Stop trying to find new freelance clients

I’m a freelancer, so I get it.

You need to find new clients.

New clients bring in new money to your freelance business. They are the lifeblood of your business. They make it possible for you to pay the bills.

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…or do they?

A big time-waster

If your freelance business is anything like mine, there’s a lot to be done and not a lot of time do it in.

And that means you don’t have much time for big time-wasters.

Most freelancers try to stay away from social media, avoid surfing the web, or unsubscribe from Netflix thinking they’ll save some serious time in the process and therefore have more time to find new freelance clients.

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We’re looking at it all wrong

But stop and think for a minute: are we going about it all wrong?

Is the primary goal of our freelance business to simply find new clients?

I don’t think so.

Let me illustrate with a story of a freelancer I once knew:

My fellow freelancer and friend Phillip (story shared with permission) would get so jazzed every time he would find a new client. His heart rate would go up, his productivity would skyrocket and, for a few days, he felt like he was on cloud nine.

Then the design process kicks in.

Clients get picky. They get annoying. They start asking too much. And that rush of energy and excitement quickly leaves.

The story was no different with Phil.

Before the project was completed, Phil was burned out. He was tired of the revisions and the poor decisions from clients who didn’t really understand.

Been there?

I have.

But here’s the crucial mistake Phil made:

Instead of making sure to take the best care possible of his current clients, he got tired of the same ol’ same ol’ and decided he needed the “new client rush” again.

So he started searching for new clients and neglecting his current ones.

A chain of events

What did that lead to?

Well, of course he had to put in extra hours to market his business and find more clients.

In the mean time, his current clients felt neglected and became (justifiably) upset.

He almost always finished the projects late or sub-par and left his clients angry or frustrated.

Consequently, his clients never gave him new business–and with good reason.

Stop looking for new clients

So what’s the point of my story?

There’s another path Phil could have taken. And you and I can learn from it.

Imagine if, instead, Phil learned how to handle design-by-committee, wasn’t afraid to limit the number of revisions his clients get, and found a way to keep going when he felt burned out, here’s what might have happened:

The better choice

All the time Phil began dedicating to finding new clients could have been spent working harder to satisfy his current clients.

Not only would he have completed the project on time, but the final product would have been something he could be proud of.

And (here’s the kicker) he likely would have kept his current clients.

The best way to find clients

I’ve asked the following question hundreds of times from hundreds of designers:

“How do you find new clients?”

And guess what the #1 answer is every…single…time.


Referrals are easier than cold calls. Referrals are free. And referrals are easy because your let others do the heavy lifting for you.

So treat your current clients like gold.

Not only will you likely see more business from them in the future, but you’ll also reap the benefits of referrals.

Join the ranks of freelancers who have stopped trying to find new freelance clients.

Leave a comment on this post and let me know what you think.

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  1. This is great advice, but it would be helpful if you gave some tips on how to get referrals. Is it as easy as asking?

  2. one of the best ways to get clients to come to you is SEO , blog about what you know and love and participate in blogs forums etc on your choosen subject

  3. Well Preston, That’s a wonderful article but I cannot completely agree on the same as well. I run my own logo and graphic design service “Bleeping Design” and I always concentrated on current clients.I make sure that they are satisfied.. They also wrote amazing testimonials. But, Its really hard to find new clients, sometimes in a month or so.. May be a client would refer me to his/her friend but this does not help much. A continuous income source would be better. Like a client who does some business and frequently need graphic or logo designs.. So is there a specific market that I can target to find the right person?

    I also tried with affiliate or partnership system but rarely people join..

  4. Great advice and I agree 100%. I think the success for a graphic designer or design studio relies on delivering on time and, most important, having a good relationship with clients. Moreover, if you are looking for new clients all the time, belonging to different industries, you´ll find yourself having to learn new things again and not having the right knowkledge.

  5. Yes, I think that is a great idea, you should never get up on your clients, try to work it out, I am new to the grpahic design set, but would like to get all the information i can about how to find jobs, im in school right now, but will be finished very shortly. Hope to find some entry level work.

  6. I keep coming back to this article as its just so relevant. It’s interesting reading, 100 designers, 100 points of view.
    I question whether books on the topic of freelance design are popular because the market is over saturated. I remember the spam emails that would claim to have your business in the top 10 search results in Google, it doesn’t take long for people to realise that if 50 clients sign up then 40 miss out. Not an identical comparison however.
    My point is that not everyone in the market place will be successful, there are a lot of freelancers who are passionate about their work. Being happy in ones chosen field has the winning impact (in my experience), the business skills kick in as one goes along, through trial and error and making mistakes, sometimes big ones. The ones who are not so passionate and who feel ‘over it’ get pushed back. That is human nature. I think the attached material is useful for ideas, and I would also read it and rely on your gut. If you are reading this material but not passionate about freelancing then find something that you are passionate about. When I am passionate and happy about what I am doing I don’t have to worry about income once I have created momentum.

  7. This article is good but it applies only to certain individuals. Not all freelancers can’t manage new clients because they are freelancers, not entrepreneurs. They are better off working for someone who can manage these things instead of working alone. Imagine Verizon saying lets put a break on finding new clients to focus on old clients. They can’t because clients/accounts is the life blood of the business. For me, each new client/account adds value to my company. Instead of looking for individuals I look for firms, clients that i know will come back. Don’t be afraid to state your terms.

  8. Nice article and it describes my experience exactly. There is undoubtedly a creative urge to find new and interesting work and, when current clients are being conservative in their outlook, it’s only natural to look further afield to find new challenges. But you should always be sure to take care of your regular (and loyal) clients and do your best work for them. Bridget (October 26), the article was maybe not obvious to everyone, especially newer freelancers – and I think the article was aimed at freelancers rather than firms. But your question about growth is interesting for freelancers who may want to expand. I’ve run a sole trader business for 15 years and am lucky enough to have had almost all my work from repeat business and referrals from happy clients. Recently I’ve begun to look for larger organisations to take on with a view to collaborating more with other freelancers – a kind of growth. My strategy has been to let my existing clients know that I’m interested in finding new clients and that if they want to refer people too me I’d be grateful. As I have very good relationships with my clients I felt happy to do this – much like Trish (October 31). It’s brought in half a dozen new clients of the type I was interested in and is helping me to reposition my business. Good discussion here, thanks everyone.

  9. Couldn’t agree more…for the last few years I’ve primarily worked with a handful of consistent clients that I am a good match for. Our communication styles are similar and they respect my skills and expertise. Yes, I encourage them to offer referrals and I thank them when a new client comes through their word-of-mouth. But balance is key – I still need new clients, big projects, to be known in new circles. And what I’ve experienced is that some clients are pains-in-the-neck and they will be with anyone, a big firm, a freelancer, anyone. Generally they treat consultants like kleenex and they also have a high staff turn-over. In couple cases, they’ve closed their doors and I’m still in business.

  10. Great article that resonates with me. It’s not uncommon for my larger clients to go through several design options (comity of decision makers), and they pay for the extra time. Smaller clients with less budget tend to get upset if we want to explore more design options. The key is to keep the communication channels open and wave flags early and often if time/budget comes into question. I like to educate clients on the process and let them know they have a choice, to do further exploration or to choose a direction that’s been presented (as long as it’s a decision we agree will meet their objectives).

    I do regular networking to be front of mind and to foster referrals. I’ve had plenty of new clients, but am being asked more and more by existing clients to help with social media and offsite SEO. Just last night I was thinking about focusing less on new business prospects to give my attention more on my existing client base. Seems like designers are expected to be know more about areas outside of visual communication. Regardless, I like the idea of tightening up a few great relationships, vs. starting up lots of new relationships.

  11. Hi Willem
    If you had the time available it would be great to read about your design experience and your feelings about how the industry has changed over the years. I for one would find this really interesting.
    Many thanks

  12. Hi,

    All of this makes sense! Try to push for clients you love to work with instead.

    Cheers for a great article.

    Dan from Stockholm

  13. Ask any salesperson: it requires 90% of your time to find a new client and 10% of your time to maintain a current client. Don’t worry about finding new clients, work hard to make yourself more valuable to the clients you already have.

  14. Well, duh.
    There’s not enough new business out there to support all the freelancers floating around, especially in print work. So your buddy Phillip is a nitwit. Clients are like gold, and you have to treat them as such. And never, never do sub-par work, no matter what you’re being paid (even if it’s pro-bono) or how “difficult” your client may be. “Burn-out” is often just a snooty designer being petulant because he didn’t get his way rather than sucking it up and doing his job. And he’s not getting called back.
    And Phillip needs to remember; he’s designing for the client’s market, not for other designers. There’s a lot of smart management people who really understand their business and their markets a lot better than Phillip does. He needs to learn from them and fill their need.
    And for those clients who can’t really grasp some of the fundamentals of visual design, Phillip needs to be able to defend his position and explain the reason’s behind his decisions. Back up his decisions with books, articles or examples that show how the human mind perceives color and design decisions. Work with them. Corner office people aren’t as dumb as designers think they are, they usually just know something that designers don’t. And for those few who actually “don’t get it”, you’ve got to bring them along slowly, and show them why your way is better. It’s slow process to get a hard-head on your side, but once you do, you’ve got a steady source of income. I’ve got several business I’ve been working with for more than twenty years. Also management moves around within industries, and when a manager leaves one company for another, I often get calls from a guy I’ve worked with before, now at his new company, and just like that I’ve got another revenue stream.
    It’s rare that a small to mid-size company goes on a designer “hunt”. They usually just go with a guy who knows a guy who can get the job done. In my experience, that’s where new business really comes from.

  15. All my business comes from past clients and referrals. I keep my website updated for no other reason than to have a nice, easy portfolio for people to look at. But I don’t do internet marketing or even want my website to generate business for me. Like it was spelled out in the article, I don’t have time. Besides, my clients love me and are always referring me to others. If things get slow, I just send out a friendly email to my current clients and vendors simply to remind them I am here for them and for anyone else who may need a logo, brand or graphic work done. Simple!

  16. Well, in a disney wonderfull world, it’s true…
    But as a graphic designer, there is a point when your good client have their logo, website, corporate identity and so on, so he won’t need your services before a lifting in 2-3 years.
    A client that regulary give you work is pure gold in the freelance world (like a monthly internal magazine, or newsletter), but they are not many clients than do that. So it’s still important to find new clients, and make them good clients, or get rid of the awfull “clients from hell”. So hoping that just credentials will give you enough money for living is too utopic IMO.

  17. Preston Lee – You said it right, referrals let others do the heavy lifting for you, whilst you wait only to deliver (not to mention giving that) it gives you the platform to comfortably bill your clients.

    Great Post!!!

  18. You are absolutely right!. The trick is to network and keep doing it. Join groups. Attend events. If you have a local Chamber of Commerce, join it. When you first meet people, learn about their business first, then talk about yours. The bigger the network you create of people that actually know you and what you do — the faster the word spreads — and word-of-mouth means a lot when it comes to getting new business. If an existing client gives you a good lead, be sure to thank them in some way.

  19. Good article, however, always having positive referrals isn’t always possible. Having just left a client behind after 3 weeks.
    So freelancers be aware, my take is that one needs to ask plenty of questions before accepting a contract. Being desperate for money (painful at the beginning) can turn around and put you along way back, in that you cannot use bad apples for referrals. Advice would be. Start where you stand. Learn more than your art (negotiation and running a business), and make it top priority to learn to save. Try to aim for having between 6-12 months income in the bank. Having cash brings a different experience to ones emotions and allows a space for better selection of clients.
    Choose better clients. Love them, love yourself, then you have quality referrals. IMO.

    1. Way back, I found I had a problem with my marketing but I still got jobs as a freelance graphic designer – this made me realise that the best marketing tool you have as a designer is quality work, respect for deadlines and as often as possible respect for your client (even if they make you mad). Clients like to talk to their friends about the guy ‘who did it’ if the work is good. And they will not hesitate to announce it if you messed up. Referrals do work.

      1. I agree that referrals work, absolutely. Cause and effect. One thing I have had trouble with is ‘keeping the client happy’. This must be a skill of special acquired talent. For me, I tend to ride very close to my emotions and find that if the client are difficult then I seem to be only able to go so far, possibly idealistic, who can say. I guess while we are all hardwired differently it comes down to personal connection for some of us.

  20. Great advice, I wish I’d followed it a while back… I have now gone back to treating my old clients like gold but it took me a while to stop trying to satisfy the really demanding and frankly irritating new clients I’d acquired… And like many I NEVER advertise, it’s all about referrals.

  21. We have been in business for 12 years and have never advertised or really went looking for customers. 95% have all come from referrals. Our business has grown at rates or 15%-45% each year. Referrals are the only way to grow and maintain a business. The customer is sold before he gets to you.

  22. I completely agree with your philosophy. However, I’ve been in business for 10 years and my ‘word of mouth’ referrals have all but disappeared. What do you do when you’ve exhausted your network and those precious referrals dry up? We’re in deep recession and many of the clients I’ve worked so hard for and who were making up most of my revenue have been let go, layed-off or fired…..I always hope that those clients will take me with them to their new employer, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. Now I feel like I have to start over again to find a new client base. What do I do when I work from home, am isolated from meeting potential clients except to cold call? I am seriously thinking about a career change if things don’t turn around soon….or worse, go back to the 9-5 grind!

  23. When I left the corporate and editorial world(s) in 1968 and started freelancing, I had a few clients, I thought I would have to prospect for new clients. However, I was too busy and didn’t pursue it. Since then I have never prospected. As you found out, referrals do the job very well and if you don’t get referrals you should think of something else to do. At 75 I still work on occasion and I now have the luxury of being very, very picky. It has been a very pleasant and remunerative ride for 44 years.

  24. Hi! Usually I get your updates by email! And I feel happy to see that you published a new article! I am from Brazil but I love to work for people outside of my country. I have a long list of international friends. …hahaha… I am here to say that yes it is hard to find clients that make us feel happy and pleased with our work. Search for good customers is like search for diamonds or someone to marry, you know! …hahaha… Wise words I found in your article! I wish the best for you and your website! I don’t share my address on web because I am shy! Maybe next time! =)

  25. Preston,

    I think you give some wonderful advice regarding customer service and making sure your existing clients refer you new clients.

    However, I’d caution against not looking for new clients at all – you never know when one of your big clients goes out of business, gets sick, or changes management. And if you don’t market yourself somewhat, when the time comes that you’re looking for work, you won’t have a plan or infrastructure set up to get your search on.

  26. This is what my wife as a graphic designer always mention to me, treat customers as much as possible, and most of time they refer other people or friends to us, when customer feels comfortable & happy then you insure your business.

  27. Bravo!
    I am retired from the design world now, but for many years my mantra was:
    “Your best prospect is your present client.”…….for all the reasons you enumerated.
    Good thinking! And I doubt that you could find a client who would disagree with you.

  28. With all due respect, this article was kind of obvious. One should always strive to please their current customers and do their best work, correct? Our firm has great relationships with our clients, and have received many referrals. There are always going to be difficult clients in any field. Unfortunately, there are not enough referrals to build a strong client base, particularly in the recent economic climate. We have one large client (and several small) so our eggs are all in one basket, so to speak. What is the key to real, consistent growth? Any suggestions?

  29. This article sounds like it was written directly for me. Like a bang-on fortune cookie this is… heh. Great post and some great advice. Thanks for driving it home. Cheers!

  30. I completely agree with your approach i.e. treating my existing clients like gold (and I do)… but I am finding that they themselves are struggling and don’t have a lot of freelance work to give me even though I am apparently “at the top of their list” of freelancers to use…. So what does one do next? Maybe I need to look for more overseas clients to offset the quieter clients in my country…

  31. This is brilliant advise and so very very true! I hardly do any advertising, the majority of my clients are referrals, someone once said to me ‘if you worry less about the money and more about the service and quality the money will soon follow’.

  32. I have officially been seriously cultivating business for the last few years and I can 110% agree with this article. Your current clients will gladly send customers like themselves to the designer that took great care of them. Personality differences always occur and that is a growth process. However, the rewards are always greater from repeat and referral business than from brand new business.

  33. I’m not a graphic designer, but freelancer too! I’m agreed that “Referrals” are gold and I’m investing more time with my old clients as compare to finding new ones.

  34. Thanks for the post here. In my experience, beside of referrals, I try to add new client by following some good design contest site. By doing this, everyday I can practice my design skill, get exposure of my work from other designer or future client and if you are lucky we can get two or three clients in one time 😀

  35. Wow! You nailed it! Thank you! It is also important to know which clients to walk away from. Knowing which to treat like gold and who to let go is the art form I’m trying to develop. Now heading back in the article to read how to limit changes and design by committee. Good stuff, so glad I found you and this community. Thanks for sharing, Yoda of freelance!

  36. Finally…someone telling the truth to the masses. It’s all about the referral!
    I’ve been a freelancer for many years and this is how my client base has been built.
    That…and presenting a professional image even in social situations. Not the in-your-face kind of image but one that expresses your enthusiasm and love for what you do. That is what sticks and will turn people on to your business.

  37. I’m reading this after wasting time (literally, hours!) sending out emails to businesses that will most likely never respond. Such! Good! Advice!

  38. that sounds like good advise, that is one of my major problems. i am just starting out and i dont have any “real” clients.

  39. Yes I agree, and I always look after my current clients, and I do have 2 clients who come back to me regularly (2-3 times a year), but 2 is not enough. They are only small too. I have only had 15 clients in total, in 5 years, as I am small-scale part time, but I am trying to build the business up now and need more. As a tip to others, I generally find a couple of new clients if I do a personal business to business door knock with a flyer in town. A friendly smile and introduction always leads to at least one new enquiry and then a follow up later. Unfortunately too, advertising never seems to generate anything obvious, but I fear I need to keep my name visible. And annoyingly, (or guillibly) I just got done over, by a company called “Council contracts UK” who promised that they source and tender council contracts with a 97% success rate, and have taken my money and disappeared off the radar. What is a freelancer to do really?

    1. Well Linda, you aren’t the first and won’t be the last to fall prey to schemes like that. I think we should all get together and somehow expose all of these cons. Or maybe it would be easier to just list the ones that aren’t cons – I think the list would be quite small.
      The only problem is the con artists would infiltrate and use it to promote their cons.

  40. Completely agree Preston! Early on I spent a lot of time searching for clients and spending time on “new” projects. Once I truly dedicated my business to my business and the client end of things, the referrals started rolling in. Sometimes faster than I expected. Anything worth referring in life will be referred eventually. It was also a good test run on whether I should pursue certain avenues over others. Complete clarity and a full client roster. As always, thanks for the great article!

  41. Great article- this advice should really go without saying, but I’m amazed how many other freelancers I know who don’t give their current clients the time of day because they’re “bored” of them. You need to be treating your long term clients the best in my eyes!

  42. Thank you for always having great topics. They always seem you are answering a doubt or concern I may have.

  43. Great Advice. I recently reached out to a few past clients who just needed a “poke” to get some new design going again. SInce we worked together before it was an easy process since we knew each other from past successes.

  44. Thanks! I really needed this one right now, ‘stressing’ about getting more new clients. Having said that, I need more clients to make ends meet. However, I am very aware of that my portfolio, which is in the websites I have already made for existing clients are slowly bringing med other clients. The good thing about this post, is that it shifted my focus, often, that’s all that is needed. So thanx again!

  45. This is great advice. Because I for one after getting a new client I would instantly seek out new ones instead of maintaining the current relationship that I had with my client. Getting clients makes a lot more sense now.

  46. I like new client but every client has a new personality and at times one that is hard to deal with. Ideal situation is to have a few repeat clients that you get along with and can work well together. Referrals are great but that does not guarantee a smooth process either. I find one timers are not the best, but if they are business starters, they might come back for more work down the road.

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