How I Find Clients as a Freelance Web Developer

I’m often asked, “How do you find your clients?”.  This blog post will attempt to answer that question.  The simple answer is, I look anywhere and everywhere all the time.  Freelancing is tough, make no bones about it.  I basically spend all of my time during the day working on client projects and after that, the work isn’t done.   I’d like to share what I’ve learned about how to approach and engage with potential clients, and what has proven to be the most effective strategies and methods for finding clients ‘in the field’.

I’ll first list and illustrate a few ways I try for approaching (or being approached) by potential clients.  The second part of this post will address breaking the ice with people and approaches to conversing with them since this is something that some people find difficult about being a freelancer.  In the final section I will list my conclusions on which methods seem to work best as I have been taking note of my interactions to try to determine what approaches work better than others.

Ways of Searching for and Finding Clients:

1. Bring a web development or programming book with you, wherever you go and put it on the table or counter in front of you so it is visible to others.

I’ve found this so far to be an extremely effective way to open up a dialogue with people.  It’s a great conversation starter.  My book of choice is Refactoring by Martin Fowler.  It has a nice big title (and is a cool word that intrigues people) and is large enough that the book can be seen from a distance.  I’ve taken this book into many different places and even carried it on the street so the title is visible and almost without fail will be approached by others to ask about what I’m reading.  Even bringing it into a cowboy bar downtown, I was approached by multiple people, one of which was a developer with their team and said how happy he was to see someone who knew who Martin Fowler was there.  I wound up handing out 3 cards that night.  Seriously, try this.  The key is that it attracts people who are either interested in technology or interested in people who are interested in technology because…maybe they need a website.

2. Find out if there are large conferences going on in your area, what hotel or area most of the attendees stay at, and make the rounds there.

This is a very effective way to look for clients because usually there will not only be attendees of the conference, but other business owners and representatives there that may need website work.  I’ve found you can strike up a conversation with many people involved in the event if you go to the hotel where most people stay and hang out there.  I recently attended the Stock Show in Denver and it proved to be a great place to meet business owners and people who might need website work done.

3. Go to venues that are related to an interest you have.

I love jazz and hearing live music, and it just so happens that other people do as well.  It may also be in the cards that one of these fellow music lovers may need a website or web development work.  Just by being in a place patronized by other people with a similar interest, I immediately have something in common with everyone there and an easy way to open up a dialogue and conversation which could potentially lead to meeting and working with a client.

4. Go to Meetups

Tech meetups are great for finding potential clients.  Particularly ones that focus on your areas of expertise or ones that are more social in nature than presentational.  I found one client going to a React meetup.  Usually at these meetups there will be a portion of time dedicated to letting people looking for developers make a quick announcement.  In this case, someone was looking for a React developer for their project and we exchanged information and have been collaborating ever since.  Another meetup in the Denver area, Denver Develop Happy Hour, is great for networking and meeting potential clients because it is entirely social in nature – there are no presentations or lectures, just a bunch of people in tech or interested in tech in one place hanging out and socializing.  I met another client looking for a developer for their project at this meetup.  Since I also play drums, I sometimes go to music jam meetups, so if you have another interest (i.e. hiking, painting, books etc.), then it may be worth it to go to those as well to not only meet people with similar interests and make new friends, but potentially meet new future clients.

5. Experimental: Find a venue hosting an open mic and put on a performance

If you can sing at all (or even if you can’t – it doesn’t matter since it’s an open mic and not a professional performance), or if you can do stand up maybe, find an open mic night and perform.  At the end of the  performance, if the owner or event host won’t get too mad, make a quick announcement that you are a web developer and invite anyone that needs help with their website to come talk with you.   This is a recent discovery and method I’m trying and going to keep experimenting with, but after putting on an A cappella performance at an open mic night, I realized that this provides you with the opportunity to essentially have a captive audience of everyone in the room.  Instead of having to make the rounds and find out who might be looking for your services, you can just ask literally everyone there in one fell swoop.

6. Look at Linkedin feeds and social media feeds

One day I just happened to see a post from someone looking for a developer for their project.  This was by accident initially, but now I actively look at social media feeds (especially Linkedin) in case someone posts a request for a developer they need for work.  Reddit also has a ForHire subReddit that is worth checking out.

How to Converse and Engage with Potential Clients:

Note: Some of these principles may be more effective outside of the context of a conference or networking event where the sole purpose is to network and the participants all possess or are looking for a particular skillset.   They might be more useful ‘in the field’ when you are looking for clients outside of the contexts mentioned above in more everyday situations (since as a freelancer, depending on your situation there may be times you have to look for clients more or less every day).  Also, it goes without saying that at some point you need to identify the problem a potential client has and offer ways you will solve it – that is a given and not the focus of this blog post.  The principles outlined below are more about how to start the dialogue with this person at all, which can be a pain-point for some people, and eventually get to that point in the conversation.

Key Principles:

  • Be Patient:  Often, just sitting and enjoying yourself without actively engaging others can work just fine and be a good baseline to operate on.  Good things come to those who wait –  I’ve found that if you are trying too hard to engage potential clients, it can look a little desperate or simply be inappropriate to bother people and so it can wind up turning people off.  Just being patient and observant (see below) and being relaxed makes you more approachable and usually this invites others to open a dialogue or at least doesn’t put them off.

 

  • Be Observant:  This is a sibling to the principle above (Be Patient).  You need to be able to sense when to engage with another person.  Sometimes, people may actually want others to engage with them and you’ll have to read body language and use your intuition to tell this – it can be fairly obvious (they constantly turn to look at you, or make comments out loud to nobody in particular about the venue or what’s playing on the TV).  This is usually an implicit invitation to engage in a dialogue with the person or a sign that they do not wish to be left alone, and you should seize this opportunity.  Make your responses to their comments or glances brief at first to test the waters, and then things should open up from there.  In addition, if you over hear someone nearby speaking about a common interest, then this is also an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about that interest – you’ll have to use your discretion on when to approach them about the subject so as not to interrupt.

 

  • Enjoy the Thrill of Taking a Risk and Exploring the Unknown: It goes without saying that not every conversation or engagement with a potential client will go well.  This should not be something to be feared, but embraced.  You need to enjoy the adventure and thrill of not knowing how things may turn out.  This is exciting – think of it as being like Indiana Jones going into the Temple of Doom (or pick your favorite hero) and daring to embark where others fear to tread dodging all sorts of booby traps and steamrolling boulders along the way.  You are an adventurer, like Lewis and Clark on an expedition to explore the unknown.  Even if there is danger of failure, you have to remember that there is the potential of wild success and the discovery of something great just as well.   I find it helpful to romanticize my excursions to find clients in this way.  For the most part, the worst that happens is an interesting conversation with someone you haven’t met.

 

  • Do Not Make a Pitch Initially or too Quickly: Making the pitch too quickly, or sometimes even at all turns people off and puts them on the defensive; Nobody likes pushy people and most are usually skeptical of salespeople.  I’ve found it much more effective to make having a genuinely enjoyable conversation and developing a genuine interest in the person you’re speaking with your goal, and then at some point along the way as the conversation progresses, usually you’ll wind up asking each other what you do for a living and that can open the door for mentioning your web development services.  They may need a website, or not, and respond accordingly.  If there is not explicit interest, then at least you’ve had an enjoyable conversation, maybe learned something new and you can tell them how much you enjoyed talking with them and casually hand them your card saying if they have any need in the future or know anyone who does, feel free to get in touch.  And they just might…

 

  • Find Topics of Common Interest to Talk About:This could be the kind of music you both enjoy, places you’ve been or traveled to, being curious about where they’ve lived, favorite foods or drinks, etc.  This typically should be the focus of the interaction.

 

  • Be Genuinely Interested in the Person You Are Speaking With:  This is probably the most important fundamental principle and idea to successfully engaging in conversation with others and potential clients.  At the end of the day, people actually are incredibly interesting, each like a complex Symphony with different perspectives and experiences from your own that you can learn from.  People are mind-bogglingly fascinating and realizing this is key to enjoying the process of taking part in and looking forward to opening up a dialogue.

Concrete Examples of Conversations I’ve had while looking for clients:

These are examples of actual conversations I’ve had while making the rounds looking for clients.  My hope is that they provide a real life example of how these dialogues can begin and give a feel for how one can start a connection with someone who may need your services. Some of the details of the conversation have been altered to make the parties involved anonymous.

  • At a venue watching a basketball game involving the Utah Jazz:
Potential Client: "So, who are you rooting for?"
Me who doesn't follow sports:  "The Utah Jazz, just because they have Jazz in their name."
Potential Client: "So you like Jazz?  Me, too.  Where can I go to hear some jazz around here?"
Me: "...[tells him where to go]"

And the conversation evolves from there during which a question of what each other does inevitably comes up.

  • This was during the Stock Show where I met a potential client in the Brown Palace needing work for his website.  He had sat down to order food and while he was waiting for the order to come out he seemed unoccupied and approachable, so I leaned over and asked:
Me:  "Are you involved with the stock show?"  
Potential Client: "Yeah, are you here for it? 
Me: "Yes..."
Potential Client:  "Did you go to the rodeo, you don't look like a rodeo rider... "
Me: "Definitely not.  I've just been checking things out since a couple I met recommended going to the Stock Show.  What are you involved with here?"
Potential Client: "I'm selling [supplies]..."

He then tells me about where he is from and being really curious about the place, I ask about what it’s like to live there and if there is a tech scene.  He tells me about it and then mentions that he has a website he is not quite happy with and might be able to use my help.

  • Again at the Stock Show speaking with an owner of a company that sells medical equipment.

I was sitting at the hotel bar waiting patiently and a gentleman comes up and orders a Scotch.  I thought it would be a good conversation starter if I ordered the same drink and then ask him how he liked that brand of Scotch to confirm that I made a good choice.   This starts a conversation about Scotch and I tell him about Bruichladdich which was recommended to me by a friend from Scotland years ago (just to be clear, I don’t make things up – I really had a Scottish friend recommend that Scotch to me).  He writes it down on a napkin which leads to a discussion about what we’re doing at the Stock Show.  I’ve found that telling people you are directly trying to find clients is not effective and has a similar effect to making a pitch too early.  Instead I tell him that a couple I met recommended I check the Stock Show out (which, again, is true).  We also spoke about where he was from, which was interesting to hear about.  Eventually he asked what I do and I was able to hand him a card at the end of an enjoyable conversation about Scotch and different parts of the country.

Conclusions:

  • Going to Meetups has proven to be a successful activity to engage in to find clients looking for freelance developers.  Don’t expect a hit every time, but persistently attending them could be worthwhile and lead to finding people looking for your skills and hiring you.
  • While the Meetups can be fruitful, going to hotel bars or restaurants where a large convention or conference is being held allows for more opportunity to meet established business owners that may need website work.
  • The most effective strategy for opening up a dialogue with people about Web Development and Programming is taking a book with you and making it visible to others nearby.  This is almost without fail a conversation starter and a great way to break the ice and converse with others who may need website work and could use your services.
  • People don’t like being given a pitch and are skeptical if you come out swinging directly trying to sell your services (this, of course, can depend on the context).  People do like having a good conversation (just like you do) and that should be the focus and goal.  You will find a much more receptive attitude towards you when you bring up web development in the course of the conversation.
  • I’ve found that going out ‘into the field’ and meeting people in person is the best way to find clients as a freelance web developer.   Online freelance sites like Upwork, etc. have proven to be ineffective and not fruitful.  Meeting as many people as you can and getting involved in the local scene seems to be the best way.

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