I suck at networking. But nearly all of my clients are from recommendations and word of mouth, not self-promotion.
I’ve been a self-employed marketing consultant and writer since May 2018.
If you asked me what I thought about freelancing before then, I’d tell you that I didn’t want to starve. Being freelance sounded so… difficult.
When I quit my job, I was planning on taking another full-time role. But when I received several job offers at once and was freaking out about which one to choose, I realized I could try to balance them as consulting clients. Huh.
It all seemed so alien. “Do people really do this?” “Could I make this work?”
Over the previous few years, I had defined career success as reaching the top of a great company and achieving the other metrics of achievement that we’re all meant to want — money, house, office, status (right?)
But now I was throwing that away and had to redefine my idea of success.
I also had to make it work, or I’d be right back in an office looking fairly stupid.
First up, a confession: I suck at networking. I struggled with career progression and winning over the right people at my last job because I have high-functioning autism (more on that another day, when I eventually summon the courage to talk about it).
But despite being so damn awkward, I had built up some good relationships. There were a few people who liked my work and respected my opinions and who I was.
These were the people I worked with at the beginning — and who I’m still working with now. Because of these clients and their recommendations, I haven’t had to go all-in marketing myself to get new clients, even if doing so would’ve boosted my income.
My clients have come from my network, but I haven’t had to do my idea of what networking should be (a terrifying thing, quite frankly).
After I started on the freelance road, here’s how I got those all-important first 10 clients.
#1. [May 2018] My previous boss hired me
As soon as I went freelance, one of my previous managers hired me for several small marketing projects. He’d worked closely with me before, liked my work, and reached out to see if I had availability. Yep, I definitely do.
#2. [June 2018] My friend recommended me to her friend
After I decided to quit my job, a close friend recommended me to her friend who happened to be hiring for a content marketing role. I’d love to! That gave me 3 months of work at 20%, paying €2000/month.
#3. [June 2018] Someone found my blog on Google
I was hired for a writing project after a project manager found my travel writing online. She reached out to ask about a specific topic they wanted covered — and shortly afterward, I was paid several thousand € to go on a two-day hike and write about it. Why didn’t I do this before?
#4. [June 2018] I did a small piece of work for a company I’d applied for a full-time role with
When I was thinking of leaving my office job, I applied for quite a few full-time roles. One of these resulted in some small writing projects after I turned down a full-time offer. The pay wouldn’t let me do front crawl in a sea of banknotes, but it was decent (€500/article).
#5. [June 2018] Someone I’d worked with at my last company hired me
I then got my first big project: a new brand and website for a business someone I knew was launching. It took me just over a month to finish everything up, but I was able to juggle two other clients around it while waiting for feedback and design iterations.
#6. [August 2018] I was recommended for consulting work at a sister company of my last employer
Three months after I went freelance, I started working with a company I’d help out for the next year. I was tasked with ironing out their business operations and then helping them to scale. I had a few site visits, but most of this was done remotely.
#8. [September 2018] A business contact wanted a project like client #5’s
Next came a website and branding project for another new company, just like my fifth client. In the following year, I did quite a lot of recurring work for them.
#7. [January 2019] A family friend hired me to re-do their website
Quite conveniently, I’ve known someone since I was a kid who has a business in my niche (travel tech). After I went self-employed, we decided it was a fine time to do some work together, especially as he needed some marketing first-aid. I created a new website for his company and have done recurring work with him since, including new website pages and advice on scaling his business.
#9. [January 2019] I was recommended in a Facebook group by client #1
I haven’t really marketed myself on social media since going freelance, for better or worse. Despite that, I have had some previous clients talking about my work and recommending me in their networks. This has only turned into one paying client, who I did some content writing for followed by brand and website audits.
#10. [February 2019] A friend I’d previously worked with hired me
One of my main clients right now is a company that one of my friends is working at. They needed support with content writing and thought I could help them. Since early this year, this client has provided about 30–40% of my workload.
After those first ten clients, the same trends continue and my last few clients have included more of the same. That is:
- Previous colleagues recommending or hiring me
- Friends recommending me to their friends who are hiring
- Happy clients referring me to their friends and contacts
There have been some exceptions, including recurring writing work after I negotiated an offer through We Work Remotely (I have another of those in my pipeline too). I also got one client from AngelList, working with a CEO who was familiar with some of my previous work.
But as much as I hate to admit it, most of my work has come from my network. Now, that doesn’t mean dinners and drinks and canapés. God no.
My version of networking? Creating visible results in my work, whether in a full-time role or side projects, and keeping in touch. When they or a friend need similar work done, they know who to call.
This has been much more effective than I could’ve expected — and it hasn’t required much extra work or painful social niceties.
Going forward, here’s my philosophy for getting more clients:
- Producing the best possible results for all clients, big and small
- Asking for testimonials and actually sharing them (I need to get so much better at this)
- Sharing projects and updates on LinkedIn, so my business network knows what I’m doing
- Sharing business updates, struggles, and wins on my personal social media
- Occasionally checking We Work Remotely and AngelList for exciting work
- Keeping my website updated with projects and testimonials
- Refining my messaging and getting clearer on what I do, so people know how to explain my work to others (work in progress)
- Writing more about my self-employment journey on Medium
- Posting on my website and Medium about marketing, writing, and building a great brand
My main lesson learned? That my company of one is just like any other business — and word of mouth recommendations will always be my most powerful marketing tool.