

- Do people favors whenever you can - people are so happy when you help them (even if you just offer your help and they don't take it), they might become your gratis lobbyists. Just don't ask for something in return of your favors, do them genuinely to help them. More than once did I get a job offer out of a simple favor.

- Attend local user groups. Networking for developers happens there. People don't connect easily by just tweeting at them - once you have talked to someone in person, then they might consider forwarding you that job offer they cannot take themselves. Most user groups are full of cool people, I wouldn't miss that out anyway.

- Setup a blog if you haven't, and try to write when you are in the mood. Don't do it because you have to, but out of curiosity (checking stuff out while writing the post is an excellent way of learning) or because you found THE solution you want everybody to know about. This won't get you job offers immediately, but you can position yourself as a niche expert in the long term. I got to improve on that point myself :)

- Relax and be confident that you will get your bills paid, even if it seems unlikely at the moment. You will automatically be more outgoing and more pleasant to talk to when talking to potential customers, and it will prevent you from making mistakes out of irrational fear of going broke (yes, I've had my share of that). I put this last because I consider it the most important :)

ADDED: A friend of mine had success with accepting a headhunter's offer at LinkedIn. As scammy as headhunters may seem (and yes, they get a huge cut), non-scammy companies do hire them out of desperation. Might be worth a look.

I don't have a portfolio site, but was successfully freelancing on the basis of referral for four years or so. I wouldn't take a random client on, because bad clients cost money. Reach out to anybody who trusts you to "get the job done" and get them to reach out. Networking and trust are essential.

Another idea getting your foot in the door as a freelancer at an agency. About 1/4 of my work (and best paid work) came that way. Gives you a client base to build from (though not your clients, it will give you demonstrable experience)

Tell your friends, I'm sure you will be able to get some small clients to start off with that way. You can't expect to be getting big clients from day 1, unless you're exceptionally lucky, you just have to grow bit by bit. Build a portfolio, advertise online for free for your local area. Last but not least, under promise, over deliver. It will give your clients a more positive feeling about you and will help with word of mouth. Make sure you give yourself enough time to make deadlines.

As I see it you have 2 possibilities:

1. Find yourself work by handing cards ... just like you do now. I think it will eventually work after you land a few projects.

2. Use an aggregate freelancing site like oDesk, vWorker etc. Here is a link to an interesting story about freelancing on vWorker:


Do you have a website? that can help. Also try posting ads on craigslist and perhaps networking with small businesses in your area. My dad is a small business owner and I was able to start building my portfolio working for him, and then moving on to other small business owners he knows.

Odds are you have connections you haven't thought about, but they can really help you get off the ground.

For me it was down to networks. When people know a guy who builds websites, that guy already has a starting advantage.

It may be that you'll have to work up the ladder of complexity, but you really just want a portfolio behind you.

People always advise not to do sites for free but at university I did one or two websites for different societies and that was enough to get enough connections to start.

Quite nice presentation about freelancing : http://megrobichaud.tumblr.com/post/22147155867/everything-i...

Two points may help:

- Find the gaps in the services of similar "providers"

- Apply Paul Graham's "run upstairs" principle: choose the hardest gaps and develop the ability to fill them more easily than the competition.

There is no reason to go local. It is much faster to deal with everything over the phone and by email and that's MUCH easier to do with non-local clientele

I've found the opposite. If I can sit down with a potential client over lunch, it is far easier to sell myself (especially when I first started and had few references).

I think that perhaps is a phone skills thing though? You only have to be 1/5th as good if you can take 5x as many calls as you can in person meeetings

I'd say less than 10 people have ever asked for references.

I dunno. I do a lot more long term contract work. I generally take on only one or two clients at a time in a relationship that lasts a few months. Meeting a potential client in person has never been too time consuming for me, as I only have to do it once or twice every few months.

I say this as someone who was a contract developer from 2008-2011 and survived solely on that income from 2009-2011.

Don't ever use the word freelance. It implies that it's not your focus; whether that's because you have other things you really enjoy (product work?) or that you have a full-time job, there's nothing you get from using that word that you don't from "contract designer" or something similar. Better yet, spend a few hundred dollars on an LLC and operate as a business and not a sole proprietorship/individual.

Right or wrong, "freelance" implies to clients that you can be paid less for the same work, or not paid at all.

I have been a freelance web developer, and I can tell you that starting on the internet is a good way to build a portfolio.

start here: http://www.freelancer.com/affiliates/ahmed613/ and make sure you the projects that you can really finish!

Come on, this is a hacker community...The people here aren't that dumb. Atleast, you could have used a URL shrinking service..duh!

Well.. its something real.. I am making real money from this.. and putting an affiliate link does not have to be something bad at all.

Why do I have to shy about promoting something real?!!

Basically, the problem is you are creating a conflict of interest by appending the affiliate bit. It's hard to take your advice as being unbiased when you stand to profit from it.

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