How to get clients (and make your dreams come true)

This guest article was written by Adam Clark of Bottlerocket and our interactive developer at Brian Hoff Design. Give him a warm “hello” on Twitter while you’re at it.

Ok, so I don’t really know how to make all your dreams come true. Neither do I know much about getting clients. However, I have had some success in the later and I think it’s directly attributable to three things. But, before we get to those things, a little background.

Most of the designers and developers I talk to would love to freelance, but few of them actually do it. This is true for a number of reasons, but I think the biggest is a fear of the unknown. And those unknowns seem to be mostly related to clients and money.

Getting clients is not an exact science. I can’t tell you that every time you do x and y, you will get z. But you can create an environment that fosters growth and attracts clients.

It’s like growing a garden. You have to be constantly planting, watering, weeding and nurturing in the present in order to reap a blossoming client roster in the future.

What that means is that it will take time. We tend to think of it more like sod. Just roll it out and we’re done. But it takes a lot more to get clients than hanging an “open for business” sign on the door.

After three years as a business owner and freelancer, it has only been this year that my business has really taken off. And that’s directly attributable to all the watering and planting I did in the first two years.

Three Things

As I mentioned above, I think there are three things that account for my success this year. I think they can help you as well.

Be good at what you do. It seems obvious, but I’m shocked how many times I see freelancers put out subpar work and then wonder why the floodgates of success have yet to open. I know this, because I used to be that person. I didn’t work hard. I didn’t know much about what I was doing. I was a hack. And most of my projects ended in stress and frustration. That’s a sure recipe for failure.

In order to get clients, you have to have value to offer. It takes time to figure out what this is, but you will never build a steady stream of clients unless you’re good at what you do.

Get a mentor. When I started out on my own, I found a great mentor (Adam Houston) who coached me through the process. He gave me advice on what to charge, how to manage all the ins and outs of running a business and helped me get my first clients. This is critical. I don’t think Bottlerocket would exist today if it weren’t for him.

Finding a mentor can be scary, but one of the greatest things about the web industry is how willing people are to help each other. Reach out to people. Ask for help. I guarantee you will find someone willing to coach you.

Go to conferences/meetups. This third step could be called “Investing in relationships,” but I find one of the easiest ways to do that is to attend conferences and meetups.

Sometimes conferences can seem like a waste of time, but it completely depends on what you expect to get out of it. I never go to a conference expecting to learn a new skill or trick. Sometimes that happens, but if so, it’s just a bonus. Let’s be honest, most of what you hear in a keynote from a famous speaker can be found on that speaker’s blog, in a past talk or in an article he or she’s already written. If my only goal was to “learn new things,” I would rarely attend conferences.

I go to conferences and meetups to meet people. And not for networking. I’m never trying to make contacts for some future gig. I’m just genuinely interested in meeting the people I interact with on Twitter and whose blogs I read on a daily basis.

But building and investing in relationships pays off in a huge way. First, you’re more visible to your industry peers. Second, people work with people they like. There’s a lot of psychology behind this that I don’t really understand (here’s an interesting book on the topic), but the fact remains, people are much more likely to hire someone they’re friends with than someone they’re not. So the more you put yourself out there and meet people and develop friendships, the more chances you have of working on fun and existing projects with those people.

At least 40 percent of the work I’ve done this year has come from relationships I built during 2010 and 2011.

In Sum

Doing good work, finding a mentor and investing in relationships have a residual effect. It’s like a snowball that gets bigger and bigger as it rolls down a hill. There are, of course, many other things you can do to get clients, but these three are what have been responsible for the majority of my business’s growth.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut. If you go out and plant a bunch of seeds today, you won’t wake up to a lush garden tomorrow. But if you do the watering, planting and cultivating (quality, mentoring, relationships), over time you will reap the reward of a steady stream of clients.



Discussion and Comments

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  1. Chatman R. says:

    Great article, Adam. I’ve started building on the web about three years ago. While I had a plan, I’ve also made some bold and somewhat foolish moves. I started a freelance business mostly to fuel my own love of design & development, and then I’ve admittedly just let it sit there, updating my site as my skills grew, but not really pulling in clients.

    I’m not quite sure what my next step should be. I built version 3 of my site a few months ago, and I love the way it turned out, but my drive to keep moving forward is already making me consider upgrading it to version 4 and possibly beyond that until I feel it’s perfect and captures exactly what I can do and what I love.

    I haven’t really had time to look for a mentor, mostly burying my head in books and tutorials written by designers and devs I respect. Amassing knowledge, applying it, reaping the results. That’s been my life going on the fourth year. In some ways though, Nicholas C. Zakas has been my mentor, as have Ethan Marcotte, Chris Coyier, Erin Kissane, and the wealth of other authors and bloggers whose work has improved my own.

    I suppose I just have to make it clear that I’m not just doing this for my own benefit, but out of a desire to build a better web. And I have to do it in a way that leaves no doubt.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  2. My problem is finding a mentor though. I live in USA in Jackson, MS, and down here there are basically no freelance web designers that fit my qualifications… They’re not truly dedicated to web design at all (their code & designs look like 3 months of training. wth?) and they all work a part-time job.. THAT is NOT successful at all, or at least that’s the math I’m getting: numbers aren’t adding up correctly. So I’m only left with information from the internet and my initiative to lunch into trial and error.

    If you can provide some advice on how to get a mentor out of the state that would really be helpful man. I really want a mentor and have been hoping for someone to mentor me for 4 months now. After next week, I’ll become a college graduate, and after this month is over with, I’ll start my grace period, which means I’ll have 6 months of training. I have never had an intern because the jobs for web design in Mississippi is virtually none existent and is nearly of graphic designers.

    Please reply

  3. Hey here is my portfolio by the way. That was my journal link. Sorry about that.

    jarodb.netau.net

  4. Scottyd. says:

    This is exactly what I needed. For the past two days, I’ve been toying with the notion of going out on my own and this has really driven it home for me. Overall, if it doesn’t work out, I know I can recover but the biggest failure is never really trying at all.

  5. Brian says:

    Jarod,

    Mentoring can be as easy as meeting friends. Twitter typically fosters a great community for meeting friends of similar interests. I’ve met countless “internet” friends on Twitter that later met at conferences (and future conferences) and are people I talk to on a regular basis, whether through phone, email or Skype. These are people I ask advice, feedback or just offer a friendly “been thinking about you and your family” to.

  6. Okay. Thanks. Now I just gotta learn how to use twitter lol. I’ve always had a twitter, but never used it socially like my friends do. Just retweets of articles every now and then, if I’m in the mood (I don’t really use social media tools a lot).

  7. Adam Clark says:

    Jarod,

    I had the advantage of finding a local mentor when I first started. If this is at all possible, I would hugely recommend it. If not, though, it’s not the end of the world. Twitter, conferences, meetups will be very helpful to you.

    The biggest hurdle is just getting over the fear of asking. The design world has it’s own sort of “celebrity” culture and it can be really daunting to email or call someone you really respect and ask for help. But dot it anyway! As I said in the article, I was amazed at how accessible and willing to help people are in this industry.

    A couple of things:

    It’s important to engage with people. This could fall under “putting yourself out there,” but start a blog, be active on Dribbble or Github. There are lots of ways you can make yourself known and interact with people.

    When I started, there was one guy who was doing all the things I wanted to be doing and who I really looked up to. I emailed him as asked if I could pay him for an hour of consulting. We ended up spending a long time on the phone one afternoon and I walked away with really a really practical game plan. Also, we ended up becoming great friends.

    It takes time, but it will pay off.

  8. Lee says:

    Hi, Brian. I know u from east wing podcast. Nice talk btw. for this blog post
    I want to ask how u get your mentor, u said by twitter. I mean in details, u follo
    Their tweet and talk them. I running freelance business,.would u be my mentor?
    Something like that. Apologized if I want to know more obvious.

  9. Baker says:

    Hi there, great article wow!
    however am asking if having a mentor requires meeeting physically?
    Cant internet just do. I live in Uganda
    Thanks

  10. Hey I sent you a tweet today. I don’t know if it got to you though. Would be good to confirm this. Thanks.

  11. Dainis Graveris says:

    Jarod, I love what you say about networking events – not to learn new things, but most of all meet people. You never know what kind of useful contacts, thoughts, friends you will get – but it pays off so well! And also great for inspiration to keep moving!

  12. Erik Esparza says:

    Fabulous article, I am in total agreement about having a mentor or at least someone who is willing to critique your work honestly. It took me some time to find someone who would be honest with be and let me know what was up. I can now truly identify with he saying, pain truly is the touchstone to growth. Pats on the back never helped me to expand my creativity. Again, great article

    Cheers

  13. Hi,
    I still have regular job, so very little time to grow this graphic design second job (being a father of two and a husband). I’ve read several articles about going on your own and becoming a freelancer. I have a portfolio mostly consisting of logos made for contests on 99designs and similar sites (yes, I’ve been there unfortunately). It’s been draining too much time and energy and worst of all had countereffect on my creativity, even when I did won the contest. So, I’ve decided to build “real” portfolio with real clients. I’m stuck at finding (often advised) some charity or humanitarian organisation that needs new logo (branding) job to be done. Advice was that several pro bono publico jobs are good for making new contacts and (with good job done) great for building reputation. Not too much of pro-bono work, though! :)
    Making contacts face to face (mentioned in this article) is not the path I can go so I depend mostly on internet, e-mail and social services. I don’t expect results in days or weeks but I think I should have a few clients by the end of 2013 this way. So, did anyone you know had similar situation and actually succeeded as a freelancer that way, only by means of e-socializing and growing internet connections (network)?
    BTW, great article, in deed!

  14. Mione says:

    We created our little design team last year and at the time it was a big leap of faith. Getting ourselves out there on the web has been key to landing clients. No doubt planting seeds is key as Adam says but you have to plant them everywhere and anywhere that is relevant. Promote yourself in search and in social. Then local media if you can wangle free exposure for contributing something. This works really well at a local level. Hopefully in the long run our work and the people that the see our work will fuel the client list. Until then we have to spread the word ourselves and to date have found that if you make enough noise and your work is really good it works.

Brian Hoff
About Brian Hoff: Designer, Writer and Speaker

I’m a graphic designer living in Brooklyn, New York who loves creating compelling and useful websites and memorable interactions across the web. When I’m not designing I can be found writing, speaking and occasionally part-time teaching at colleges — all on the subject of design. I started this blog to share my passion and experiences with designers and clients. I'm most active on Twitter; say hello:


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