As anyone who’s been a freelancer will tell you, DOING the work isn’t the hard part— GETTING the work is the hard part, especially at the beginning of your career. Once you build up a name for yourself, you’ll start to get new clients via word of mouth, but until then you need to grind for a while with the specific goal of getting new clients.
Like most things in business, the formula really isn’t that hard– you just have to put in the work. This article is specifically geared toward visual artists, but the basic template applies to anyone.
Note, this article is only for people who want to be truly excellent. It’s for people who are filled with a burning desire to kick ass at what they do and build a name for themselves as a hot up-and-comer in their field. So if you are content being average and just want to make a few extra bucks making business cards for your aunt or whatever, you can close the tab right now because this isn’t for you.
But if you want to be a highly trained mercenary freelancer, this is for you. Here’s how to get your name out there, build a portfolio full of cool shit, and land some sick new clients:
Back in the mid-2000s, Justin Harder was the standard by which I measured myself as a designer. Obviously I was never anywhere near as good as him, but I pushed myself to get a little closer on every single project.
GET REALLY REALLY FUCKING GOOD AT WHATEVER YOU DO
This might seem obvious, but it can’t be overstated: if you want to get to the top of the game, you need to be elite. Not above average, not pretty good, but undeniably fucking sick at whatever it is you do. You need to be ruthlessly honest with yourself here– compare yourself to the very best in your field, and if you aren’t on their level, work tirelessly to get there. You are going to need to sacrifice a lot to get there (for example your social life), so be prepared.
You don’t have to wait until you’re in the global top 1% of your field before you start trying to freelance, but I would suggest being in at least the top 20%. If you aren’t that good yet, it’s too early to start freelancing. You’ll only be able to get crappy work from lame clients, and your time is better spent honing your craft until you are in the top 20%.
Some of the stuff I did for Flo back in 2005 or so. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I still think it looks pretty good.
GOT IT. SO HOW IN THE HELL DO I GET CLIENTS??
I’m sure you won’t be even a little bit surprised that my #1 recommendations for finding freelance clients is networking. If you are freaking out because you’re an introverted artist and the last thing you want to do is go talk with strangers, don’t worry! Just read my handy guide: How To Network Without Being An Asshole
But I also have good news for the introverts— networking isn’t the only way to get freelance clients. Cold calling (aka hitting up people you don’t know) can work too. It’s definitely a low-percentage thing and you shouldn’t rely on it for getting the bulk of your clients, but you should always be going for a few long shot dream clients, because why not? If you have good work and a compelling pitch, you WILL get work this way.
Proof: Back in 2004 or so I got two great clients by cold-calling. I put together a little printed portfolio— each one was put together by hand, so it felt special and cooler than just a bunch of pages stapled together. I made a list of maybe 50 companies that did cool shit and I wanted to have as clients. Then I sent out portfolios to every one of them along with a hand-written letter explaining who I was and why I wanted to work with them. I never got a response from like 45-47 of them, but the two that paid off, paid off really well.
One of them was the legendary hardcore label Bridge 9. I didn’t end up working for B9 but I did do a small project for the owner’s apparel company, Sully’s. It wasn’t a huge project, but I was stoked to work with Chris.
The other client I got was Flo Multizine, which ended up being my full time job for the next 2 years. Flo was a hybrid print/DVD magazine and we made original video content featuring brands/people like Queens of The Stone Age, Quiksilver, From First To Last, Element, Underoath, Bam Margera, Diesel, and tons more huge/awesome youth culture brands.
Not too bad for sending out a few packages every week, right??
So now you know how to get clients— the next thing you need to understand is how to be strategic about choosing the RIGHT clients. Here’s the blueprint:
THE WORK YOU PUT OUT IS THE WORK YOU’LL GET ASKED TO DO MORE OF
This is the golden rule of freelancing, which is why you should say no to projects that don’t fit the “2 out of 3 rule” above. It can be tempting to take any project you can get because you need the money, but don’t do it unless you reallllllly have to!
And if you DO take on a lame project out of necessity (like when you need new brakes and have $4 in the bank), don’t put it in your portfolio. I did a hideous website for some scented candle company from the midwest back in the day because I needed to pay the bills, but you’ll never see it in my portfolio. I don’t want to be the go-to guy for scented candle websites.
Think about it this way: working on lame projects kind of defeats the whole point of freelancing in the first place. You went out on your own because you weren’t happy with the work you were doing at your day job, right? What’s the point of doing lame work for shitty money? So don’t fill your portfolio with work you aren’t stoked on, because it will only invite more of the same.
It’s better to show off ONE amazing project that you are incredibly proud of than 10 mediocre ones that will only attract more mediocre clients/projects.
So when it comes to wack projects for wack clients, just say no! You’ll be better off in the long run, I promise.
My friends at Powerhouse built their name by doing rock posters like these. I’m sure they didn’t make much from the posters themselves, but this work is what put them on the map and got them high-paying projects for big companies like Red Bull and Procter & Gamble
DO A LOT OF LOW-PAYING BUT COOL PROJECTS IN THE BEGINNING
When you are first starting out, do as much cool, high-visibility stuff as you can- even if it doesn’t pay well. Think of it as in investment in your future— doing that cool stuff now will build up your personal brand and open the doors to big money projects that you wouldn’t be considered for if your portfolio was full of boring shit that just paid the bills.
Yes, in the short term you could make a little more money by taking any project you can get, but at the cost of building a portfolio that will enable you to get much more profitable work in the future. Don’t throw away your future for a couple hundred dollars!
Anything music-related is great for this. Music clients won’t pay for shit (they’re even more broke than you are), but that means you will have a lot more creative freedom. The same is true of action sports and most other “cool” industries. Do a bunch of these projects to build out a sick portfolio, then use that portfolio to get big-money projects from corporate clients who want “the kids” to like them— it’s pretty hilarious how much they’ll pay if they think you’re the guy/girl who can make them cool (like when Scion sponsored Ringworm shows and stuff)
Great example of how you can use personal projects to build a portfolio and get attention (via Dribbble)
THE SECRET WEAPON: PERSONAL PROJECTS
Sometimes it feels like a catch 22: in order to get cool clients, you need cool shit in your portfolio. But you can’t get cool shit in your portfolio unless you have cool clients. WTF, right??
The cheat code for getting around that is actually really simple: do personal projects that are like the projects you wish you would get from clients. For example if you want to get work from skateboard companies, you could make a zine documenting your local skate scene and put that in your portfolio. If you want to get paid for making apps, then make your own app and put together a case study about it for your portfolio. You get the idea….
If the work is cool, people won’t really care whether it was for a client or not. They’ll see that you have talent and passion, which are more important than anything else. 90% of the stuff in the portfolio I sent to Flo and Bridge 9 were personal projects, and it worked out just fine for me.
- Try to be in the top 20% before making a serious run at freelancing
- Cold-calling can work, but it’s a low-percentage tactic
- The work you put out is the work you’ll be asked to do more of, so manage your portfolio carefully
- Follow my “2 out of 3” rule when taking on new projects
- In the beginning, focus high-profile/sexy projects– it’s OK if they don’t pay very well (they usually won’t)
- Use personal projects as a way of building the portfolio you want