Getting your first (and even second) web design client has become like a rite of passage for freelancers. It separates those who “know how to write HTML” from those who actually make money freelancing. We all remember our first one… But what do you do if you’re just starting out and you have no experience?

It seems like a catch-22 situation: clients wants to see a portfolio but you haven’t finished any work. But how can you work if you have no portfolio?

However, in reality, it’s much easier than it seems. You have to take one or two of the strategies below and stick with them until you see results. So, what can you specifically to do land your first couple of clients?

1. Start telling everyone what you do

This might seem obvious, but it’s the first step everybody must do.

Look: you’ve made the decision to become a web designer.

So act like one! This means that whenever you get to meet other people and the question of “what do you do?” comes up, inform them of your new, awesome profession. Friends, family, strangers – it doesn’t matter whom you’re talking to.

The important thing here is that you want your immediate circle of friends to know what you do, so that they can refer people to you whenever somebody needs a site done. A huge majority of freelancers started their career path through referrals… and then there are freelancers who work only by referral.

Why do referrals work so well? It’s mainly down to human psychology. We are bound to trust and value the recommendation of someone we know over someone we don’t know. With a referral, you can forego having a portfolio or experience altogether, which is one of the biggest challenges when starting out.

2. Hit the job boards

Elance, Odesk, Smashing Jobs, Authentic Jobs, We Work Remotely and a dozen other platforms out there allow you to get your foot in many doors at once. Sure, there’s hundreds of other freelancers competing for the same projects but if you want to get experience fast, this is one of the best ways to do it. Even if you won’t be making as much as you’d want to in the beginning, your profile on these sites will grow in time and prove to be a valuable asset to your business.

Tip: spend a couple of minutes and research the company before replying to their classified/post/ad. This will put you miles ahead of the other freelancers. Even if they don’t hire you, ask if you can keep in touch – there’s always the possibility of future work, and you’ve already made a favorable impression on them (almost nobody asks this question).

3. Content = your client-getting soldiers

When you write articles, publish videos or put out a podcast, people automatically assume that you know what you’re talking about. If you write for a local publication or site in your area, you can get significant exposure and attract the attention of many prospects. Is there a local paper that you could get a guest column with? What about a blog? Study their audience, the content they put out and come up with something that their readers will appreciate. While not every guest post request out there gets approved, those that do get can net you significant attention from prospects.

How to do it: write a short email expressing your desire to write for the publication. Come up with a short title and a description of the article you will be writing for them. Ask them if it would be a good fit with their audience. If it is, tell them that you’ll begin writing a draft right away.

Tip: don’t aim for developer sites like Smashing Magazine. While you may frequent such sites, clients seldom do. Go for publications that aren’t necessarily tech-oriented.

4. Work for free

Although seasoned freelancers shun the word “free”, the truth is that free work is still one of the most efficient ways to build your portfolio and gain experience if you’re at the beginning of your web design path. Look for a cause in your area that is in need of a website and offer to build a website for them. Make sure to communicate exactly what you’re going to do and what your work entails (are you doing the design for free? do they need to buy hosting and a domain? what about promotion? who is going to deal with support issues? etc.). Once your work is almost finished and they are happy with the result, ask for an endorsement (for your website) and referrals.

Tip #1: Cut down on the time you spend on designing by using pre-made, high-quality templates. This way you can create a number of sites with minimal investment while accelerating the process of getting testimonials and referrals.

Tip #2: You can also work for free on your own projects. If you’ve got an idea for a service, community or any kind of personal project, you gain experience and, if your idea catches on with other people, attention to your business. Small games, CSS/Javascript experiments, galleries, forums and other kinds of hobbyist projects can lead to big bucks down the road.

5. Find out where your ideal client hangs out and go meet them

Networking events in your area are the best way to make new connections. You don’t have to go to developer/tech events only. Think about what client/niche you would like to work with and go to a related event. As you get to meet new people, introduce yourself as a web designer. It’s a good idea to invest in a couple of simple, high quality business cards to hand out to people (get them made locally or online using something like Moo).

Tip: Follow-up with each person that you meet at the event. Few people do this. Those who do, get to reap the benefits. Even if you don’t have any relevant feedback to offer, a simple “it was nice to meet you, if you need any help with a website, let me know” will suffice.

6. Chat with other freelancers

Online communities are good for more than posting pictures of cats. Hang out on chats and forums that are design/development related. Once you’ve established some rapport with the people there, ask them if they need help or if they have any small projects that they wouldn’t mind passing on to you. Established freelancers often have to turn down small projects when they’re overbooked. Having a network of professionals whom you talk and associate with often leads to future work.

Here are a couple of places where you can find devs and designers hanging out.

Designers: Designer Chat, Sidebar, Designer News, Reddit Web Design
Programmers: Hacker News Slack, Hacker News, Reddit Web Dev
Writers/Content Marketers: Inbound, Copyblogger forum, Scribophile

7. Redesign a popular site

You’ve all seen these good looking design mockups for Facebook, LinkedIn, Spotify and other popular sites. Not only will you stretch your work muscles this way but you will also attract loads of eyeballs, some of them looking to hire you. Think of a popular website and create a design along with an explanation for all the choices that you made. This will show your prospect that beside crafting eye candy you can also think strategically (how a design can improve a business’ bottomline) which is an invaluable skill to have.

Tip: Focus on making a design that helps the company achieve its goals. Can you optimize the placement of a subscribe box? Would certain elements benefit from being larger/smaller? Can you improve the conversion rate of a page by modifying the current design or changing the copy?

8. Bartering

Trading service for service or products is a tried-and-tested method to get clients. Dentists, barbers, restaurants are just one of the kind of places you can approach for this kind of deal. If you like the services of someone and they don’t have a website or they could do with SEO, social or even website changes, you can offer to barter. Just make sure to establish what your work is worth. If your average website costs $3000 to make, you will want to get a deal that is similar to that amount.

Tip: Leave the cash option open. This will make your offer more valuable. You can also be flexible and take half cash and half services.

9. Small, free services

Free services such as installing a SEO plugin or setting up social media profiles are a great way to get client experience. Just make sure to specify what your limits are before you get to work: what you’ll be doing and how long it will take to do it.

The key here is to provide value and give them a taste of what it means to work with you.

Tip: There are many company websites that are either poorly optimized or have no social presence. Email them and offer to do it for them explaining the advantages they will get from your service. More than often they will be thrilled and you can ask them for a testimonial when you’re done.

10. Team up

A great way to get some real work experience is to work with someone that works in a related field and would benefit from your skill set. Know a developer who is already working on a project? Ask him to see if you can become partners and offer a more comprehensive solution to his clients. Vice versa, if you’ve got design skills and can’t code complex projects, teaming up with a coder will increase the value you provide to clients.

11. Cold calling

If you know what niche you want to work in, it becomes much easier to pin down prospects. Spend at least half an hour each day researching your niche, evaluating companies that would fit your “ideal client” profile. Find out their contact details and introduce yourself. The best way to do this is by cold calling. Even if they won’t work with you right away, at least they know your name and what you do.

How do you pick a niche? Here are some ideas:

  • Think of the products and services that you use on a daily basis. What industries are they from?
  • What industries are in need of web designers like you?
  • What industry would you like most to have showcased in your portfolio?

After you’ve settled on a niche, all you have to do is compile a list and just go through it, cold-calling prospect after prospect, old-school style.

Tip #1: If you’re shy you can always email them. Just know that you will get a better (and faster) response rate through a direct call.

Tip #2: Make it a value-based proposition. How can your services improve their business? What problems are they facing that you can solve?

12. Set up a local directory

This idea will take a little bit more upfront invest in time and value but it will pay off in spades. What you want to do is to setup a directory either general for a smaller area or a specialized for a larger one (ex: Dentist directory in Chicago).

There are a number of strategies you can implement here:

  • Premium. You will charge an annual fee to have a company listed in your directory.
  • Freemium. Offer the initial listing for free with the possibility of paid upgrades. You can offer higher placement/more visibility as one of the paid options. Web design, SEO and social media promotion can be another one.
  • Lead Generation. With this one you will charge on a cost-per-lead basis, meaning that you will list them for free and sign a contract so that they pay you whenever they get a lead from your directory.

Once you’ve got a company listed on your directory, you can pitch your products much more easily to them since they’re already warmed up. This method will take a while before it pays off, but it can prove to be a recurring source of income.

13. Create a product

If you’ve got some kind of expertise, you can create a product and either sell it or give it away. What kind of product should you create? A PDF, an email course or even a couple of videos that help the people you want to be hired by. As a web designer you can write a guide on how to pick the best designer, or perhaps a guide on 7 web design mistakes that are killing conversions.

Here’s an example of useful products that got their creators hired.

Nate Kontny’s Draft.

Brennan Dunn has come up with an email course that teaches freelancers on how to raise their rates.

Tina Roth Eisenberg has created a couple of products that have guaranteed that she never has to hunt for clients ever again.

 

Conclusion

The key to landing clients is to show them that you know what you’re doing and more importantly that you can improve their business with your particular skill set. If you’re going to pitch, do your homework: research their industry, see what their competitors are doing, come up with ideas to increase conversions with the actual site, if you can, a quick mockup in Photoshop with your suggested changes will make for a strong first impression. When you do this, it becomes very hard for a client to turn you down, let alone forget you.

Was this useful? How did you get your first web design client? Leave a comment below to let us know.