How To Get Freelance Clients Passively

If you’re trying to launch a freelancing design or web development career, having an effective strategy to find and retain clients is crucial. But how do you grow a client list when you’re so focused on projects for your existing clients?

In this article, Michael Houghton, a freelance web developer based in Ireland with over 15 years of experience in freelancing, shares some amazing tips to help anyone trying to launch a freelancing career get clients passively. Enjoy!

How to gain clients passively

With a new year, comes a fresh start.  Why not make 2018 the year that you make a start on gaining clients passively.  There is no better time to start thinking about getting your message out there, than today!

Most of the time when we hear the word ‘passive’, we think of passive income.  We know that if we can create passive income, we are doing something right!

But passive income isn’t the only thing businesses should be targeting.  Freelance designers and developers typically wear many hats – for many of them, doing the actual job – the writing, the programming, the designing etc, is only half the job.  The other half is spent on bookkeeping and finding new clients – making sure the business actually runs!

It is human nature for us to focus on the actual cost, but we rarely focus on opportunity cost.  By reducing the time needed to run your freelancing business, there is opportunity to take on more clients and to increase your income.

One of the biggest improvements that I made to my freelancing business that changed the way I operated was to adopt passive marketing.


Passive marketing

Passive marketing is simple – let clients come to you rather than you finding them!  The truth is, the best clients, the best opportunities aren’t advertised.  Clients actively go looking for those freelancers.  When clients find you, the ball is 100% in your court.  You’re able to dictate the working terms and rates.  The whole game changes.

I had a client contact me last year who needed a Laravel developer with experience leading teams but who also had a solid knowledge of accounting and finance.  It wasn’t a position worth advertising because so few developers would have the required skill set.  In fact, I suspected I was one of only a few people they could find with the right background for the role.  It is no surprise, then, that there was no negotiation needed when I presented my offer to work with them – they were happy to pay whatever I asked for because they knew I was the right fit and would deliver the results they needed.

This is the power of passive marketing.  But how should one go about implementing such a strategy?  Before I list the specific resources I use, the first thing you need to define is what message you want to put out there.

For passive marketing to be successful, you need to think about your ideal client.  Who are they and what sort of keywords or phrases are they going to be searching for to find you?  This largely comes back to knowing what your niche is and specializing as a freelance designer or web developer to find your target market.  For example, rather than simply be a writer, what if your skill set was writing about the stock market? I am a web developer, but I would get lost in a large ocean of web developers if I were to just brand myself as a web developer.  That’s why focus on being a ‘Laravel developer for startups’.  I put myself into a very specific niche so that the right type of client will contact me.  What good is it if a client contacts me to help them with a WordPress website, if I don’t know anything about WordPress?

So your messaging is important.  And even if you are still finding your niche or learning a new technology or skill so that you can move into a niche, remember you are writing your message for a future client.  So even if you don’t yet have the right level of experience or if you’re still upskilling,   don’t be afraid to target your message around who you want to be – even if you’re not quite there yet.  Of course, that doesn’t mean you should lie on your profile, but let your message also act as guidance for the type of client you want, while keeping you in check on your own goals.

For example, let’s say you’re a developer who wants to get into artificial intelligence.  Maybe you’re extremely interested in AI but you haven’t been given the opportunity yet.  But you’re learning, you’re reading all the time and working on your own projects.  That’s the kind of detail you should list in your message.  Don’t be afraid to target your message towards the market you want to move into – even if you aren’t quite there yet!

So you now have your message.  Let’s run through some strategies that I have implemented successfully:



LinkedIn is a hugely powerful way to connect with clients. It is by far the easiest way to gain an audience quickly, and when done right it can be a great source of leads.  At least half of my leads (and some of my biggest clients) have found me through LinkedIn.

The best part is that it’s super easy to set up a profile and get started.  The best advice I can provide about LinkedIn is:

  • Target your message towards your ideal future client.
  • Complete every single step that LinkedIn suggests when building your profile.
  • Have a very clear headshot for your profile image – ideally with you smiling!
  • Focus on your tagline and summary, as this is what clients will read first.  Remember to be specific in your tagline, e,g “Laravel developer for startups” rather than just “Software engineer”.


Personal website / branded website / portfolio

Forbes recently published an article which shows that freelancers with a website earn 65% more income than freelancers that don’t.

Yet so many of the freelancers I talk to don’t have their own website. Whether it is branded as a company or agency, or is simply, the main priority is to get your message out there.

Of course, the real power of having your own website comes from the content that you write and the way you target your keywords.  I recently ran an experiment on my own website  I wanted to target keywords that were as niche as possible.  One easy way to do this, is to simply target location-based keywords.  In my case, I targeted the phrase “Laravel developer in Limerick, Ireland” and I set this as my main meta title on the home page.

Within three days, my Google ranking for “Laravel developer in Limerick” jumped to third.  My ranking for “Laravel developer in Ireland” jumped to seventh. I had changed nothing else, but by targeting a very specific niche, I was able to target my ideal client.



Blogging is hard.  I enjoy writing, but I still struggle to find the time to blog.  I often feel as a freelancer there is this constant feeling that we should be blogging.  In my experience however, blogging will give you that extra 20% of client leads but it won’t make or break your success.

Get your message and initial content right first for your website – this is the priority.  From there, focus on writing blog articles that will do the following:

  • Target your ideal client.  Don’t just write about anything – target content that will show that you know your niche or will attract a client to you.
  • Focus on search engine optimisation – your article should be designed to improve your Google ranking on certain keywords.  Ensure your blog articles are consistent with the overall message of your website.
  • Focus on quality, not quantity.  You may hear messages like “you should be blogging every day” – the truth is, it is very difficult to maintain quality content when writing every day.  Aim to write when you feel inspired and take the time you need to get your article right.


Open source contributions

Github is a great way for clients to find you and writing open source contributions is a great way for clients to see your work in action.

The downside of open source contributions is that it can be time consuming.  Like blogging, it requires constant work, unlike LinkedIn and a website, which if done well the first time, will bring in leads for a long time.

My advice on open source work is to do it primarily because you enjoy it.  Open source is a lot of fun and is a great way to boost your profile, but your primary motive should be because you enjoy a particular project or want to make a difference.  Your motivation to write open source code to boost your profile may quickly falter, but if you are truly passionate about a project you will see it through.

Other than that – keep your open source contributions consistent with your niche.  For example, if you are a PHP developer, your contributions should be based around PHP ideally, so that your potential clients can see your PHP code before they work with you.


What about now?

All of these suggestions are designed to help you gain future clients, but what if you need clients right now?  What steps can you take today to gain clients quickly?

Websites such as UpWork and are marketplaces that require you to submit proposals to gain work.  This is far from passive – in fact, the win rate through freelancer marketplaces can be very low.

Thankfully, there are a couple of freelancer marketplaces that actively do the searching for you.



Toptal is likely the biggest freelancer network in the world, with more than 3,000 developers, designers and financial experts and a team that is growing fast.  I was fortunate enough to be a Toptal developer for three years, and while getting into Toptal is difficult, once you are in, recruiters will work hard to match you to the right client.

You can be based pretty much anywhere to be part of the Toptal network and the work is fully remote.  Feel free to read my article on the Toptal interview process for more information.


X Team

X Team is a company which targets the world’s top developers, much like Toptal.  While I haven’t worked with X Team specifically, the feedback I have received from other developers has been positive.


Developer Fair

Developer Fair is an Irish-based freelancer marketplace.  It’s still in the startup stage, but I have worked on a couple of projects for them and it was an enjoyable experience.  They target developers and designers.



If you are willing to invest your time now, you can set yourself up to have an extremely profitable freelance business in the long run.  There is no doubt that the most successful freelancers have implemented this strategy.

There is a quote by Mark I. McCallum which goes “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now”.  As freelancers, we all know that we should be working on our profile and message to future clients, yet we continually put it off. Let today be the time to start getting your message out to your ideal client.

Portfolio mistakes that new freelance designers make

The difference between seasoned designers and new designers is rarely their skillsets. Generally, new designers know how to use the tools the same way as someone who has been designing for twenty years.

However, new designers tend to make certain mistakes that an experienced designer wouldn’t make. Today I am going to talk to you about 4 common areas new designers can often fall short in, and how you can avoid making the same mistakes!

Not Presenting Your Ideas Properly

Often times clients come to designers with an idea in their head of what they’d like their designs to look like. As a designer, it can be frustrating to have a nitpicky client who is trying to dictate your designs, but as a designer it is also your job to manage the client as well as their expectations. Presenting your ideas to your client can truly make or break a project.

If done correctly, your client will understand why you made certain design decisions and won’t try to take control over the project. However, if done incorrectly, your client won’t understand the process or reasoning behind your design decisions and you could end up needing to head back to the drawing board. When presenting your ideas to your client, it’s always best to provide them with some sort of mock-up for their designs so they are able to see how their designs will look in a real life situation. If possible, sit down with your client 1-on-1 to explain your design process (over Skype, Zoom, or even in person) or provide them with a PDF that explains how your ideas fit with their goals.

You will want to explain why you chose certain fonts, colors and design elements to bring their ideas to life. For example, below is a sample of what I sent a client to explain my thought-process behind the tri-color color palette I had chosen for them. You can see how I have briefly explained why I chose the colors and how it relates back to their vision.

Not Having A Client Process In Place

Your client process should start as soon as a prospect reaches out to you and inquires about your work. It’s a good idea to have a detailed PDF of some sort that you can send any prospective clients who would like some more information about your services.

Having a meeting (or a virtual meeting) with a client before formalizing any actual contracts is also a great idea. During this meeting you should have a list of questions that can help you determine what exactly the client is looking for and whether or not you will be a good fit for one another.

Having client questionnaires ready to go in your toolkit will help you streamline your client process so you can spend more time on the designs and less time going back and forth with your client.

Going With The Trends

There is nothing wrong with knowing what’s trending and what’s not, but when you’re creating designs such as logos and other brand collateral, you want to make sure you aren’t falling into the trap of creating something only because it’s currently “in”. Branding elements should be timeless. Just like fashion, graphic design style evolves and changes over time. One year we might see soft pastels be very popular, whereas the next year big bold colors are in.

If you are creating your designs based upon what is in style, your designs aren’t going to last more than a couple of years. You do, however, want to develop your own personal style that will remain constant amongst the trends. Websites like Dribble, Behance and Pinterest are great places to find inspiration and start carving out your own unique style.

Not Knowing The Basics Of Web Design

If you thought that HTML and CSS were just for web designers, you might want to think again. While HTML, CSS and various programming languages are definitely skills that are a must for a web designer, it’s also really important for graphic designers to know the basics of web design.

But if you focus on graphic design, why should you need to know anything about web design?

As you probably already know, web and graphic design work very closely. Often times a graphic designer will design a website and a web designer will then bring that website to life by developing it. The complaint that I often come across from web designers in regards to graphic designers is that their designs don’t actually take certain things like user experience into consideration, or whether or not the website will be able to be built within the client’s budget.

If you don’t know the basics of web design, you are going to leave web designers frustrated when you pass off your designs to them. Plus, knowing web design is a great skills to have! Free websites like Codecademy can help you begin to understand front-end coding in an easy and interactive way!

Tips for Freelance Designers Just Getting Started

Starting a new career path is always full of unknown variables.

When I first started offering freelance design services 4 years ago, it was a hot mess. I had no roadmaps, no one to guide me, and I had no idea what I was doing. I often made mistakes, and sometimes decisions were hard and fast. It wasn’t the most ideal entry strategy.

Learning by the seat of my pants got me by, but you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did. I’m going to share some of my most helpful tips for freelance designers who are just getting started.

The Secret Sauce

Starting out as a freelance designer, one of the biggest questions is, “How do I get clients?” I wish there was an easy, clear cut way to answer this question for you. The quickest answer though, is simply work. Getting your name out there, sharing your portfolio, and talking to prospective clients is all hard work. It’s hustle. It’s making an effort and not ever giving up.

There is a secret component in this equation though. That secret is networking. Talk to people. And then talk to more people. And just keep on talking. As cliche as the term “networking” might seem, it’s the best way to describe the process. Make connections, share information and be as helpful as possible. Engage with other designers, both in your niche and outside of it. On portfolio websites like Behance, comment and follow on others’ work. Share the inspiring designs you find on your social media channels and tag the artist.

Designers in your niche can offer advice about processes, their experience, collaborations, best practices, and a whole wealth of other valuable information. Having friends and support in your niche will help you immensely. Knowledge of designers outside of your niche are great to have on hand for referrals when a client requests something outside of the scope of your services. The same could be said about those designers when they encounter clients with the same problem and send referrals to you.

Another way to utilize networking, is to find out where your ideal client hangs out online and join that community. Once I found a place where prospective clients were hanging out, it was just a matter of time before I was being seen and heard. People started to recognize me and my work, and started referring me to their friends. After a while, around 75% of my work was all from referrals. Places like Facebook groups, Q&A forums, and reddit are all great starting places when considering where to search for your clients.

Remember to be genuine in your interactions; People can generally tell when someone is acting “salesy” and no one likes the sleazy salesman. Be honest, be helpful, and contribute to the community.


Show ‘Em What You Got

Your portfolio is a quick way for clients to assess your design style and make hiring decisions so it’s important to optimize this showcase. Let your work speak for you in the best way possible. I think a lot of portfolios are treated as a catch-all for every scrap of work that has ever been created. While I think it’s important to keep files (more on this later,) your portfolio should be a place that displays only your best work.

You know how people treat their social media feeds? It’s a highlight reel of happiness. This is how you should treat your portfolio; Showcase only your best.

Another key point about portfolios is the type of work that you display. The projects that you share in your portfolio should be relevant to the work clients hire you to design. Showcase the work that you currently offer or want to design.

Clients want to see how your designs look in action. Using mockups to display your work will help clients visualize how your design could benefit them. Remember to display some of your projects in real world use scenarios.

What do you display if you haven’t had any previous client work? Create design projects based on faux companies and clients. What matters is that your design skills and style are being represented. If your niche is logo design and branding, and you need more projects for your portfolio, the RookieUp Portfolio Starter Kit is the perfect way to get tons of project ideas and build up an amazing portfolio that will help you land clients fast.

Get Organized, Like Yesterday

There’s a lot of different aspects that are part of a freelance lifestyle. Websites, contracts, policies, invoices, project plans: All the things that an employer would normally wrangle, is now solely up to you. The best way to tackle all of these different moving parts is by being as organized as you can be.

When it comes to file names, create a format for everything. Through all the proposals, native files, rough drafts, and final versions, you’re looking at a hefty amount of saved work. The last thing you need is to get lost in a folder looking for a specific draft and there’s 23 different variations of roughdraft1finalfinalagain.AI.

Set a clear, relevant format, and implement it every time.

Another way to make your organization skills work for you, is to set up systems and processes. Streamline your workload by working in the same order every time. I think it helps to even create an outline of the steps and keep it tucked away for later reference and to share with clients. When working from a specific set of steps, you and your clients will always know what to expect and when. Less guesswork equals more productivity.

You can use websites like Trello, basecamp and asana to keep track of all your process outlines. You can even share these directly with your client to stay on the same timeline of workflow and expectations. One of the most important components to staying organized is all of your files. For the sake of your future self, keep everything. Files, emails, contracts, invoices.

Other than the obvious tax filing purposes and record keeping reasons, there are many instances when this could come in handy. A previous client might request additional work that requires native files. Unpaid invoices that need signed contracts as proof to receive payment. Keep all of your files, and keep them organized and tidy in clearly labeled folders.


At the End of the Day…

Starting a freelance design career is full of unknowns, but is also exciting and full of adventure. Giving yourself the best possible start, starts by making sure you are organized and prepared with at least an outline for a game plan.

Keep working hard, and your design journey will take you far.

How to Make Sure That Freelance Job Listing is Legit

This article was originally published on Skillcrush’s blog The Hard Refresh.

Bad jobs and sketchy employers don’t exactly come with a warning label, and freelancers are especially susceptible to getting scammed or cheated out of a well-deserved paycheck. You could very well never meet your client or employer face-to-face, the jobs aren’t usually long term, and you’re the one shouldering all the risk if things don’t go well. So how do you make sure the freelance job listing isn’t a scam?

I spoke to some freelance veterans who shared their thoughts on what to look for, red flags to run away from, and even how to present yourself as legit when seeking out those quality freelance jobs. Whether you’re an operation of one or run a company with a few employees, read this before you sign a contract for a job that might give your business the runaround.

Instant Red Flags

Web developer Heather Craik says that a well thought-out description with clear context is the first thing she looks for in a listing. Vague descriptions and even poor wording are “instant red flags:” If an employer isn’t giving clear expectations in their job listing, what kind of direction can you expect to get on the job? She’s also wary of listings whose scope-to-price ratios just don’t make sense. “You can’t buy ‘the next Facebook’ for under $500,” she says.

Jason Sickler, president at Torchlight Solutions, says that an employer’s track record with listings shouldn’t be ignored. “Does the [employer] follow up on other listings?” Sickler asks. “When is the last time the [employer] checked their post?” He suggests keeping an eye on the feedback that employers receive at the sites where they’ve listed jobs (if the sites have that option), or even if they’ve put time and effort into their public profiles on those sites. Remember that the amount of quality control an employer puts into something as public as a job listing is going to be a good indicator of how they handle things in-house.

Do Your Research

Once you’ve decided that your potential client or employer put time and effort into the post, it’s time to go a step further, says John Locke, Founder at Lockedown Designs. Just like in a job interview, you can’t prepare enough to start working with someone, and research will go a long way toward telling you if a listing is legit or if the job is even right for you.

“Find out what their revenue and reputation looks like,” says Locke. He argues that details such as the size of the company, the number of employees, and the length of time a company has been in business are critical, and much of this information will be available right on a company’s website. It’s especially helpful if they have an “Investors” section, so you can read more about their financial well-being.

If it’s a smaller startup company, you can look up their profile on Crunchbase to learn about their funding and review their press coverage. Scouring an employer’s social media presence (Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) should also give you insight into the kind of company you’re dealing with. Locke’s experience found a direct correlation between established companies and higher quality freelance assignments, but that doesn’t mean you should only apply to companies with millions in revenue and hundreds of employees.

However, it does mean you should put extra thought into working with employers who are one-person shops or don’t have any kind of proven track record. An airtight contract will be especially important to protect yourself. (Contracts might sound like a daunting proposition, but there are plenty of resources online to help you through the process. The Freelancer’s Union has an easy-to-use online contract generator, as well as links to resources for nonpayment.)

Pay Careful Attention to Scope

Back in Craik’s “younger, more naive days,” she was hired for a copywriting job that paid a set price per article. Her initial assignment was a trial run of 30 articles, but once she got started she realized the employer was looking for “keyword-stuffed nonsense” as opposed to quality writing.

Her employer thought she should be able to write three to four 500-word articles an hour, where she was only managing two. Because of the gap between the employer’s expectations and what she’d envisioned, she was forced to throw in the towel after only a week. “I ended up making peanuts for some really good writing. Needless to say, I kept a much closer eye on scope from then on,” she says.

When assessing a freelance job listing, ask questions about scope and budget, says Sickler, and a legit freelance job should have funding in place and a clear path for how to proceed. Don’t be afraid to ask an employer to clarify these points if they haven’t addressed them in their listing.

If a potential job is milestone-based, Sickler suggests asking for a list of deliverables. Any legit employer should be able to provide a clear, measurable list so there are no questions regarding when a deliverable is complete. If you can’t get an answer, they probably “either don’t know what they want, they don’t understand what you are asking for, or they want to leave ambiguity so as the job progresses the goal post can be shifted,” he says. Walk away.

Sign with Caution

If the listing hasn’t popped any of these major red flags and the employer is ready to bring you on board, all you have to do is sign on the dotted line. But you’re not out of the woods yet: Make sure you know what you’re signing.

Sickler says he’s been given the runaround before when it came to signing. “I’ve had a listing author provide me with a ‘nondisclosure agreement (NDA)’ to sign, which…was actually a full consulting agreement!” In that case, Sickler suggested he and the employer use a mutual NDA, to which the employer responded by saying he couldn’t “go against legal” and ended the discussion. This, Sickler concludes, was not a legit job.

He also advises freelancers not to sign on for jobs with potentially burdensome restrictions. “I’ve seen listings ask for 15-year non-competes,” Sickler says. “One to two years is certainly sufficient in nearly all cases.” As a freelancer, you are your own advocate, and it’s critical to keep this in mind when signing contracts and other legal documents.

Check In with Your Gut

While the nuts and bolts of a listing might be unassailably legit, that’s only part of the picture. It’s also important that the person writing the checks is someone you feel comfortable working for. When it comes to legit employers, Locke believes an employer who places value on the work you accomplish versus time spent “in your seat” is a hallmark of legitimacy. As remote work becomes more of the norm, employers’ focus will continue to shift toward the finished product—instead of clock punching. In the meantime, though, it’s important you find an employer who shares those values so you can simply ask about their philosophy around results versus time. Do they expect certain hours? Are those hours flexible? Do they care how you work, so long as you do the work?

He advises you to run away from employers who reward workaholism. “Working 18-hour days on a regular basis is a huge warning sign that something isn’t right,” he says.

Make a Good First Impression

While it’s critical to properly vet job listings, it’s just as important that you come across as legit to potential employers. For Craik, that means answering all the questions, explicit and unspoken, in each job posting she responds to.

“It’s all about [responding to] the work they’re asking for [in the listing] and being helpful,” says Craik. “Whether responding to a job listing or in a Facebook group, I’m helpful and I care about what [the employer] is trying to achieve,” Craik says. Keep in mind that even if you’re applying for multiple jobs, each employer sees themselves as an individual case, so responding to their individual needs and goals will go a long way in establishing trust.

Staying public and staying active is another important way to distinguish yourself. David Cox, CEO at LiquidVPN, says that before hiring any freelancer, he “independently research[es] their public work.” When he interviews developers he invites them to Github and BitBucket in order to take a look at their accounts and has a developer who’s already working for him look at their contributions.

Cox also looks for freelancers who maintain profiles on sites like Dribble, Forrst, and Behance. Just like you’ll feel encouraged by employers who have a public face and a known track record, employers will be quicker to hire an employee with a digital footprint they can follow.

Now that you’ve gotten some tips on what to look for in a freelance job listing, download the free Ultimate Guide to Going Freelance. It’ll show you the exact tech skills you’ll need to get started as a freelancer, how to establish personal habits for freelance success, and the best way to build a career safety net so you can finally ditch your day job.


Skillcrush is an interactive learning community that teaches coding skills to total newbies so they can make real career changes. Check out their blog The Hard Refresh by Skillcrush for everything you need to know about getting started in tech, working remotely, or managing that freelance life

How to Get Your First Freelance Design Clients

So, you’ve spent months (or years) honing your design skills with the goal of building a new creative career you love. Now that you’ve mastered every technique, taken every class, and built a nice portfolio of sample projects, you’re ready to turn your skill into a sustainable freelancing career and get your first freelance design clients.

But now what? How do you find your first paying clients with no actual client work to show? How do you convince people you don’t know to hire you and pay you for your work? We chatted with a few of the design mentors at on-demand mentorship service RookieUp for their tips on how to find your first freelance clients and grow a freelancing career. Hayden Aube is an illustrator and designer who’s worked for clients around the world, and Rich Armstrong is a UX Designer who runs his own freelance studio in Amsterdam. Both of these awesome designers have amazing experience starting from nothing and building full-time freelance careers.

Put together a portfolio of projects you’ve worked on. Don’t have enough projects? Create some more!

One of the most important things in your arsenal is a portfolio. Not only is this likely to be a potential client’s first impression of you, but it’s an easy way to showcase your strengths and let clients know what type of work you’re most interested in. If you’re just getting started, you likely won’t have much client work to showcase in a portfolio, which is fine. Hayden recommends that “while you’re looking for those real projects, make up some of your own. Not only will this improve your abilities and bolster your portfolio, but it will have you ready to go once the projects do come in.”

To figure out the best sorts of projects to work on when you’re building up your portfolio, think about what aspects of design interest you the most and focus your projects around this. After all, the work you showcase on your portfolio is likely the work you’ll have the easiest time selling to new clients. Rich confirms this approach, suggesting to “include only work you want to do more of in your portfolio.” After all, if a client is going to hire you, they want to know you’ve done similar work before, even if it is just from personal projects.

Whether or not you should provide in-depth written explanations of your process for each portfolio piece is hotly-debated in the design community. If you’re a visual designer, your work should speak for itself and should do the work of hooking people on its own. However, if you’re a UX designer, a case study might be more important. Regardless, focus on surfacing your best work as quickly as possible and don’t showcase anything that isn’t up to your highest standards.

If you need some additional project inspiration, check out these articles on Skillcrush and HOW Design for some unique project ideas.

Buy your domain, build your portfolio, and choose a social strategy

The first thing most freelancing clients will see after you reach out to them is your portfolio, so make it amazing!

  • Buy your personal domain. Owning an easy-to-remember domain based on your name is crucial so that anyone searching for you can find you easily.
  • Choose a portfolio platform and build your site
    • SquarespaceWebydo, and Webflow are three platforms that are designed specifically for creatives looking to create a beautiful online home.
    • Dribbble and Behance are a few other active online communities where designers post their work and receive feedback from others
  • Pick a few relevant social channels to focus on. A big mistake is creating accounts on 10 different social networks and not giving any of them a significant amount of energy. Instead, pick 2 or 3 that fit with your goals. For example, if you love creating infographics, Pinterest can be a great way to build an audience, whereas Instagram is great if you’ve got a unique illustration or visual design style.

Don’t be afraid to leverage your personal networks, specifically family and friends

If you ask pretty much any designer, there’s a good chance they’ll tell you that their first clients came from personal referrals. This makes sense – early in your career when you don’t have a lot of client work to showcase, social validation via a personal connection is a great way to build a sense of trust.

For Hayden, “[his] very first clients, as I believe with many young designers, came through family and friends. They were not the most glamorous or high-paying jobs but I was grateful to have them.” If none of your personal connections own businesses in need of design services, reach out to friends and family to ask if they’d be willing to pass your name and portfolio on to their connections with potential design work available.

When you’re meeting potential clients via referrals, come prepared and be casual. Rich recommends to “set up a meeting or meetings – the more face time the better. See if you click, and when work is available it will come, or just continue coming. Treat meeting potential clients as dates – the more the better, and the better chance of meeting the right fit.” Based on the type of project they’re hiring for, do some research and come to the meeting with feedback and initial concepts or ideas.

Whenever you finish a project that your client is happy with, let them know you’re available for more freelance work in the future. If they’re happy with your work, ask if they’re comfortable referring you to other partners of theirs as they need design work done as well. Many freelancers build their entire careers off of the snowball effect of their first few referrals, so take advantage of this whenever possible!

Join in-person and online communities to build new relationships

Hayden “[has] found the very best approach for meeting new clients is to look at it as making friends. No one wants to be sold to and not many of us want to sell to people, so don’t even think about it. Just go to events, join chat groups and attend meetups that are focused on things you are already interested in. When making friends, what you do will come up naturally and if they have work for you at any point they will gladly send it your way. If not, you’re still having fun.” Meetup is one of the best ways to find local events, both in the design space and in industries you’d like to work in.

Reach out directly to companies you love

Don’t be afraid to reach out directly to companies whose work you like. The worst thing they can say is no. When you reach out to them, always write a personalized message that shows you’re not blindly copying a pitch email template. If you have a particular industry focus, search for the companies in this field (Manta has a great search tool to find small businesses) to get for the best companies to reach out to. To stand out even more, Rich suggests “sending the cool things you make to brands and people you want to work with.” A beautiful piece of design can catch someone’s interest much better than a multi-paragraph email message!

Do your best work on every project, no matter how small

Hayden says “it sounds simple but great work is the number one catalyst for getting more. An easy mistake designers make is to put in minimal effort if a job does not pay very well. Regardless of what you’re being compensated, you must make every project amazing. Even if you decide you don’t want to work with that client after, doing great work means they are likely to share you with their friends and you have something you’re proud to show in your portfolio.”

So go forth and find your first freelance design clients! If you want to chat with someone who’s already built a successful career in the freelance space, check out the design mentors on RookieUp. We built RookieUp to provide on-demand access to a community of high quality design professionals, so you can get personalized answers to all your freelancing questions from people who have been in your shoes before.