The question I get asked most frequently, hands-down is, “Where do you find your freelance clients?” Today, freelancers and consultants are becoming more common, thanks to our friend the internet. I used to get mad seeing the number of people seeking web or graphic designers (compared to industrial designers). After struggling to find opportunities, I changed my strategy. So far, I’ve been able to support myself purely from my freelance earnings. I believe you can as well if you’re willing to put in the work.
Disclaimer: In this article, I’m being 100% transparent. I’m sharing what I’ve done because it’s worked to a certain degree for me. You might try and model what I’ve done and find that it doesn’t work for you. I hope that’s not the case, but I can’t promise you’ll find high-paying freelance clients over night. I can promise some results though, all of which should help you establish authority, advance your career and reputation as a designer. Alright, let’s dig in.
Remember the last time you looked for a freelance industrial design or product design job? How’d that work out for ya? If you’re like me, it ended with you wanting to punch out your computer monitor and crawl back in bed. My advice to you is to stop looking and focus on being found. This sounds passive and outside of your control, but I’ll explain why it’s a better use of your time. Looking for gigs is not a bad thing. However, the scarcity of legit industrial design jobs listed as ‘freelance', ‘telecommuting okay', ‘satellite' or ‘contract’ are few and far between, so I feel that it’s a waste of time after my search yields no results.
If I had a crystal ball and knew where those looking to hire a freelance product designer would first look, that’s where you’d find me hanging out. Since we don’t have a crystal ball, I (and you) need to be visible on the most popular networks. Before you say, “But Will, my portfolio is already online!” Is your portfolio easy to find when someone searches ‘freelance industrial designer’ in google? Or better yet, how many people are on the website your portfolio is hosted searching for freelance product designers? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but when you place yourself in the shoes of a professional seeking your services, things change a bit.
Since I’ve focused on increasing my visibility in the right places and stopped trying to chase product design jobs, all my freelance work has come to me, not the other way around. So, how can you do this?
Where do you need to be seen in order to be contacted by someone looking to hire an industrial designer? I’ll discuss my favorite networks and provide some reasons why. The best place to be seen is the place that works for you. Depending on your work and the size of your network, you may find you get results from places I do not.
I have the most luck with LinkedIn. There are three reasons for this.
- It’s (supposed to be) a professional network. Your next client is likely somewhere on LinkedIn. How much success will you have trying to sell life insurance to a 15 year-old? None. What about selling life insurance to high-net-worth people in their late 50s who have kids? You’re selling your services, so your ideal audience needs to be nearby, or your portfolio or profile won’t do any work for you.
- High visibility. Its search algorithm rewards those with many connections. Basically, the more people you’re connected to, the more frequently you show up in LinkedIn’s search results. (I can dive into this on a later article)
- I’m very active on LinkedIn and have a complete profile. This matters a lot for ranking, and SEO within LinkedIn as well as google searches.
LinkedIn works for me because it’s where my audience is and I enjoy LinkedIn. I’ve been active on it for a long time and have somewhere around 4,000 first-degree-connections and am followed by 4,300+ people. I use LinkedIn both as a resume and a vehicle for social proof.
I have gotten a handful of leads and a couple of jobs from people who found me on Behance. Here’s why Behance is good for finding leads.
- It puts the focus on your work. Behance is a portfolio-hosting network. Your design work can be experienced and viewed in a way that does your work justice.
- Behance has lots of high-traffic. There are tons of users, all designers or other creative types. It’s also become a large enough network to be recognized by some potential clients as a place to find designers-for-hire. Know though, that you have lots of competition on this network, which can work against you.
- SEO. When I google my name without any other key words, the top result is my Behance page. Google seems to like Behance. Knowing this, I may be tempted to add a few key words to my Behance profile such as freelance, consultant etc.
Behance recently got upgraded and your work can be viewed much larger than the dated 600-pixel-wide max. This is a huge improvement, but means that you need to go back in and update old projects if you want them to be viewed in a wider format. Behance may not be my favorite network, but I have gotten leads and jobs from it. So it’s not to be ignored.
As much as this makes me wince, I need to talk about it. I got my first freelance gig from advertising my services on Craig’s List. I was lucky that my first client was easy to work with and referred me to another, who I’ve worked with for nearly 2 years now. Here’s why Craig’s List is worth some thought.
- Wide audience. Craig’s List is a huge search engine. Unfortunately, leads aren’t very targeted or qualified and are usually looking for cheap labor. That doesn’t mean you can’t educate a lead and get some nice compensation from your work.
- Easy to grow your visibility. I tried posting my ads in every top city in America, such as LA, NYC, Austin, Chicago, etc. This isn’t against the rules and will allow you to play the ‘numbers’ game. More leads means higher chance of one of them being quality.
- Decent way to display design work. Craig’s List has a nice format that allows viewers to see your work and simply navigate from thumbnail-to-thumbnail while reading your ‘pitch’ below or along side your images. I find it to be a nice, concise way to advertise. And it’s free.
So, not as qualified leads, but with such high traffic it’s not a bad place to be. More and more companies are using Craig’s List for job postings. I was surprised but pleased when I got good results with posting on CL. And they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If it works, keep on doing it.
Other good websites
I do have limited time, and will be the first to admit that I’m not in as many places as I should be. I can always be doing better. And while I’m not necessarily on all of these, here are some other recommendations for places to get leads and freelance or consulting product design or industrial design jobs.
- Coroflot - This is an older network and mostly geared to industrial designers. It’s probably the place you’ll find the most qualified leads (other than LinkedIn). I don’t have any work on Coroflot now, but I know plenty of designers get traffic from being on this network.
- Your Website - I also don’t have a personal website up right now (it’s in progress). Your website should make it apparent that you do freelance work and it should encourage visitors to reach out to you. It should also be effortless to reach you from your website.
- Dribbble - I’ve really never worked with this platform, but know that some do. I believe it’s mostly geared to 2d (web and graphic) designers. Still, the more places you can be, the better.
- Tumblr - Any personal blog is good, but Tumblr seems to be a pretty powerful network. It encourages ‘reblogging’, which means, if your work gets reblogged many times, it can ‘going viral’ without effort on your behalf.
- Pinterest - Gone are the days Pinterest is seen as a place for thirty-something scrapbookers. It’s a massive search engine and image repository. It allows people to curate your work if they like it and free traffic is another massive perk of this network.
All the Time
The internet is a beautiful thing. It’s working for you (hopefully not against you) around the clock. It seems obvious, but consider that we need sleep and can only talk with and shake hands on such a limited basis. The internet is available to everyone world-wide all the time. To any business-minded person, this sounds like a golden tool, that many of us take for granted or forget about. It’s there and practically free. So use it!
If you’ve ever been spoken at by a homeless person, you probably gave yourself permission to ignore him, humor him, walk away, or use some other tactic to not take him seriously. Now, what if the same homeless person was introduced to you as the creator of 5 multi-million-dollar businesses, the holder of a P.H.D., an author of a best-selling book and a philanthropic entrepreneur. You’d probably become curious to hear how he became homeless and what he has to say.
Without giving someone you’ve never met a reason to pay attention to you, it’s tough to get them to hire you. I mentioned before that I use LinkedIn for social proof. It’s got testimonials from previous clients, samples of my work, articles I’ve written, jobs I’ve had and links to my portfolio and a website I run. Since I’m not there to speak for myself and nobody is going to introduce me, I use my online profiles to do that. Your online presence should make you seem credible and be all about how you can help the person visiting your page.
An occasional post that mentions you’re a designer, or a portfolio that’s hidden under years of digital internet-dust won’t cut it. In order to build trust with any audience, they need to see that you’re on your grind. Let them know what you’re working on whenever it’s interesting, or possible. This doesn’t mean posting what you ate for lunch, but perhaps a glimpse into your sketchbook, or latest CAD model. Offer some tips whenever possible. Regular and frequent posting will force you into the forefront of your audience’s mind, which is like free marketing. If you’ve got a good relationship with your audience, they will be eager to speak of you. As your audience grows as well as your relationship with them, a wider net is cast. You should be on the receiving end of more questions, leads and opportunities as you become an authority and leader in the space.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but if you know something that others don’t, you should teach them. By posting a simple ‘how-to’, you can bring value to others as well as build authority. When a potential client sees you teaching others within your field, they see you as qualified to perform a design task.
Show Your Work!
Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon is a fantastic book that will get you started with marketing yourself in a way that doesn’t feel sleazy or pushy. I used this book’s tips and saw great results. Many artists and designers are terrible at and hate the idea of ‘selling’ themselves or their work. It’s why many of us are constantly undervaluing our work and not getting paid enough. I highly recommend this book. It’s cheap, so make sure you pick up a copy if you’re serious about increasing your exposure. Buy it on Amazon.
Authority, by Nathan Barry is all about how to successfully write and launch a product that leads to insane revenues as well as helps you establish yourself as an expert. He and others have followed his own formula to success and earned over $30,000. It’s a quick read and really walks you through the process. If you enjoy writing and I’ve convinced you that writing about what you do will help you build authority and gain clients then I can’t recommend enough that you buy and read Nathan Barry’s Authority. Buy it on Amazon.
Whether you’re looking to find your first freelance client, increase your leads or our online presence, the above websites are a great place to either start or optimize. Remember, you need to be easy to find, easy to trust and easy to reach. Make the lead confident that you’re the right designer for the job. Get your leads on the phone and close the deal.