We’re talking all about how to land your first paying clients in your business, and I’m sharing all the details of where my very first clients originated from. If you’re just starting out, this episode will prepare you to be a lead generating machine! And, if you’ve been in business a while, but are struggling to book clients, then this will be a refresh of new places to look.
We’re getting very practical, as usual, and you’ll learn a lot about lead generation! All of the methods I’m sharing are ways I’ve actually landed clients myself. (Not all of them first clients, but all of them have been lead generators for me at some point.)
Getting your first few paying clients is HARD. When you’re new and you don’t have testimonials, references or a portfolio yet, it makes things tougher. So, get ready to book more clients as you explore these 8 ways to find them! Plus, one BONUS way!
LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE NOW:
So, let’s dive into the first way...
1. Freelancer website, such as UpWork.
A lot of people hate these kinds of websites, so if that’s you, don’t turn me off yet. Hear me out first! UpWork is a website where you can hire freelancers for a bunch of different job types such as design, admin work, VAs, marketing, accounting, video production, content writing, and so much more. It’s controversial for a variety of reasons, but some that I’m aware of are because they take a share of what you make when the client pays you on UpWork. Also, many of the jobs listings are VERY low paying. So, those are what some people would say are the negatives, and I totally get it.
But, I’ve had a good experience with UpWork personally, and I’ll get into that when I talk about my first clients. I think it’s great for new freelancers of business owners because it allows you to be proactive. You are going to the client and YOU are submitting a proposal, versus waiting on them to come to you by just marketing yourself online. Marketing yourself online is really hard when you have no testimonials, no portfolio, no references, no experience.
But a site like UpWork lets you pitch yourself to a bunch of people and they can pitch you too by finding your profile. When I started on UpWork, I was pitching myself and writing “bids” and then eventually I had lots of people reaching out to ME on there, and eventually, I took my profile down because I was getting clients elsewhere.
Overall, I like UpWork. I’m a fan, and I think it’s a great way to break into an industry and get real experience. However, I want to note, I’m not a fan of all of those types of sites. Make sure you do your research to ensure you are being paid reasonably for your skills and services.
2. Staffing Agencies
Staffing agencies help people find jobs - whether temporary ones or long term jobs. You interview with them and then they reach out when they have opportunities for you. Similar to UpWork, I like this because it allows you to be proactive and not just wait on clients to come to you, but instead seeking out clients for yourself. And, in my experience, they paid well. Mostly with these you’ll be doing local jobs, versus something like UpWork that is likely digital only.
(Keep scrolling or tune into this as a podcast to hear my experience with staffing agencies!)
3. Networking events and groups
When I say networking events and groups, I mean things like conferences, events, joining a mastermind or coaching group, or a free local networking event. I am forever blown away with the impact these things have had on my business!
I know conferences and events are pitched for educational purposes, but at least for me, some of the biggest things I get out of those kinds of events are friendships, community, and clients. I think this is especially going to be true the smaller the group is that you’re in and especially if it’s an event/group that isn’t just your own industry.
Smaller is better when it comes to the group size, and it’s ok if it’s free! I love the kinds of events where you don’t need a business card because it’s more intimate and you really just get to know the people.
My favorite event I’ve been to (that also helped me book a lot of new clients and template buyers) was Inspired Retreat in Nashville. It’s small, only around 30 people, so I left actually knowing those people.
I have booked so many clients though recently through these kinds of events, and I have a blast too! I’m not attending the event trying to book a client and plenty of times I don’t, but when I do, it’s fabulous! So, I highly recommend this.
If you’re not ready to pay for an event yet or a coaching group, look for local events in your industry that you could attend. If you’re wedding industry NACE is incredible and has chapters in a lot of cities. I’m actually speaking at the Nashville chapter’s event this fall. Rising Tide Society also has groups in a bunch of cities.
4. Facebook groups
If you’re a member of any small business owner Facebook groups then you know that there are constantly posts asking people for recommendations for people to hire. I have mixed feelings about this, because I often HATE the way people go about commenting and promoting themselves. But it can work when you do it well.
I’ve actually recently tried to hire people on Facebook groups and would ask specifically, no direct messages, just comment below. And then I get a bunch of email pitches and Facebook messages and even Instagram messages, and it’s just not helpful!
So, if you do “throw your name in the hat” for these kinds of jobs, here are some tips:
- Follow whatever directions the person gave. They might be asking you to email them, or not email them, a form to fill out, or just to comment. Whatever it is, just do that.
- Always put your website link! ALWAYS! It makes you more professional and will give people an automatic place to go look at your stuff. If you hate your website too much to drop the link, then we need to talk about you getting a new website!! (Shop Templates here!)
- Tag the person’s name in your comment. This makes it more likely they will read your comment!
- Show some personality and skill. I’ve seen so many people comment just things like “I’ll do it. Email address”. This doesn’t work! Be friendly, and actually do your research.
- If they asked for an email, then go look at their website or social so that you can actually say something about them if you aren't familiar with them already.
It can be a great way to find new clients, especially if you’re in the right Facebook groups for your offerings. And, don’t just be someone who only comments on things when it’s a job. I’d say choose a group that you’re going to be “involved” in and really interact… comment on things, give advice, and post your own questions too!
5. Social media via hashtags
Hashtags are such an underrated and not commonly talked about way to find clients. Seriously! Hashtags have been a huge lead generator for me. I talk about using hashtags to find clients in episode 14 where I talk about how to grow on Instagram with less than 1,000 followers. One of the keys is getting specific with your hashtags.
No I don’t think you’ll book clients from hashtags like #designer #photographer #lifecoach #florist, etc. But, when you do specific hashtags like #nashvillewebsitedesigner, #mindsetlifecoach, or #tennesseeflorist then you might see some results.
It seems strange, but people do use hashtags to search on Instagram like they would use Google to search for specific keywords. I was actually chatting with someone on my website’s chat box last night who was planning to buy a template who found me on Instagram via hashtags.
This way of getting clients is obviously going to be a little harder if you don’t have your page setup yet to be treated like a business promotional page, but once you start posting business related content and setting up your bio to describe what you do,then this can be effective no matter how many followers you have. Because again, it’s not about followers here. It’s about using keyword rich hashtags.
And you can always check if a hashtag is being used first, if you’re making something crazy up, maybe don’t use that.Try to get something well used, but also not over used to get the best results.
6. If you have connections from whatever job you’re leaving, find people that way.
For many of us, when we start our businesses, we are leaving a job that was in the same industry we are moving into solo. For me this was true. I was a designer for an ad agency, and I moved into marketing and design as a business.
I’m not saying to take clients from your employer or anything like that! But, often times in our jobs we make connections with people who could be a “future client.” Brainstorm who you know from networking you’ve done in your current job and see if there’s anyone you could reach out to.
Sometimes all it takes is people knowing you do what you do, and that you’re good at it, for them to want to recommend you for a job when it comes up!
7. Talk about your new business with friends and family and your community.
It can feel really scary and intimidating to tell people “Hey! I’m starting a business!”. I know, I struggled with confidence in that way when I started my business. I didn’t like to call myself a business owner, and I was doing so many things that when people asked “what do you do?” it was hard to answer. So, I get it! It can feel hard to talk about your endeavors early on. Or, maybe it feels natural to you, if so, KUDOS GF.
But, one of the best ways to get clients early on is through your community. Tell people what you do. You don’t have to lead with “it’s a business”, but you can. But just let them know what you do. You never know what might come from it!
Again, all of these are ways I got my first clients, and this was a big way for me. Which again, I’ll get into specifics soon.. But, a friend of a friend who I had never met got me 2 of my long term clients just because we knew the same people and I was referred to her by a friend she loved and trusted, and it was great!
8. Reach out to potential leads directly.
If there’s someone you follow online or know personally who you think could use your services, reach out to them and pitch it. There’s no harm in trying. I would just be sure to not be offensive when you do this. For me, I wouldn’t want to reach out to someone and say “I see your website is horribly ugly. I can fix it.” Bad move!
But, let’s say you’re a wedding photographer, you could reach out to someone and say “Hey! I see you just got engaged! CONGRATS! When you start looking for photographers for your big day, I’d love to be considered. Pitch your services with their needs in mind in a non-creepy way. Here’s a link to my website [ SITE]. I’d be happy to throw in X thing.”
The reason I add this tip is that I recently hired someone who did this! I’ll get into hiring stuff on another episode once I have more experience with it, but right now I have 2 fabulous women who work with me in my business. One team member manages this podcast.
Another gal who I hired last month, does Virtual Assistant work for me. She is a podcast listener, so she is a part of my community already, which I think was an important aspect when reaching out since it wasn’t a cold message. But she responded to my Instagram story where I said something about having problems with a flooded inbox and introduced herself. She even said she was a “new VA” which is ok! And she offered her services to me in a way that felt very risk-free. We had a phone call and I hired her! So, don’t be afraid to pitch to someone directly if you’re in their community already.
Final way, that’s not a number, just something to add…
Pray about it.
God cares about your business and your dreams. Nothing is too small. It’s great to open up to God about this aspect of your life — that you need clients! Ask God to help you find the right people to reach out to, and that the right clients will find favor with you and your brand.
I have prayed for those things so many times. I never stop. But early on I still remember prayers where I said “Lord, I need clients if this business is going to work. Show me who to reach out to. Keep me motivated to do the work of this ‘finding clients’ thing, and help the right people to find favor with me and hire me.”
Ask God. Nothing is too big for him. Pray over your clients and future clients.
You guys this is such a good practice if you’re a believer. I pray for my future clients, I pray for my 1:1 clients, my template buyers, my team in my business. All of them. This business of yours gives you a powerful community of people you get the blessing of working with and knowing. And why not pray for them?
Now on to how I got my first clients…
I’m gonna get really real with you guys about how I got my first clients and who some of them were. I hate it when people beat around the bush on this kind of stuff, so I’m going to share it all as much as possible.
To start, I’ve actually been freelancing for a long time. I did freelance design and marketing most of my time in college and the whole time I was working my first job. I sometimes forget about those really early (and often small projects) I did through connections I had via my internship and things like that.
To back it up to college... I had a great internship in college that turned into a part-time remote job that lasted the rest of college. If you’re curious, the internship I did was with Be Social Group - they are an Influencer PR and Marketing firm in Los Angeles and San Diego. That was a 2-ish month long internship, and it turned into a job offer at the end even though I was going back to Tennessee for school. I got to keep working for them and learning.
I also got freelance clients through Be Social Group that was separate from my work with them. I even got to do the entire design of interior graphics for a duty free store while I was in college because of connections from that job!
Then when I graduated, I kinda left the “intern turned remote hire” role, and just did some various freelance projects here and there for their clients, and usually the clients paid me directly and it was more of a referral system.
So, the moral of the story, internships are amazing if you get the right ones. I learned so much from that job and got great experience that the classroom really just can’t give you.
OK, so where did my first BUSINESS clients come from? I just told you ideas to find yours, and I have used EVERY SINGLE ONE of those ideas to land a client at some point in my business. Not all of them were my early clients, but all of them happened at some point for me.
My first real clients happened before I had a “business” in place. I spent months just nannying, teaching yoga, doing personal training work, and freelancing before I decided to start a business. You can hear more about that if you want on episode 1 of the podcast. But, I definitely didn’t just quit my job and start a business. It was more gradual.
How I got my first paying clients:
My first “client” in my spreadsheet was actually a tee shirt design I did for Young Life (which is who my husband works for and I’ve been a volunteer YL leader for 7 years). In college, I did all of our area’s t-shirts. So, when we moved to this new area and they knew I did design, I got asked to make one. It was a small project, but still a great little start! I still wear that tee shirt often! So, this first job came from the “telling your friends and family” method.
My next paying job came from UpWork. We’ve already talked about Upwork earlier. Some people hate it, some people love it. I have mixed feelings about it now, but I’m still grateful to it! The work I did on UpWork was low paying. In fact, the first UpWork job I did was just $39. And those kind of prices are why people are critical of UpWork, but to be fair… I think that’s what my skills were worth at that time for that job of making a little flyer. It came out to about $15/hour when I look at the hours I spent, and that’s not bad for just getting started.
So, UpWork was a great way for me to get my foot in the door, and after this first project, I had many others come from UpWork even after I had my business in place. Like I said, UpWork lets you be PROACTIVE. And that was good for me. I wasn’t set up to sit around waiting on inquiries to roll in. I needed to find the jobs.
I also got some really great clients via a staffing agency! Yep, I have done the staffing agency thing. And I would recommend it to someone who’s starting out. I earned great money and the jobs I did through it were what really pushed me to start by business.
I was kinda unsure, like should I do this? And as I said, I was babysitting a ton and teaching yoga too. So the biggest client I worked with while I was at the staffing agency was Logan’s Roadhouse. You may have heard of them! They are a huge restaurant chain, and they are headquartered in Nashville. Logan’s Roadhouse needed extra designers for a transition they were going through. I got to do things like email marketing campaigns, billboards, menu designs, flyers, and coupons. I had a blast! I was also paid well, and it taught me a lot.
I was reaffirmed that I love design and want to continue doing it, but also learned that I don’t want to work in a corporate office still, even though Logan’s was very chill.
3 really good clients I got early on came from, again, just simply knowing people. I got to do the designs for a big event in Nashville for 2 years straight — Iroquois Steeplechase. I got this job from a girl I knew from church who recommended me. I also got 2 social media clients that were with me for years both from different people, but they both came out of a referral from a friend.
To summarize, my earliest clients basically all came from UpWork, and from knowing people. I actually looked back over my spreadsheet more, and even many of the clients who ended up just paying me through my business originated on UpWork. Then, after I had more experience and my website up and running, more came from social media and referrals.
All of these are GREAT ways to find clients no matter what stage of your business you are in and no matter what industry you are in. I hope this blog post is encouraging to you if you feel like clients and leads are slow for you right now. I think the key in slow seasons is to be proactive, and when you’re first starting out that’s MANDATORY because how else are people going to know you do what you do?
"I know it can be intimidating and you can feel ready to skip these steps when you meet people in your industry who are “booked up”, “turning away clients”, and have “waitlists”. But, you need to remember that everyone starts here. At some point everyone has to work really hard to find clients, and even after their business is established, they will likely go through another transition season where they are back in the “hunt for clients” phase!
Remember not to compare the middle of her journey to the beginning of your business. It’s not the same. These experiences of searching for clients teaches you so much about you, about marketing, and about your business. You’ll appreciate it later!
A quote to close us out:
“You shouldn’t focus on why you can’t do something, which is what most people do.
You should focus on why perhaps you can, and be one of the exceptions.”
— Steve Case, Co-Founder of AOL