In nearly two decades of running my freelance design business, I’ve had days when I was desperate for any scrap of work that came my way. I accepted every opportunity just to keep busy, but I didn’t enjoy a lot of the work. Sound familiar?
Over the past 5 years though, things have been different. My schedule has been packed full of interesting and challenging work for quality clients. And best of all, those clients came to me. I rarely had to go looking for them.
Freelancing is a never-ending worry when work is difficult to come by. To eliminate that stress and enjoy the true freedom self-employment can offer, your top priority should be developing processes that bring new leads to you — passively — so you can focus more time on your craft and less effort wondering where your next project is coming from.
Here’s how I personally get more high-quality inbound leads than I can handle.
Understanding the business marketing pyramid
In How to Build a Pipeline of Freelance Leads, Ryan Waggoner explains how he breaks down his biz dev efforts into a pyramid of four levels:
- Prospecting (responding to ads and RFPs)
- Promoting (sharing your work, posting about yourself around the web)
- Networking (emailing contacts, meeting people, attending events, etc.)
- Thought Leadership (writing, speaking, teaching, etc.)
The top of the list is fast, easy, but generally less lucrative. As you work down the list the strategies are more difficult, take more time, but result in more sustainable, high-paying client work.
When I first started out freelancing, I had to do a lot of prospecting. We all did. That’s how you pay your dues and gain experience.
Now I avoid prospecting almost entirely, so I can focus my client acquisition efforts on networking and thought leadership, with a sprinkling of casual promotion for good measure.
First I’ll tell you what I don’t do to find new freelance design work. Then we’ll look at what works better.
I don’t find freelance work here…
- Upwork, Fiverr, Freelancer.com, or any other race-to-the-bottom freelance gig marketplace where you “prospect” by bidding on jobs and become a commodity. This is the cesspool of freelancing. Professional freelancers don’t do gigs. Your ideal clients don’t live there.
- Job boards like Craigslist, Authentic Jobs, Smashing Jobs, etc. I tried these when I was starting out but not anymore. There aren’t many people posting freelance / remote opportunities. Not worth the effort to find a needle in a haystack.
- Recruitment agencies. They hardly ever have remote opportunities, and rarely clients willing to pay my rates (especially after the agency takes their cut). These only work well if you want to work on-site and essentially become a temp employee for the duration of a project/contract.
- Social media. I don’t promote my work on Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest — because that’s not where my ideal clients are looking. I rarely even use professional networks like LinkedIn.
- Paid advertising of any kind. Google, Linkedin, Facebook, Instagram. I’ve never bought an ad or promoted a post on any of them. There are far more effective ways to connect to potential clients than putting ads in their faces.
- Facebook groups. When people are asking for someone to help out with a job on a facebook group, they are *generally* cost-clients looking for cheap work. They get flooded with a million people putting their hand up, and yours gets lost in the crowd with no easy way to qualify which option is better. This is just another form of prospecting. There are exceptions, but only if you take the time to build personal connections and contribute valuable content to the group.
- Unsolicited “fake” redesigns or personal projects with puff-piece case studies published on Medium, Behance, Dribbble, etc. The type of clients I want are impressed by real client projects that solve real problems and get real results. Not impressed by superficial eye candy.
- RFPs, competitions, or highly competitive selection processes. Again, this is all prospecting, and can be a huge waste of unpaid time to create a proposal and then not get chosen. I’ll make an exception if the potential job is something I’m unusually passionate about.
- Friends and family. Controversial, I know. I got a lot of work through family connections when starting out — it’s a great resource at that stage of your career. But as you get more experienced and more expensive, doing jobs as favors or for “mates rates” is a complication your business doesn’t need. Plus, I never want to sour a personal relationship with my mixing in the business where it doesn’t need to be.
All the time saved by not wasting effort in those places means I can build long-term sustainable marketing channels like these:
Literally, meeting new people as much as you can. I don’t mean connecting with them on LinkedIn or social media. Real, face-to-face introductions. Ask insightful questions to learn about their business, and perfect your elevator pitch so you can explain your unique value.
I reach out to potential “dream” clients who’d I’d love to work with. I connect with colleagues who share my business values and discuss future partnerships. I interview with agencies whose in-house talent falls a bit short, and see if I can fill the gaps for important projects. I visit old clients just to say “hi” if I’m in their neighborhood.
New connections may not pay off right away. In fact, they usually don’t. But it gets your name in people’s awareness, so the next time they need services like yours they know who to call.
Keep an up-to-date CRM of all these contacts so you can easily find them again.
Networking is also about maintaining relationships. If you forget about them, they’ll forget you too. Reconnecting with your network can be as simple as an annual holiday email. Explain some of your best accomplishments from the past year, tell them when you’re available to accept new work, thank them for being great clients and wish them well for a successful next year.
Or, when you hit a slow patch and need to generate new work quickly, shoot an email to a select segment of your network to let them know you have a rare patch of capacity coming up in your schedule.
That little reminder keeps you in their awareness. I’m always surprised at how many potential projects it drums up with little effort.
Leverage old clients into long-term partners
Once you have a connection, keep it. Nurture it into a long-term partnership.
I have a client I’ve worked with for 10 years — redesigning three versions of their website during that time. Another client has come back to me repeatedly for various connected businesses and side projects over a decade. Many of my startup clients are constantly growing and adjusting their products and call on me to make regular updates.
In most years, 20%–50% of my work comes as new projects from old clients. They already trust me. They already know my rates and what value to expect in return. There’s no competition, no prospecting or promotion required. It’s as easy as work can possibly come.
Referrals are the holy grail of freelance client acquisition. Just like repeat work from long-term client, referrals eliminate competition and bring clients pre-loaded with trust. But they don’t happen automatically. I follow a process to help turn my satisfied clients into referral machines.
- Establish a great reputation
- Be ultra-professional and build trust
- Build ongoing, long-term relationships
- Your website must back up your personal brand
- Reciprocate referrals
- Say thanks for referrals
Learn the whole system here:
How to get more freelance clients by becoming “referable”
Referrals are the holy grail of freelance client acquisition. But they don’t come automatically. So, how do you get…
Referrals don’t just come from happy clients. They also come from colleagues who respect your work. And they come more frequently when you go out of your way to give referrals to your network.
If a client needs a service you don’t offer — or you’re too busy to take on their project — refer them to one of your contacts. Don’t be surprised if they refer someone back to you to return the favor.
Having a strong reputation is a pre-requisite for referrals, trust-building, eliminating competition, and charging higher rates. Time spent building a reputation is never a waste. Reputation opens doors.
Building a reputation is simple. It takes only two things: excellence and consistency. Be excellent at your craft, and do it consistently for every client and every project. You’ll quickly become known for your quality of work.
Being good at your craft is only half of the job, though. Running a professional business is the other. The basis of any referral or successful client relationship is trust.
The way you communicate with your clients and set expectations will be just as memorable to them as the quality of work that you deliver. Be the freelancer they remember because you were so trustworthy, reliable and easy to work with, and your reputation will grow at twice the pace.
My website brings me new leads consistently. For every email I receive from a potential client, I include in my first reply “May I ask where you heard about me?”. A large percentage of them say something like “I googled UX/UI design Auckland, and you came up”.
My website, somehow, ranks quite well for my location and some popular keywords about my services. I’m no expert at SEO, but I’ve made a conscious effort to describe my services in human terms that potential clients may be looking for, and I choose to seek local work over international opportunities.
Since most people search for the service they need and the location they need it, my site pops up in results enough to bring me organic leads every month.
It also helps that I’ve had a website for well over a decade. All those old inbound links and accumulated PageRank pay off eventually.
Your website must reflect your personal brand
Getting people to find your website is only half the battle. Equally important is making sure it sells them on your value once they get there.
The messaging they encounter must match their expectations. Make sure there is no disconnect between what your carefully crafted reputation says about you, and what impression your website leaves on them. These touchpoints are all part of your personal brand, and like any other brand, the most important point is the consistency of experience.
Your website needs to include case studies that give potential clients insight into how you think and work, and grow confidence through your experience and professionalism. Make sure content is written well, and balance visual eye-candy with insightful observations and descriptions of your process.
I don’t use my portfolio site’s interface as a means to try to impress potential clients with trendy, experimental stuff — pushing the limits of design. Some do that with good results, but I let my client work speak for itself.
Getting in bed with local design/dev/advertising agencies is a huge boost to acquiring ongoing work and building long-term trusted relationships. I get a good portion of my work as a contract designer for agencies who don’t have adequate in-house design talent, or their designers are too “junior” — they don’t have the UX and strategy minds to be trusted to execute their most important projects.
You’d be surprised at how many big design agencies still haven’t fully skilled up on digital/web/mobile — there’s plenty of potentials for digital-native experts to add value.
I’ve had ongoing relationships providing steady streams of work from agency partnerships that lasted almost a decade. Once you get to know each other’s strengths and styles, working together gets more efficient and continuing that partnership is beneficial to both parties.
The downside to this kind of subcontract work is you often have to use a slightly reduced rate. The agency must mark up your cost to cover their project management time to coordinate your work. But if it’s a trade-off between losing 10% in exchange for regular, stress-free work where your “client” handles all the communication and project management, that’s almost always a compromise worth making.
Design networks like Dribbble and Behance are perfect examples of “you get out what you put in” systems. If you make the commitment to post new work often and build genuine connections with colleagues and fans through comments, you can get a lot of leads here. The quality of those leads is debatable though.
If like me, you post infrequently and offer little additional engagement, you get much less back. However, maintaining even a minimal presence on these networks is usually worthwhile, because it only takes one job to pay for your time.
I was found by a digital agency through Dribbble to work on a high-profile app design project — a client I would have never gotten on my own. And it made me at least $10K. That ten grand easily paid for all the time I’ve spent crafting and posting Dribbble shots over many years.
The big downside to places like Dribbble is that they’re trend amplification bubbles, and they tend to be dominated by fancy animations and popular eye-candy rather than serious client work based on real-world constraints.
Never judge your worth as a designer on places like Dribbble, as most of what’s there isn’t a real design.
Most of the marketing techniques I’ve mentioned are quite passive, but this is exactly the opposite. I want to discuss this option because it’s something almost everyone does incorrectly.
Cold-emailing potential clients is a combination of prospecting and networking.
I’ve had good success making new connections and generating lucrative work by directly emailing dream clients I’d love to engage with.
I’ve previously outlined a communication strategy that I’ve personally used to land some of my favorite clients. These were clients that I proactively identified, researched, targeted, reached out to, and eventually sold. They turned into interesting, enjoyable jobs; favorite portfolio pieces; and successful, award-winning design outcomes.
Read the whole process here:
How to land your dream clients - a step-by-step guide
A proven, proactive, cold-email strategy for freelance creatives that will help you win more meaningful projects and…
Writing & mentoring
For most of my life, I’ve heard the advice “start a blog”, but I ignored it. I’m not a writer. What do I have to say? Who would I even write for? Why would they want to read it?
But then I reached a point in my career where I finally had the experience and confidence to believe that I do have a lot of advice to offer. Around the same time, I had the realization that I was tired of coming up with side-gigs that revolved around curating other people’s content. The true value lies in creating your own content.
So I started writing, and I love it.
My writing isn’t a direct path to new clients, because that’s not the audience I write for. I write for freelancers and designers, not potential clientele.
But my writing still has marketing value. Client’s who read my stories get an insight into how I think about a business which gives them greater confidence to work with me. They learn more about shared values, common processes, or strategic ideas that resonate with them. Writing teaches them about me as a person and a professional before they’ve even met me.
It’s reputation and thought-leadership building. It cements your credibility as an expert.
Writing also opens doors to new things. It’s brought me opportunities to contribute interviews for books and podcasts. It’s given me a chance to mentor less experienced designers along their path to freelance success.
If you’ve got any unique perspective to share, don’t be shy to start creating valuable content and giving it away for free. You never know what new business opportunities it will create.
That’s how I get new freelance clients, and I have to say it’s about as stress-free as client acquisition could get for me. I’m too busy far more often than I’m wishing for work.
However, everyone has different strengths and different paths to success.
Where do your ideal clients look for you?
You may be a social media whizz or a gifted self-promotor and use visual platforms to wow potential new clients. All of the places I decided not to focus on may turn out to be your most lucrative marketing channels. The truth is, you don’t really know until you try and find what works best for you.
Never lose sight of this: where are your ideal clients looking for people like you?
(Or, are they looking for people like you at all? Do you need to increase your value to appeal to the clients you want?)
Don’t waste time promoting yourself where they’re not looking, or you’re screaming into an empty room. And even when you do find the right place to engage them, remember that getting other people to bring your clients is always easier than prospecting or promoting yourself.
You’ve hit the freelance sweet spot when enough work comes to you — passively — that you have the privilege to turn down half of it to focus on the jobs that bring you the most joy. If you’re not there yet, keep growing your network and reputation, and it’s only a matter of time.