How to get your very first clients.
In this episode, Frankie Tortora and Steve Folland have a chat in response to an excellent question from artist and illustrator Lisa Callaghan.
“As an aspiring creative freelancer, what do you recommend as being the first steps towards generating paid work? How do you get those very first paying clients?
I’m already on social media, putting my work out into the world (well, to all of my 25 followers!). I’ve also looked at platforms like UpWork and haven’t found any projects that fit — either they’re looking for much more experience than I can offer, or I have what they want but they’d like me to do it for less than minimum wage.
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Take note dear listener! We might swear a bit. This one’s for the parents. To be enjoyed at your desk or once the kiddos are in bed.
Here’s what was said in this episode:
Comments on the previous episode:
[00:01:48] – Frankie
Hello, you’re listening to the Doing It For The Kids podcast, where we swear a bit too much and talk a bit too fast because about freelance life with kids in the mix. I’m Frankie and this is Steve.
[00:01:58] – Steve
Hello! Yes, each episode we take a question from the Doing It For The Kids Community, do our best to answer it, but we start each one by looking back at the last one. It was a while ago, but the last one was…
[00:02:09] – Frankie
…it was Jason talking about cold pitching. Sending cold emails to potential clients.
[00:02:13] – Steve
Annemarie Krijbolder. Could be saying your name wrong. Apologies, Annemarie.
“I’ve had a lot of good stuff come my way because I just asked. I would say that companies receive so many copy and paste pitches, your pitch would probably really stand out if you took the time to write something just for them.
It’s all in the language used. Try ‘work together’ rather than, ‘this is what you need to do’. Explain your approach rather than offering a direct solution. Tell them why you are the right person to help them navigate this process.
Basically, give them enough pieces of the puzzle so they can envision something good happening and that you are the missing piece”
[00:02:53] – Frankie
Jo Shock says:
“I need to preface my comment by saying that I’ve never sent a cold email or responded positively to one. So obviously I’m no expert, but this is what occurred to me when I was listening (as well as admiring Frankie’s Mario sound effects).
If I was working at that brand, I might respond more positively if I saw some visual examples of what it could be. So taking elements of the brand and actually showing examples of what it could be like, if it’s more friendly or more cheeky or more whatever their brand is, I don’t know, I’m also no expert on branding either.
Obviously that involves some work up front, which could ultimately be a waste of your time, but if they don’t have a great look now, maybe it’s partly lack of vision and you could help by opening their eyes? And then, as Frankie and Steve said, you can find a funky way to share it with them.”
[00:03:36] – Steve
And Louise Jenkins got in touch to say:
“I actually took the leap last year and outright asked a client if they had the contact for their counterpart at another organisation who do similar work. I reached out, explained what I did and I’ve been working with them since last summer and now have work lined up with them until the summer this year!
Whilst it’s been intense at times as I work two and a half days — well, school hours — a week, it’s got me a name with them and given me a steady-ish income while I build up the other side of my work. I doubt I would have done it a few years back, but something about becoming a parent and my confidence growing, I just went for it and luckily it’s paid off, for now!”
Our answer to this week's question:
[00:06:22] – Steve
Okay. Episode 93 and we have a question from Lisa Callaghan, if you want to follow her on Instagram it is @RuralCreativeJourney.
“As an aspiring creative freelancer, what do you recommend as being the first steps towards generating paid work? How do you get those very first paying clients? I’m already on social media, putting my work out into the world. Well, to all of my 25 followers… I’ve also looked at platforms like Upwork and haven’t found any projects that fit. Either they’re looking for much more experience than I can offer, or I have what they want, but they’d like me to do it for less for minimum wage. Help! Lisa.”
[00:07:03] – Frankie
So Lisa, looking at her Instagram page…
[00:07:06] – Steve
It’s a good idea. Let me click.
[00:07:07] – Frankie
…is an illustrator. Well, her description says ‘artist’. I mean, first of all, her description says very little. If you don’t have a website — which it doesn’t look like she does at this point — an Instagram page for a visual creative/designer/illustrator/artist is really good. It does the job right? But that bio is, like, key because you can actually pack a lot of information into that.
[00:07:32] – Steve
[00:07:32] – Frankie
Who are you? What do you do and how can you work with me? Whether that’s ‘DM for commissions’ or ’email me at blah, blah, blah’. Whatever.
[00:07:39] – Steve
Yeah, I love the illustrations, but it says nothing about the fact that you are for hire.
[00:07:45] – Frankie
Right. Are you even available for work? Is this a personal project? Is this a work project? What’s the deal?
[00:07:50] – Steve
Yeah, we need to know how to contact you.
[00:07:51] – Frankie
Because, like, normally if I went to somebody’s Instagram, I would probably inevitably end up on their website. But clearly she doesn’t have a website. And we’ve talked about this in previous episodes. Whether or not you need a website as a freelancer and I think we both agree that you don’t *have* to have one. It’s not like a make or break situation. But having a website is obviously going to communicate a hell of a lot more than an 180 character Instagram bio.
So like, if you have the time and the energy or even budget to get a basic, simple something up — that is potentially going to be a useful way (not necessarily from an SEO perspective) but for people to find you as a first paying gig. But definitely if they’re looking at you on Instagram, having the website may then be the push for them to actually get in touch, rather than just Instagram.
[00:08:40] – Steve
Yeah, I think so.
[00:08:41] – Frankie
But we also know a tonne of freelancers who don’t have a website, so I’m always a bit hesitant about…
[00:08:45] – Steve
We do, but often they are people who have, I don’t know, been doing something for ages.
[00:08:52] – Frankie
Mmm, they’ve got a network in another way.
[00:08:54] – Steve
Right, yeah like they’ve built up a reputation on LinkedIn. They’ve built up their network through years of professionally doing the thing that they’re now going to freelance as. And so LinkedIn, for example, acts as that place. Yeah. Personally, I think a good one page website is a winner.
Do you know, I’ve done nearly 300 episodes of the Being Freelance podcast and in every single one of them, I end up saying, “How did you get your first freelance clients?” in that voice. Well, do you know what? Really, it does come down to just about maybe five or six ways.
The first one is to tell the people you already know. And you might be thinking, “oh, my Uncle doesn’t need an illustration”. No, but your Uncle or whoever, has their own network that you’re not even aware of. Your family and friends may well hire you, but more likely they might also recommend you to other people, be it illustration, graphic design, whatever it is what you do.
So tell people. Tell the people you already know.
[00:09:51] – Frankie
And tell them with vigour, “I am a freelance illustrator”.
[00:09:55] – Steve
[00:09:55] – Frankie
Not, “I’m starting this aspiring creative project on the side that I’m thinking about charging people for…” No. Say, “I’m a freelance illustrator now, here’s the link to my website!”
[00:10:05] – Steve
Yeah. Do you know, it’s amazing… I had a message recently from somebody who took my How to Get Started Being Freelance course, right. He is an illustrator in the States and he mentioned recently in an email to me about taking away from the course that thing of not saying, “I’m an aspiring…” whatever. He said, I started confidently saying, “I’m a freelance illustrator” and his first client was the New York Times!!
[00:10:28] – Frankie
[00:10:29] – Steve
Now, I’m not saying that that’s going to happen just because you say it, but yeah, it’s confidence, isn’t it? It’s confidence in what you put out there.
[00:10:38] – Frankie
Yes. There is serious, serious power in the language that you use about yourself. Not only for yourself, like your own confidence in what you do, but also selling that to potential clients. The sooner you think like that, the more likely you are to get those gigs.
[00:10:54] – Steve
Another thing is to tell new people as well. So start to expand your ‘network’ in quotation marks by hanging out in a community of well… like you already are, in Doing It For The Kids right? Hanging out with other freelancers in whatever discipline that you have. So, in your instance, Illustrators. It’s amazing how people want to help each other out. Lots of people might get work that they can’t do or isn’t suited to them, but they see your style and they go, “oh, yeah, okay, Lisa”.
And quite a few people — Frankie included at this point, when she was on the Being Freelance podcast — also went to cowork spaces and found clients that way as well. Now, cowork spaces have an overhead, they have a cost, but even if you’re just going in you know, a couple of days a week, a few hours a week, or whatever, it’s starting to meet people in the flesh. It can help.
[00:11:42] – Frankie
Yeah. The bottom line there, with all those things, is growing your network, isn’t it? Telling more people what you do because, as you say, even if they don’t want to hire you, if they’re not the right client. You don’t know who they know.
[00:11:55] – Steve
You’ve already mentioned social media, but the fact that you don’t have many followers. But remember, you can be following other people and interacting on their stuff. So if there’s, I don’t know, commissioners for the sort of stuff that you want to work on, or agencies, or like whoever it is that you think might be a client or a way into a client — start following them and interacting with their stuff.
[00:12:18] – Frankie
And in illustration land there’s often a lot of ‘challenges’ that people do. Like, thirty day things or annual things where they do a little sketch a day, but it’s part of a wider community of people all doing that challenge at the same time. So, you all use a certain hashtag or whatever and you all find each other’s work. I feel like it’s particularly prevalent in illustration, and that could be a brilliant way to get your work seen by people in your community and beyond. You’re clearly putting the work out anyway, so if you can hook it up with something that will help promote you to a wider network — fantastic!
[00:12:50] – Steve
Lisa you mentioned Upwork. Now sites like Upwork, Freelancer.com, Fiverr, People Per Hour. They can get a bad rap, and in many cases deservedly so. But also, the fact is they are full of clients who have jobs right now and want to pay for them. Also, there are ways on those platforms to create an advert? Like, “I will do this illustration for you for X amount of pounds or dollars”. Yeah, put those up there. It will mean that you show up in searches and then it’s up to people if they want to pay you whatever it is that you’ve decided that’s worth.
[00:13:26] – Frankie
Yeah, I’ve never used any of those platforms, but I feel like the running theme with stories I hear about those is it’s about getting those first few projects under your belt. Again, we were talking about confidence earlier. You will come out of that… I mean, hopefully, unless you have a toxic client that fucks your self confidence! I mean, but that’s not normally what I hear.
The stories I tend to hear from people are… I went on one of these platforms and no, I didn’t get paid all that much, but I went through the process, I felt more confident afterwards and I had social proof that I could use away from that platform to get more work. Because while there are some people who play the system and they’re all about getting seen on those platforms and that is the game, you don’t have to aim for that. It can just be about getting some work more easily than trying to do it totally on your own and then use that experience and those testimonials outside of those platforms to encourage other clients.
But that’s the key whether you use Upwork or not — once you have that first or second project done, that’s really the hardest bit. From there, if you’re savvy about it, you ask for testimonials off the back of those projects, you ask them to recommend you off the back of those projects, you ask to be able to use that work publicly for your portfolio, for your website, for your Instagram.
The key is just getting the ball rolling.
[00:14:53] – Steve
I don’t want to dwell on this next point too much because you might as well just go and listen to the last episode. But it’s that point of literally asking. For some of my clients, first clients, I was knocking on doors or sending cold emails of introduction to try and get work. What have you got to lose? And if you’ve got a warm in, as we discussed on the last episode, then all the better.
[00:15:22] – Frankie
I think as a creative freelancer specifically, there is… And I think you were doing this anyway, Lisa, looking at your Instagram… But there is a lot of positive stuff that comes out of just continuing to create even though you’re not getting paid. Just keep honing your craft, keep pushing more work out there, have fun, create stuff that makes you happy and put it out publicly. Show your behind the scenes, show your workings, get people involved in your process even if it’s not for a paying client.
I think some people feel like… I don’t know if ‘shame’ is a bit of an extreme word… but maybe they’re embarrassed about putting tonnes of work out on a professional Instagram or on their website that wasn’t paid for. They’re, like, hesitant about just putting it out there for the sake of putting it out there. But it’s still work!
I feel like I say this every episode but we live in a capitalist society, and just because nobody paid you to create the thing doesn’t mean the thing isn’t worth sharing. It doesn’t mean the thing isn’t a great piece of work. Yeah, I think there’s something to be said for just keeping chugging and putting stuff out publicly, as well as doing all the things we’ve talked about.
[00:16:30] – Steve
Yeah. I’ve spoken to so many illustrators, I follow so many illustrators, and they are creating their own self initiated stuff all the time. Even if they have loads of clients, they’re still creating their own stuff. They’re putting it out there. It’s sharing that love of what you do. Other people then fall in love with that. And even if they can’t hire you or don’t need it themselves, they want to tell other people, they want to share it. They want to see you succeed.
[00:16:55] – Frankie
Yeah, keep going. You clearly love it. And I really hope that if you do want to make it a full-time thing that that works out for you. You can do it!
But I think the first thing for you, Lisa, is confidence. Tell people you’re a freelance artist, illustrator. I want to see it on your bio next week!
[00:17:11] – Steve
There’s your homework.