How To Find Your First Client (or your next one)
The hard part is learning how to build a career that satisfies you with that skill.
The hard part is finding clients and projects that will pay you to do what you love.
This article is going to assume you know how to do whatever it is you do, and even that you’re pretty good at it. It’s also going to assume you’re not the best in the world - at least not yet.
That’s because you don’t need to be the best. You just need to be self-aware enough to know what you lack, and you need to have goals and ambitions that are the right size.
You need to make sure you’re climbing the right sized mountain.
And you have to start.
Start with the basics
Before you start on the journey to finding the first, or next, client for your creative endeavors, you need to take a breath, get honest, and ask yourself: Have you done the basics? Before you start building the walls and windows, have you built a foundation?
You may know how to use a camera, you may have even been paid to do some photoshoots, but before you start hustling to get clients, you need to make sure you’ve clearly identified where you want to go with your career, what kind of work you’re looking to make, and what it is you’re trying to say.
That may sounds like an overwhelming task, but don't let it stop you from getting started. This is an ongoing process that doesn’t have one right answer. We say it a lot, and it’s true here: progress over perfection. So if you haven't asked yourself honestly what your goals are—if you haven't WRITTEN down those plans—do that first, but do it now. There’s a fine line between rushing into trying to build a client base before you’re ready, and letting the fear of not being ready stand in your way for too long. And in my experience, people are far more likely to be suffering from the latter.
Research Your “It” Clients
Part of the reason you want to make sure you’ve invested in your foundation is because it will help inform who you want to target with your work. If someone asks you who you think your work is a great fit for, “everyone” is a terrible answer. The more specific and niche you can be, the more likely they’ll hire you.
Once you know what kind of work you plan on making, it should be easier to answer the question, “Who might hire me to do it?”
Take time - literally as soon as you’re done with this article - to write down 20 dream clients (brands, institutions, magazines, influencers, etc). Then, research (LinkedIn is an amazing tool for this) to discover who may be in a position to hire you at these places.
If you don’t already have a “CRM”, you can start simple. Just make a spreadsheet with the names of people you’d like to reach out to. People who you think would be interested in your work, and who you would love to be hired by. You’re not going to spam these people and begged to be hired, you’re going to build a relationship with them, and find out what problems you may be helpful in solving.
The thing about writing down your dream clients is that two years from now, when you do get hired by one of these dream clients, it’s going to mean so much more because you actually wrote down the intention.
Get over your fear
Now the hard part. You need to do it.
And this is when most of us start hearing from the midnight voices saying: I’m not good enough, I’m not ready, they’re all gonna laugh at me.
This is when you need to put on your thick skin, and get ready for battle.
You’ll never “be ready”. So do it now. Ask anyone who’s built a successful freelance career, and we all started before we wanted to. When I look back on my first portfolio, it’s laughable. But I had to start. If I had waited until my portfolio was perfect, I’d still be waiting. It’s always going to be a work in progress.
The hard part is that you’re going to be rejected. A lot. And it’s going to feel personal. Rare are the moments that someone will tell you your work isn’t good enough, or not the right fit, or give you actual feedback. More often, it’s just the deafening sound of silence.
But occasionally, people surprise us. Someone takes the time to give you some encouragement, some direction, some ideas. Rarer still, someone gives us a chance to make some work for them, to prove ourselves.
So yes, all the emailing and pitching and meetings can will feel like banging your head into a brick wall over and over and over again, and it will hurt, but damn it feels good when you break through that wall.
Take your time, be thoughtful, be smart
It’s a noisy world out there, and those who could hire you get hit up A LOT. I’ve talked to clients who say they hear from 50 new creatives A DAY looking to share their work. Can you imagine?
Counterintuitively, the way to stand out is to slow down.
Take your time to research the person you’re reaching out to. Look at their past work, past awards, past positions. Find some common ground, something specific that speaks to you, something you genuinely want to compliment them on.
What you’re really trying to uncover is what problems they are looking to solve in their business—and how you can help them do that. Spoiler alert: It’s not always that obvious. Their LinkedIn profile won’t say “desperately seeking a dope freelance zine maker with an emphasis on punk rock album art.” But if you approach each outreach to a potential client with that as your north star - “what problem can I uncover and help them solve” - you’ll be much better off than if you’re just out there asking people to do you a favor and hire you.
For the next decade, or so.
If you haven’t heard back by then, you’re probably barking up the wrong tree.
But seriously, most creative freelancers are in the business of “outbound marketing”. Don’t do that. Don’t send one email, sit back, and think the jobs are going to come to you. You need to remain proactive.
The tough question is, how do you stay on top of people’s minds (and on top of their inbox), without being spammy?
By sharing new work. Ideally, great new work. Which means you need to be constantly making great new work.
And if you don’t have new work to share, then go make some.
There is no point in making work in a vacuum, and no point in saying hello once and not following up. You need to walk a fine line between being obscure and being annoying, and get to the holy land where your follow ups are welcome, your outreach is appreciated, and your input is valued.
Don’t spam people with the same work over and over again, and don't say hi if you don’t have anything interesting to say, but don't be afraid to reach out if you do.
If you do it with integrity and consistency, it will happen.
Deliver on your promise
Once you get the job, now it’s time to deliver. To over-deliver.
This is an article about how to get here, not what to do when you do, but I will say this: If you were selling bullshit, you’re about to get found out.
You only get one shot with big clients, so bring everything you’ve got. Approach the work with humility, generosity, and gratitude.
Take a deep breath: if you’re here for the right reasons, you’ll be fine.
Track your success
Creating a freelance career is a long, windy path with no real summits, just some amazing vistas on the way, so do yourself a favor, and enjoy the views when you have them. By this I mean: track your successes.
It can be a slog, the journey can start to blur, so don’t just have a couple huge goals - take time to set and track small wins along the way.
A lot of these goals will be external, which is hard because you have less than full control over them. But if you make them small enough that you can achieve them, acknowledge them when you do, and set new ones while you’re still feeling the high, you’ll maintain the momentum.
These goals might revolve around finances, scholarships/awards/grants, dream clients, press, anything that you can have some influence over. But you should also set some internal goals, things you have (closer to) full control over. Things like:
I will do all this with grace, kindness, and empathy.
I won't get too busy to call my mom.
I will eat well and exercise.
It’s a marathon, don’t think you can make it to the finish line just sprinting.
Bonus: Add value
Don't forget that creative freelancing is a service industry, like being a waiter or an auto mechanic.
We’re here to serve. We get paid to bring our artistic and technical abilities to bear on the problems of our clients, and help them find brilliant solutions.
So don’t be afraid to add extra value along the way. Organize events for the community. Mentor people coming up behind you. Volunteer for projects that deserve it. Celebrate your contemporaries when they nail it. Stand up for people whose voices aren’t being heard.
It can feel big, but really we work in small industries. If you are the kind of person who has a clear voice and vision, creates great work, reaches out with purpose and integrity, follows up with the hope to add value, over delivers on your promise, does it with gratitude, and adds value to their community at large, clients will take notice.
Mathieu Young is a professional freelance photographer and director who has served the giants (American Express, AT&T, Bose, Samsung, Showtime, HBO, Paramount Pictures) and won awards for social enterprise campaigns in Tanzania, Kenya, Cambodia, and Nicaragua. He is the founder of Art of Freelance and Kensington Presents, a pop-up concert series in collaboration with California State Parks.
This post is sponsored by Space for Arts. All opinions expressed in this post are based on my personal view.