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Getting those first 10 Clients

Miles Burke

In my first post, I asked for comments from readers about topics they would be keen to see me cover. A number of people responded with some fantastic questions, with a handful at least asking along the lines of marketing, and how I went from sitting at an empty desk, to getting the first few months work in the door.

Well, for starters, I cheated. I had worked in the web industry for a number of years, so I already had quite a few contacts, and one of the first things I did was get in touch with other freelancers, particularly developers (remember, I started as a designer) and offered to help them out with any overflow work they couldn’t handle.

I ended up with a handful of clients that way, and some immediate work, however what I found was also interesting. I expected to do the work behind the veil of their business names, however I actually found that these colleagues trusted me enough to deal directly with the clients, and just provide a small kickback to the freelancer. Sweet! Not only did they send me work, they trusted I would do a good job, and I therefore made sure I did.

The key point here is to make contacts, yet be careful to not step on any toes – I certainly wouldn’t approach clients from previous employers, not friends clients, without their agreement.

Secondly, I also approached a few charity groups, who I knew needed a website, and offered to do their site for very close to free (well, half rate, which at the time, felt like free), in exchange for them referring me to their colleagues, but only if they liked the end result. The point here was not to undercut competitors, but rather show that I support the charities causes, however I needed some payment, which was a mixture of cash and contacts with other organisations and businesses.

The trick here is to make sure that the recipient understood the value – I wrote a proposal with the full amount I would normally expect, and then showed the discount in black and white, so they could literally see what I was giving away. I made sure they understood that this was a very limited offer, and that afterwards, my normal rates would apply. I only had to approach two or three organizations, before I had enough work on my plate from both their own organizations, as well as other businesses in their networks.

To be honest, I hate telemarketing, and cold calling gives me cold sweats. I avoided any of the heavy selling techniques by making sure I asked for an introduction with both of the scenarios above. I only wanted to speak with people who were already pre-qualified, either by my freelancer contacts or by the organizations who had been happy with the projects we’d done for them.

The most important three points of this entire process were;

  1. I did great work, and exceeded client expectations.
  2. I made sure the client appreciated that my work was great.
  3. I asked them bluntly, if they knew anyone who could use my services.

It’s true – if you produce excellent project outcomes, you can ask the client for a referral. The person they introduce you to has probably already had your initial client speak highly of you to them, and they’ve expressed interest in utilising your services. There’s no need for hard sales tactics in this situation, you simply need to walk the prospect through options, and above all provide the service that you would be pleased to talk about.

It seems quite simple, but it really works. I spent about $50 on a few bottles of wine to my favourite clients that first year, and that was my entire marketing budget. There’s no harm in leaving the big spending advertising campaigns to your competitors.