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How to get clients when you are just starting out

Starting a new business is a huge accomplishment. The beginning can also a hard place to be when the clients don’t come as easy as you’d hoped.

I’ve been in this “new” place quite a few times. Over the years, I’ve owned a few different businesses and rebranded my own design studio biz twice since 2012.

I remember what it’s like to start at the very beginning, and to be in a cycle of little to no clients.

You know that everyone starts at the beginning – you are nodding yes. But just think about that – those who you admire or hope to be one day – they all started at zero. I have started at zero (more than once).

Be encouraged that you can make things happen in your business! Theory is nice, but implementation is better. I’m sharing some of the tactics for how to get clients I used early on in my business and I hope they help you too.


Please don’t laugh, but I am the QUEEN of the “barter”. I still barter after 20 years. I’ve bartered web design for landscaping, a new furnace for my house (yes you read that right) and recently I proposed a trade – a new website in exchange for rent on a local office space. I’m not above a good barter and you shouldn’t be either.

Here’s a few questions to ask yourself in looking for an exchange of services:

  • Is this person/business similar to my ideal customer? To build momentum quickly, you want to make sure that the work you do will attract the right future customer.
  • Am I getting equivalent value to what I’m giving? Create and sign an agreement that defines what you give and get. Avoid trading for the promise of publicity. #neverasitseems
  • Is this a service I would willingly pay for? The feeling should be mutual. I find that services complementary to my business are a great place to start. Barter for copywriting, development or marketing and establish relationships with colleagues who have similar ideal clients to yours.
  • What social proof will I walk away with? Make sure you get a testimonial that you can use in your marketing and promotion.

Offer a 15-30 minute freebie

The freebie was instrumental in getting the first iteration of my design studio biz moving. What does a freebie session look like? I simply added a free 15-minute session in my top navigation (this is also a fantastic way to test a new idea). Turn your freebie on and off as you need to, based on the ebb and flow of your business.

Your freebie page should have an intake form. The answers your potential client provides will help you be more prepared and able to provide a lot of value during your call. By forcing those interested to apply via intake form, you are subconsciously elevating it’s worth and value in their minds. You’ll also filter out those just looking for quick and free by asking them to participate and answer a questions that will take them a little time. I rarely turned anyone away for a free session, but it’s nice to have the option if someone is looking for something you can’t provide. You don’t want to waste their time either.

What can offering a free 15-minute session do for your business?

  • It helps you gain clarity through action and creates a genuine connection with your potential client. In talking with your potential clients 1:1, you’ll better understand their pain points and how you can help them. You’ll get ideas for how you can structure your offerings.
  • You’ll refine your marketing conversation. By talking about you do over and over in a short amount of time – you’ll get really good at communicating your value to your potential clients (and for them to communicate it with others).
  • It puts your name on their lips. Those I’ve consulted with have referred others to me, even though they didn’t hire me.
  • It’s an opportunity to upsell. Solving a problem for someone provides a great opportunity to introduce them to something bigger. If you are new in your business, it can be hard to ask for the sale. 15 minute sessions will help you fine tune your sales pitch and help you get used to making the transition to asking for the opportunity to work together. If it doesn’t go your way, then it’s not the best fit and that’s okay, just practice asking!

Establish a relationship with more experienced colleagues in the same field

There’s a few ways to work with those who’ve walked this path before:

  • Let them know you are looking for work. When I get an inquiry that isn’t the right fit, I think immediately of referring to those I’ve mentored in the past.
  • Designers and creative services – offer to do overflow or subcontract work. This is a great way to learn the ropes and fill in the income gaps!

Establish a strategic partnership with colleagues in parallel businesses

Copywriters, developers, marketers, theme builders. Your potential client will eventually be using all these services at some point in their journey.

  • Look for complementary businesses, and build relationships. Figure out how you can refer projects to each other or add value to each other’s businesses. Can you work together for the same client? Can you introduce each other to existing clients who need parallel services? Introduce others at least as much if not more than you ask for introductions.
  • As a designer, do you need help with marketing or development? Seek out a marketing consultant, copywriter or developer in need of your services consider proposing a trade. I’ve gotten many new clients (and referred many) through these types of relationships (and made many new friends).

Work for free or discount

Yep. This is part of gaining momentum in the beginning. I’m sure you’ve read articles on valuing your time and getting your clients to respect and value you. I’m ALL for that. But the reality of starting out means that you might have to do 1 or 2 jobs for free or at a deep discount to get the ball rolling.

In fall of 2012 to spring of 2013, I went from charging $750 per site to $7500 per site for the same service. Was I worth more than $750? Heck yes. But I was willing to do what it took to break into a new niche. I want to add here – it doesn’t matter if you are starting at $250 and working to $2500, the process is the same.

A few thoughts on working for free or at a discount:

  • You should only do 1 or 2 projects, consults, or offerings at a reduced rate. With every 2 clients – increase your price, stair step up to your desired rate.
  • Early clients should be chosen with intention. Choose clients whose results will resonate with other potential clients.
  • Look for a non-profit and offer your services. The value that you give away to a non-profit can be written off. It’s also a great way to provide a service to a business dedicated to helping others.
  • Make sure your client understands the value of the service they are receiving, so that when they refer you to others they pass along the correct rates for your services. You can do this by providing invoices or contracts that shows the full value along with the discounted rate. Invite them into the project with this understanding.

Be of service on social media

Join groups and forums where your potential client hangs out (this means you’ll have to have an idea of who your ideal client is). This may sound like a no-brainer, but be as helpful as you can in answering questions and solving problems – bonus – you’ll gain clarity through this process too!

A few thoughts on social media:

  • Dedicate time to doing this on a daily basis. If you are just starting out, this is an excellent use of your time. Set a timer so you don’t get sucked into other tasks or distractions.
  • Copy and paste relevant conversations into an idea file. This is a great way to get inside your potential client’s head. Pull out pain points and reverse engineer blog content to answer common questions. Use these “saved” conversations to learn how to speak in their language.
  • Don’t be promotional, just be helpful. This isn’t the time or place to push a paid for product. Make sure potential clients will be able to find you through your profile if they want to learn more about what you offer. Rather than point them to a paid-for service, offer up your free session if you think you can help them.

So what now?

Aack. You have to put yourself out there! This might be the hardest part, it always has been for me. BUT it’s much easier when you start from a place of connecting through providing value. You will get a return, whether it’s an actual new client or clarity for how to put yourself out there in the future.

What client-getting ideas have you implemented in your business? What has been most successful for you?
 Tips for how to get new design clients when you are just starting out as a freelance designer.

9 Responses to How to get clients when you are just starting out

  1. Excellent post Christine! So much of what’s posted here are exactly what I’ve been thinking. At first I was afraid to barter, but like you explained, I made sure it would be mutually beneficial. I definitely need to up my social media presence because that really does help. Great post, definitely bookmarking and taking notes of the other stuff to help get booked out 🙂

    • Look at and assess each barter situation as you would any regular project (maybe even more critically), so that you come away with something you can use to promote your business. Thank you so much for the comment!

  2. I did my first website design by bartering with my hairdresser!! It turned into a continuing relationship where I haven’t paid for hair services for the past few years. And when she wanted to expand her brand she hired me to build another website and is always singing my praises. I just had someone in her circle reach out to me last week based on word of mouth praise. I agree that one should consider their ideal customer when agreeing to this. I knew she’d be great to work with and have enjoyed being her go-to person.

  3. The way you deliver information and your content has really guided me and brought immense clarity at a time that I am piecing together my brand and business. I plan to “publish” my Interior Consulting business in about 6 weeks and your posts have been a guiding light. This post is fantastic. Thank you. I look forward to reading more.

  4. This made me feel like – yes I’m dong things right! I bartered work and did a few free projects for testimonials when I started my VA business. I also started out at a lower rate than my goal rate. I felt like it was important to build my reputation first. Great advice!

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