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.

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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: