One of the most common questions I hear from new freelancers is, "Where do I find my first client?"
The first client is always the hardest to get. For any new business, no matter how compelling your offer is, if no one has heard of you, they can’t hire you.
Like most new businesses, when I started my own web design business in 2009, I eagerly launched my new website to crickets. After some frustration, I resorted to an entirely old-fashioned approach. I hand-addressed letters of introduction to my local neighborhood retail-business owners, and slipped envelopes under their doors one early morning.
A few of those letters turned into phone calls, which turned into meetings, and within two weeks it turned into my first client. From there, that first client referred me to another local business, that in turn referred me to another.
Each subsequent client is easier to get due to a combination of experience and word of mouth. But until you land that first gig, what do you do?
Were I to start my business over from scratch, I have a clear idea of how I'd do it.
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Figure out your positioning
Your first step should be to figure out your positioning. Who do you serve? What do you do for them? How are you different from other freelancers?
If you know that, then you can put it together and form what I call a positioning statement. For example, my positioning statement reads something like this:
"Kurt Elster helps Shopify store owners uncover hidden profits in their websites. Unlike web designers, he’s solely concerned with providing the highest possible return on investment."
Try it yourself, fill in the following blanks:
"I’m a _______ who helps _______ with _______. Unlike my competitors, I _______."
It's easy to skip this step, but you'll be hurting yourself in the long and short term by doing so. Having a crisp and concise positioning statement is the cornerstone of your marketing. By defining your positioning, you make it easy to stay top of mind with clients, which enables easy referrals.
Think about this: When someone asks you, “what do you do for a living?” how long does it take you to answer? I bet it takes longer than ten seconds. And if it does, how do you expect them to remember it? If you can’t concisely explain what you do for a living, no one else will be able to either.
Having a crisp positioning statement enables you to describe what kind of value you offer, but more importantly, it also lets others describe what you do with ease and consistency. In turn, when you’re not around, people in your network can easily remember what you do, and give your elevator pitch for you. Again, it keeps you top of mind.
The worst thing you can do here is to have a broad positioning statement: "I help everybody with everything!"
Don't do that. It's counter-intuitive. When you’re a generalist, it’s extremely difficult to establish yourself as an expert or authority, because you do too much. For me to become the go-to Shopify Expert among my network, I had to start saying that I worked exclusively on Shopify. The more specific and targeted your positioning, the easier it will be to attract clients.
You might also like: Why You Should Specialize in Ecommerce.
The rule of ten
Once you have a positioning statement worked out, it's almost time to start writing to your audience. I say almost because writing to an audience of zero is hard, and it’s not going to do you any good. So let’s start building you an audience by exploiting the rule of ten.
The rule of ten is pretty straightforward; tell ten people about your positioning. If you have more than ten, great, but if not make a list of ten. That list can include past clients, coworkers, friends, family, anyone really.
Start a newsletter on your topic, and ask them to join. This is the start of your audience, and the only requirement is that each person must be able to directly benefit from your writing and knowledge. In any online business, professional services included, your list is your most valuable business asset.
A newsletter will let you systematically build a list of people who have raised their hands and said they’re interested in you. This lets you build a relationship with them, allowing them to either hire you or make referrals to you.
Once you have a small but mighty audience, start writing. It’s so much easier to write with an audience in mind, and even easier to write if that audience has questions that you can answer.
Your first email to your list should be a question. Ask them, “what’s the single biggest pain or problem you’re facing with [TOPIC]?” The replies to that email are your homework; the answers should be what you publish in your newsletter.
One of the best ways to get inspired for your own newsletter is to sign up for your peers’ newsletters. I personally like:
You might also like: The Ultimate Guide to Finding Web Design Clients.
Content marketing (that doesn’t mean blogging!)
The rule of ten and a subsequent newsletter may be enough to find your first client, but if not, it's time to start content marketing.
But I'm not talking about blogging. After all, you don't have an audience yet so no one's reading your blog! Instead of expecting clients to come to you, go to them with your knowledge.
The best content marketing is grassroots. You need to publish valuable information, freely, where your ideal clients already hang out. If your ideal client is a Shopify store owner, ask yourself, what would be valuable to them? What pains or problems do they face that you can show them how to solve?
Maybe you’re a Facebook ads wizard. Shopify storeowners obviously want more traffic and sales. You can help them by showing them how to troubleshoot that pesky Facebook Pixel, or how to create a remarketing sales funnel.
Go out and find your ideal clients' watering holes. Search for groups and discussions where you can provide value, like in Facebook groups, Reddit, forums, or Slack.
I’ll even tell you where I like to hang out; on Slack, I enjoy Shopify store owner TJ Mapes’ Slack channel eCommTalk, and on Facebook, I frequent Shopify Expert Jonathan Kennedy’s Shopify Entrepreneurs group.
There will never be a shortage of questions to answers. Pick the top three to five, and answer them thoughtfully and thoroughly. Then answer one everyday after that. You'll rapidly become known as a trusted expert within that online community. For me, this resulted in people I didn’t know making referrals to me because I was “the Shopify guy” within weeks.
Being active and helpful in communities is a wonderful example of one-to-many marketing that anyone can participate in. Replying to three threads in a single Facebook group could potentially result in literally thousands of people recognizing you as a trusted advisor and helpful expert.
Find that first client
This is more than just actionable advice. It's the same path I wish I'd taken years ago, and the same one I would take today if I had to start over.
Notice that I haven’t talked about creating your portfolio, or writing case studies. Those things are nice, but they’re egocentric. Far more effective is going out into the world and freely providing value to the people you want to work with.