An Ex-Freelancers Guide to Getting Your First Web Dev Clients

Nov 21, 2020
A detailed and simple guide on how to get your first clients as a freelance web developer.
Whether you are looking at boosting your income with side-income, or you are keen to work for yourself - freelance web development is a great option. It was something I did for a number of years before starting to work for companies full-time.
One of the things you learn fairly quickly, is freelancing isn't just about being an awesome developer, it is about becoming a competent salesperson.
That's right... a salesperson 😬
Typically when I think of a salesperson I think of this guy:
notion image
As an introvert the idea of selling something strikes fear into my heart. But selling on the internet is very different to the "traditional" car sales people or door to door cold-callers that you or I might be envisioning.
As a new freelance web developer, I set my website up and naively sat there waiting for something to happen. As days rolled past without so much of a hint of interest, I realized sales were going to be key to my success.
I spoke to my partner, who is conveniently a sales manager, and we had a good conversation about what she would do in this situation. She gave me these tips:
  • Go where the market is.
  • Find a problem, and offer a solution - If you try and sell someone something that they don't necessarily understand will benefit them, they won't go for it.
  • Find a way to be competitive without under-selling yourself.
  • Build long-lasting relationships.
I am going to tackle each of these points below in a dedicated section.
As with everything in life, it is best to start building a reputation for yourself and work your way up the ladder. Getting a handful of decent yet smaller projects under your belt is a great way to cut your teeth in the world of freelancing. Learn the ropes and build a portfolio before reaching out for the larger clients. This article is for people at the stage of getting those projects.
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Go Where the Market Is

We live in the modern day, and fortunately for us there are decent solutions out there that enable people to pick up freelancing much more easily. UpWork, Fiverr, Freelancer etc - there are plenty to choose from.
However, after spending a couple of weeks on a number of these platforms, there are a few things I decided.
  • The rate of success is so low because of the amount of competition.
  • Lowest cost of living (often) prevails.
  • I am unable to build relationships because clients details are kept largely confidential.
I know there are people who are making decent careers off of these websites, but you need to dedicate a lot of time to building up your reputation. I fell into a bit of a trap and mainly spent the first two weeks writing detailed proposals. I only heard back from one, a fairly basic website to be made for £100. I went through the process, spent a couple of days putting together some designs. The client was really happy (or so I thought), paid me my £15 as agreed and I carried on building only to never hear from them again.
I needed to rethink because this wasn't sustainable. All of this for £15!

✅ So what works?

I decided to follow my partner's advice. I needed to find somewhere where there was going to be work, but not a lot of competition.
Then it hit me. Instagram.
Take five minutes to look up small companies, tradespeople and other professionals in your area. There are LOADS.
Plumbers, electricians, window fitters, make up artists, hairdressers, cake makers, dog groomers, wedding videographers, photographers... They are all on there plugging their services.
I felt I was on to something.
These people have taken the time to set up an Instagram account to try and promote their business where peoples attentions are at. They understand the importance of being present on social media, yet many of them have websites that are not mobile responsive and therefore cannot convert sales from Instagram.
I'll repeat that - many of them have websites that are not mobile responsive and therefore cannot convert sales from Instagram.
We have found our audience, and we are starting to find they have a problem that needs fixing.
Feel free at this stage to 'niche down' or only target a certain audience. When I started, I reached out to companies that were involved somehow with carp fishing, an interest I had at the time. In fact, my first proper freelance gig was creating a website for a bait company. This worked well in my favour as I had a common interest and 'understood' what success would mean better than perhaps someone who didn't have that specialist knowledge.

Find a Problem - Offer a Solution

I'll repeat the line I left you with for a third and last time...
Many of them have websites that are not mobile responsive and therefore cannot convert sales from IG.
This automatically gives you a sales hook.
"Let me build you a website that looks nicer than the one you have now" will not work. It has no clear benefit or outcome. If you can find a problem, and then offer a solution to that problem and tell your potential client exactly how it will benefit them, then you are on to a winner.
This is the tactic I took - I would look up small companies in my local area, check their website, if it was good I would move on, if it wasn't mobile responsive, or if they were selling a product and would benefit from E-Commerce, then I would use that as a selling point as well.
Here is an example of a DM I would send:
Hi 👋🏼 I was just looking through your page and you have some awesome products! I couldn't help but notice though that your website is not able to be viewed on mobile. It seems a shame that you will potentially be missing out on the people visiting your website who are viewing Instagram on their phone!If you want to have a chat about sorting a solution for that, then feel free to give me a ring or we could chat over coffee.Thanks for your time!
The ultimate aim here is to get the person speaking on the phone or meeting the client in person (although that is less possible in 2020).
Sure it won't work for every single message sent, a lot of people will refuse or at least will keep you in mind for future.
When you have a client on the phone, however, the next stage comes in to play 😀 Converting!

Find a Way to Be Competitive - But don't undersell yourself.

As many people as I ask will always take payment upfront for a website. Sure, they will split the payments down into different stages of the build, but it is still a lot of money upfront.
Being competitive will mean trying to undersell everyone else around me, and there is nothing to say that a potential client won't check online or elsewhere for a price check.
That got me thinking... Is there another way to be competitive without knocking my prices down?
Monthly payments.
Not only does this make the barrier to entry lower than an upfront cost, but it is also a tactic that makes you much more accessible for business'.
Would you rather pay £2000 upfront, or split the cost to £500 and then smaller monthly payments over the year.
I was sceptical at first, would it work?
I can safely say that this was possibly what transformed by freelancing to new heights. Clients were much more happy to sign a contract to pay me monthly, whilst I updated and maintained their website.
Rather than going through the complications of a hand-over or using a pre-existing CMS that the client knows or understands, the ball is kept in your court. Use the tech-stack you like.

Build long-lasting relationships.

This is made slightly easier than the fact you will be keeping in contact with the client because they are paying you monthly but still needs to be mentioned.
Now that the client knows you are trustworthy and offer a great service, they are more than likely to come back to you, or even recommend people to you. I had a client once who recommended me, and in the space of two months, I had three more clients purely from the fact they had mentioned what I had done for them.
It doesn't need to be anything special, but dropping in a phone call every now and then or meeting up for a bit of lunch will help build those relationships. If you sell your client a website and then drop off the face of the earth you are going to come across as being untrustworthy.
I hope this helps some of you in the same way it helped me! Ultimately there will be a lot of failures and you will get things wrong at times.
Freelancing isn't easy! But hopefully, with these few tips, you will be able to get yourself a few clients and start generating that income!

© James Bedford 2021