When I started freelancing I didn’t have a clue how to actually get clients. So I did what I always do in those situations. I read a lot. A bunch of the articles I read said I should start on the big freelance sites like Upwork. I guess whoever wrote those didn’t know how to get freelancing clients either. That isn’t too strange, as getting those initial clients is probably the hardest part.
So I followed their advice, created a profile, wrote query letters and spent the next six months trying to break through there. In the process, I learned that it is true what they say. The worse the client pays the more demanding they are.
By that standard, Upwork’s clients are among the most demanding out there. The site is infamous for having clients that pay ludicrously low rates. I charged a cent per word there, which is too little to support my girlfriend and myself. And yet still I was regularly undercut by people willing to do it for less.
Those were some pretty miserable months, I can tell you!
Of course, hardship is a phenomenal teacher. I recount some of the lessons I learned there in the article my life as a warning to a friend and a whole generation. The one that matters most here can be summed up pretty simply.
Don’t use Upwork and platforms like it if you’re serious about freelancing
That’s not just because it’s a crappy platform (though it is) or because their customer service is bad (though that’s true too). Instead, it’s down to two fundamental problems with sites like Upwork:
- Low barriers to entry.
- What the site accentuates.
In the last few years, popular culture has portrayed freelancing as a shortcut to wealth and independence. As a result, a torrent of new people is flooding in. And sure, some of them have real talent. But as many (if not more) don’t. Nor do they have professional experience. I’m not sure how these people believe they’re going to be able to stand out in a very crowded field. Perhaps it’s down to the Dunning-Kruger effect. That’s the cognitive illusion people of low ability have that makes them believe they’re better than they actually are.
As a consequence, sites like Upwork – which are easy to find and which you can join regardless of experience and capability – are drowning in supply. What’s more, because they put price front and center, that’s where freelancers end up competing.
This actually ends up chasing away good clients. After all, when anybody suggests a project with a reasonable price, they will get a ludicrous number of replies. Even worse, most of the applicants are by people who don’t have the necessary skills or abilities. Often haven’t even read the job application correctly!
This turns finding the right freelancer into finding the needle in a haystack. And that flies right in the face of why they’re looking for a freelancer – namely to save time and get a good product. So they go look elsewhere.
The result? You’re left with clients who offer a pittance and want the moon. Those are not the clients you want to work for. So how do you find the ones you do?
Use your network
The best way to sidestep the entire problem of being one of the many? Approach the people for who you’re already a little bit more than that. Start with the people you know. On platforms like Linkedin you’ll know professionals and they’ll know you. Even on other social media platforms, there are people who might be looking for freelancers. Heck, 85% of positions are filled through networks.
So why would you compete for the other 15%?
What’s more, as these people know you they’re far more likely to take a chance on you despite your flimsy portfolio. And yes, you might have to give them give them friend price, but work for a friend price is better than no work at all.
Of course, if you want to succeed you do have to approach your network in the correct way. Putting up a post on Facebook and then hoping people will respond is not an effective strategy.
I mean, it’s a good start. It will let people know you’re freelancing. But it’s only a start. People have busy lives. And so even if they are looking for freelancers or know those who are, they might not get back to you, forget, or remain unconvinced.
No, to get the best out of your network you have to write people individually. In this way:
- There is no diffusion of responsibility. That’s where the more people witness something the less each person feels responsible.
- You’ll have social conventions playing in your favor. After all, if you write to a group of people then if one person does not respond, it’s not all that rude. If you write to somebody one-on-one and they don’t respond, it is.
Sure, they still might not respond. But at least you’ve reduced the likelihood.
The follow up
Always follow up everything that you do. If somebody does not get back to you, or says they will and then don’t, write them again a week or two later.
I didn’t use to do this. I thought that if I didn’t get a message from somebody then they were offended, or didn’t like what I was proposing. Since then I’ve learned that they were overwhelmed by the day-to-day. I mean, that happens to me. So why shouldn’t it happen to them?
So now I reply to my original message with a short addendum of:
Hi, I sent you a message a few weeks ago regarding X, Y and Z. As I didn’t hear anything back from you, I thought I would check in to see if you’ve had a chance to think about it.
You’d be surprised how effective that is. Only two weeks ago I got back an enthusiastic response from the person I’d written a second time and now he’s my client. The trick is not to accuse and not to play the passive-aggressive card. Also, by keeping it short they’re much likely to read it and take the time to get back to you.
Another good strategy is the long-term follow up. This is one where if they aren’t interested in or no longer need your services today, you reach out to them again six months from now. After all, just because they don’t need somebody today doesn’t mean they never will. Even better, you’ll get the help of the mere exposure effect. This is the psychological phenomenon that we like what we know.
My advice is to create a spreadsheet where you track the names, email addresses, and dates that you message of the different clients. Also, include notes on what happened. Then, a few times per months you go through, see who you haven’t reached out to in a while and send them a follow up.
It’s a small effort with potentially a big reward.
Want to look outside of your own network or the clients you’ve already worked with? Then join some groups. There are all different kinds out there dedicated to every different career under the sun.
Some of them even have internal client lists and members who are glad to refer people who they like and whose work they respect. Even if they don’t, they will have plenty of tips and tricks to help you land new clients.
So, when the opportunity presents itself, join the groups you’re invited to. Invest a bit of time. Make friends. Sure, not all the groups will be worthwhile but sometimes you’ll get lucky.
For example, one group I joined had an expansive spreadsheet of clients, what they pay and how to contact them. As it was a very new group and the clients on that list had not been pestered to death yet, that sheet is a gold mine.
Actually, that’s an important point. Most groups and sites only work well for a while before they get invaded by the freelancing hordes. Then they turn into another Upwork and the clients move on. For example, for a six-month period, I got a bunch of clients from a subreddit group called Hireawriter. Then it was discovered. Since then I’ve never managed to find another client on there.
So when you do find one of these moments in time, take advantage. Reach out to as many clients as possible before the resource is overexploited. Yes, that does mean that you’re participating in making it less valuable. That’s what they call the tragedy of the commons. Unfortunately, plenty of research has shown that as long as people can operate anonymously it’s an impossible problem to overcome.
So make hay while the sun shines.
Look for referrals
Often, your clients and freelancing buddies will know people looking for freelancers. So why not ask them? Tell them that a hole just opened up in your schedule and you’re looking for a new client to fill it. Do they know anybody who might be interested?
The worst that can happen is they say ‘no’. And you already had that before you asked, so nothing has been lost. In fact, you might actually end up ahead as you’ve put the idea that you’re looking in their heads. In that way, when somebody else comes along they might still refer them to you.
The best time to ask if they know any other clients is when they’re very impressed with something you’ve done. Perhaps because you’ve gone above and beyond.
There are two reasons that this works well:
- They are grateful and – via the norm of reciprocity – want to pay you back. This gives them an easy way to do so, at a low cost to themselves.
- You’ve demonstrated you’re capable and willing to do with needs to be done. In this way, they’ll be less afraid that if they put their reputation on the line suggesting you, you’ll make them look bad.
Write people directly
With there being so many freelancers out there, the moment a job is posted the poster is going to be email bombed. So why not sidestep them?
Find companies that are currently not looking for freelancers and write them. Yes, there is a good possibility they don’t actually need anybody right now. But you might get lucky. After all, there is always a window between where they realize they need somebody to do work but haven’t yet put up an advert.
In that case, you won’t have any competition at all for the position!
Of course, it works better if you can find a company that has many such windows. Fortunately, that’s not so hard. The trick is to write companies that post often that they’re looking for freelancers but haven’t in a while. After all, there’s a good chance they will do so soon again. So why not beat them to it?
Build an online portfolio
You don’t need to necessarily start a blog – though mine has helped me plenty. But you do need to make sure that somewhere online, in a central location people can find your portfolio. Admittedly, it won’t often get you clients sitting out there (though it does happen). But when you do reach out to people, you’ll look far more professional if you can drop in a portfolio link.
What’s more, once it gets a bit reputable, it will be the first thing people will find if they google you. That makes you look like an established freelancer and helps your chances.
My personal strategy is to send two or so links to articles I think are interesting to the client and a link to my portfolio. In that way, if they want to read more they can. Even if they don’t, they can take comfort from the idea that there is more information out there if they want it.
Of course, if you do build a portfolio make sure that somebody who knows their business takes a second look. After all, a spelling or grammar mistake will make you look sloppy and will turn clients off.
Getting the clients is the hardest part of freelancing. They have such a wide range of people to choose from and you have to stand out from all of them. Still, it can be learned. I did.
In the beginning, I would write dozens of proposals and rarely get a reply. Now, those numbers are much better. Sometimes clients even approach me!
The trick? Don’t approach the same ones everybody else does. Instead, find the jobs that aren’t getting as many responses. These can be on undiscovered sites, or there might be gatekeepers who keep the number of responses down. Even better, the client might not have posted the job at all! And so, you’ll need to deal with a lot less competition.
Or, to put it another way:
“When you find yourself on the side of the majority it’s time to pause and reflect.” – Mark Twain
That’s always good advice – but especially when looking for clients.