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Working From Home: How Do You Find Clients?

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Note: This is a post from Joan Otto, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.

A couple of weeks ago, when I shared some things I love about working from home, I had questions in the comments in two particular areas. The first was simple – what can you do as work-at-home work, and how do you transition your skills into that set? I addressed that a couple of weeks ago in this post.

The other was a little more detailed and involved how to find freelance clients, deal with “droughts” and irregular income, and so on.

I’d like to talk about those business angles of freelancing and working from home today. I don’t pretend to be any kind of an expert; I’m hoping, though, that sharing my story about how I make freelancing work will spark ideas, discussion and more questions in the comments.

How do you find freelance clients?

This is the biggest question I am asked when people hear that I freelance full-time.

How do I find clients? Through my network. This is not exciting advice. I’m pretty sure everyone ever who talks about entrepreneurship and freelancing says this.

Sorry. That’s the short answer, the long answer, and everything in between. I’m not sure I’ve ever found a client “outside” my normal day-to-day life.

  • I started working with the Bakers here at Man Vs. Debt because I was a regular reader of the site. While I wasn’t “working” with them, we were connected via comments, interactions in You Vs. Debt and so on.
  • When I needed leave my full-time job as a newspaper editor, I was able to first work part-time and then freelance for approximately the same number of hours. The job has changed somewhat, but because I’m in the company’s network, I’m a “known quantity” for new work as it arrives.
  • Another steady piece of work I have, providing helpdesk support for a WordPress plugin, came because the plugin’s developer and I were both contractors together for another client and developed a good working relationship.
  • The websites I’ve designed and managed are all via people I know in other areas – a side project for my tae kwon do instructor, a site for one boss’s wife’s business, a site for the church another boss attends, work for other homeschool moms in my online network.

… and through all these, I’ve added new people to my network, and just last night, I received an email from someone who said, “Hey, I’m looking for a virtual assistant for two products, and [mutual friend] mentioned you’re the best at that. Can we chat about your rates?” ABSOLUTELY!

These all can be summed up by a story I told in a previous post about doing a good job when no one is watching. In the span of a month earlier this year, I netted about $1,000 to go toward our debt tsunami by being available and active in my communities (physical and virtual). And that’s the kind of networking I’m talking about.

I’m not telling you to be skeevy and hand your business card to everyone you meet during your first conversation. Sometimes that works – and there are people who make it work for a whle. But it’s not going to work over the long haul. You’ll get burned out, your network will get burned out, and people will stop introducing you to other people.

Be yourself. Even if work isn’t magically falling into your lap or your inbox – and it doesn’t always – try leveraging your network. Something like, “Hey, I’m hoping to expand my pet-sitting business to [neighboring community]. If anyone knows someone who could use help, feel free to pass on my name!” - when it’s authentic – is a lot easier and has a much greater conversion rate than hanging flyers and so on.

Definitely be willing to beat the streets, too, but don’t ignore the biggest resource you have – your network.

How do you manage irregular income?

This really gets at another question: How often do I need to find new clients?

I try to follow a simple piece of advice here.

Have as many regular gigs as possible for as few clients as possible.

What, fewer clients?

Absolutely. I want to do a good job for my key clients, so I purposely schedule the bulk of my time for their needs. A $100-a-month job, even if it’s absolutely valuable extra money, isn’t worth it if the time and energy it takes jeopardizes the work I do for someone paying me multiple hundreds or sometimes thousands in regular intervals.

So I try to have as much of my income as possible come from as few sources as possible. This is easier in my line of work – writing and technology – than it is in others. To go back to my pet-sitting example, rarely does anyone need to hire a $500-a-month-every-month pet-sitter. But there are scalable versions – a $25 job across town may not be worth it if there’s a $20 one that can be done twice as often and closer to home.

I manage my irregular income by trying to keep it as regular as possible – doing contracted projects that pay weekly or monthly rather than one-time jobs.

That said, those quick-hit assignments are perfect for when you need a little extra cash; my advice is simply not to rely on them, no matter what your industry. Something that requires you to find almost all new clients each week or month is way, way harder to sustain as a long-term business than something steadier.

I also manage my irregular income by having a one-month buffer. I don’t ever want to be using this month’s income to pay this month’s bills – that’s a trick I learned in You Vs. Debt! It was hard to get there, but having the cushion allows me to take the money I earned in July to pay August’s bills – and I know by August 1 if I’m going to be short for any reason, so I can hustle to make up the difference or cut expenses for that month.

When I was living the freelance equivalent of paycheck to paycheck, I was always scared. And I worked like I was scared – I pitched jobs at too low of a price, essentially devaluing my time; I wouldn’t turn down work even if it wasn’t a good fit for me; stuff like that.

Don’t work scared. Deal with your irregular income by building up a buffer. Sometimes it’ll take months – years – to get a full month ahead, but it’s the only way I’ve made this work!

What about droughts?

“Help! I quit my job, and things were going great, and now I haven’t made any money for three weeks/months/years!”

Was I the only person who was sure that was going to happen? I’m guessing not.

Plan for your droughts when you’re not in one. Just like I said above, it’s great to tap your network – but not in desperation. Not 5 times in a week because the electric bill is due and you don’t know how you’re going to pay it. And you don’t want to be working scared, the way I described earlier – running “clearance prices” on your valuable time just to get a few dollars in the door, taking any client who comes along regardless of their fit with your overall goals.

Discounts are fine – if you’ve got them thought out and budgeted for in advance, and if they build your business. Ask yourself this question: Would my grocery store use this strategy if they weren’t making budget?

It doesn’t hold for every industry in every case, but it gets you asking interesting questions. No, they’re not going to give away milk for $1.50 a gallon. Yes, they might give a coupon for a $1.50 gallon of milk with a $25 purchase. Scale that to your pricing system and think about it!

My biggest advice for droughts is, when one is looming, keep doing mostly what you’re doing. Find one thing to tweak or try, and see what happens. Resist the “throw spaghetti at the wall” approach. Do one new thing, and do it well – whether that’s canvassing your neighborhood and introducing yourself, emailing people you’d like to work with and offering to help them for a short amount of time at no charge, selling at a different location or something completely different.

Give it a shot – what do you have to lose?!

I’d love to know what answers you have to these questions – and what other questions you have about working from home!

Comment and share your story!

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Lori August 23, 2013 at 8:48 AM

My husband builds custom software/websites and works for himself. When he first started he had a great client who took up time but he totally underbid a huge project. Still it was money and they started to work on other projects but then they disappeared–literally. They stopped returning phone calls and basically pulled back from him. That happened with another guy he was building a website for. Now over a year has gone by and he can’t find business. It’s very frustrating because he’s talented but he doesn’t know tons of people. He’s gone to some networking events. It sounds like you had a network in place. What do you do when you don’t? I know, I know he needs to get out there. Still I’m so frustrated by all of this.

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Jess August 23, 2013 at 9:53 AM

Great post, Joan!

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Dana Leavy-Detrick August 23, 2013 at 10:21 AM

After 3 years working for myself as a resume writer, most of my clients come to me on referral. And while it takes time to build up that visibility/reputation, you can also start to build a foundation for that by letting everyone in your network know what you do, what you’re starting, what you can offer and who you’re looking to work with. Give people a platform with which to help you, and that will help build business. This is essentially building a brand – but it’s not enough to just build the brand – you have to get it out there in front of people and build word of mouth. Great post!

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Joe August 23, 2013 at 10:21 AM

Great insights Joan. I am in the process of trying to find some “side work” in my field of accounting. I haven’t made any traction yet. It seems there are ample opportunities out there for technical types (web design, programming, etc), but the work seems sparse for accounting, on the freelance side. I’m going to keep at it though. Building a network is key, from the sound of your experiences. So, I plan to keep plugging away on that end. Thanks for the tips!!

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Lori August 23, 2013 at 10:35 AM

That’s so funny Joe that you say there is plenty of work for tech people. My husband is in that field and struggling too!

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Orange County Budget Living August 23, 2013 at 2:05 PM

What you said about having a one month buffer really resonates with me.

I am going to work on my one month buffer starting today.

Currently, I’m pretty much counting on the current month’s salary to pay bills. It’s a pretty scary thing to do this because this means, I’m usually paying my mortgage on 15th of the month at the very end of the grace period. I need to evaluate my savings goal and add a month’s expense to it. Thanks, Joan!

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Joan Otto August 24, 2013 at 1:01 PM

You’re very welcome! That was honestly an almost life-changing idea for me… I couldn’t imagine doing it any way other than month-to-month, but when I got there, the change it brought in my life and business was pretty unbelievable! Good luck – and keep us posted!

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Minerva Goree August 26, 2013 at 8:05 AM

This is such a great post for someone like me. I’m trying to figure out a way to build a business where I can finally quit my 9-5. I have the one month buffer in place, but I need to finish paying some debt before I feel comfortable pulling the trigger and just resigning. Right now I’m working on starting my side business by building my website and eventually finding clients to create business solutions in MS Excel, MS Project, Web Design, etc (I have too many skills). Having a plan and sticking to it is painfully slow, but I know I have to stick with it.

Thanks for all the food for thought!

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FI Pilgrim August 26, 2013 at 4:59 PM

Good info, thanks. I’d love to be able to start a home-based WordPress development business one day soon, but finding clients is my biggest concern. I don’t think I have the capacity to run it as a “side hustle” either. This makes me think that I’d better put some effort into the networking side of things early though!

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Rita P August 27, 2013 at 3:28 AM

Good insight on finding freelance clients Joan. Recently I quit my regular job and have started blogging. It is not an easy task to manage your finance when you do not have a regular paycheck. I am trying my best to build by side hustles to create a steady income and I hope with time will be able to achieve it. Patience and commitment is what we need when we are beginning in this mode. I liked your idea of having a month buffer which is great and it may take some more time for me to build up that buffer

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Victor Wooten August 31, 2013 at 1:54 PM

The only thing in life achieved without effort is failure.

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Cassi September 1, 2013 at 4:28 PM

The one month buffer is a great idea. My family was just talking about trying that out the other day, too! Great minds, huh?

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Martin September 2, 2013 at 12:49 AM

You really never know where you’re going to find your next freelancing client. My number one tip is to always stay active and helpful. Never expect anything in return. You’ll be surprised by how many cool people you meet this way.

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Victor Wooten September 2, 2013 at 1:56 PM

Failure does not mean that I should give up; It does mean that I should try harder.

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GetRichWithMe September 5, 2013 at 5:39 PM

Gotta love the one month buffer advice for people (like me) who are self employed and have irregular income.
I’d love to be able to build it up to 2 or 3 months – but would i then be tempted to slack off too much ????

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Michelle September 7, 2013 at 12:16 AM

This post was incredibly helpful and informative. I would like to transition to full-time freelance work in 2 years and find posts like this one really helpful as I begin to plan for the future.

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Trish September 12, 2013 at 2:49 PM

I do part-time administrative contract work with the company I was with before I had my baby, but I’ve been wanting to branch out and try to take on more clients. I’ve just struggled with how to do it, and yeah, fear that it wouldn’t work out. But this is all such great advice. I really need to utilize my network and put myself out there. Thank you!

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Tahnya Kristina October 12, 2013 at 1:38 PM

This is a great post Joan. I absolutely agree with you that the best way to get freelance jobs is to work with the relationships in your network. I often call upon people I know if I am looking to pick up extra work or need a resource and of course I would do the same for them. As we book more jobs, attend more conferences and meet more people our network grows and so does our business. I am going to share this post next Friday on our Dinks Finance weekly roundup. Have a great weekend. Hi Adam!

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