That’s the most common question I hear—aside from, “What is wrong with you, Neal?”
Unfortunately, there's no simple answer to either question, but since this is a web design blog, not a psychiatrist's office, let’s focus on the first one.
Now, I don’t want to mislead you, but there's no one path to Freelancer Mecca. In reality, there are many different paths, and only some will work for you. I’ll walk you through the seven best. I strongly recommend testing each. To dismiss any of them would be doing a disservice to the hustler mindset that’s pivotal to successful freelancing. I’ve personally made each one work wonderfully for me.
Keep in mind that the beginning is always the hardest part, so don’t get discouraged. Once you’ve proven yourself to a couple clients, you'll be continuously turning down work, and you'll be able to increase your contracting rates higher than you originally thought possible. Think I’m exaggerating? Ask any successful freelancer you know.
Here are the channels I'll walk you through:
4. Networking: Go where your customers are and talk to them one-on-one.
5. Word of mouth: Make it easier on yourself… stay in and have people do the talking for you.
6. Hustling: Hack together solutions to get your name out into the wild.
I’ll go into detail on each one, giving you the information you need to start finding clients today. The goal is to give you a sufficient starting customer base that allows you to either quit your job (if desired) or grow your established freelancing business. Ready? Let’s do this.
Have an online portfolio
If you're a web designer, and you don't have your own personal website plus a portfolio, then you have some self-examining to do. This is always step one. You can’t lazily point prospective clients to links of sites you’ve worked on. Your personal site should be the crown jewel in your portfolio. You have to prove yourself as a design professional if you want to be taken seriously and secure high pay. Your portfolio is your cred.
The advice in the following sections won't hold if you lack a portfolio. If you don’t take the time to do this, the next designer will. This is a crowded space, so don’t expect cutting corners to work out well.
Once you have a portfolio built, link to it everywhere—even where it doesn’t seem relevant: in your email signature, on your social media channels, and on business cards if you have them (yes, cards are old school, but we’ll explore how they're still useful for random encounters among friends… someone is always looking for a website).
You should also create accounts on sites like Dribbble and Behance. These sites have well-established SEO (search engine optimization), so they'll often show up on the first page of Google. Leverage this to drive more search traffic to your work and site.
These platforms are for designers who want to share their work and get feedback from other professionals. They are excellent ways to get your designs seen by potentially thousands of people who may eventually refer you. You might even get really helpful feedback to improve your skills. (Don't design in a vacuum!)
Our own Webflow Portfolio section also produces inbound job inquiries for designers who take advantage of our platform. Other designers, companies, and would-be clients can follow you and message you about contracts.
Remember, don’t just wait for people to come to you—make it so easy for them to stumble across your work in so many different places that they'll have no choice but to reach out. The can have significant impact on your contracting volume. Why? Because once you have even a couple contracts in place, it’s much easier to get more. This career path is built on referrals. Good people who reliably produce quality work always get referred.
(In fact, being easy to work with always matters more than how good your portfolio is. Life is short, and people want to work with good people.)
Before we move on, consider this: If there’s one secret to freelance design and development, it’s that you only have to put serious energy into securing your first few contracts. The rest will come more naturally.
Freelance job marketplaces
Upwork (formerly oDesk) is an online marketplace designed to connect freelancers and prospective clients. Create a profile, upload your portfolio, and start bidding on contracts. You can even apply for the ones you might not feel totally qualified for yet—that’s how you grow and become an even better designer.
You might notice a high number of bids from international freelancers. They generally charge less for their services than you do, as their living expenses could be a fraction of designers in other countries.
If you’re from a “developed” country, don’t let this discourage you. I consistently won over 50% of my contracts, even when I was bidding against 30 other people asking for significantly less. Why? Because employers don't want their time wasted. They generally give preference to professional communicators, fluent English speakers, and those who don’t come with the baggage of a 16-hour time difference. In other words, no, clients on these platforms don't just care about how much they're paying. They want quality. Massive companies like GoDaddy and Fortune 500's rely on these platforms. Don’t dismiss them.
If you’re not comfortable with writing English, working on your English will be more important than improving your portfolio. That's priority number one. Otherwise, international work (or work in the biggest markets) will often be hard to find—or disproportionately low-paying. Businesspeople are too overwhelmed as it is to want to also have to wade through a language barrier.
Two quick tips for Upwork:
- Always ensure your portfolio is fully complete (their algorithms will rank you higher in search results!)
- Work toward getting Top Rated status for prioritized access to the best-paying jobs.
Separate from Upwork is the combined startup/employment directory AngelList. The companies on there range from “dude in a basement” to booming enterprises like Uber and Stripe. It can be an excellent place to secure contract work with a well-funded startup. Simply create a profile, actively search for jobs, and—if your portfolio is up to par—expect quite a few to come to you as well. (While visiting a junior developer friend of mine, he had a Skype call with a new company from AngelList every day I was there—so believe me, it works.)
If the position excites you, and there’s a great fit with the startup, you could even consider joining the team full-time, and gain serious equity in the process! Welcome to the startup hustle.
Writing about a topic in an intelligent manner positions you as an expert in your field. It’s the quickest way to garner credibility and awareness, and—if you spend time sharing your posts—some much needed traffic to your portfolio.
Start your blog on your personal site. Start writing useful and relevant industry content for others to benefit from. Make sure to inject your personality into your posts. Let it shine. Remember, clients want to work with good, interesting people. Demonstrate to prospects that you have impressive insights and opinions. This is all about building a personal brand. It’ll turn some people away, but those people would be terrible clients for you anyway. Be yourself and you’ll attract people who will love working with you.
Don’t expect a monsoon of visits to start with. Like all things that matter, building an audience takes time, patience, consistency, and some marketing. Don't get discouraged. A blog is a long-term investment in yourself. You'll always get some value out of it, even if it’s not paying clients. A few views from the right people can mean infinitely more than a million views that lead nowhere. Numbers aren't everything. Create as many opportunities as possible for inbound serendipity.
You can promote your blog by posting it on social media platforms, Hacker News, Reddit, and contacting newsletters, article curators, and other bloggers/tweeters in the industry who might find your post useful and share-worthy. Just don’t be spammy about it. The outward purpose is to educate, not self-promote.
Designing website templates and releasing them is not only an excellent way to earn passive income (i.e., you'll actually get paid while you sleep), but also an excellent way to get publicity and experience. If people are seeing and buying your templates on Webflow, CreativeMarket, or ThemeForest, then they're seeing living, breathing examples of your work.
These individuals will be likely to contact you with a request to fully customize the design of their pre-existing site, and that could pay very well.
It gets even cooler though: Having your own portfolio of templates will speed up future client work by giving you a base of pre-made designs to work from! Plus, templates are a great way to add even more content to your portfolio. See why it’s so important to have a portfolio?
Networking and word of mouth
The number-one way to find quality clients is to get out (figuratively and literally) and meet people. In my own younger and unemployed days, I'd spend all day at home applying for mechanical engineering jobs in isolation. I was unsuccessful for months.
I did, however, make serious progress through my Netflix backlog. Serious progress, people.
Eventually, I gave up and focussed on pursuing a career in web design and development (a career I was much more passionate about), and started getting out and meeting people at various unrelated social events. Within weeks, I had job offers coming in from my loose-knit network of new acquaintances. It wasn’t rocket science: People prefer to hire people they already know and like—not the faceless, personality-less individuals clogging their inbox with links.
Notice how I didn't specifically describe who the people I met were? That’s because you need to meet all kinds of people—all backgrounds and age groups. You have no idea where your next client is hiding. Probably not at a web design meetup—those are filled with designers who don’t have jobs.
This bears repeating: Go to any and every meetup that matches your interests, and simply tell people you’re a web designer. Watch what happens. (Everyone needs a website, or knows someone who does. That's what’s so great about freelancing in this industry.)
Some places to start meeting people:
- Meetups and Couchsurfing events
- Sports games and classes
- Cafes (though it only works if you actually talk to people)
- Abroad! I’ve been backpacking for 7 months, and have never met so many people in such a short amount of time
- Twitter – find interesting people in your area and invite them out for coffee
- Conferences and conventions, industry-related and otherwise
Tip: Don’t be the typical “business networker.” Don’t bounce from person to person shaking hands, fake-smiling, repeating first names every sentence, and handing out business cards. Be legitimate. Make real connections. People aren’t oblivious to hucksters.
The other side of the networking coin—word of mouth—comes from building up a client base, having lots of contacts, and building a personal brand for yourself (with your blog, portfolio, and templates you've built).
Remember: This takes time. But if you do great work, treat your clients with respect, keep in touch with past clients, and follow the rest of the advice in this article, and you'll be fine.
With networking and word of mouth, you can easily reach a state of having more work offers than you can sustain—without ever actually working for it. When this happens, you can increase your rates. Ka-ching.
Personally, I turn down spontaneous contract offers on a weekly basis, which are all the result of word of mouth and networking I did many months ago.
It honestly doesn't take long to get to this point if you produce quality work and put yourself out there.
Hustling is the art of working extremely hard and extremely smart—doing things that most people wouldn’t bother to because they’re not relentlessly opportunistic. In our context, hustling involves going out and finding the work directly. For example, finding websites or businesses that desperately need your services. Does your favorite pub have a terrible site? Why not talk to the owners and convince them they need you to fix it?
If you have the right personality, and the drive, this can be an extremely effective method to whip up some initial work. It just isn’t particularly glamorous. It also requires your repeated, hands-on time and energy. (In contrast, writing blog posts or setting up a portfolio can attract customers for years to come.) The success rate of in-person contact, however, is much higher. The trade-off is lower volume.
Just don’t be the door-to-door salesman who pours dirt on people’s carpets. Only approach people who truly need and can benefit from your services.
If you’re sitting at home, desperately hoping clients are going to come to you, I have news for you: They won’t come if you haven’t given them a reason to. You have to put yourself out there to start, and show prospective clients that you have tangible and valuable skills to offer.
Luckily, this is an industry where skill and contacts trump all—education is irrelevant. So take advantage of that. (I personally never studied design or programming in school.)
Here’s my TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) next steps to getting clients and building your freelancing business:
- Make a portfolio. Make it gorgeous. Share it everywhere. You can use Webflow to do it yourself without coding.
- Create profiles on Behance and Dribbble to connect with other designers and potential clients. When posting, always link back to your site so you can use their SEO advantage to drive more traffic to your website.
- Create a profile on Upwork , and bid on contracts. Be confident, and don’t be scared by inexpensive competing labour. Also use AngelList to find contracts with promising or established startups.
- Start meeting people. Remember, you’ll have no idea who will become a client, or who knows one, until you have a conversation. Get out, meet, and befriend as many people as possible. Be legitimate.
- Start a blog to complement your portfolio. Write thoughtful and useful industry-related content to establish yourself as an expert. Let your personality shine. (Just aim to educate, not self-promote.)
- Convert your designs to templates, and release them on sites like Webflow, CreativeMarket, and ThemeForest to earn passive income and awareness.
- Start hustling. Find people who legitimately need your services and tell them why.
"Do something! Even if it's wrong."
- My friend's dad
Remember, when you're starting out, it’s better to do the wrong thing than nothing at all. In the process, you’ll learn, and you might just stumble onto something that works beautifully.
Now, get out there and do something about this!