Group Interview: How Did You Find Your First Client?

Last week we published the post Keys to Getting Your First Web Design Clients. As I was writing that post a while ago I was thinking back to my own experiences and wondering how the experiences of other designers compared. I decided to reach out to a number of designers and ask their input about how they landed their first clients.

For those of you who are just getting started, I hope this will serve as some encouragement as you will see that a successful design career can start from very humble beginnings. In total there are responses from 18 designers to the question:

How did you find your first client?

Danny Outlaw – Outlaw Design Blog
Being the cereal entrepreneur that I am, I was probably my own first client.  Rather then building dummy sites to add to my portfolio when I first got started, I built websites for my own little online projects.  As far as real first customers go,  I got mine from browsing Craigslist.  At the time,  I didn’t really know where else to look for entry level design projects.  It isn’t the ideal place to find design work from, but it is one of the places where many of the people looking for designers are on a tight budget.  This translates to mean that they are usually much more willing to try out new talent.

Dainis Graveris – 1stwebdesigner
Actually I got not only the first client but almost every client from my friends or friend’s friends. They just knew I am good at designing and coding websites and whenever they got friends or they needed something, I got a request. It worked out really great in the early days, just tell your friends what your profession is and actually ask them to remember about you in such cases. If you and friends use Facebook, post some great design from time to time or have a great portfolio site. Trust me, if you are good, they will call you whenever they need anything.

Aaron Irizarry – Solv
Since I have a background in music, I had to do design for our band’s shirts, and website. As a result one of the other bands we played with asked if I could help them with their website. I struck it rich making a whopping $200 for my first paying site. Looking back I realize that by designing for myself I was able to show my abilities and those within my peer group which led to my work. I would suggest designing your own blog, or something that you could use for yourself that will also showcase your abilities. As you interact with your co-workers, friends, and family that initial opportunity may arise as they may need design, or someone they know. So get out design some stuff, and it will happen for ya!

Michael Martin – Pro Blog Design
My first paying client was through the competitions on Sitepoint marketplace (Now I failed at a few first, but that all counts as practice anyway! Those competitions are a poor way to work, but I think they’re great for starting out. If you can’t win a few competitions there, maybe you’re not ready to start freelancing in earnest.

That may sound harsh, but it’s true. If you aren’t yet producing quality work (Everyone starts as a beginner!), then the only thing you should be focusing on is getting more practice (Which is easy to do at 99designs because you can enter any competition you want. No time is wasted trying to find something to do!). Just keep at it and soon you’ll be able to ditch design competitions for good!

Matthew Jurmann – CHROMATIC
My first paying client was actually a real estate agent friend who needed a website. She needed a website, she knew I built them (or at least went to school to learn how to build them), so she asked me. Friends/acquaintances are a great place to begin when you’re looking to build up your portfolio, even if you’re doing work for free. I consider to be a more relevant stepping stone, though, during the process of building up my company’s portfolio and acquiring work. Using a few of the websites that I had built for friends as examples, I listed myself on and was able to acquire my first “real” job through there. In the beginning of your career (when you probably don’t have much work to show to prospective clients), it’s imperative that you have a strong, refined sales pitch.

Walter Apai – Webdesigner Depot
After completing a short web design course, my teacher was impressed enough with me to start giving me some work. I worked for her for a while and then started developing some websites for other clients.

Jan Cavan – Dawghouse Design Studio
Starting out, I never had a portfolio to show so in order for me to be able to show something at job interviews, I posted an ad on Craigslist for free design services.

Andy Sowards
Great question! I actually had to think really hard about this one LoL as its been some time ago! My first client was actually the church that my wife and I attended before we were married (we did get married there also) and the church was very small and did not even have a website at the time so the Pastor approached me knowing that I did web design and said that he had an idea for putting the church on the internets and asked if I could do that for them. I obviously said yes and that is how my freelance career began. I was not paid for the job but it was for a good cause. Although looking back on it now that site was terrible, but the experience was a great and fun starting point for dealing with clients in the real world, without anyone’s help.

Jon Phillips – Spyre Studios
As far back as I can remember people close to me have been asking me to help them out with their websites, so I’m having a hard time remembering who was my very first client and how it happened. Officially though, my first paying client was one of my colleagues back when I had my day job (and was freelancing on the side). He needed a website done for himself and someone at work told him he should ask me, and he did. This just goes to show that opportunities are everywhere and it also shows how important networking is. No matter if you’re an employee contemplating a full-time freelance career or if you’re freelancing on the side.

Chris Spooner – SpoonGraphics
Back in college I became acquainted with a guy who already had his own design studio, but was going back and getting the qualification to back up his design skills. He generously offered me a temporary placement during my studies on a freelance/contractor basis, so he was probably my first ‘client’ on a paid basis at £10 per hour. Through this position I had the opportunity of working on some great projects, including designing for a local music festival and other local events.

Matt Ward – Echo Enduring Media
The first client that I ever had as a freelance designer was actually a close friend of my wife and I. This friend had just started her own wedding planning business, and for some reason that I don’t even really remember, I decided that it would be a good idea to design her a logo. I was probably just bored and had a flash of inspiration one day. Anyhow, I just went ahead and designed the logo. When I showed it to her she really liked it (with a couple minor changes, of course) and actually adopted it as the logo for her business.

From there, I ended up designing a business card, a promotional card, some signage and an entire website (along with a subsequent revision), all without sending a single invoice. I did get an awesome steak dinner though, which was pretty sweet.

It was good experience though, as I learned a lot. My friend was also one of the people who encouraged me to at least consider freelance design as a possible avenue to pursue.

Darren Hoyt
I found my first batch of freelance clients in 2001. I had a full-time job, but wanted to earn more money and build a client base on the side. I approached a handful of local restaurants and made them all a similar pitch – simple sites with photographs and menu without any of the Flash, embedded audio, etc. Through those restaurant owners, I got some good recommendations in the community for the next year or two, and eventually grew a nice freelance business.

Grace Smith
I found my first client through local networking when I was still a full-time employee as a Designer. Once I set myself the goal of becoming self-employed, I set about attending local business and networking events (with lovely moo cards at the ready) to start building contacts. It was at one of these (a coffee morning) that I secured my first ‘freelance’ client.

However it did take time before I landed my first client, which I actually found beneficial because I was able to establish my website, branding, services, legalities and figure out exactly how I wanted to operate as a freelancer before starting any projects.

Often those beginning their foray into Freelancing will look online to find their first few clients which is great, but you should never forget how beneficial it can be to have a good network of local contacts.

Paul Andrew – Specky Boy Design Magazine
Way back when, I went through a short period of designing sites for free, just for family and friends, partly to exercise and refine my skills and partly to get my name out in the wild, albeit locally. It did prove effective, pretty soon I was receiving emails and phone calls inquiring about my services. And it was actually my girlfriend (shes now my wife) who got me my very first paying client, she was certainly very vocal about my services.

A friend of hers at work happened to mention that her husband was starting a new business and he was hoping to have a web site. And that is how I got my first PAID client.

I would love to be able to tell you that I have fond memories of that site and client, but I would be telling a lie. The money I made from that design was minimal, the client was a little bit difficult, and the site, to be honest, never looked the way I had intended and looked awful.

But it did start the ball rolling and I did eventually get better at pricing designs and working with clients.
The point is, when starting out, make use of the natural resources you have (family and friends), they will have more faith in you than you will yourself.

Jad Limcaco – Design Informer
To be honest with you, when I first started out, I went on Craigslist, replied to some ads, and that’s how I landed my first client. I know Craigslist gets a bad rap, but if you know what you are looking for, you might get some great gigs from there. To this day, I still work with the first client that I landed from Craigslist.

Zach Dunn – One Mighty Roar
Our first paying client was the classic “family friend looking for a website”. In my experience, web design referrals from small businesses are few and far between, especially when the client’s business has nothing to do with technology. This is unfortunate, because you can’t rely much on continued business, but it does add to your overall portfolio.

You will have more than one “first client” in your design career. You may someday set sights on a big client, only to find out that your current portfolio doesn’t showcase anything relevant to them. Especially when pitching large organizations with lengthy RFP’s, even accomplished designers can feel like they don’t have the proper experience to win it. I’ve learned to overcome this by framing the problem differently:

If you were to look at the portfolios of really good designers, there would be work for companies and brands that you had never heard of. The quality of design work isn’t affected by the scale of the company it represents, but by the attention paid to detail. Sometimes clients have a hard time recognizing that you don’t need to have made a website for a multimillion dollar clothing company before in order to design something for them. You sell style. Make it fit.

Franz Jeitz – Fudge Graphics
I consider my first client to be someone I did not know as a friend and who paid me for my services. For some time I’ve been doing design favours to friends and family. This also involved doing myspace designs and designing CD artwork for a band in London. Their label eventually referred me to Geffen Records who were looking for a freelance designer. That’s who I consider to be my first, real client. The combination of pro-bono work and word of mouth got me this first client and I’ve been working with them ever since.

Selene Bowlby – iDesign Studios
My first real client was a co-worker at my first summer job, which happened to be in the advertising department of the local newspaper back home. While my job at the newspaper was designing print ads, this first bit of freelance work involved both print and web design for two of this co-worker’s side projects.

Almost all of my early clients were friends and family. You’d be surprised at just how many people run their own businesses, or have their own personal projects that they need a web site for.

This early work for friends and family led to new clients in the form of referrals. Never underestimate the power of referrals – it’s the best source of business! Even if not referral from a client, but someone who knows you and what you do…

Well over 10 years later, my clients are now a fairly even mix of friends, family and referrals, as well as people who have found me either through social media, or in most cases, people who have come across my web site and blog through Google searches.

Want to Share Your Story?

Feel free to leave your own first client story in the comments.

Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design, a popular design blog.
  1. March 29, 2010

    Mine was a referral from a friend.

  2. March 29, 2010

    I was 15 and my team for the Marketing class was split. Were were left with nothing and needed to start a project from scratch. In one sleepless night I took over Corel Draw (ha!), and started drawing a logo for our project. That single logo brought tons of motivation to the team and my reputation started to build on..

    My first paid client was a small yet famous restaurant in my birth city. I don’t remember how got the chance to meet with the owners, but after the first meeting I was so scared of asking for an upfront 50%. They immediately accepted and in my way to my car I kissed that bunch of bills, and thanked God.

  3. March 30, 2010

    Haha!! “cereal entrepreneur”! That was great, I just HAD to comment!!


  4. March 30, 2010

    This post is by no means original, but I always love reading these. It’s really interesting to see how people start.

    Looks like I need to start making friends with business owners!

  5. March 30, 2010

    Great article! Enjoyed that and certainly helpful to someone just starting out!

  6. March 30, 2010

    That was a great read. I’d never have thought of using Craigslist like Jad and Danny did, makes a lot of sense though!

  7. March 30, 2010

    Not surprisingly my first client found me. They saw work I’d done and asked if I would help them with a project.

  8. March 30, 2010

    Great post! Was very enlightening to see how some of these awesome Designers got started in their own business – Thanks for including me as well – HONORED to be among such talented people

    I like how Grace pointed out the power of local networking – I have been making it an effort this year to get some local gigs and it has actually been a great idea – as she suggests 🙂

  9. Brian Jones
    March 30, 2010

    Great interview and thank you for sharing. This is a good resource for all aspiring freelancers such as myself

  10. March 30, 2010

    Thanks for sharing…its great to see how people start off

  11. March 30, 2010

    My first referral from my old employer.

  12. March 30, 2010

    In a bar.

    He was miffed because his boss was coming to town and wanted to have a speech drafted, but his agency claimed not to have such expertise.

    So I said I’d do it.

    Took a few years, but I ended up with their DM, print and TV work.

    Not bad for the price of a pint, a willing ear and being happy to crank out a few words.

  13. March 30, 2010

    I was at a Midwest journalism grad school and answered an ad on the department bulletin board from an LA-based trade magazine looking for a j-student to freelance a piece on a local company. Flash forward to that summer: the company liked what I’d done so much they offered me a paid internship. Flash forward to post-grad: the same company hired me as an assistant editor. I stayed four years and ended up as EIC of two of their magazines. When I left to travel and freelance they were my first, and biggest client. I quickly moved onto other things, but it certainly made for a smooth transition.

    Michelle Rafter

  14. Tom Kentell
    March 30, 2010

    Was doing my open water diving course… owner came round and said what do you do for a living… I said web developer… he said want a job… I said yep!


  15. March 30, 2010

    Like Zach Dunn said : you will have more than one “first client”. Mine was a brother that needed a Resume Brochure (kind of crazy idea) for sending to companies; the other first one was the company I was working in that time as a sales executive. They needed a Brochure for the new product that was cheap and fast, they new I was a designer so they gave me my first real project.

  16. March 30, 2010

    My first client was a friend’s stepdad. I’ve been really fortunate and haven’t needed to advertise myself in order to get work. I also get a lot of contact through my school, GA Tech. It’s surprising how many people need web sites!

  17. March 30, 2010

    Thanks for including my response Steven. It’s fascinating to see how even though you have so many responses, certain trends pop up in all of them. Thanks for doing this!

  18. March 30, 2010

    In a way, I guess I was my first client. I made websites for myself exclusively for many years before I started listening to offers from others. I also made some free sites for my high school FIRST Robotics team. My first real client was an admissions officer at my college who wanted to make a site for his personal venture that involved helping college kids find off-campus roommates and sell their books. It was in 2001, I was only 17, and the most powerful stuff I knew was just a little ASP. So I just made an informative site with an ASP-driven forum that he moderated. I even made a cross-browser dropdown menu from scratch using javascript (which was pretty “baller” back in 2001). He only paid me $50 for the whole thing. The sad part is that I thought that was good. *facepalm*

  19. March 30, 2010

    I was looking for a job, I found a position that required me to be an independent, so I found out how to set myself up in a hurry!

  20. March 30, 2010

    My first client was a family friend who was just starting a new business. Now, 4 revisions later she is still my premier client and one of the most popular in her industry in my country, St Lucia

  21. Jodi
    March 30, 2010

    Nice post… as someone just starting out, it’s fun to see that even some of these great designers hated their first design!

  22. March 30, 2010

    Would be interesting to also know how long ago those “first clients” were acquired.

    My story is similar to that of Andy Sowards. I volunteered to do my church’s website (back in the 90s), when churches on the web were still a novelty. Website design was just a hobby for me at that time, and I acquired a number of nonprofit clients on a pro bono basis. When I decided to go full-time and freelance ten years ago, I had a solid base of work to pitch to paying clients.

    I realize that I had the luxury of patience that no everyone can afford, but never underestimate the value (measured in a number of ways) of volunteer work.

  23. March 30, 2010

    @Eric – That is cool man – Good to hear your story 🙂 Ours are similar! As for a time frame, I would say that I snagged my first client (the one I mentioned above) about 5 years ago – right before me and the wife got hitched and started having kids 🙂

  24. Jared
    March 31, 2010

    The start of my overall graphic design work is very similar to a lot of you, especially to Gerardo Diaz (#2 Comment) and Eric and Andy Sowards (though I don’t attend anymore, boy oh boy there’s a lot of work to be had in churches!).

    But specifically for web design, at 16 I vamped up my school’s website, much with some very elite GIF animation. But the biggest project was creating a highly complex table-based image map of the graduating class for my school. Each face in the class photo was a link to their year book profiles, which were also table wonders. Very cool for 2000. I was paid by being allowed to skip social and religious studies to work. PLUS I got the key to open the Coke machine outside the lab during those periods. So many pee breaks…

    As for the rest of the story, like many I worked for friends of friends until my experience was more than enough to go professional.

  25. March 31, 2010

    Mine came from a co-worker that was getting too busy with his freelance clients. He handed the client over to me and things took off from there. I still work with that client today and have had many referrals from that client.

  26. April 3, 2010

    My first client found me at my portfolio show after I graduated from Art School. Then didn’t pay me for any of my work. It was a good learning experience and now I have a very detailed contract so that won’t happen again.

  27. May 13, 2010

    well, I got it from my website only… however I had placed an ad with OLX for web design with a link to my website..

  28. August 15, 2010

    Great article, thanks for sharing.!!!

  29. August 22, 2010

    Nice one there! Mine was from a friend who wants to design a wedding planning business. Cool!

  30. September 24, 2010

    My first client was a referral from a friend. He knew i was into web design as a hobby, and since they needed someone, he told them about me.

    The good thing was that the client was from another country, and when they told me that they liked my work, that encouraged me even more to continue. 🙂

  31. October 29, 2010

    I found my first web design client when I was 13 years old on a web forum. I was very active in the forums, so after a few clients, it was just word of mouth…

  32. October 29, 2010

    I found my first client on a Forum where I sold my Website which was related to T20 Cricket.

  33. November 26, 2010

    Interesting investigation!

  34. February 15, 2011

    I got my first client via my social network.

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