One of the scariest, most difficult parts of running a freelance business is finding new clients. Job boards like Upwork and Freelancer are a great way to get your foot in the door, but as your business gains momentum, those 20% commissions eat into your bottom line. And if you’re not experienced in phone sales, the thought of cold-calling companies looking for leads is terrifying, not to mention time consuming and ineffective.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I haven’t cold-called once in my freelance career, and 90% of the clients I work with came from outside of Upwork. With a little bit of creativity and outside-the-box thinking, you can find new clients pretty much anywhere.
Ready to get some new clients for your freelance business? Here are 10 unconventional ways to find them.
1. Old bosses
One of the best ways to find freelance gigs is to ask your former bosses if they know of any opportunities. Focus on superiors with whom you’ve worked closely and have maintained a good relationship — essentially, the same people you would want to use as a reference on a resume. These people have hired you in the past and they know how you work. Assuming you’re driven and pay attention to details — which, since you’re reading this, you probably do — they won’t hesitate to recommend you to their network.
My very first freelance projects came by way of my former internship supervisor way back when I was a brand-new college grad looking for my first big girl job. And because I maintained that relationship for the next two years, she was happy to pass more work along to me when I started freelancing full time. I also got freelance work from my old boss at the marketing agency last summer, which is what enabled me to start freelancing full time instead of juggling half a million different side gigs.
They say to never do business with family, but when you’re a freelancer, sometimes it just makes sense. If your cousin just so happens to need baby announcement photos right as you’re starting your photography business, why not partner up and help each other out? You’ll get an easy sale and she’ll get a photographer who knows her style and can make her comfortable in front of the camera.
If nobody in your family needs photos taken (or a website built, or bookkeeping services for their business), branch out to family friends. Your dad’s fishing buddy, your mom’s wine club, and your grandma’s church ladies are all fair game here.
3. Social Media
This one has been huge for my freelance business already, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. It’s extremely important to get your freelance business out there on social media. I’m not talking about fancy paid ads and sponsored posts — although those certainly help.
No, what I’m talking about is good old fashioned organic conversations about who you are and what you do.
For example, around the first of November I posted this on my Facebook profile:
Because it’s not a page, I couldn’t boost it to get it in front of more people. There was nothing to stop the almighty algorithm from simply whisking that post under the Facebook rug never to be seen.
But people saw it. Then they started asking about my services and rates, and from there I slid into their DMs and jumped on phone calls. By the next day, I’d signed one new client. The next day I signed another. And by the end of the week, I’d signed a third.
That’s three new clients, all from one simple Facebook posts that took about 10 seconds to write. It was such a minimal amount of effort, but it essentially doubled my freelance revenue.
5 Ways LinkedIn Can Help Your Freelance Business
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4. Professional groups
Rule №1 when looking for any kind of job is to use your network. But too often, we forget to include professional groups in this category (don’t worry, it’s not just you). These groups can include your alumni associations, professional/business associations, mastermind programs, or even Facebook and LinkedIn groups related to what you do.
For example, I’m a part of a few different Facebook groups for freelancers, and the members regularly share gigs with each other when they reach capacity, decide to drop a client, or even when they need help themselves.
My two favorite Facebook groups right now are The Freelance Lifestylers, run by Emma Ward of The Freelance Lifestyle, Freelancers & Friends, run by Georgiana DaCosta of the 60K Freelancing Business School, and Freelancing Females, but feel free to explore other groups to find the right community for you.
5. Other freelancers
Some of the best freelance gigs out there come by way of other freelancers who can tell the difference between a great opportunity and a scam.
Recently I befriended another freelancer on Instagram. She and I talked back and forth about freelancing and social media strategy for a few weeks. Then, out of the blue, she handed me a lead on a copywriting job from one of her social media clients. I was the only web copywriter she knew, so she passed the gig along.
Boom! There’s a lead from a fellow freelancer.
That former internship supervisor who got me started freelancing? She’s a freelancer, too, who owns her own web design business.
And whenever I come across a good lead that’s not quite what I’m looking for, you can bet I’m going to share it with the network of freelancers I’ve built over the past few months.
Here’s the kicker though: For this to work, you have to seek out and befriend other freelancers. You have to see them as an asset, not as a threat to your business. I don’t remember who liked whose post first, but my Instagram friend and I found each other through freelancer-specific hashtags. The gigs passed along in the freelancer Facebook groups I mentioned earlier are seen by people who have chosen to surround themselves with a community of freelancers.
If you insist on seeing other freelancers as a threat — as competition — then you won’t be there to benefit when they pass along these gigs, or when they offer advice they’ve learned throughout their careers, or when they have a terrible experience with a client and start spreading the word not to work with them. This is your community, and I promise, there are more than enough freelance gigs to go around. #Communityovercompetition, y’all.
6. Your doctor (or hairdresser or mechanic)
If you said “yeah, right” when you read this heading, I don’t blame you. I would have, too … until a few months ago when I got a lead on a freelance gig from my chiropractor. His intake form asked my occupation, and I wrote down, “full-time freelancer — copywriting & social media.”
It turned out the neck problems I was having came partly from sitting at my computer all day, but the real surprise came when he asked about my services and rates. He was interested in having some blogs written for his practice, and I just so happened to have prior experience writing for chiropractors and physical therapists.
If you don’t have a chiropractor (or you don’t write content), that’s OK, because this is a really broad category of potential clients. Maybe your mechanic needs a logo designed. Maybe your hairdresser needs some accounting help. Maybe your personal trainer needs a virtual assistant to help manage appointments and phone calls.
The key here is to think of all the different types of businesses you interact with on a daily or weekly basis and then come up with ways that you can help as a freelancer. Each of those interactions is an opportunity to talk about your business and get your name out there, and the more you do that, the more chances you have of signing a new client.
And even if your mechanic or hairdresser or personal trainer doesn’t need help at the moment, perhaps they know someone who does. And the next time one of their other clients or customers casually mentions that need, they can say, “Oh, you know what? I know a guy!”
7. Your side hustle
I hate the fact that so much of the U.S. workforce has to have a side hustle in order to make ends meet. But when done right, a side hustle can be a stepping stone to a profitable, full-time freelance career.
Earlier last year I drove for a rideshare company made famous by their signature pink mustaches (you know the one).
It was NOT a sustainable full-time gig, try as I did to make it one. But driving for 30–40 hours every week gave me the opportunity to meet a ton of different people from all different industries. Invariably, they would ask, “So what’s your other job?” And that was my opening to talk about my freelance business.
While the majority of the time nothing came from those conversations, sometimes passengers would say, “Hey, I’m actually looking for someone to help with content!”
Out of 7 months of driving rideshare, I got two really solid leads (and three more people who offered their business cards and said to contact them if I needed a traditional job). And I’m convinced that I could have gotten more if I hadn’t been fighting my way through rush-hour traffic.
If you have a side hustle, think about how you can use it toward your goal of growing your freelance business. If you bartend on the weekends, do any of your regulars have a need for your freelance services? If you babysit part-time, do the families who employ you know that you can also do their taxes for them (or build their business’s website, or photograph their sister’s wedding)?
8. Your blog
As a freelancer, your blog can be a great marketing tool, especially if you’re a freelance writer. Business blogging establishes credibility because it shows potential clients that you know your stuff. And for freelance writers, your blog can double as a good source of work samples.
It’s important to differentiate your professional blog from the personal blogs of 2010, when everyone treated their blog as an online diary. On this blog, you should write about topics that you know your potential clients are searching for and relate them back to how you help as a freelancer.
For example, let’s say you’re a freelance virtual assistant. Some topics you could write about might be:
- X Things You Can Outsource to a Virtual Assistant
- How to Free Up X Hours Per Week With a Virtual Assistant
- X Questions to Ask When Hiring a Virtual Assistant
- X Ways a Virtual Assistant Can Save Your Business
- X People You Need on Your Remote Team (include a VA as one of the people and explain why)
If you write about topics your potential clients are interested in and share them where they’re likely to see — like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Medium — you’re bound to catch the eyes of a few solid leads. And if you follow through on the sales process once those potential clients reach out, you’ll probably sign a few of them, too.
FYI, I’ve gotten a few good leads for my freelance business this way, and it’s a huge part of my marketing strategy for 2018.
9. Freelancer newsletters
One of the first things I did when starting to freelance full time last year was subscribe to several different email newsletters geared toward freelancers, especially ones that shared regular freelance gigs. Some were better than others, but that really depends on the type of gig you’re looking for. Here are a few of my favorites:
If you’re not a copywriter, that’s OK. There are still newsletters out there for your type of work. Simply do a quick Google search for “find ______ gigs” or “freelance _________ jobs” to find an email list relevant to you.
10. Networking apps
Have you heard of Shapr yet? I discovered it early last year, soon after I left my marketing agency job. At the time I was looking for a cofounder for a passion project, and with limited energy to put into networking, a Tinder-like app that connected me to other people in my field was exactly what I needed.
I accidentally opened the app again a couple of weeks ago and decided to give it another go. I updated my interests, location, what I was looking for, and favorite ways to meet. And BAM! The next day, I matched with the CEO of a company who was looking for a freelancer to help with social media and content marketing!
Here’s the cool thing about Shapr, too — it’s not just for finding new clients. If you’ve kept up with my Instagram, you’ve probably noticed that I just made the colossal move from Phoenix to small-town New Jersey. That means that on top of learning where the good coffee shops are (nowhere close, in case you were wondering), I now also have to work on building a new network of fellow freelancers in the area. I’ve already met a few people close by through Shapr, and I’m excited to schedule a coworking session somewhere.
Are you new to freelancing or considering going full-time? I want to help you any way that I can. Feel free to shoot me a message or sign up for my email newsletter below.
Thanks for reading! Have a question for me? Feel free to contact me here.