Without clients, your consulting business is a far-off dream. We’re here to make that dream a reality. For me, I found my first freelance client by convincing a company who wanted to hire me full-time to let me work part-time, remotely, and on a contract basis. From there, my confidence grew, business took off, and I found clients through a variety of avenues. Your next client might be right in front of you - we just have to make the connection. Let’s get into it.
Finding Clients as a Freelancer
Growing your freelance business is like anything great: it’s not easy and requires some real work on your end, but when the work pays off, it is incredibly rewarding. We’ve broken this guide into how to go about the process, and then where are the best places to find people / companies to reach out to.
How to go about the process
- Receive inbounds or perform outbound outreach
- Schedule a call
- Learn a ton on your intro call (or two)
- Send a proposal
- Handle client push-backs
Receive inbounds or perform outbound outreach
Let’s acknowledge that outreach to get leads isn’t easy. You may not have a sales background, which makes this foreign to you. You may have fears of rejection, or something similar. If you’re going to find clients for your business, you have to work through that, and be able to put yourself out there knowing some will say “no” and others will say “yes.” It’s all part of it. Don’t take rejections personally. Every rejection is one step closer to getting to a “yes.”
Once you’re able to put any fears aside, your goal is to ultimately set-up a call. If the person you’re talking to already knows you and what you’re capable of doing, then you won’t need to do much validation. However, if it’s an old acquaintance, an inbound, or a cold outreach, you will want to validate your experiences to give yourself the best chance to get that call. Generally, this can be done in one sentence. In fact, the more concise and to the point you can be, the better.
As an example, when I would reach out to a food delivery start-up, I could say “I can share my learnings and experiences from managing the launch of Uber Eats in Miami and Milan.” If they’re launching a food delivery platform, this is gold to them - they can skip months of trial and error by learning from someone who’s been there, done that. Ask friends for feedback. Spend time crafting your validating sentence and make sure it’s something you can stand behind, and is compelling.
As a reminder, your goal in this outreach note is to get on a call, so ask for that, and make it as easy as possible for them. Shoot them a note via the easiest access point for them. If you normally text them, shoot them a text. Otherwise, an email or LinkedIn message works just fine. Give them a quick update with what’s going on with you, and ask them if they’re open to a short catch-up call. This can look something as simple as:
“Hey Luke! Long time no talk. LinkedIn tells me you’re still doing great at Amazon? I’ve recently quit my job and am exploring some new opportunities. I’d love to catch-up via a quick phone call if you’re up for it in the next few days?”
Don’t overcomplicate this, and don’t sell yourself. The above example is when it’s a friend or close past colleague. If it’s more of a cold outreach, you’re going to need to do a bit more.
In your cold outreach, you want to
- Find something that relates you to them
- Show that you’ve done your research
- Make them feel good
- Validate yourself
- Ask for a call.
This can look something like
Looks like you're working in my hometown (Miami) and for an interesting new ride-sharing company. Congrats on your growth and latest funding round!
I worked in Operations at Uber for over 4.5 years, including piloting the Safe Rides program at Duke University (my alma mater). If you're open to a conversation, I have my availability in Calendly here, or you can let me know some times and the best email for you, and I'll send over an invite.
In this short message, I relate to this person that because she’s working in my hometown, I show that I’ve done my research that they just raised money and make her feel good by congratulating her, I validate myself by telling her about the Safe Rides program I piloted at Duke for Uber, and finally I ask for a call.
Schedule a call
When you’re talking to a potential client, you need to get on a call or meet up in person. For calls, make it as easy as possible for them to find time on your calendar. I personally can’t stand the email back and forth for times that work, so I send over a Calendly every time. I usually use this polite and concise line: “If it works for you to find time at your convenience, I have my availability in Calendly here (link to your Calendly), or you can let me know some times that work and I'll send over an invite.”
Note: you can’t create a hyperlink in LinkedIn, so you’ll need to put the link in front of here: https://calendly.com/yourlink
Learn a ton on your intro call (or two)
Your first call with a potential client is crucially important for a number of reasons. You’re trying to learn as much as possible, while communicating your value strategically to see if there’s a fit with their company and current needs. So, be curious!
You’re trying to figure out, for where your expertise lies, how crucial this problem is to their company. Ask them what keeps them up at night, or what are their top business challenges. If they don’t list your area of expertise, it’s likely not going to be a great fit.
Erin Miller from Erin Miller Inc. explains it best, “Schedule your calendar with conversations to increase opportunities and uncover hidden resources. It's not about what you can do for the client; it's about listening, uncovering their pain points and offering solutions. Even if an initial conversation doesn't lead to an immediate client, when you add value, people will remember. Nine times out of 10, they will seek you out down the road.”
Ask them a lot of good questions around your area of expertise. Keep digging and diving in and seeing how they respond. This will give you a great indication how much they’ve thought about this, how big their need is, and how much value you’ll be able to add to them. As you ask questions, they might at some point, turn it around on you and ask you about it. This is your golden opportunity to share what you’ve done successfully for other companies, and how you might think about it for them. You’re essentially teasing the value you could provide to them, if they hire you.
If they don’t turn it around on you at some point, you can respond to their challenges with tidbits from your learnings in your prior experience. This can go something like
Potential client: “We have the engineering expertise, but we don’t really know how to sell and close restaurants for our food delivery business.”
You: “Got it. What have you tried thus far?”
Potential client: “We have a list of restaurants, and we’re essentially calling them and trying to talk to the managers.”
You: “I see. Well one technique that worked for us at Uber Eats was to go in person a few hours before the dinner rush, and try to catch the manager. While more ground work, we had a lot of success getting in front of the decision maker.”
This validates me more, and makes them more likely to want to work with me if this learning is interesting to them. While this is giving away advice for free, that’s okay if it’s going to help validate yourself. At the point where you feel you’ve given enough to validate yourself, you can stop giving it away and tell them “let’s get a formal arrangement in place, and I’m happy to continue this conversation and help you accomplish your goals.”
There will be clients that have needs that don’t fit your area of expertise. That’s normal and okay. If they don’t, ask if they can make 1-2 introductions for you. If done correctly, these intro calls have good potential to lead to clients or warm introductions to good leads. Once you get a few clients, getting client referrals will be the best way to grow your freelance business.
Send a proposal
After your intro call (or two) you’re going to follow-up with a proposal. We cover this in detail in this guide, but essentially your goal in your proposal is to
- Remind them of who you are and your experience
- Summarize the company’s goals (use as many of their words from your call as possible)
- Detail out your deliverable for the project
- Share compensation and logistical information
If you didn’t talk about a budget for the project at all, you can leave that off the proposal for now, and talk about it on your next call.
Handle client push-backs
Throughout your time as a consultant, you’re going to hear every excuse under the sun. “You’re too expensive.” “I’d rather hire a full-time person for this.” “I’ve never hired a consultant before.” “It’s not the best time for us.” “Let’s revisit this in a few months.”
As they respond with push-backs, get clarification into what’s really going on. Knowledge is power, and learning more about what's actually going on for them gives you a chance to navigate these push-backs. You can do this by asking curious questions, or even just repeating the last sentence they said to you. By repeating that last sentence (this is called “mirroring”) they’re likely to elaborate on what they said, and you’ll learn more
Further, try to find a way to get started with them. Scope down your hours (not your hourly rate!). Start with a 30 day paid trial. Don’t make concessions that you’re not okay with, but it’s okay to compromise to get your foot in the door.
Negotiating is an art, and no small paragraph here will do it justice. We have a full write-up on negotiation in this guide. The quick and dirty summary is:
- Know your floor going in, and don’t go below it
- Calculate some options for a retainer (combination of hours and hourly rate) that come out to a monthly amount to the company
- Do tons of “mirroring” and “labeling” to learn more
- Never negotiate against yourself! If they say something like “that’s too much,” ask them to counter. Do not just say a lower number
- Know when to, and be willing to walk away if it’s just not right
Once you’ve agreed to terms, get the deal closed as quickly as possible. Also, make it easy for them to sign. Maybe they have a contract template that you can fill out. Otherwise, have a contract template ready to go, fill in the details, and send it over via e-signature (Docusign or Hellosign both have free versions). Make it easy, get the deal done, and get started.
Where to find contacts for your intro calls
There are five tried and true methods we’ve used and taught our customers for how to build up a client list. This is a bit of a numbers game: the more you try, the higher likelihood that you’ll land one.
1 - Reach out to your Professional Network
This is the easiest and fastest way to close a client: utilize people that already know and trust you, especially those that know your work. Think of all the people in your professional network: your past managers, past colleagues, that random conference you went to, etc. and reach out to them for a catch-up call. While it might be a friend or someone you are / used to be close with, do some research on what they’re up to so you can ask good questions and have a productive conversation.
2 - Leverage your Personal Network
This includes not only your family and friends, but also your parents’ friends, your sister’s colleagues, people from high school you barely keep in touch with, college dorm buddies, etc.. Don’t feel guilty reaching out to people you aren’t super close to - nobody is going to give you good money for a service or product they don’t need. Follow the same advice as before: give them a quick update, ask to jump a call with them, talk about their business, and see if they have a need for your offering.
Leveraging your personal network can also mean leveraging your social network. Whether it’s Linkedin, Instagram, or Twitter, utilizing your connections and platform can help connect you to clients.
3 - Reach out to people / companies you don’t know
This one requires some more research. Think about your experience and your skillset, and then look for companies that would really benefit from you. For me, I looked for food delivery, freight / logistics companies, and ridesharing start-ups. Do some research and send out some friendly notes on Linkedin, or via email if you can find their email. I’ve also had success reaching out via a company’s website or getting in touch with a recruiter. Generally, I’ve found Linkedin is the avenue. Make sure you personalize your note as much as possible. As you likely know, people get hit up on Linkedin right left and center. Stand out by doing your research, and say something that person can relate to. As a helpful tip, you can send a note along with a connection invite so you don’t need to pay for Inmails.
4 - Utilize project based platforms
There are now many platforms that help connect contractors to those in need of a service. There’s Upwork, Fiverr, Sparehire (now Graphite), Catalant, TopTal, and many more (just google search). These can be hit or miss depending on your skillset and how you market yourself, but especially if you have a brand name on your resume, you might have a lot of luck with these, and at a minimum they’re worth exploring.
5 - Market yourself on your own
Marketing yourself online today is one of the most valuable things you can do. While it takes some additional work, the content you leave online is always there, meaning people can find you day or night without any extra work on your part. You could start a basic blog, write on Medium, or simply Write an Article on Linkedin. The important part is to make this content as rich and valuable as possible, giving you legitimacy when people read it. At a minimum, throw what you’re offering on your Linkedin. You might be surprised how many hits your Linkedin profile gets, and I’ve had many people reaching out to start a conversation. When they do, take these calls, even if you’re not sure what the person wants - you never know where it could lead.
Further, Mylance has made it incredibly easy to spin up a consulting website for you personally through your Mylance HQ.
Now that you’ve leveraged your resources and tapped into different avenues to find potential clients, it’s time to reach out and set up some calls! Write down a list of 5-10 companies and contacts you have from your past that you could reach out to to catch up with. Even if they’re at a company you wouldn’t consult for, they definitely might know somebody to connect you with.
Essentially, you want to get to know them and their business, identify if there could be a fit based on your experience and expertise, and learn enough information about their challenges so you can scope out a project. Most importantly, you are selling yourself to your client. Here are some ways you can do that.