Struggling to find design clients? Here’s how I built my business from nothing

New in the graphic design field? Struggling to get the first client? Our Guest blog this week featuring Jim Adams, sharing great tips about how to get your first client and how he succeed in building his Graphic Design empire. Enjoy..

Photo by © Adamsgraphy

Let’s pretend the internet doesn’t exist. Given that you are reading this blog while online I appreciate such a concept may be pretty hard to get your head around but please, bear with me.

Picture the scene.

You’ve left your regular paid job. You know you can make a living as a freelance designer, if only you could find the right clients.

  • You’ve set yourself up a new portfolio website.

  • You’ve bought your own software.

  • Your phone is on your desk ready to go.

  • You are building a nice little audience on Facebook, Twitter is a bit of fun, and you have joined a few forums, LinkedIn and online groups to chat to fellow designers.

But nothing happens. No enquiries, no commissions, not even one of those annoying automated messages.

Let’s talk.

Let’s get down to basics. What’s your job? You are a designer. You help people succeed in business. Business owners come to you and ask you to design flyers, leaflets, business cards and other print collateral to help them promote their business.

So do it for yourself.

It’s the best way to market yourself as an expert: showcase your skills and gain clients.

Panic mode.

When I started out I only worked in print. Website design was a dark art to me; I had no experience, no skills and no thoughts of selling it as a product.

I also had no clients. On leaving my paid design job I worked for a printer who fed me work on an almost daily basis, but suddenly it stopped. He got an in-house designer and I was surplus to requirements overnight – and to cap it off he told me four days before Christmas.

The panic set in. I had no clients and bills to pay. I could either admit defeat, or find new clients and work.

(PS: If you’re in panic mode—or even in you’re not—you can quickly and easily fill your client pool with Millo’s new project: SolidGigs. Kill the feast/famine cycle once and for all for one very low monthly fee.)

Knock, knock.

Instead of sitting behind my desk, hoping in desperation someone would see my website, I made the best decision of my life. I got up, walked out the door and decided to find design clients.

Initially I spoke to friends and relatives.

Networking has to start somewhere after all, and these people have friends and relatives too, so it seemed as good a place as any to start. The unfortunate thing is friends and family will tell you that you are great, you will be alright and everything will be a success.

They are not being honest.

You need to speak to new people. People in business. People you do not know.

Kind of daunting I know, but people who ‘may’ have a need for your skills are your prime audience and that means cold-calling, knocking on doors and selling your skills blind.

This is a whole new ball game. It’s hard work, and it will mean rejection a lot of the time, but each time you approach someone you will learn something, be able to adjust your pitch and take that experience to the next one.

Come prepared.

Walking into a business takes guts. You need to be prepared, and this means taking something you can leave behind:

  • A flyer or leaflet,

  • a small brochure,

  • examples of previous work,

  • anything that shows your skills and will make them remember you.

Most companies receive emails from designers offering their services – let’s be honest, these often get ignored or deleted.

A face-to-face meeting, however, offers a different perspective. As a breed humans love to talk and mingle. Speaking to someone directly ensures that your enthusiasm, personality and skills set are instantly on show.

This more often than not makes the difference. You can answer questions instantly, decide rates on the spot, and potentially get work in minutes.

It is here many freelancers fall down. You’re a good designer, you manage your time perfectly, your rates are competitive and you know you can do this.

No good I’m afraid.

Now you need to switch heads and leave the ‘designer’ at home, and work yourself into ‘salesman’ mode. You’re not only the designer, the accountant, the project manager and tea boy – you are also the top salesman.

From one comes many.

This is how it worked for me. One business agreed to let me do their stationery. It was only a one-man band but I caught him at the right time and got the job. We agreed on a price and I went away to start.

24 hours later I returned with his stationery designs and he loved them. I then pulled out a flyer I had also designed for him as a bonus and explained this was free. He loved that as well and, unsurprisingly, was extremely grateful.

All I asked of him was that if he recommended me to anyone to tell them the actual cost of the flyer design.

By this time we were almost becoming friends. We talked over a cup of tea.

I explained my situation, how I had been left high-and-dry by the printers and was looking to build up new clients. He offered to speak to colleagues and friends and see if anyone else needed any help as he could see I was good, was an all-round nice chap, and the rates were right.

Free advertising. Perfect.

To cut a long story short…

Although the guys behind Wikipedia would beg to differ, the internet doesn’t always have the answer. Sure, marketing yourself can be cheap, quick and easy…but is that how you want to present yourself?

Potential clients really appreciate you going that extra mile. We can all send out blanket emails, but it requires a certain amount of conviction to pick up the phone or knock on a door.

Try it.

You never know where it might lead…my business, Designers Up North, has grown into a collective of professional freelance designers.

If anyone out there wants to share their experiences of ‘going offline’ then please, write a letter to…only kidding, drop a line in the comments.

PS – For all those people who are currently in a state of shock at the mere thought that the internet doesn’t exist, I extend my sincere apologies.

BONUS: Tools we recommend as you build your freelance business from scratch.

Here are a few tools you’ll want to bookmark and use as you start on your career:

  1. Freshbooks: the #1 invoicing software for freelancers & solopreneurs

  2. Bench: for bookkeeping & tax help.

  3. Bonsai: an All-in-one freelancing solution for the world’s best creative freelancers.

  4. Bluehost: for affordable, easy-to-use web hosting—because every business needs a web site.

  5. Chrometa: Time tracking to ensure you never lose time you spent working on a client’s project.

  6. ConvertKit: for sending marketing messages to previous or potential clients.

  7. Udemy: for continuous learning on all kinds of subjects (including business).

  8. LegalZoom: for help with trademarks, copyrights, and other legal issues.

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Check out more useful articles of by Jim Adams here: Thanks for reading...

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