One Designer's Approach to Finding Clients

One of the biggest hurdles most people face as a freelancer or creative entrepreneur is finding clients. Odds are you are on this creative endeavor because the 9-5 behind a desk just wasn't the life for you. This can sometimes mean living client to client instead of paycheck to paycheck. One of the questions I get asked most frequently is how do I find clients. This post has been a long time coming because I used to ask the very same questions myself. So I thought I would share my thoughts behind "finding" clients and break down a few common misconceptions for you. 

BRIEF BACK STORY

When I first graduated college and was ready to take on the design world, one of the first questions I asked myself was "How and where do I find clients?" I was a bit more introverted at the time so talking about it in person (aka networking) wasn't something I was really interested in doing, nor did I really know how to do it (more on that later.) It can quickly became discouraging. Not to mention the way I felt about talking myself up with my former business name.

So instead of networking in person I tried signing up on designer job forms, posting about myself on craigslist, sharing the news with my Facebook friends... "Hey everyone, I am a designer if anyone is looking for one!" The truth is most people don't even know what a "designer" is. They likely know what it means to design something but unless you somehow get the message across about what you do, they will have no clue. The terms "designer" and "graphic designer" are so vague and subjective. Looking back, I can identify the problems in my approach quite clearly. I wasn't confident in my ability or pricing, I had nothing to showcase, when I did start to showcase I did too much and lastly my message was unclear.

 

a well crafted PORTFOLIO

Crafting a strong portfolio can leave you in a bit of a quandary when you are first starting out. You either went to college and have a few strong-ish projects to show that have no basis in real life whatsoever, or you didn't go to college and you are flying completely blind with maybe no practical portfolio of work. So what do you do?

Well if you were me you attempt to use your college work for your portfolio. I mean after all that's all you have right? This may work out for some but for me it certainly wasn't the answer. See my college portfolio didn't only consist of branding projects. I had figure drawings, photography, videography, sculpture, you name it. I didn't know how to narrow down my portfolio to attract my ideal client because I didn't even know who my ideal client was. If this is something you are currently struggling with I have a pretty nifty "Portfolio Checklist" that you can download if you subscribe.

The other conundrum is, even if you follow the steps in my Portfolio Checklist and narrow things down to what makes sense, is your work even strong enough? I didn't realize it at the time but my college experience wasn't specific enough. I had so many classes and so many projects going on at the same time. So even if I was doing my best work my creative energy was put into a state of growing and learning more than clarifying and perfecting. What's the solution? Well for me the solution was offering design services to friends and family in need of branding to help grow my portfolio and when that didn't work I would create fictional brands of my own. Hell there was a fictional brand that I created a logo and website for that I still get physical mail for to this day. This really helped me not only grow my portfolio but it also was the beginning stages of what would eventually be "my style." Which brings me to the next identifiable problem in my search for clients...

DOWNSIZING YOUR CREATIVITY

If you are like most creatives out there you want to leave no creative rock unturned. You should be monogamous with your craft but that word seems to scare so many people off now a days. I know it's tempting to be like Sonja Morgan and do it all but you will end up being a jack of all trades and master of none. 

I preach this but you may look at me and say I do too much and in reality you are probably right.  On top of my branding services I have my Creative Market Shop, Photo Firm and Square Yourself. I intentionally market the businesses separately though so that I won't confuse potential clients. Not to mention if I had tried to pursue all of these right out of the gate it would have not only been hard to attract clients but I would have struggled to keep up. I now have systems and processes in place to allow me to pursue a few more creative outlets without feeling too overwhelmed. 

But if you aren't going to take my advice about offering less and narrowing in than at least try to keep your offerings within the same field or industry.

inexperience (AKA LACK OF CONFIDENCE)

Even if you have all the natural talent in the world it can be hard to find success if you don't believe that yourself. Of course there is a fine line between confident and cockiness but even still, people are more likely hire someone who is overly cocky then someone with their head down telling them "I am okay I guess." That was totally me! See I was raised to be a humble person which isn't a bad thing but again, there is a fine line between being humble and straight up doubting your ability. To be completely honest I was inhibiting myself. I would compare my work to other designers and just knew in my head that my work was "better" but would feel this rush of jealousy because they were somehow booking clients with their subpar work. The difference was that they believed in themselves.

I wasted many days trying to blame the world around me for why I wasn't being discovered when I should have been blaming myself. "If an amazing designer does amazing work but nobody sees it, did it really happen?" You get the point ;)

Of course you may be yelling at me right now "How am I supposed to be confident when I have zero experience?" Most people would tell you to "fake it 'til you make it" but my motto has always been "make it 'til you make it." I mean yes faking it sometimes helps but in the end will only get you so far. Practice makes perfect so just keep creating. If design is something you are passionate about then you won't let those who doubt you, including yourself, get in the way. But don't take my word for it...

Elevator Pitch (aka selling yourself)

Often times they don't teach you enough in high school about paying bills, changing the oil in your car or paying taxes. College was no different for me. Not disrespecting my teachers because they certainly tried to teach me how to write a strong elevator pitch or craft a decent creative brief. It just didn't compare to what the experience would be like in the real world.

The only way to gain experience is by gaining experience. I know that most people don't want to hear that but it's the truth. Someone has to give you a chance to gain that experience. Which is why having a decent portfolio and some self confidence are key. That way when you do narrow in on exactly what you do and why you do it, you can explain that to people with ease. It's doesn't have to be this scary thing that I, and many others like me, make it out to be. Selling yourself should be casual and genuine. I will try to write more in detail on selling yourself in the future but just know it was a big reason I wasn't landing clients.

PRICING

Pricing is another identifiable problem in my look back at why I wasn't landing clients.  I could go on and on about pricing and probably will in future post but just know it does come into play when you are trying to land clients. Of course, we all price ourselves lower than we should in the beginning. Hell, some may even argue that I am still priced too low. The main point here is that when it comes to finding clients it's more important that you know what you charge vs how much you charge. If and when a potential client comes knocking on your metaphorical door, you need to be able to speak about what you offer and what you charge with confidence. Weather it's $100 or $1M. 

I tell you this because this is something I struggled with from the start. In reality I charged less than what I should have been making but in my mind I was overcharging because I knew I had zero experience. I was just grateful for the opportunity and honestly that's okay. You should be extremely grateful for your first few clients even if you made way less money because they gave you a chance. 

If you don't know what to charge finding a mentor can be very beneficial. I know that's easier said than done though so if you can't find a mentor a little research never hurt anyone. I could go on and on about pricing so I will leave it at that but like I said you just need to be confident in what you are charging when you pick up the phone to chat with your client or they will sense the weakness and take advantage of it.

 

eventually they will come to you I promise

Currently finding clients is not something I really do unless I am really passionate about wanting to work with a particular person or brand. I know that sounds shitty but it's true. I have put lots of work into putting myself out there in a way that is clear and transparent so that my ideal client will reach out to me. Also, I have a loyal client base now that not only continue to hire me but also send more work my way. It's a great feeling knowing someone enjoyed working with you enough to mention your name to someone else. 

*side note. I am not always 100% booked. When I am in between clients I find ways to continue creating for passive income.


So just remember that one of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to "finding clients" is that the clients will magically find you. Eventually they will I promise but only if you put in the hard work!

Hopefully these problems I have identified along my journey help you recognize something you could spend a little more time on. If any of this resonated with you I would love to hear from you so drop me a message in the comments below :)

Your Friendly Neighboorhood Designer,
Alex


 

Alex Cottles

The Routine Creative, Richmond, Virginia, 23220