Bootstrapped startups and the shit I learn in therapy

I've got some bad news.

You are not going to land your first client with freelance marketing tips. We can talk about niches, portfolio sites, and value based pricing later.

Your first client is the hardest. After your first client you have experience, a portfolio piece and a testimonial. If you do a good job of course... which you will.

After your first ten clients you'll start to get a sense of the work you want to do (and don't want to do). Then you can define your niche, refine your positioning and raise your prices.

But that comes later.

To close your first freelance deal you don't need a website. You don't need a brand. You don't even need a portfolio.

You don't need a website.

Two years into building Krit I closed our first $100,000 deal. I had 1 phone call with the client, and exchanged a dozen emails. He never saw our website or our portfolio. He trusted us because a friend referred him to us, we asked lots of questions and focused on what he was trying to do.

You land your first client with your network.

When you're starting out people will hire you because they like you, they want to help you and you're cheap. The people who like you and want to help you the most are the people who already know you.

An astounding 100% of the freelancers I surveyed* got their first client from someone they already knew.

Don't underestimate your existing network.

If you're reading this article it's safe to assume you're over the age of 6. In my experience, 6 year olds don't give a shit about freelancing gigs. And if you're over the age of 6, you've been to some amount of school and probably had other jobs.

That means you have a network. It's not huge, but it doesn't have to be. If you can list 50 people who kind of give a shit about you, then in the next 3 months 1 of them will need a website. Or know someone who needs a website.

Use the following spreadsheet to start building your list. Your goal is to get to 50 people. List their name, how you know them, their email address and how much they give a shit about you on a scale of 1 to 5.

Select file > make a copy to copy it to your Drive and start working.

I've already filled out the first row with my contact info, so you already have one person in your network.

Other ideas for people to include:

  • Teachers
  • College professors
  • Former bosses
  • Former co-workers
  • Friends
  • Relatives
  • Everyone has that one uncle who's always scheming right?
  • People who go to your church
  • People at your gym
  • Anyone who's given you their business card EVER
  • They deserve it
  • Your mechanic
  • Your doctor
  • Your therapist

Don't include anyone on your list who's lower than a 3 on the give a shit scale. They don't care about you enough to help you yet. Unless you're super likable, in which case they should care about you more.

Outbound sales for beginner freelancers

Next, you have to do two important things.

1. Remind them you exist

People are self-centered. They'll forget about you if you don't consistently remind them you're still breathing.

2. Let them know what you're up to

It took me way too long to figure out people couldn't read my brain.If you don't let people know that you're looking for work, they're 100% not going to refer work to you.

To remind them that you exist and let them know you're freelancing you're going to send them an email. Keep it short and conversational. Use a template, but personalize it each time. Sending 50 emails out is a lot of work, but you don't have any paying work yet so it's worth your time.

Copy this email template:

Hey Mrs. Peacock,

I was in your second grade class in 2000! Do you remember how much trouble Lawrence and Neal used to get into?

I just graduated from a code school, and I'm now branching out on my own as a freelance web developer. I'm reaching out to all my friends and letting them know I'm available for hire. If you know anyone who's looking to build an affordable website please let me know!



Be prepared to follow up. Chat with people, send them interesting content you come across, and don't get discouraged! This takes time.

Next, go to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and anywhere else where you have more than 50 followers. Post something like:

Hey y'all 👋 I just went through a HUGE life change and graduated from a coding bootcamp. 🎉 I'm kicking off my career as a freelance web developer and I'm available for hire. If you know anyone who's looking to build an affordable website please let me know!

Closing the deal

Once you get your first referral, don't panic. Sales isn't scary. Good salespeople realize it's about education, not pushing something down someone's throat.

Sales is about asking good questions, listening and educating the other person. 

You may feel like you don't have enough to educate someone on. Try to think about how much more you know now compared to 6 months ago. And remember you're cheap right now. Ask lots of questions and let them guide you.

Once you know what someone wants and why they want it, you'll have to put together a proposal. Keep it simple.

One of my best friends pitched me on hiring her as a freelance writer over Slack message. We agreed to pricing and terms, then she found a contract template online and we signed it. She made up the pricing on the spot - $15 per hour seemed to cheap and $50 per hour seemed to high.

Note: stick with hourly billing to start with, and add lots of buffer to your estimates because they will be wrong.

What to do if you don't get any bites

If you've sent out 50 emails and you're looking for something else to do then you want to:

  1. Work on building your network
  2. Hone your skills
  3. Remind people you exist and you're looking for work

To build your network:

  • Attend a network event in your town or a neighboring town.
  • They're mostly a waste of time, but they will force you to practice telling people what you do which is positive.
  • Find people you find interesting and send them a cold email asking for 30 minutes of their time. Do not ask them to pick their brain. Instead, approach them with specific questions. Tell them you want to learn more about their industry or the problems they're facing.
  • Offer to volunteer at a conference in exchange for free tickets.
  • Find interesting people to follow on Twitter and interact with them. Like, retweet, reply. Just keep it within check, you don't want to scare them off. (Psst... I'm @AndrewAskins on Twitter)

To hone your skills:

  • Take a free online course, there are tons of them out there.
  • Build something more complicated than you've ever built before. Bonus points if it's weird. Weird makes for good marketing. You won't know how to build it at first, that's okay. Just keep googling every time you run into a problem.
  • Attend a talk and do a little networking while you're there.
  • Offer to volunteer at a conference in exchange for free tickets. (Sound familiar?)
  • Start building that portfolio website!

To remind people you exist:

  • Write blog posts about everything you're learning. Share these on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
  • Tweet consistently about the things you can do, ask for RTs in as nice a way as possible. Bonus points for being funny.
  • Twitter threads and long-form Facebook/LinkedIn posts are also great.

If you do all that, and after 2 months still don't have your first client I'll give you your money back. Unfortunately, this blog post was free.

Happy hunting.

*Okay, so I only surveyed 2 people. You get the point. 😉

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