Getting your first freelance gig can feel like learning to ride a bike: you know what to do, but you just don’t know how it’ll work until you try it.
There’s good news: millions upon millions of freelancers who have come before have done exactly the same thing.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it’s completely doable.
In this article, I’ll teach you how to find your customer so you can land your first freelance gig.
Step 1: Figure out who you want to serve
When you’re getting started, it’s best to think about who you want to serve. As a freelancer or consultant, there are very specific types of businesses that can benefit from your services. Starting with the types of clients you want to serve will help you focus your marketing, offering, and understanding the specific problems you can solve for them.
Now you may be wondering why I’m recommending you choose a customer type; after all, your freelance superpower could be applied to lots of different types of businesses. And you’re right, it could. The only problem is that you can only approach one potential client at a time, so choosing who to serve is a prerequisite for understanding how to reach them.
My recommendation is that you at least narrow down your customer into the following three areas:
Industry (i.e. finance, consulting, health care, and so on)
Company size (in terms of number of employees)
Job title (who at the company will buy from you)
Step 2: Determine what problems you solve
Problems. We all got ‘em. In business, problems are opportunities. If you can solve problems, big challenges, and expensive issues within a business, you’ll get paid handsomely for it. Here’s an example of a problem, stated in the words of a potential client:
“I don’t get enough leads.”
Now that you know the problem, it’s easier to design a solution. Note that there is practically an unlimited number of solutions to any problem—the way you address a problem may be slightly different than how other people would approach it.
“I don’t have a good website. I need help.”
Okay. But why do they need a good website? And why even have a website in the first place? This line of questioning will likely bring us to answers like “I really need more leads, and my website isn’t doing its job to bring them in.”
Here’s another example: if you’re a graphic designer, you don’t really make logos. Your clients want a logo for a reason other than simply having a logo. Perhaps they want to be seen as bigger and more expensive. Perhaps it’s to reposition their marketing and start selling to a new market segment. But no one is sitting around thinking “a logo is the missing piece. That’ll fix everything!” Instead, a logo is a step toward a larger result your client wants.
Step 3: Find potential clients
You’ve come a long way if you’ve made it here. Once you define your customer and the kind of problem(s) you solve for them, it’s time to find these potential customers.
There are so many ways to find your potential clients that I can’t cover them all here, but I’d break it down into three primary options:
Job posting boards: People looking for freelance or consulting help will seek out networks of service providers to recruit their hired help.
Network: Your colleagues, friends, and family may need the kind of help you offer or know someone who does.
Prospecting: You can go directly to potential clients to offer your services through a traditional sales model where you start conversations with total strangers.
I’ll tackle each of these in order because they’re listed sequentially from easiest to most difficult to land.
Job posting boards
Job posting boards for freelancers and consultants work the same as a traditional job posting board, except the postings are for gigs rather than full-time jobs.
The largest job posting board is called Upwork, and it has a huge variety of freelance gigs posted every single minute. Millions of other freelancers go there daily to find work, so the jobs tend to be low-paying and extremely competitive. Still, it’s a great source of work if you’re not comfortable with selling or marketing yourself when you get started. Alternatives to Upwork include companies like Freelancer and Hubstaff.
If you’re willing to pay a bit to get access to more exclusive leads, you might check out options like LetsWorkshop and Millo. These gigs are curated and sent only to paying members, and they’ll send you a new listing of gigs every day or week, depending on how many gigs they have to offer at any given time. These gigs are much less competitive than job posting boards like Upwork, but you’ll need to be savvier with your sales and marketing to get the attention of a potential client.
Overall, job posting boards are great because you know the people posting jobs are ready to buy now. This is huge. The downside, of course, is that everyone else going after these gigs knows the same thing, so they’re quite competitive and pay less than other alternatives.
One of the best sources for potential work is your network. Most companies are started on the strength of the founders’ network, so you should tap yours as soon as possible.
In fact, I believe that using your existing network is the fastest way to land more freelance projects because people who know you are likely to also like and trust you. Unlike job posting boards, you don’t know if they’re ready to buy now, but you’ve already won them over in terms of trust and credibility.
Your network should be rich with contacts that you can approach to start a conversation about helping them or someone they know, now or in the future.
Here are a few categories of contacts in your network that may benefit from your help:
Past or current co-workers
Tapping your network means working with people who are willing to pay more than people from job posting boards because they already trust you and there’s little to no competition for the works. The downside is that you’re likely to start conversations when they don’t need your help, so it’s a bit of a longer game.
The last method for getting work is cold prospecting and pitching.
This isn’t most people’s preferred method of getting work for three reasons:
It’s slow, because the people you contact are unlikely to be in a buying cycle at the moment you contact them.
It’s high effort, because you’ll only have conversations with about three or so people out of every hundred you contact.
It comes with rejection because, let’s face it, people are busy.
The upshot of prospecting, though, is that you get to choose who your potential clients and you can build your rapport with them from scratch. Chances are this will be the source of your highest paying gigs.
To prospect, you’ll need a laser focus on your ideal customer type as outlined in the first step. Then you’ll need a way to find them.
Google search is a great way to find people, but my preferred source of prospects is LinkedIn.
If you can spring for it, LinkedIn Sales Navigator ($80/mo) is the fastest and most powerful way to find prospects for your first freelance gig.
You can quickly do a search for people based on particular parameters like:
This level of granularity isn’t available anywhere else, and gives you control over who you reach out to and why.
Wrapping up and what’s next
Getting started with your freelance gig starts with choosing who you want to serve. Once you do, it’s a matter of taking steps to start conversations as quickly as possible.
Since you have three good options for starting conversations—job posting boards, your network, and prospecting—I recommend you choose one and try it for a month. Take notes along the way so you can figure out what’s working and what’s not, then make adjustments. You can’t execute three strategies simultaneously, though it might be tempting!
If you’re not sure where to start, answer these three questions:
How quickly do you need to land your first gig?
If the answer is 30 days or less, choose job posting boards
How strong is your network?
If your network isn’t strong, choose job posting boards or prospecting
Can you hold out for higher pay, or do you need as many jobs as possible for income and experience?
If you need more income and experience, go to job posting boards
If you can hold out for higher pay, try networking or prospecting
In Part 2 of this How to Get Your First Gig series, I’ll detail how to have an effective sales conversations. Here’s a small spoiler: The key is to focus on your client, rather than getting the sale or putting money in your pocket. That might sound strange, but I’ll explain in Part 2. Stay tuned.
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