7 Tips for Landing Your First Client as a Freelance Developer

Jay Raj
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If you’re a software developer, you’ve probably felt at least a twinge of envy when talking to your friends who have switched to freelancing.

As a freelance developer, you can earn more than you would in a full-time job.

You also have the freedom to be your own boss and enjoy flexible work times and many more perks.

But it’s a bad idea to quit your job and strike out on your own if you don’t yet have a stable client base.

And to build that client list, you first need to get noticed.

The following are 7 tips that will help you get some attention as a freelance web developer, grab a few projects and begin to build your reputation.

1. Build an online portfolio

One thing a client looks for in a potential freelancer is whether you’ll be able to deliver. If you’re new to freelancing, there’s a 90% chance you’ll lose out on projects to a more experienced freelancer. After all, clients are spending a lot of money on their projects, and they want every penny to count.

Occasionally, though, a prospective client doesn’t just choose the most experience freelancer, but instead spends the time to review the profiles of other freelancers who offered to work at a lower rate.

Now you have a chance to convince the client that you are worth a try.

To make a great impression with the client, you need to have a convincing portfolio.

By portfolio, I don’t mean one with a lot of showy graphics and design. Good portfolios use a simple design and show off the best work you have done. If you have worked on some big projects at your daily job, put up some screen shots and a description of the project.

Don’t brag too much–just be clear and to the point.

The tips that follow will include some additional items that you can include in your portfolio.

2. Work for free

Beginning freelancers face a tough dilemma: To get projects, you need to have a reputation based on projects you’ve already completed. But since you’re starting from zero, you have no projects and no reputation.

So how do you start to build your reputation?

When you find yourself in this position, your main objective should be building your reputation, rather than getting paid. This will help you gain some experience, make some new contacts and begin to build your portfolio.

But how do you grab a “charity project”? Here are some effective approaches:

  • Get in touch with startup companies–preferably ones not related to software–and offer to build them a website or write some utility software. Since they’re not dealing in software, there’s a good chance they’ll welcome your services.
  • Check with local organizations and see if they are looking for any software development services that you can offer.
  • Communicate with your friends and family. Nowadays, every small business is going online. Your existing network can likely get you in touch with someone looking for the services you offer.
  • Create a neatly designed business e-card with your name on it and email it all your contacts. Let them know that you’ll be offering your freelance services at a discounted price for a limited period.

3. Get testimonials, then flaunt them

Recommendations play a major role in getting business. You’re more likely to hire a mechanic recommended by a friend than one you saw in a newspaper advertisement.

Testimonials can give your reputation as a freelancer a major boost. After you complete a project, make it a point to get a testimonial from your client.

When you’re adding testimonials to your portfolio, be sure to include the client’s name and company. It makes a difference, especially if prospective clients have heard of the clients or companies you list.

All testimonials are not equal. Detailed, results-focused testimonials leave a lasting impression and work better than vague praise.

When you contact clients for testimonials, ask them for feedback based on numbers. Or at least ask them to be more specific in their feedback.

Here’s an example of a testimonial that’s overly vague:

“Working with XYZ was a great experience.”

And here’s one that’s more concrete:

“XYX helped to increase our profit margin by 30% this quarter. “

Testimonials can be crucial for freelancers. So don’t forget to include testimonials received from charity projects in your portfolio.

4. Contribute articles/tutorials to other sites

The best way to gain authority in your field is through writing.

I didn’t know it when I started out, but writing AngularJS tutorials for SitePoint would later help me bag my first freelance project. Writing articles/tutorials for a well known website like SitePoint can give you a lot of exposure. And the best part is, you even get paid for it.

Once you’ve published some articles, include links to the best ones in your online portfolio.

5. Spread the word and market yourself

Marketing plays an important role when it comes to landing projects. You need to make yourself known in places where you are likely to find potential clients.

You can meet clients both online and offline, and you should have a strategy for both.

When meeting a potential client in person, maintain a casual and friendly tone. A potential client is more likely to hire you if you can connect with him or her personally, so avoid being overly formal.

If the person doesn’t seem interested in working with you right now, transition the conversation into a personal chat. Get to know them a bit and build a good, friendly relationship. Be sure to follow up with the prospect later and keep him in the loop, in case he requires your expertise in future.

Blogging is one tool that allows you to establish a presence online. Blog about your area of expertise and show off your best work samples.

You can also take part in online discussions related to your area of expertise. Interact and engage with people by answering questions on forums and sites like StackOverflow.

6. Attend meetups

Social connection can have a drastic impact on your career growth. The more well connected you are, the more likely you are to get projects.

But how can you get better connected?

While social networking sites can be a great way to interact with people and to make new connections, I would suggest that you start the old fashioned way. Having a leisure chat with someone over a cup of coffee helps parties understand the other better, and it can help you leave a lasting impression.

Attending technical meetups is another excellent way to interact with people and promote yourself. Meetups give you a chance to share your knowledge as well as learn new things from fellow attendees.

7. Contribute to open source projects

While many potential clients don’t have a software development background, others do, and these clients prefer freelancers with quality experience. Working on an open source project is an excellent way to establish your credibility with clients like these.

Contributing to open source projects gives you an advantage over other freelancers. And it’s not difficult to do, although it can be confusing when you’re getting started.

Here are a few pointers:

  • Look for projects that are relatively young but seem to be gaining popularity. Newer projects have fewer lines of code and less complexity than more mature projects.
  • Once you’ve selected a project, look through the project’s issues list, then pick a small bug and try to fix it.
  • Or start a project of your own. Create a hobby project or utility and open source it on GitHub. If it appeals to other developers, they’ll request new features or updates, and now your project is growing.

Be sure to mention your open source achievements in your portfolio!

Success builds on success

To succeed as a freelancer, you need a expertise, a good portfolio and a strong network. Fortunately, you can get started without these assets and build them up over time.

As you go, always look for ways to turn your successes into lasting advantages that will help you get more business in the future.

Have you gone freelance? Share your best tips in the comments!

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  • http://www.codepunker.com Daniel Gheorghe

    Work for free ?

    Haha :)

    This is the worst thing a freelancer can ever do.

    Make your own projects… Open Source them. Don’t work for free! Ever, no matter what!

    • http://www.techillumination.in Jay

      @danielgheorghe:disqus But doing some charity projects, initially, to build a portfolio and to get a heads up won’t really hurt in the long run :)

      • Randy_A

        Doing websites for free actually does work rather well for someone just starting out. There are quite a few benefits that can come from it, and not only just the notch on the belt your portfolio receives. Insist that a link to your personal portfolio/design website stay in the footer, and also host the site for them and things can in fact work out quite well for you. For example, if you host the site for them, charge for hosting at or above standard charge. This allows you to do just a few websites in the same manner, yet have enough money to upgrade to a server that can handle a crap ton of websites. When your next clients pay you for hosting, you instead get to pocket the money on an annual basis. How much would you pay to be able to insist that a link to your web design company stays on a particular website of choice for life? If you are smart about the sites you do for free, it’s basically just like paying for an advertisement slot, which can be quite expensive. So… be wise about the site you do for free, and you’ll find yourself getting a link into the public eye that you choose. How much would it cost to run a facebook ad for 10 years straight? Who knows… but with adblocker plus, who even really cares!!! Get the point? I’d strongly disagree Daniel.

      • http://www.codepunker.com Daniel Gheorghe

        Still don’t agree. But of course I respect your opinion. Cheers

      • amit d

        I agree with @Jay:disqus, working for free initially helps to build a portfolio and assists in getting future projects at a good amount.

  • http://viii.in Vinay Raghu

    The testimonial example is spot on. Showing them how you made a difference is a big deal. Also, meetups are a great place to meet other developers, learn, share and generate business. Very cool article :)

    • http://www.techillumination.in Jay

      Thnks for the feedback @vinayraghu:disqus

  • Nag

    Thanks for the Information Mr.Jay .
    Plain and Simple.Points you mentioned are very helpful to a person,who want to start his freelance career.Please post links to articles,any blog’s related to Freelancing How to and Where to start?
    Thanks in Advance :)

  • Manuel Ruiz

    Thank you very much Jay for your advices.