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Slay and Get Paid: The One Thing You Need to Start Your Business

how to get your first freelance client
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Welcome to the first installment of Slay and Get Paid, a new series by Jen Dziura, founder of GetBullish and the annual Bullish Conference. We’ll cover killing it—from every angle—as an ambitious freelancer.

So, you’re a new freelancer! There really ought to be a registry for this. Half the people getting married these days are well over 30 and already have dinner plates. They can do without a gravy boat.

You, on the other hand—you have new skills. (Or you’re working toward getting them.) You want to be able to sell them. You need. . .business cards? Membership fees to the local chamber of commerce? An iron will and imperviousness to rejection? Maybe your friends should just send wine.

What do you really need to start a service business, like as a WordPress developer or graphic designer?

Should you have a website? Probably. Especially if you sell websites. But then, some very in-demand people only have LinkedIn. Or nothing. Because they’re so in demand. Should you have business cards, or anything else on paper? I mean, business cards are a fine idea, but they’re not going to make or break you. We all have phones now.

Do you need to incorporate? Or form an LLC? Dear God. I am so annoyed with business books that start with this. My accountant suggested I incorporate once my business generated about $20,000 per year—but I also could have chosen not to. When you’re an individual who collects money from businesses or individuals, you are what’s called a “sole proprietor.” Just make sure you pay your taxes. This is not the most important discussion (sorry, accountants!) when you’re just starting out, because all you need to have a business is someone who pays you money.

As long as you provide services to clients regularly in exchange for money, you have a business. Just work on getting one person to let you solve their problem in exchange for the cash value of that problem no longer existing and the work you put into it. With that, you’re in business. Now, let’s get to the how.

Solve people’s problems. Period.

Okay, so a website is a good place to start, especially since you’re a good example of your own design or development. But do not create a beautiful website that expresses all the things you can do, send the website to your friends and post it on Facebook, and then just wait. And then spend $100 on Google AdWords. And then send a trying-not-to-sound-desperate email to your friends asking them to pass your name along to anyone who needs your service. (I have done all these things and I was sad.)

Instead, take all the skills or services you are trying to sell and make them about other people. No one is going to be obsessed with your exact qualifications. They just want their problems solved by someone they like and trust. That’s it.

When you’re making your website, answer these questions:

  • What problems can you solve?
  • How can you make it as easy as possible for someone else to get their problem solved, by you, without a lot of BS or them feeling ignorant or awkward?
  • What do you charge?

This last one is critical: Don’t list all your skills and say you can do anything and the price is different for everyone. (I don’t eat at restaurants that tell me they can make any food and I should think of what I want to eat and then we can talk about what it will cost.) That’s exhausting. It also adds a bunch of negotiation and back-and-forth for your potential client, which nixes the whole “making it as easy as possible” thing.

Instead, put what you offer into packages: Small Business Custom App, Premium Custom App, Deluxe Custom App, for instance. Or, “1-Hour Visual Design Consult with Email Support” versus “Done-for-You Concierge Package.” Put prices on these. If people want something different from your packages, they’ll let you know. And as for the design here: Keep it simple. Your packages can even exist on a single PDF.

Start reaching out strategically.

Email some people you know or have access to and ask them to buy what you have to offer. (People also tend to respond well to direct asks on LinkedIn, provided they’re highly relevant.) And yes, this works. Because if you can solve someone’s immediate need, you don’t need to be sneaky or indirect about it.

Be as specific as possible with your pitch, like: “I’ve been talking to pet store owners and discovered most of them are still using Excel for The Thing. Are you still using Excel for The Thing? Based on my conversations with other pet store owners, I’ve developed an app that does The Thing better, and saves pet store owners an average of 5 hours a week. If you’d like to save 5 hours a week on The Thing, let’s set up a call! If you have a different solution for The Thing, I’d love to hear that, too—I’m always looking for what is and isn’t working for pet store owners.”

If you don’t know the right people, ask your own network to set up introductions, or find potential clients through in-person networking or on relevant message boards. I’m not talking about bidding against other freelancers on online meat markets; I’m talking about making yourself useful in a Facebook group or Subreddit for businesspeople, and posting your offer or contacting folks you’ve made nice with, as per the rules of the group.

If that still doesn’t work, start cold-emailing. The more specific your email pitch, the better it usually goes (see the pet store script above).

If you still can’t figure out who to ask, then go back to step one and figure out what problems you can solve, and for whom. And be glad you didn’t waste time and money on a bunch of branded stuff for something buyers aren’t that into, or for people you can’t access. You have serious tech skills, and they can be used for just about anything.

Interview potential buyers in a genuine way.

Once someone is interested, set up a consultation to sell them on your product. If you want to be fancy, develop a “diagnostic tool”—this could be as simple as a checklist you run through with the potential client to determine whether they need your product, or which of your products they need. This has the added benefit of making your call or meeting less salesy, since planned activities always make things less awkward.

If you get some people who will talk to you but won’t quite buy, set up phone calls with them and ask them lots of questions. What problems do they have, and what hasn’t worked? What did they not like about the last person they hired? People love to complain. Write it all down: This will help you come up with a more appealing offer. There’s no reason to be sneaky about this. Just ask: “I understand that the X I offered isn’t quite the answer to this problem. What if I offered Y? I’m not sure that I will develop this offering, but would it be worth $1,200 to solve the problem with Y? I might pivot my business in this direction.”

Should you work for free? Or for your friends?

Sure, sometimes! Here are some caveats: Don’t work for big companies for free. Don’t work for free for nonprofits just because they’re nonprofits. (Would you give your rent money to that nonprofit?) And don’t work for nothing—if you’re not getting paid in cash, you should get paid in very specific favors.

For example: You do a project for your friend, uncle, etc. (Pro tip: “Pro bono” sounds way fancier than “free.”) Send a written agreement specifying:

  • What you will create for Friend/Uncle, and its cash value, which you are waiving.
  • That Friend/Uncle in turn will permit you to use screenshots, case studies, etc., from the project in your marketing materials on any platform.
  • That you will be able to supply Friend/Uncle’s direct phone number as a reference for future clients for a period of one year.
  • That Friend/Uncle will provide a LinkedIn testimonial, a tweet with a link to your services, and e-introductions to at least three potential clients (or a custom blog post, or an article about your services in a trade association newsletter, etc.).
  • That this one-time pro bono project will be considered complete when you deliver The Thing, and any further changes or maintenance will be available at $X/hour or $X/month.
  • If Friend/Uncle chooses not to deliver on the testimonials, intros, etc., they may choose instead to pay the amount of money specified in the first bullet point (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?).

The purpose of this last bit is not that some recalcitrant, terrible, non-paying “client” is actually likely to pay up—it’s to weed out people like that when they first see the agreement.

If I were sending this to a friend, I’d keep it casual in an email, but there would still be bullet points, followed by “Does this sound fair? Hope it works for you!”

Clinch the deal.

Remember: Selling a service is not a trick, and there’s no reason for games. I see this kind of thing a lot: “I emailed them two days ago and they didn’t get back to me. I’ll wait two more days and then maybe they’ll be at this event we met at last time and I’ll casually try to bring the conversation back to. . . .”

Don’t do this. Ask the client directly and promptly if your proposal is what they were expecting. No? No problem—set up a call or meeting to walk through it.

If it just isn’t going to work, don’t make them ghost you and hope never to run into you again. Act like the two of you are peers and it’s NBD. Try to refer them to someone else who can help, or send them a link to a DIY resource. Ask if they’ll refer you to someone in their network who might be a better fit, or ask something like, “I’m hoping to give a little talk about this at the Real Estate Professionals Network. Do you know who I could talk to about this?” Sometimes your date doesn’t work out, but then you meet their friend, you know?

If the client says they want to do the project, send a payment link (like PayPal, for instance) for a deposit (50 percent up front is common) and leave the ball in their court. If they don’t want to pay your deposit promptly, better to weed them out now than once you’ve done a bunch of unpaid work for them.

In order to have a business, you want to make a specific offer to specific people who respond “HELL YES.” This doesn’t take money or even long stretches of waiting around. Be direct and honest, talk to more and different people, really listen to them, offer to solve their problems, and adjust your offer until you get to a place of “HELL YES.”

When you get your first HELL YES client, more will come. HELL YES spreads of its own accord.

And don’t forget to snag a copy of Skillcrush’s free guide, The Ultimate Guide to Going Freelance. You’ll get everything you need to know to take the first steps towards a freelance business you love. Get the guide here.

Get Your FREE Guide to Going Freelance

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