Times are tight for many people, and freelancing is a great option if you want to make a little money on the side or start building professional tech experience. Take it from Kyle Prinsloo, a web developer from South Africa who taught himself to code and launched a successful freelancing business in 2015. “If you’re looking to make $1,000, $2,000, or $3,000 on the side — that’s really doable and realistic,” Kyle says. “It might even turn into a full-time job.”
But whether you’re a web developer or a data scientist, finding clients can be tough — even if you have all the marketable skills. How do you get people’s attention without being spammy? Should you follow up, and if so, how many times? Kyle faces these questions every day in Freelance Fam, his online community for freelance web designers. Ahead, he shares some of the key takeaways from his experience that can help you get better at pitching yourself as a freelancer, so you can find new leads and reach your goals.
Work with what you have (and learn the rest)
There are any number of reasons why you might put off reaching out to your first client. Your portfolio website, your LinkedIn profile, your pitch templates — everything’s got to be perfect. We get it. But the longer you wait, the more money you’re leaving on the table. “If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll get nothing done,” Kyle says. “Start, learn, figure it out as you go, and adapt.”
Sometimes you just have to get the ball rolling. In Kyle’s early days as a freelancer, he didn’t have any design skills when he pitched wireframes to a client, so he winged it on PowerPoint. The client loved what he presented, and the connection enabled him to keep finding work and expanding his offerings.
As a freelancer, anytime you learn a new skill you’re also creating new income streams. Today, there are tons of online courses you can take to pick up any technical skills you may need to learn on the fly. For example, you can learn how to build wireframes in our free course Introduction to UI and UX Design.
Find a personal approach
Figuring out how to stand out from the competition can be tricky. According to Kyle, sending an email blast offering your services for low prices to everyone you know isn’t a sustainable approach for long term success. “Check your spam, you probably have two or three of those random, cold outreach emails that were probably sent to a million people today,” he says. “Don’t do that.”
Instead, cultivate a list of 10 to 20 potential clients and create targeted, personalized outreach messages. Jot down a couple notes on why you want to work with them and how, specifically, you could help their business. For example, if you’re a web developer, you could go through a client’s existing websites and brainstorm potential improvements.
Kyle uses the video-recording software Loom to send short videos to potential clients. “Here’s a short, two-minute video of my suggestions,” Kyle says in the Loom videos. “No obligations, but if you’d like to chat further, I’m happy to help.” With this strategy, he suggested improvements that a content creator could make to their landing page, and he was able to land a $2,500 retainer.
But don’t force it. If you have to wrack your brain trying to come up with an enticing package for a client, it might just be better to move on to the next. “If you can’t find anything you can improve, they’re not an ideal client,” Kyle says.
Even the best sales pitch won’t always get a response on the first try. People are busy, and if they aren’t expecting your email, they may not even see it. You don’t want to be overbearing, but you do want to maximize your visibility. “If you don’t follow up, you’re losing out on leads,” Kyle says. “Sometimes you need to follow up five, six, or seven times before they say yes.”
Your follow ups should be a condensed version of your pitch; highlight the key points of your proposition and include potential next steps (e.g., setting up a phone call or meeting). How long you should wait before following up depends on who you ask, but generally, you should increase the time increments between each message. With AI tools like ChatGPT, crafting follow up emails is a breeze, even if you aren’t a strong writer. Check out our free case study Write a Sales Outreach Email with ChatGPT to learn how.
You don’t want to waste your time continuing to reach out if it’s clear you’re not going to get a response, but also remember that silence isn’t necessarily a “no.” If emails aren’t moving the needle, maybe folks would prefer a phone call or face-to-face meeting.
Pitch on- and off-platform
Freelancers often debate between using platforms like Fiverr and reaching out to people cold on social media and email. Both have their own pros and cons:
- Freelancing platforms make it easier to find clients (and for clients to find you), but they also take a percentage of your earnings, and it might be discouraged to take your relationship with your client off-platform.
- Finding good leads is harder when you’re doing it yourself — especially for new freelancers who are still building a platform — and it can be harder to get a client’s attention when they aren’t actively looking for your services.
But Kyle suggests that it isn’t an either-or scenario because both options can lead to additional opportunities. For example, Kyle found his first client on a freelancer platform, and went from making website analytics reports to suggesting website improvements and building an entire marketing package. “This $5 turned into over $10,000 from my very first client purely because of the upsells and referrals to their different friends and businesses,” he says.
Bolster your sales packages
Learning tangential skills is a great way to earn more money as a freelancer. Not only can it help you stand out from the crowd, but you can also help your clients advance their goals with more holistic sales packages. For example, if you’re a web developer, Kyle suggests learning about conversion rate optimization, A/B testing, and search engine optimization (SEO). “You can’t just wing it; you really need to know what an effective website looks like,” he says. “Even a simple thing like changing a layout, adding a video, or changing pricing tiers can make a major difference to conversions.”
Need some inspo? Take a look at our course catalog and start learning in-demand, marketable skills that can bolster your freelance offerings.
Qualify your leads
Qualifying your leads means figuring out how likely an entity is to become a client. Do a little research to get a sense of your compatibility — keep an eye out for indications of growth or decline (e.g., are they marketing new services or putting out ads for new hires?).
And as you grow as a freelancer and clients start reaching out to you, there are a few questions you can ask to determine whether the project is worth undertaking. For example, do your skills align with their business needs? Is there potential to build a more long-term relationship? Are they likely to have the budget to meet your rate? “Pricing is a good thing because it’s such a crucial topic, and it can qualify your leads to help you find ideal clients as well,” Kyle says. “What I usually say is ‘our minimum engagement is X per month; we don’t consider anything else.”
Cultivating your potential clients helps you avoid wasting time on unlikely pitches and maintain healthy work boundaries, which becomes crucial as you take on more clients. Freelancing offers the flexibility to pick and choose the clients you’ll take on, and over time, you’ll develop preferences and carve out your niche. Qualifying leads also helps prevent scope creep, which is what happens when the work involved in a project gradually grows beyond the original parameters, Kyle says.
Build the skills you need to start freelancing
If you’re looking for a side hustle in tech and starting from scratch, you can learn all the skills you need to start pitching to clients in our career paths. For example, our Full-Stack Engineer career path will teach you the ins and outs of front-end and back-end development so you can build fully-functional, aesthetic websites and applications.
And remember that it’s not just about the technical stuff. Freelancing hinges on building quality, valuable client relationships, so you’ll need strong people skills too. If you want to learn how to build the soft skills you’ll need to succeed in your career, sign up for the last of our soft skills series — and if you missed the previous ones, Codecademy Pro/Plus members can watch the recording here.