Keys to Getting Your First Web Design Clients

I receive a lot of emails and comments from designers who are just getting started in their work as a freelancer and looking for advice. With that in mind I thought it would be helpful to many readers to provide some tips or pointers for getting those first few clients.

This post is intended for those who are fairly new to design and not so much for designers that have been employed by an agency for several years before beginning to freelance.

1. Start with Personal Projects

This first point isn’t about finding new clients, but rather about preparing yourself for when you do find those clients. If you haven’t done any freelance work before, it can be pretty frustrating when a client wants something that you don’t know how to do. Having some personal projects to work on will allow you to gain some experience in an environment where it’s ok to experiment and maybe make some mistakes. With some projects under your belt you’ll feel a lot more prepared when you begin working with clients.

Personal projects can also help you to have some work to show potential clients if they want to see what you are capable of. Some designers have gained loads of exposure by having a personal project featured in design galleries, although this isn’t easy to do for new designers.

2. Put Together a Small Portfolio

As you pick up more clients your portfolio will become increasingly important, but even your first clients are likely to want to see some samples of your work. If you plan to do much freelance work you’ll also want your own domain name, so you may want to get it right away and start with a temporary portfolio that you can update and improve as you complete client projects. At a minimum, portfolio sites usually consist of work samples, descriptions of services offered, brief biographical info, and a method of allowing visitors to contact you.

3. Reach Out to Your Family, Friends and Contacts

Most designers get their very first clients through family, friends or people they already know. These people are often the ones who will be most likely to work with a new or inexperienced designer. However, working with family and friends is not always an ideal situation (see Freelance Folder’s posts Working with Friends and Family – What You Need to Know and Working with Friends and Family – Can it Ever Work?).

If you have some connections with other designers or people in related fields, they would be good people to contact, but most new freelancers aren’t that well connected yet. Taking a few small projects with people you know may give you enough work to showcase in your portfolio and to start attracting other clients.

4. Approach Organizations that You are Involved with

Most people are involved with a few organizations or associations of some kind. These organizations, especially smaller ones, can also be a good place to start because many of them desperately need someone to provide these services. In some cases they may not have any money to dedicate to a web design project, so that is something that you will have to weigh depending on your situation. If getting the experience and the work for your portfolio is the priority, you may want to consider working for a small (or no) fee. However, before doing any free or highly discounted work I would recommend that you make sure that someone from the organization is responsible for working with you throughout the project, or else you find that there isn’t a priority placed on getting information and feedback to you on a timely basis.

5. Check with Local Organizations

In addition to any organizations and associations that you are already involved with, there are probably a number of others in your area that would be interested in your services if you reach out to them. Again, if you’re a new designer and working with a non-profit you may get little or no pay, but it may help you to get the experience that you are after.

6. Use Social Networking

If you have existing social networking profiles and if you’re active on those sites, you might be able to find some work by simply mentioning what you’re doing and what you are looking for. If you’re not already using social media and social networking, now would be a good time to start. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn can be excellent resources if they’re used properly. Don’t use social networks only to promote your own services, be an active user and get involved with the community.

If you’re a LinkedIn user you may want to join some groups for web designers, graphic designers, or web developers. There are a lot of groups like this that exist (just do a search in the groups section for a keyword like “web design”) and they provide opportunities to network with other designers and in some cases to promote yourself. If you are posting any type of self promotion check to make sure that it is not prohibited by the group. Each group also has a job board section where companies and individuals can post opportunities, so you may be able to find some work here. Keep in mind that most people posting opportunities in a group for designers will be looking for someone with experience, but if you keep your eyes open (you can get email notifications of new discussions and job posting) you may find something.

7. Message Boards, Forums and Classifieds

Sites like Craigslist can also provide an opportunity to find people who are looking for design services or to post your own availability. While it is possible to find work this way, you need to be careful because you can easily waste loads of time on sites like these. If you have plenty of time available it may not be an issue, but in most cases you’d be better off only spending a small amount of time on these sites and use the rest of your time for something else.

One of the reasons I like personal projects so much is that you’ll be working on improving your skills and you’ll have something to show for your time. With classified sites or forums it’s possible that you won’t find any leads that turn into work, and if you’ve spent a lot of time on it you have missed out on the chance to gain some experience during that time. Use this approach with moderation and it can be effective while not taking up too much of your time.

8. Offer a Referral Incentive

Regardless of how much experience you have, one of the best ways to find clients is through word-of-mouth. If you want to encourage your friends, family and contacts to spread the word about you, offer them some kind of incentive. You could offer a percentage of any fee that you charge, a gift card to their store of choice, or even a discount on your services if the person making the referral is interested.

9. Be Sure That You Have Adequate Time in Your Schedule

Your first client projects are really important for your own learning and for the development of your portfolio, so make sure that you have enough time to do your best work with any projects that you accept. Don’t try to work with several different clients at once if it is going to hurt the quality of your work. Trying to do too much is a great way to add unwanted stress to your life, and it will make the work much less enjoyable and usually less productive.

10. Don’t Take on More than You are Ready for

In addition to just making sure that you have enough time, also be sure that you’re ready for the challenges that will be presented with each project. If a potential client wants something that you’re not sure how to accomplish, it’s good to know that there is a resource (book, online tutorial, person who is will to advise) that will make it possible for you to accomplish, and it’s also a good idea to communicate with the client that it will be a learning experience for you. Trying to jump in too quickly can lead to bad client experiences and can hurt your chances of getting more work as a result of the project.

11. Focus on the Experience More than the Price

During the early days of client work it’s helpful to remember that the experience is more important to your long-term success than any money that you’ll earn from it. Ideally, if you’re starting to freelance on the side while you have a full-time job you may not need the money as much as you need the experience. Once you’ve got some projects in your portfolio and have began to establish yourself, you may not have to make the sacrifice of working for next to nothing.

What’s Your Advice?

If you’re an experienced designer, how did you land your first clients? What is your advice to those who are just getting started? Stay tuned, next week we’ll have a group interview that asks designers how they got their first client.

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Steven Snell

Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design. Connect with Stephen on google+