When first starting out as a newbie web designer, the most common advice you’ll probably hear for landing your first client is to just ‘put yourself out there and be willing to do a bunch of work for free.’
In a way, it’s not terrible advice, since doing the right kind of free work can definitely lead to some pretty cool paid projects in the future and often all it takes is one super solid referral from a happy client to get the ball rolling.
But just winging it with a bunch of free projects is not going to magically book out your business…
So in this post I’ll be sharing the 5 things every new web designer needs in order to land their first legit paying client!
Now, we’re going to be talking more about marketing a little later in this post, but if you’re currently scratching your head as to how to shout out about your business in a way that actually fills the books, then you are going to want to hit pause and take the client-finding quiz I created just for designers!
Take the quiz to find out which proven client-finding method matches your personality type, and get personalized tips and best practices for how to implement your new strategy so that you can start consistently attracting clients with ease!
Building your portfolio and landing your first client tends to be a bit of a ‘Which came first? The chicken or the egg?’ scenario.
It’s pretty hard to land a paying client if you don’t have a portfolio to prove you actually know what you’re doing…
But how are you supposed to build a portfolio if you have yet to work with any clients?
So this is where that bit of advice to ‘work for free’ comes in.
But what they don’t tell you about working for free is that you need to be super intentional about who it is you are giving your time and talents away to!
Even though you are technically getting valuable experience learning to work with clients and manage a design project, you also want to make sure the free projects you are taking on can actually be used in your portfolio.
So instead of designing for a random mashup of businesses who all have different styles, vibes, and visions for their projects, it can sometimes make sense to strategically design a handful of super-cohesive mockups or “pretend websites” instead.
This way you have complete creative control over the projects you’ll display in your portfolio, and will only be creating pieces that you know are a perfect reflection of the type of work you actually dream of being paid to do.
You are most likely to attract the types of projects that are already featured in your portfolio, so if you have a certain type of client in mind that you are most passionate about working with in the future, make sure that when they show up to check out your portfolio page that they can really “see” themselves in your past work, whether it was paid, free or just a conceptual mockup you created.
Finding the right web designer can be a super scary and overwhelming challenge for your potential clients.
They are feeling nervous and possibly even a tad skeptical about investing such a large chunk of change to have someone build their site!
So you’ll want to do everything in your power to make it clear that you are the right person for that job!
They aren’t looking for just another web designer who can build pretty websites…
They are looking for someone who understands their unique industry inside and out, and knows exactly how to set their business up to thrive online.
By strategically designing your packages around your exact ideal client, you are demonstrating that you understand their unique needs as a business, and are perfectly positioned to help them.
Say for example I’m a yoga instructor looking for someone to build a website for my new studio.
If I show up on your services page and all you’ve said is some super broad statement that you’re a web designer who builds high-end custom websites starting at $2000, I’m probably not going to feel too terribly excited about working with you.
But say I show up on your services page and see that you specifically serve yoga instructors and that your basic package includes everything my studio needs to share about upcoming events, schedule and pay for classes, and sell some cute custom merch on the side, then you’re going to start feeling like the obvious choice for who I should hire!
So again, think of who it is you hope to be working with in the future, and learn everything you can about their industry and what they will be needing their website to do, so that you can build your packages around them and make them feel instantly at ease with working with you.
You can always tweak your packages as you learn and your business evolves, so don’t feel like by listing your packages you are now stuck with them for life. Work with what you know now, and pivot and perfect as needed!
If you want to fully book-out your design business, you need to make it super simple for people to start working with you TODAY.
And that means being hella-organized and streamlined in your client inquiry and onboarding process.
Even if you won’t be actually starting on the project for months, you don’t want to waste any time in getting that sale officially locked down, and it shouldn’t take weeks of playing email tag, or chasing down random wire transfers, Venmo’s, or checks in the mail just to get you paid.
Make it easy for your clients to give you their money by investing in a proper CRM or Customer Relationship Management software for your business.
A good CRM allows you to send proposals and invoices, accept payment, and send contracts for electronic signature.
Not only is it easier for your potential clients, it also makes you look like a total seasoned pro in your client-handling process!
Plus, now all your correspondence and documents related to that project will be stored in one easy-to-manage place instead of having to go back through 50 emails to find what you need.
My personal favorite software to recommend is Honeybook (20% of your first year! Yep! That’s an affiliate link!)
Though I’ve also heard wonderful things from past Square Secrets™️ & Square Secrets Business™️ students about Dubsado as well!
When first getting started out as a designer, it’s super easy to put off getting a solid client contract. You don’t feel like you can afford expensive legal advice when you have yet to start bringing in any actual income with your new business, and so far, all your potential clients seem super chill and easy-to-work-with, so what could go wrong?
But I’m telling you, you need a contract! And here are just a few of the reasons why:
It ensures you get paid on time and in full
…even if your client decides to mysteriously fall off the face of the earth and stop work on the project.
It protects you from scope-creep
Say your client books you for a basic 5 page website package but 1 week in they decide they want to add an entire e-commerce store.
Having a solid contract cuts way back on the awkward conversations you’ll need to have, since you will already have in writing which services were included in your package and therefore which will need to be at an extra charge.
It helps you guard your time.
Including a clear project timeline in your contract keeps projects that should have taken 2 weeks from dragging on for months, which would not only be unfair to you as the designer, but also to your future clients whose time you would be cutting into by allowing a project to drag on.
It protects your client.
Your clients will love knowing that you are on the ball, and that your contract not only protects your interests, but theirs as well in the case of something unforeseen popping up and the project going off the rails.
They will trust you more knowing that you are taking this project very seriously, and things just generally tend to go a lot more smoothly when clients know exactly what they can expect from you and when they can expect it based on your contract.
5. A focused marketing strategy
We all wish that that first dreamy client would just fall in our laps! It would certainly make getting started a heck of a lot easier!
But often we have to go out and search for those first few paying clients ourselves.
This is totally normal and expected when you are just starting out in your business, and a good way to fill your books for the short term.
But if you want to build a sustainable, self-booking web design business you are going to need a solid long-term marketing strategy so you aren’t still stuck months or even years from now, having to personally hunt down new clients each time you wrap up another project.
With the right marketing strategy, you can set your business up to where your dream clients will come to you! But it takes consistency, and it takes a bit of time to see results, so the best advice I can possibly give you is to start now!
But marketing your business doesn’t mean you have to run out and post every single day on every single platform out there. You’ll actually see much faster and lasting results by focusing on one specific strategy and doing it consistently.
Not sure which marketing strategy is the right fit for you?
I’ve created a simple quiz just for web designers to help you discover which proven client-finding method matches your personality type, so you can skip all the trial and error and get clear next steps for how to start implementing your strategy and attracting clients in a way that feels like it was made for you.