Finding new clients has got to be the toughest part of running a business for most people. It can feel like a lonely game and before you start it’s really hard to envisage where those first clients might come from and to have the faith that they will.
We asked over 100 business owners and freelancers on Twitter how they got their first clients.
(HINT: These are also a cracking bunch of people to hire, be inspired by and follow on Twitter).
1. During the first few months I was in business, I set myself the (admittedly arbitrary) target of sending 10 to 20 cold emails a day. That’s 100 emails a week. But I’d only get one or two replies. Most people I emailed never replied at all. But you know what? When it happens, it really happens. Hundreds of emails may have gone without a reply. But one single email generated £10K+ in business. If at first you don’t succeed keep going.
2. My first client came via a friend I worked with before maternity leave. She’d moved to a new job and recommended me to her boss.
3. First time around: I made the agency I worked for an offer to carry on working for them as a freelancer, handling the same clients. Second time around: I took a client with me when I left (with the agency’s blessing).
4. I was approached on LinkedIn by a marketing agency which led to some valuable learning curve-age on my part.
5. I began freelancing in 2008 (I think) when I was a lawyer, because I still wanted to write. Two clients were referred by friends, and another project I was hired for content through a printer/publisher I used to work with earlier. Since quitting law it’s mostly been referrals.
6. I was probably 15/16 doing it for fun and had people start asking “how much for…” This was in the MySpace golden years, I’m sure a lot of those around my age will have started a similar way and be grateful to @myspacetom.
7. Tip 1) A friend connected me to a client because he was too busy and wanted them to have ‘a safe pair of hands’. 2) Another friend who had an agency passed on a job because his writer was on paternity leave. 3) *Another* friend needed a hand on a project… Be nice. Be reliable. Make friends.
8. Tip 1) Someone emailed me on LinkedIn saying my profile was well-written and would I consider writing some stuff for them. That’s how I first left recruitment. 2) PeoplePerHour for a few basic projects, some confidence and a small folio. 3) Started cold emailing until someone bit.
9. A marketing friend gave me the opportunity to write for her agency. She knew my English teaching background and felt I had many of the skills required for the job. I’ll always be grateful to her – I didn’t even know copywriting was a thing!
10. My very first client was a previous boss. But the first brand new client found me through Twitter.
11. My first client was my previous employer who offered me a 12-month retainer upfront. Thanks to an industry event I attended with that client, I met others who offered me work. It went from there.
12. The first one was via a friend who’s girlfriend worked at an estate agent. The second one was via a friend who was already a freelancer who passed me some overflow work. Worked for one of the clients for over 10 years and the other one is still going after 12!
13. I plumbed my professional network because I figured it would be easier to heat up a warm lead than to go in cold. The rest were won through cold pitching.
14. Emailed a local copywriting agency and asked for crumbs. Was then recommended to an aerospace PR agency and, yep, pretty crummy crumbs. But taught me how to write about the dullest of subjects. While crying.
15. Upwork. I was travelling in east Indonesia and met a life coach on the platform. I moved to Bali to write her content (ultimate cliche) and it went from there. My second, third and fourth clients were her mates.
16. First rodeo: signed up to a content mill and flogged my guts out until I gave up and got an in-house role. Second rodeo: told everyone I’d ever met I was going freelance and got lovely referrals from friends and former colleagues.
17. Posted about my new business on Facebook (which felt REALLY awkward), and one of my old school friends happened to work in a marketing agency and happened to need a health writer. Perfect first start!
18. Like many others it was Upwork – years ago! But that first client ended up generating repeat work and referrals. The pay at the time was hardly worth the effort but it’s since led to better paid work.
19. First one was a plumber friend who wanted to update the content on his website and revitalise his social media presence. He knew I had the experience from other jobs I’d done and took a punt on me. Worked out fine! Then a mix of networking, cold-calling and referrals.
20. My first client was my previous employer. However, my real first client, I secured through cold emails, which I have found surprisingly fruitful.
21. For my first stint in freelancing, five years ago, I was applying for a totally different job! They saw I had copywriting experience and invited me in to talk about that instead. I suppose that was lucky. More recently, my first freelancing writing work came through agencies where I’d previously worked. Always good to stay in touch.
22. Twitter, LinkedIn, Slack and FB groups, former clients, former employers, speaking at events, networking in general.
23. I basically trawled through the internet for eight+ hours a day, applying for anything and everything that caught my eye (within my industry or related to it).
24. My first client was the company I’d worked for as an employee for 15 years. I left when they were taken over and I didn’t like the new terms. They needed someone to finish a project and didn’t have time to handle a new starter, so it made sense all round. I’ve not been back since.
25. Tip 1) Sold agency. A new agency moved into the old premises. “Hello”. 2) Intro from a past colleague. 3) Old client from my Creative Director days. 4) The agency I sold to needed help. 5) Via recruiter. 6) Found me on LinkedIn. 7) Freelancer I used to employ needed help. 8) Recommended by client number two.
26. ProBlogger, it was a cloud gaming software company based in Poland.
27. LinkedIn. More than 10 years ago. Sent out cold emails/messages and got three clients. Since then, I’ve only been working with these three clients (and their referrals), even as they moved from one company to the next.
28. My mentor @kaleighf recommended me!
29. Luck. I just started out and a mutual friend recommended me to a few people.
30. First clients were all companies I had worked in-house at previously, I contacted them when I went freelance to see if they needed help and it turned into a few decent jobs. I also got a few referrals from people I’d worked with at various roles in the past!
31. My first client was the agency I’d previously worked for as I always make the point to leave on good terms. I then got another lead from the Freelance Heroes Facebook group, answering a question someone had and replying to their direct message.
32. Referral by a dear friend and former colleague.
33. My first client was through LinkedIn. All subsequent ones have been through contacts or recommendations.
34. I asked people I knew – and also went to a networking group for freelancers. I started my business on day one with three clients.
35. Upwork – don’t hate me!
36. My first ever client was a course mate in uni who knew I wrote stories and asked if I could help her with her personal statement for school applications. I no longer do that but that was the first time I got paid for my writing.
37. I was a YouTuber making short films! It led to a long term video editing client that was most of my income from 2011 to 2016. First marketing client was a referral in 2016.
38. I attended networking events at the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce and clicked with people over coffee. This led to a couple of projects and also invites to other networking opportunities that brought me work.
39. I used PeoplePerHour, one of my first jobs is now a client who continually refers me for work, which is great. I used the work I created as a portfolio to cold pitch and have also had a few organic finds from people filling out my website’s ‘contact me’ page… a mixed bag!
40. We had built a base of relationships that we believed would transition as we started our firm. As we launched, we also were deliberate in promotion and in leveraging our networks in sectors where we knew we had high visibility.
41. Twitter! I announced I was going freelance and listed the services I was offering in the tweet (pinned to my profile). From that, clients started getting in touch. I’ve found it invaluable.
42. I am no longer freelance but when I was I got my first client by reaching out to contacts I knew and asking if they needed any help.
43. A recommendation from a contact I made via Facebook, which then led to three additional referrals. A handful via Instagram. Several via Upwork (though it can take a while to find the good opportunities!) And the agency I used to work for – I left on good terms.
44. I was on a spin bike and told my training buddy I was starting out as a Coach. They hired me on the spot.
45. I get 90% of my clients through networking. I’m also now working with other freelancers and consultants who pull me and my team in on projects or refer me.
46. 1. My brother. 2. Upwork. 3. Local business club. 4. Thank you card after a networking event.
47. My first client was through a personal connection. They wanted someone who could write and knew about running, and I fit the bill. The right person in the right place at the right time.
48. I posted on LinkedIn the day I went freelance. Within five minutes I had someone asking if I wanted to join their team of freelancers. My network has been invaluable.
49. Recommendation by a close friend because of the kind of corporate job I was doing at the time.
50. I did pro-Bono work to showcase my skills.
51. I naturally transitioned from the newsroom to pitching trade publications and regional newspapers. I already knew what it took to grab attention with that first opening line. Now cold pitching is my favourite way to get new clients!
52. Word of mouth and recommendations from my network.
53. Through agency contacts – all work which for one reason or another the agency could not take on (too small client budget, not enough capacity, etc.).
54. My close network of fellow marketers. I let them know I’d be freelancing soon and they immediately recommended me to potential leads. I signed my first contract before wrapping up things at my former job.
55. I took an old client for lunch and told them I was setting up my own agency and would they like to come (back in 1999).
56. I put up an ad on Kijiji (Canada’s eBay) which included my rates and list of all my skills and a link to my blog and I got flooded with messages. Some of them were paying customers in the end and some of them weren’t.
57. I got my first client from LinkedIn.
58. LinkedIn and leveraging the network I had.
59. Facebook groups. Someone at a very large tech company needed writers and I convinced her to hire me regardless of my lack of experience in the niche. Have since worked with five different teams at that company and they’re still one of my regular clients.
60. Did an internship from Indeed with a dude who liked to start companies. Started getting paid and introduced to his peers and it took off from there.
61. I was recommended to a company of big brain-computer guys as someone who could help translate what they did so everyone could understand. I had never thought of copywriting as a career before then.
62. Old employers/colleagues. Without them, I would have never gone freelance.
63. I worked as a coach at an HR firm. Two days after I quit the firm, an HR director who knew my work from the firm called and asked if I was doing private coaching. She hired me to coach her husband. He landed a job and spread the news to other dads who brought their kids to dance class. At first, it was husbands and dads. I posted those stories and other ideas on LinkedIn and demand grew.
64. I failed a job interview for a marketing role; they then hired me as a freelance blog writer a couple of months after!
65. I started a blog about topics in my domain; followed and commented on colleagues’ content; ran a live “learning lab” event that oversold. From all this, the referrals, enquiries and targeted outreach all gained traction. Now: a team of seven partners.
66. Picked up the phone. Cold called.
67. Cold email pitch. I had seen they were looking for writers on a job board, then I cold pitched the content lead over email instead of applying through the job board.
68. Cold pitched a bunch of tech and finance brands that had landed venture capital funding. Obviously, I did a load of research first.
69. Word of mouth (still works for me four years later).
70. I told a friend who was starting a new business and she said, “I’ll be your first client!” From there, networking events.
71. Followed me from my last agency and two were former clients at top brands. I will never forget those in particular… women helping women.
72. For one client, a few of us used their service and thought their marketing was terrible so sent them an idea. Turned into a massive account from a simple email.
73. A Facebook post, which led to some small initial jobs. Then I got stuck into Elance just before it became Upwork. Not sure that would be my recommendation for people starting out, though. Especially if they’re going into a new field. The more I’ve tried platforms – particularly ‘premium’ ones – the less convinced I am about the benefits.
74. My then-employer became my first client. I wanted to branch out, but everyone involved acknowledged the value I bring to the table. We agreed that I would continue to create content for them on an outsourced, freelance basis.
75. A friend called to say she’d heard about a start-up business shopping around for agencies. So I called them. I told them I was setting up a shop and I needed the first client and that if they wanted attention lavished on them by an agency trying to make a name we were it. We worked with them for 10 years until they sold to a US energy business.
76. My first editing client was found through a cold email pitch. My first content writing client was through Upwork.
77. My ex-boss! I told him I was freelancing on the side (before I left) and he introduced me to a friend who was looking for content writing services.
78. Someone read my blog and then asked me if I could write for a friend’s startup.
79. I worked with a lot of agencies at first. I’d already had experience in agencies and had interviewed for a company I was dying to work for. I didn’t get the position but asked if I could freelance for them instead. They let me, then referred me to others. After that, I cold emailed, used my network, and started engaging in groups for entrepreneurs and business owners… and on Quora.
80. I worked for many years in the non-profit space and started by chatting with my network. Found out where non-profits were down a writer and pitched them. Worked like a charm and I got four clients that way.
81. This was a good 20 years ago, but I made a list of companies I wanted to work for and cold-called the marketing departments. It was a slog, but I got one client out of it – a tourism bureau – and I worked for them as a freelancer for over a decade.
82. Here on Twitter. Responded to a tweet about a need for “website copy teardown”.
83. Trustee of an organisation linked to the one I was leaving heard I was going freelance and approached me to see how I might be able to help them. Since then the majority of my clients have found me by word of mouth or recommendations from others I have worked with.
84. 1. Someone I tried to recruit – refused my offer but we stayed in touch. 2. I was a client previously – I left my organisation and he got promoted in his. 3. We were both participants in a slightly weird, eyes shut immersive experience! Nice to reflect on this.
85. Content marketing Slack groups! Not only are they the people usually hiring but they’re also people who believe in the value of great writers.
86. I was in a shared workspace and put a lot of interesting content in their Slack channels. The founder approached me and wondered if I’d be interested in running a newsletter for them. “idk, sure??” The next client came from someone who read that.
87. I was known in my industry as someone who would speak about various topics under Information Governance and I was approached from word of mouth recommendation. I then set up as a sole trader in order to be paid for work and also to represent myself not the organisation I worked for.
88. I got my first clients by writing on spec: 1.) found a client I’d like to write for. 2.) came up with an article idea I thought they could benefit from. 3.) pitched them the article. They liked it, published it and gave me more business. No school like the old school.
89. I got my first clients (as That. Content. Shed.) by responding to LinkedIn posts of people looking for copywriters. I’d reply with a quirky comment, send a connection request with a short message, get their email address and email them. So, a warm pitch rather than a cold one.
90. Based on a referral from a friend who studied abroad. He linked me up with a friend he made while schooling abroad.
91. First client was an IT business that worked in the same building as my first job after uni… They heard I was doing some product description writing downstairs so hooked me in. In retrospect, I wasn’t paid too badly for it, which is lucky because I had no clue about all that. After that, a mixture of businesses in the shared workspace I’ve used from the beginning and some local in-person networking.
92. Our first client came when we pitched a top University, a little product we’d developed for in-house problem solving alongside our main pitch of a complex creative solution. They poo-pooed the creative solution, but loved the engagement tool: that day @doopoll was born!
93. I’d been working for Kodak and I went back to old Kodak clients and they hired me to write press releases. MANY cold calls. MANY. Got a hospital marketing director on the line… exhausted and needed help finishing an annual report. That gig led to other healthcare writing gigs.
94. In 1994, my wife returned from work after a presentation from a design agency and said ‘you could do better than them’. I had no design experience. She set it up with her boss. I phoned a mate with a Mac. We pitched some bonkers ideas and got a year contract. Been in business since.
95. A stroke of good timing. Just as I went it alone, someone I knew had landed a big project. They needed help with the writing, and I bit their hand off. A team of three writers grew, and it kept me busy for three or four months.
96. Instagram. They messaged me off the back of showing up with helpful, valuable content and looking like I had a finger on the pulse. (Their words not mine btw. I’d never say “finger on the pulse”, certainly not about myself.)
97. My first client came courtesy of an agency that I approached to develop my website. The agency boss liked my ‘fewer words more meaning’ tagline and offered me a huge website copy gig. It was a scary plunge into the deep end that worked. Since then it’s been pretty much word of mouth.
98. My first two clients were my old employers and a referral from a friend. Next up after that a random LinkedIn connection.
99. I actually used freelancing platforms like Fiverr and Upwork to build my portfolio. I would never encourage new freelancers to continue on these types of platforms for longer than they have to. There are really more cons than pros. I think freelancing platforms are great for building your portfolio but shouldn’t be relied on for clients on a long-term basis.
100. First client from a chat in a sauna. Then recommendations.
101. A friend of mine recommended me to a publishing company.
102. I tried my hand at cold emails and won my first two clients. I then approached agencies, set up meetings with them and told them how I could help them and their clients. That was the best move I ever made.
103. I was nice/honest to people.
104. My Mam’s hairdresser! What started as an “Alex, do you do this?” has led to about £4K worth of work over the past year.
105. Upwork (Back then, Elance). I read erotic eBooks and reviewed them for $5. Low payment, priceless experience. It helped me understand that there was room in the freelancing world for anyone with an idea. I know all 50 shades of freelancing.
106. Getting my first client was a big milestone. Probably one of the hardest ones. I’m a Data Research Analyst and after doing lots of research, I decided to create my website Free-Hotspot.com and build my online presence. I was hoping that search engines would pick my site up and send me free traffic. Unfortunately, it was not the case in the beginning. So what I did was to join different forums in my industry that had a “advertise your business here” section. After earning some money, I continued to invest in my website. Other great free methods are Facebook, Upwork (for freelancers only) and Pinterest.