Ask DN: Freelancers, how did you get your first clients?

over 9 years ago from , Product Designer

I'm just started out as a freelance web designer and want to know how you got your first few clients so that you weren't struggling for money.

I have one client already but she is a friend's family member and has already asked if I can do it for cheap.

Any advice would be a great help!

Thanks, Nick


  • Juan OlveraJuan Olvera, over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

    This may be a little different of other stories, I came to U.S. from Mexico and I had no professional experience doing websites, but I had a little background of Photoshop, HTML and WordPress, while I was working as maintenance guy cleaning trash cans and painting walls, at nights I was reading tutorials and building my "portfolio" website, at the same time I offer two friends of mine a free website, to put something on my portfolio, that I did.

    My main problems was:

    • I didn't speak english at that time (I'm still having problems with the pronunciation and grammar)
    • I didn't look professional
    • I didn't have contacts, friends, nobody, just my mid-class mom and his husband, I was living with them in a room with my wife and three kids
    • I didn't have a car, I had to borrow it form my mom's husband
    • I didn't have a good computer, it was a old 13" macbook the black ones with 1gb memory, so using photoshop was a pain

    It took me three months to build my website, it was responsive, very buggy but it was something cool for someone that had no professional experience.

    Then I got fired and my only chance was to become a freelance web developer, so I send hundreds of applications to Monster, Craiglist, Linkedin, and other sites.

    I got a couple of responses, and I went to the interviews but no look.

    My next step was to google "Web Design in Houston", make a list of almost 100 companies and send them an e-mail about asking for freelance jobs.

    I write down very clear about what I was looking, what I knew and what was my capabilities, at this time, I already knew a little bit about jQuery and Python.

    I got a lot more responses that way, and full-time jobs offers, they liked my website, so I got my two first clients that way.

    Funny story is that on one big client I went to the interview and I was like this and there was a line of very good dressed professional looking guys, but they made me do an exam about HTML so I completed half very quickly, saw my website and hired me immediately.

    Then after that I started to know people and get referrals and so on, I was able to get my wife off from working and maintain my family just from freelance jobs.

    Today I'm a JavaScript developer making some web apps for an agency and doing some personal projects.

    I got an apartment, a car (brand new), new computer, everything.

    This may sound very "Follow your dream crap" but let me tell you that that crap is real.

    So how I got my first freelance clients? Increasing my success ratio, we all have a success ratio, maybe 1% maybe 5% maybe 0.001% but we always have some.

    How can we increase that ratio? with three things:

    • one: trying more
    • two: doing well what you are offering
    • three: networking, networking, networking... for me, hackathons, meetups and all that stuff gave me more clients than social media.

    Some good read about it:

    Sorry for the long response, hope it helps.

    12 points
  • Wes OudshoornWes Oudshoorn, over 9 years ago

    Did you already have a job before? If so, you want to look at the level of design you were doing there and go for the same level of clients.

    I always suggest to people to drink coffee with loads of people. Tell you you're not there to sell, but to get to know them. Everyone likes talking about their passion, so talk about their passion and yours. Sooner or later they will need of hear about someone who need a designer. You want to be top of mind with as many people as possible.

    There's loads of companies who are in need of in-house design force on a temporary basis. Those projects pay by the day and are in my experience the best payed. I've been at clients for months on end at a good rate.

    About pricing: If you know what they can spend and you know what you need to survive, there is always a fair price. If you get better, you can ask for more than you need and find clients that can spend that money on you. If they agree on the price immediately, you often know that you've started too low.

    If you're stuck for work and cheap works comes around, think if you want to be doing this, learning form it, and earning a bit, or spend that time instead to find better paying clients. It sucks to do a job you don't like while you could spend a full day planting seeds for the future.

    Taxes and stuff can be a hassle. I would suggest that as soon as you can afford this, get someone to help you with it. It will clear up an amazing amount of energy in your mind to focus on the actual design work.

    Good luck Nick, let your dreams pull you forward!

    4 points
  • Andy MerskinAndy Merskin, over 9 years ago
    1. Tell your friends you make websites.
    2. Be upfront about pricing. Your skills are valuable.
    3. Do a great job.
    4. Get emails and recommendations from their friends.
    5. Profit.


    2 points
  • Bob WassermannBob Wassermann, over 9 years ago

    Friends of friends or friends of your family. They probably pay less, however after 2 or 3 projects you created a name for yourself which gives you more work.

    Start in a small circle, circles grow.

    1 point
  • Dallas Bass, over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

    Word of mouth for me. I don't freelance as much as I would like because I live in a pretty small town but word of mouth and references from people I know are the only two ways I have gotten clients.

    Some options are to go to meetups, join your local chamber of commerce, and get really involved with your community.

    Also, read everything you can by Mike Monteiro. No, really, do it. In fact, this book (http://www.abookapart.com/products/design-is-a-job) is a must read for every freelancer in my opinion.

    Edit: One other thing, since you are just starting out, you might be undercharging. I would seriously consider buying this book as well http://doubleyourfreelancingrate.com/

    Good luck!

    1 point
    • Nick Hiley, over 9 years ago

      Thanks for your advice, Dallas.

      Just getting started is really scary for me. Not only do I worry about finding the clients but about how much I should charge and also the financial side of it too like taxes.

      I've been designing and coding for about 3 years now and would say I'm pretty good but with this client (my first client) I'm charging around £400 ($680 USD) for a 5 page, responsive site. Designed and coded. This seems cheap right?

      I've bookmarked those sites (I'm a little short for money at the moment.)

      Thanks again, Nick

      0 points
      • Dallas Bass, over 9 years ago

        It is scary! I freelanced for about a year and half while in grad school and the nervous anticipation that accompanied that time of life is still fresh in my memory.

        To answer your question, yeah I think that seems really cheap but "cheap" is dependent on who is using the word, right? If you are tight on money £400 might be great for you because if offers a whole lot more value than if you charged £1000 but didn't get the client.

        While it's important not to undervalue yourself, there are times where you might have to charge a little less than what you deserve. I think this might be one of those times. There are two things to remember though:

        1. Clients can offer more than one paycheck. Be sure to ask for a brief testimony and ask your client to be sure and recommend you if they think you did great work. Also, don't be afraid to upsell quality services. It's not much but you might offer to host their website and do regular updates if you are using a cms like WordPress or you could discuss a monthly retainer for doing any addition design work e.g. brochures, flyers, etc. etc. Try and find something that can offer some recurring income.

        2. While you might be charging a little less than preferred for your first client, raise your prices for the next client. After you finish your second project raise your prices again. Nothing too intense but maybe somewhere along the lines 30% - 50% or more.

        2 points
        • Nick Hiley, over 9 years ago

          Thanks a lot, Dallas, this is some great advice.

          I'll be sure to ask for a testimonial and to recommend me :D

          0 points
  • Robin RaszkaRobin Raszka, over 9 years ago


    1 point
  • Jason HegyessyJason Hegyessy, over 9 years ago

    The first few clients where small business owners I had interacted with at a previous job before I took the leap to freelance.

    What made it possible for me to continue for a few years before a better opportunity came along was offering them finder fees. One particular client was so effective at this that he practically became my agent. So build networks of people that have complimentary businesses and other designers that can hand you work.

    That didn't prevent there being money worries though. People not paying what they owed was always a bigger problem than finding new clients. Getting a lawyer definitely helped with relations and unresponsive clients.

    0 points
  • Andy LeverenzAndy Leverenz, over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

    Starting out I didn't have a process defined on how to seek new clients, pitch proposals, offer my services, contracts etc... I had the same scenario where you basically had nothing but low ballers trying to get nearly free work from you.

    I would develop a project agreement document that includes the scope, timeline, budget, and contract items for each new project you get.

    It's a lot of work but it makes you stand out to people as professional and worthy of the rate you are wanting to have.

    No matter what client you deal with they will ALWAYS go cheap on you. It is up to you to provide your value. When I started I didn't think of my services as being valuable and charged what everyone else did. Until I undersood my own value did I charge what I was really worth.

    All this aside, Don't settle. I took part in a lot of job boards to find new work in the beginning. Craigslist has honestly provided the most return for some clients. I think a great goal is to land repeat clients rather than just one time deals. It's much more beneficial.

    If you're interested in working remotely check out:

    If you're wanting to work as a more locally based designer then I suggest networking with companies near you, asking friends or family if they need any web help. Referrals is what succeeds if you work locally.

    Just my 2 cents! Good luck with everything

    0 points
  • Jordan BowmanJordan Bowman, over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

    One of the best things I did was do side projects for free/open source. It's a portfolio builder, gives you experience creating real things, is fun, and got me several clients. Its basically a form of marketing and has worked well for me.

    0 points
  • Sam PiggottSam Piggott, over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

    I made all the mistakes when I started out - I cold-called, I did spec work, tried my hand at 99Designs...I didn't hear anything back within the first month. I was disheartened, but I didn't let it get to me.

    I was watching a Creative Mornings (or a TED Talk, I don't remember) session video one morning which mentioned the power of meeting face-to-face. I stopped emailing people, and starting knocking on people's doors instead. I still called people, just not with the intention of asking for work, but instead asking for meetings - just so people could see my enthusiasm for the work. I netted my first major client within a week of doing it!

    Whilst working that first job, I rinsed and repeated my new tactics and netted more work for afterward. Since then it's been pretty much nothing but word of mouth for (nearly) two years!

    (Fun fact - some of those clients I initially cold-called and reached out to ended up being long-term clients. They just kept my details on file, and took about 6 months to get back to me!)

    0 points
  • Ryan GloverRyan Glover, over 9 years ago (edited over 9 years ago )

    I had a lot of luck on the monthly Hacker News Freelancers Thread (e.g. for May: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5637667). I've found it helps if you can include a testimonial from a past client along with what you post.

    Complete honesty: the first year was terrifying. The best thing you can do is treat your clients well and do good work. One of my first clients that paid me pretty much nothing early on eventually turned into one of my most profitable clients and ended up referring me to a boatload of potential customers.

    Another thing I've learned in retrospect: write. Get your central idea/thesis down about how you do what you do and share it (don't worry about getting likes or votes, just have it out there).

    0 points
    • Nick Hiley, over 9 years ago

      That's some great advice, thank you!

      I currently write for a few websites about web design. I never thought of it as a way to find clients but more of an income when I don't have much work.

      Thanks again, Nick

      0 points