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Episode 7: Starting a Freelance Business From Scratch

Today we answer a common question we’ve been getting from the community: “What we would each do if we were starting a freelance business from scratch again?”. This was a really fun episode, where we each discussed what we would do in our first week if we were starting a new freelance business today. We get into the dread of cold-calling, the power of referrals, how to become a specialist, offering value, and using the power of social media to attract your initial clients.

Show Notes for This Episode:

[1.00] What is our advice for freelancers starting out?
[1.40] Lisa picked up the Yellow Pages and cold called!
[2.30] How Lisa transitioned from full-time to freelance
[3.40] Why it was tougher in the past, without social media
[4.50] Finding the motivation to break out of your comfort zone finding clients
[5.45] How to keep faith when struggling to find clients
[6.30] Why direct communication is the most effective
[7.15] Why your ‘conversion rate’ matters when pitching for business
[8.30] Why people hire people they like
[9.20] Why human relationships matter so much in business
[10.20] How Tom used local connections to get the ball rolling
[10.50] Referrals then start to kick in
[11.20] How Lisa just referred her developer for us
[11.50] Ian didn’t put himself out there, but still got work
[12.50] How Ian used link-backs to attract new clients
[13.30] Don’t burn bridges, as older companies can often pass on work
[14.30] Building up a web with strands to potentially reach new clients
[15.15] Sticking with what feels comfortable to you
[16.55] How Ian still to this day gets client requests from older work
[17.15] Why designers are in demand
[18.30] We don’t even know many designers who are available! This makes it easier to get referrals.
[19.00] Paul Jarvis making a name for himself to attract referrals
[20.00] A great business development opportunity for designers
[21.00] How Dustin has a mutually beneficial friendship with another designer
[22.00] Word of mouth and recommendations are the highest converting way of attracting new clients
[22.50] Stand out by offering something of value (without pitching your services)
[23.50] Tom’s story of how he offered free consultations, and his tips for how to replicate this technique
[25.30] The importance of putting yourself out there in the right places
[26.15] How Dustin stood out by combining two things he was great at, to find one thing he was best at
[27.00] How to niche down to attract early clients more easily
[28.00] Becoming a specialist, to make your services more attractive to potential clients
[29.15] Dustin’s experience of hiring a specialist
[30.30] Ian’s experience of developing a specialist style in his lettering
[31.30] Focusing on what’s in demand in your local area (Lisa’s experiences)
[32.15] Why local can be easier than global when you’re starting out attracting clients
[32.50] Defining your ideal client (who you can realistically attract)
[33.30] Quick fire round – What Lisa would do is she started out today
[35.00] If Tom started out (he would ignore the ‘fancy’ work that didn’t make money early on)
[36.30] Why the business cards, and the ‘brand image’ aren’t so important early on
[37.10] What Dustin would do starting out (guest blogging and providing value)
[39.30] Why you need to be sincere and contribute value, rather than spamming people
[41.00] What Ian would do starting out today (using his network of Facebook friends, using social media as a catalyst)
[42.00] Ian’s tip for defining the work you truly want to focus on, very early
[43.00] How Ian would post content from day-1 to build up an audience
[45.00] How we would all do what we actually did originally. But in a more focused, quicker way.
[45.30] Pay attention to what is working, and do more of it (plus Ian’s caveat on this)
[47.45] Why your level of discomfort is dependent on your time-frame to get work in the door
[48.40] How Lisa did the initial uncomfortable work, but then never had to worry about it again
[50.20] Don’t worry about business plans, just get moving!

“A must for every creative freelancer (or those aspiring to freelance). Thank you for being so… honest! Such a wealth of information from people I admire who have ‘been there and done that’. Listening to the podcast every week feels like I’m among friends. Can’t wait for more episodes!”AG_GD

25 Lovely Comments from our Community:

  1. Brian says:


    When you imply that you didn’t need to use business card what other options did you do to show your portfolio?

  2. Krystal Russell says:

    Guys, LOVED this episode! So much great insight from so many different paths. Really inspiring and helpful, I took a lot of notes! I’m about to ramp up my freelance from a “here and there” sort of thing to “hanging up a shingle” sort of thing, and something I’ve been looking into is joining the Chamber of Commerce in my small community. For one thing, I’ll be listed in the city’s local business guidebook under Services as a Marketing/Design resource, and membership is really affordable. Less than an ad in our community magazine or newspaper. Thank you again for a great podcast!

    • says:

      Hey Krystal, thanks so much for getting in touch and sorry for the late reply. We’re really happy to hear that you’ve found this episode inspiring and this is helping you with setting up your own freelance business. That is a great idea to get registered and listed in the city’s local business guidebook, and hopefully this will bring a lot of clients your way. Best of luck with everything Krystal 😊

  3. Craig Haythornthwaite says:

    Thanks so much for these podcasts. I really enjoy listening to the topics about the day to day issues of working as a designer. They help me feel a little less isolated too!

  4. Calyane Collet says:

    Hey guys! A little bit late but thank you so much for the podcasts, I’ve been listening since week 1 and I truly love it. I’m a design student from Brazil and I wish I could recommend you guys for all my colleagues because everyone struggles with these things, but not all of them can understand english…
    A topic I wish you guys could cover is organizing your agenda? We know it’s common to grab more than we can chew because at the beggining we just can’t calculate well how much time we need to finish the project. It’s something I struggle a lot. Even if I use timely or some app to record my time it nevers goes well.
    Anyway thank you all so much again!

    • says:

      Hey Calyane,

      Thank you so much for your comment!

      If we manage to get transcripts of the podcasts, the team will definitely explore other languages too but we super appreciate you wanting to share this with your colleagues.

      I’ve popped your suggestion over to the designers for you so hopefully they can touch base on a subject like this soon. In the meantime, we hope you’ll enjoy all the podcasts to come 🙂

  5. Shrimati says:

    Hey Guys, thanks for the wonderful podcast. Just one thing I wanted to mention, that the sound tends to very low and I have to turn up my speaks real high to hear properly. I particularly have a hard time hearing clearly what Tom is saying. I listened to the podcast again on Itunes and it seems to be much better there.

    When I heard Lisa say she called up PR companies, I promptly pulled up the yellow pages book (yes, we still use them in my country) and called up, emailed a PR company that I had not considered as yet. No work yet, but at least it might lead to something in the future.

    All the best guys. DC is my go to site for inspiration everyday. Please install a favorite button for the products as your site is getting larger and larger and this is direly needed. Probably a redesign of the site a well as some of the drop down menus are getting too long to follow comfortably.

    I would be interested in hearing your views on design contests for a future podcast.

    Take care.

    • Tom Ross says:

      Hey Vladimir! Thanks for commenting. I wouldn’t let this dissuade you, everyone started somewhere, and whilst it takes time to get to this level, it’s definitely achievable, with work. I hope this show will give you some solid tips for how to get there.

  6. Claudia says:

    Well, I suppose the yellow pages could make a good door stop… or a place for the cat to sit so they don’t sit on your work… 😉😂😂

  7. Scott Bateman says:

    Is it at all possible for you guys to list this on Google Play Music as well? I don’t have iTunes (I know, blasphemy!) and I really don’t want to install another app when I have one that can do the same thing. I’m just asking a question, I have no idea how difficult it is or isn’t to get these on various services.

    • Tom Ross says:

      Thanks for the incredible feedback! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the show. If you’d like us to discuss any particular topics please do let me know.

      • Tom Ross says:

        Thanks for the suggestion Scott. I’m afraid that we’ve already tried to host with Google Play Music, but it doesn’t seem to be available to us here in the UK just yet. However, I hope that you’re able to listen either via these pages, or on Soundcloud, as an accessible format. As soon as we’re able to get on Google Play I promise we’ll be there for you :).

  8. Natalie says:

    Great podcast again this week.
    You manage to touch on everything relevant to me every time.
    Today, you have made me realise that my introverted nature is not doing me any favours – I’ve just got to get myself out there more.(Shudder shudder!)
    I love my Thursday mornings with you guys.

  9. vladimir2 says:

    Ah man, when I hear “He charged for his sites fairly – between $5K and $10K” I want to break down in tears.

    • Tom Ross says:

      Thanks Nasif, I’m so glad the podcast is helping you. If you have any questions about getting your freelance business off the ground please do let me know.

  10. cm uller says:

    I’m so grateful for this podcast! Your topics are so spot on, and you have such a good mix of opinions and experiences. As a full time freelancer for over 17 years, I completely relate to all of your topics – sometimes all of them on a weekly basis – its refreshing to listen to the struggles and solutions of others. Keep it up, please!

  11. Nasif says:

    Hi guys from Cape Town.. Great advice, so applicable to me right now… Thanks for sharing..

  12. bromelus2013 says:

    Hey guys! I just want to say, that I love your podcast! I get excited every time I get an email for a new episode. I listed to every episode so far. You guys are very transparent and I feel I’m not too alone with my freelancing.

    • Scott Fox says:

      I have been doing freelance in Nashville since 1987.
      And I would say that you are right.
      Networking and word of mouth still work.

      Thanks for the show and all your G R E A T fonts.
      Scott H.

      • Tom Ross says:

        Thanks so much Scott! It sounds like you’ve had a great career, and I totally agree, the older techniques for drumming up business still hold up :).

        • Tom Ross says:

          Thanks Natalie, we really appreciate your support. Being an introvert shouldn’t hold you back. It can be really liberating to push outside your comfort zones (I hate cold calling too!), but there is always more than one path. Ian carved out a career from his Instagram feed for example, and probably wouldn’t feel comfortable going door to door.

          We’re so happy you’re tuning in each Thursday, and I do hope that you’ll stick with us as we delve into more topics in the coming weeks :).

          • Tom Ross says:

            Haha, I think that’s what Lisa currently uses it for :P. How’s everything going with you Claudia? Do let me know if we can help with anything in particular in an upcoming episode.

            • Tom Ross says:

              Thanks for your feedback Shrimati. We’ll look into the sound issue for you, as that does sound unusual. That’s reassuring that it’s working ok on iTunes at least though!

              That’s AMAZING to hear that you took action right after listening. I would say that approaching companies for business is a numbers game, so don’t be disheartened if you don’t hear back from one. Lisa did this for hours every day for weeks/months, but all that initial work then led to an entire career predicated on referrals and steady business.

              Thanks for your really useful feedback regarding the user experience on our site. We’re currently working on lots of positive changes to make browsing things easier for you guys.

              I’ll mention the design contests to the guys too. I believe we’ve touched on them already in a past episode, but personally it’s how I first got into web design work. I’d enter design contests, and never win, then would win 10%, 20%, and eventually about 50% of the ones I entered. This was when I was much younger and starting out, so whilst I wouldn’t consider them a steady career, it was certainly great pocket money at the time, and really good experience to learn what resonates with the client, and what goes into a winning design. I hope this helps :).

    • Tom Ross says:

      Thanks so much for your awesome feedback. You’re definitely not alone, and if you ever need any support we’re here for you :).

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