Thoughts On Starting A Freelance Business

One of the questions I’m often asked is how I got started working for myself. How did I pick up clients early on. It’s something I’ve written about in the past, but also something I know people are interested in learning. Recently I was asked the question again by David of prova.fm who’s a reader here as well as a member of my small business forum.

I thought I’d share what I said to David and add a few more thoughts about my own story getting started in the hopes they can help someone just starting out on the road to a freelancing business.

Marketing your business

Marketing can get complex in the details, but it really boils down to a few things.

  1. Understand as much as you can about who your client/customer is and figure out where your client/customer spends time.
  2. Build a brand in front of potential clients/customers. You have to decide what your brand is and stay consistent in everything you do.
  3. Convince potential clients/customers to buy from you. Differentiate yourself from the competition. Answer the question why should someone buy from you.
  4. Listen to existing and potential clients/customers and refine your business to better meet their wants and needs.
  5. Expand how many people you can reach by building your brand in front of new communities.

There are many different ways to achieve each of the above and many details in each step, but no matter how you market your business you’re going to do the above if you want to be successful.

Also know that each of the above isn’t necessarily a step-by-step. The way you differentiate yourself is likely a component of you brand for example. The above points work together.

My Story

Back in 2003 I was let go from a job here in Boulder. IBM had bought our company and the software we worked on duplicated software IBM already had and did well. They kept a few people on, but most of us were let go. It was the second time in couple of years I’d lost a job through no fault of my own. Working for myself had been a dream for as long as I could remember and the timing seemed right. In fact I’d been kind of preparing for it and teaching myself how to build websites the entire time I worked that job.

There was one major problem. I had no idea how to find clients or get started in business.

As it turns out a friend of mine was also in need of work at the time and together we decided to start a web design and development business. She would design the sites and I would build them. A friend of hers needed a site or at least was willing to let us develop a site for her. We were in business.

In between working odd jobs to help pay the bills we worked on the site and before you know it we had created this thing online. Shorty after another friend in need of another site and we were working again. Next up was a site of our own and after that site we celebrated for the night. Then a funny thing happened.

We had no idea what to do next.

With no more friends needing sites we reached out to the small business administration to learn what we could about running a business and marketing it. We joined local Chambers of Commerce and networked a bit. We tried some very limited advertising. Neither worked and a month or two later we were pretty much out of business.

Failure

Learning from Failure

She decided to go on to other things, but I knew this was what I wanted to do and started up again on my own. I looked at where we went wrong and thought most of it was our marketing. I didn’t really know exactly what to do, but I knew it was important to get my name out there and joined a few forums . I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I did have some ideas. I had been devouring books on marketing at the end of the partnership and the start of my solo venture.

One book in particular, “Waiting For Your Cat To Bark,” by Bryan and Jeffry Eisenberg pointed me in the right direction. On of the ideas in the book is to speak the language your customer speaks and not the language you speak. Cats meow, so trying to communicate with them by barking is pointless.

Where I applied this piece of advice was in the forums I joined. At first I was thinking I’d join webmaster and seo forums, but it dawned on me that none of the people there would become my clients. They could become friends and I could network with them, but they weren’t going to hire me.

I spent some time looking through a dozen or so small business forums. The people there were potential clients. I looked for forums that were active, had sections about design, development, and seo and didn’t have a lot of people answering questions in those sections. I basically set myself up as the expert in what I do in one or two communities and spent as many hours as I could answering questions. I never solicited business. I just tried to be as helpful as I could.

It took a couple of months, but then one person contacted me and then another and then another. I had started building a client list from the people I was helping. It makes sense. They needed help with their website. They knew I built websites. They knew I knew how to build websites since I’d been helping people do that for months right in front of them.

What I had been doing those couple of months was building a brand in front of a small group of people who were likely to have need of my services. I’ve continued to do that over the years and eventually set up my own small business forum further building my brand in front of potential clients.

I also spent time looking through classifieds, mainly Craig’s List for any potential job. It didn’t lead to a lot, but I did land a client or two.

Artful Blogger

Blogging for Traffic and Branding

The other thing I started early on was this blog. Creating new content for the site did several things. It again helped build my brand. Instead of answering questions on forums, I was basically doing that here so anyone who found my site would hopefully see I knew what I was doing and that I could back up what I was saying on sales pages.

New content also meant new opportunities to be found in search engines and generated links into the site. It’s much easier to link to informational content then it is to sales copy. Most of the early posts didn’t bring in much traffic, but some did. And as they acquired a few links they helped other pages on the site rank well and bring traffic.

Again it didn’t happen right away, but in time people found this site through a search engine and some contacted me about work. The blog also gave me a voice, albeit a small one, in the communities around the topics I wrote about. That’s helped develop new friendships and expanded my network.

Rinse and Repeat and Buy Some New Shampoo

Most of what I’ve done since early on was to continue what I started. I still post at forums. I still write posts here. The main difference is I’ve expanded both activities.

I expanded into other social communities like Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn, though my participation can hardly be called prolific. I commented on other blogs in the community and began writing guest posts where and when I could.

I’ve always done my best to treat my clients as well as I can. In time they began recommending me to friends and associates and many of my clients have come to me through word or mouth.

In addition to expanding where I market I refined my business by listening to what people wanted. Clients started calling and asking about WordPress so I spent more time learning to develop sites as themes. Now a significant amount of my work revolves around WordPress.

My clients told me one of the reasons they continued to work with me was my personality outside the job so I redesigned this site to be more friendly and better reflect who I am, since it was apparently a way to differentiate myself from the competition.

Where Did The Money Come From?

You might be wondering how I survived those early days before I had enough clients to keep me busy. It wasn’t always easy. Several times I wondered if this month would be the last. I had one thing going for me, which is I know how to live without much income. In years prior I’d lived something of a Bohemian lifestyle and could survive on less than most people.

I also took on debt, mainly through credit cards. In my first year if I could charge it I did. The credit card companies loved me and extended my limits and I extended how much I used the cards. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it did keep me going. Debt is nothing to be afraid of. What I did amounted to getting a very high interest loan, which I began paying back as soon as I was taking in more than I what I was sending out.

In that first year I also took on odd jobs to help pay the bills. Painting a house here, staining a deck there, cleaning out someone’s garage or helping build a swing set. If they were willing to pay I’d spend an afternoon helping out. It wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, but it helped pay the rent.

Rock climbing in Colorado

Persistence Pays Off

A big part of succeeding in business is persistence. Most people give up within a year or two. You can’t. You have to keep at it. The effort you put in early does pay off, but you have to give it time. Let me share another story.

One of the jobs I landed through Craig’s List was some light php programming. The work wasn’t much and I wasn’t very confident with php at the time. Instead of charging a fee I worked in exchange for a few things this person had that I needed.

He’s a designer in town and about a year later needed some more php programming for a site he was working on. Who do you think he called? This time I did charge (It was a bigger project and I was more confident in my abilities) and in the process landed his client as a client of mine.

He also recommended me to a friend who needed to pass on one of his clients after taking on a full time job. I’ve also done more work over the years for the original person I found through Craig’s List.

What began as me doing a few days of free work for someone down the road has turned into thousands of dollars of paying work, but only because I stuck it out long enough. Had I closed up shop in that first year all those clients would have gone to someone else. You have to hang in there and give your efforts time to pay off.

Summary

That’s pretty much how I got started. I don’t suggest following exactly what I did, but rather understanding the ideas behind why I did what I did. Consider my path in regards to the steps I mentioned at the start about how marketing works.

  1. Early on I decided to work with micro business owners and decided that a number of them would frequent small business forums.
  2. I built my reputation and brand in front of those people by helping them as much as I could and in the process displaying my expertise.
  3. This display of expertise along with getting to know these people by genuinely interacting with them, helped differentiate me from others they could have contacted.
  4. I listened to what these people were saying on the forum about the problems they had with websites and their objections to hiring someone. I also listened to my clients when they told me what it was that made them stay with me. I refined my business according to my strengths and the needs and wants of potential clients.
  5. Over the years I’ve continued to participate in the same and new communities and I’ve worked expanding the sites where my writing appears.

I hope my story helps in some way to get your own business started. More than anything I would say to stick with it and keeping doing what you can to improve your skills in design and development, but also in business and marketing. Things can get rough at times, but if you’re persistent you’ll outlast the competition and get better at what you do and you’ll give your efforts time to pay dividends.

How did you get started freelancing? What problems are you having gaining your first few clients?

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

14 comments

  1. Thanks for the insights. One thing I’ve been learning these past few days is to not be afraid to ask. Not be afraid to ask a question in a forum, or ask a blogger a question. I’m always in learning mode, but sometimes feel like other people don’t want to be bothered. I’ve learned that building a relationship is far better than hopping on a forum trying to peddle your wares.

    Having the confidence to take that ‘php programming job when you don’t think you have the skills’ (or similar situation in my life), can be tough sometimes. Like you said, the perseverance is key.

    -David

    • Glad you found something helpful in the post David. Never be afraid to ask a question. Some people won’t want to be bothered, but others will be happy to help. Don’t let one or two rude people dissuade you.

      With that said it usually helps to get an answer in forums if you’ve put in a little effort to answer your own question first. Lots of times the people who don’t want to be bothered are just tired of answering the same question again and again. Most will still help if you mention you searched for an answer before asking the question. Also the more detail you can provide about what you have tried and didn’t work, the better the answers that follow.

      When I took the php job, I did know php. I wasn’t completely new to it, but still I wasn’t all that confident in taking the project. Turned out to be a win-win in the end though.

  2. Perseverance is the key – I think you’re absolutely right with that. You’ve got to accept that it’s going to take time.

    I also like your story about working for free initially. I think it’s a good idea to maybe get involved with community projects when you’re just starting out – that way, a load of people will get to know you very quickly through just one or two projects.

    • Definitely. So much of success is outlasting your competition. Plus the longer you work at something the better you get at it and the more opportunities you see around it.

      I didn’t include it here, but I did do some free sites early on with my partner in the earlier business. None of those freebies ever led to more work, but they did help me gain the skills I need to later sell my work. And it did give me something to place in my portfolio when I started again.

  3. Another good article Steven.

    One thing I would state though is make sure you have the right skills for the job before you offer your services on a commercial basis. There are far too many web designers out there who clearly offer a sub-standard service and have limited skills but still offer their services on a commercial basis. This is bad business ethics. If you need experience then offer your services to free to a charity or get involved in building themes and templates for Open Source projects.

    In regards to marketing what we are really talking about here is creating a business plan. I would seriously recommend finding some professional advice here and a place where you can find valuable one-to-one help. In a big city like London that is fairly easy, in rural areas, not so.

    • Thanks Andy. Great point. In my case while I won’t say I was the greatest designer/developer when I started, I did have skills in both that I thought had reached a level where I could charge. The sad thing is we’ve probably both seen web designers with little to no skills making good money. It can be especially frustrating when you’re first starting out and not making much yourself.

      I should have mentioned business plans. I did create an informal one for myself. No one but me has ever read it or will, but it did help me a lot in setting the direction for my business.

      I have 2 more posts planned on this subject and I think I’ll mention the business plan in the next one for this coming Thursday.

  4. Lovely post!! I am feeling all charged-up and excited now. :) Perseverance is definitely the key.

    I have one question though… I have actually worked on 8-10 freelance projects now, but all for friends and family. I haven’t charged anything for those projects. It feels weird to charge friends/family, but at the same time, after a certain point of time, it starts to seem like a waste of time to not charge.

    What are your suggestions with regard to this?

    Thanks in advance! I will definitely try out the forums.

    • Thanks abhinav.

      Good question. You have to get past that weird feeling. It’s ok to charge people even if they are friends. Now if my mom or my brother asked me to build her a site I’m going to do it for free, but most family and friends should pay.

      The main thing is for you to accept that you deserve to be paid and bring up the conversation. I find mentioning price sooner rather than later works.

      If your friends and family think you should work for free then you should walk into their place of business and ask for free work from them. I would think if you have a friend who owns a store and you walk in and take something off the shelf he’s going to expect you to pay for it. When he does remind him that he thinks friends shouldn’t charge each other. Hopefully he’ll see why you deserve to be paid too.

      The main thing though is really accepting this yourself and just saying no to free work. Sure, for some friends and family you’ll want to work for free or at a discount, but for most you need to be strong and let them know how much the work will cost as soon as possible.

      It’ll be hard at first, but I promise it will get easier. Most of your friends and family know they should pay. Most people try to get away with not paying if they can.

  5. Another great and inspirational article Steven, thanks.

    I have been lucky to have had a few projects already although I have still to ‘officially’ set-up/launch and market myself. I got my first job with a lady who attended a business workshop I went to. I have mow had about half a dozen clients/projects purely on word of mouth, starting with her.

    I am keen to find a couple forums to join and participate in, so I can start to build relationships and get my name out in the market.
    What is a good way to ‘seek out and find’ good and relevant forums to join? I am in the UK.

    Thanks.

    • Thanks Mike. When I was looking for forums way back when I just searching keyword + forum. I was mostly searching web design forum and small business forum. I clicked through the top few results and looked for forums that were active and for ones with questions I thought I could answer.

      Feel free to join my small business forum. We have a few freelance designers/developers there, but I think most of us are in the US. We do have members in the UK so you might be able to connect with them.

      All I did when I first started, was become a part of the community and helping any way I could. It didn’t happen overnight, but within a couple of months people started getting in touch and most have become clients.

      If you join design and development forums keep in mind they probably won’t lead to clients, since everyone is a designer or developer. You can network with people though. Maybe find someone with different skills than you so you can send each other clients.

      Small business forums are more likely to lead to clients since the people on those forums are you market.

      • Thanks for the tips and invite Steven, much appreciated.
        I know it will take time to build a reputation and for clients to start getting in contact. Just wanted to get a few forums to get me started and as you say become part of the community and help people out – get my name known. So thanks for the advice, I will spend some time later today or tomorrow having a look for forums and will join up on your forum too.

        Yeah, I am looking to network as well as find [potential] clients. Be good to build relationships with other designers who perhaps have different skill set to me and can lead to collaborations!

        • Glad to help Mike. I see you took me up on the invite.

          One other thing I found with forums is that you’ll just like some more than others. When I started I probably posted regularly to about 5 or 6, but I certainly felt a stronger connection with the people at 1 or 2 than all of them.

          Try a few and see who you meet and which you enjoy visiting more often. It does take some time to build the connections, but you can if you stick with it.

          • Thanks Steven,
            Yeah I took the invite, made sense for my first port of call. I was thinking about 6 as a limit for now, so glad that is in-line with what you did. I think more would just be too overwhelming and I would get nothing else done, lol.

            Totally understand it will take time. I am in it for the long haul. I am also going to start re-designing my portfolio site and get a blog going (and I know that will also take time to grow and establish), plus also design a website for the ‘business’ too. So plenty to keep me going while I build my name and wait for projects to start coming in.

            Thanks for your help & advice

  6. @Mike – Glad I could help and don’t hesitate to ask any questions if you have. Imagine we’ll be talking often enough on the forum if you stick around.

    You’ll see how many forums you can reasonably participate it. Early on I had a lot more time than clients so I spent a lot of times on forums. As I picked up more clients I spent less time.

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