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How to Get Your First 20 Design Clients In Under 48 Hours

By October 18, 2013 30 Comments

I think it’s safe to say that the scariest things about diving into the land of the self-employed designer is the sheer terror of how you’re going to get your first few clients. All those fears, questions and doubts start flooding your mind… all the ‘what if’ scenarios. The panic starts to set in and your feeling of excitement is now a feeling of anxiety and self-doubt.

Breaking out in a cold sweat, you think to yourself “WTF have I just done?”

  • How do I get my first few?
  • What if I don’t get any clients?
  • What if I they hate my work?
  • What if I can’t pay my bills?

I had ALL those feelings 10 years ago when I started out. So, whadoyado?

 

Here’s how to get 20 clients in just 2 days.

Okay so picture this…

I’m 24 and living in Sydney working as a graphic designer. I call my dad to tell him I’m moving back home to country Wagga Wagga to start my own business. I can’t afford to do it in Sydney but it’s my lifelong dream and I’m ready to make it happen.

Then I explain that I’d like to live back at home with him and Mum for a while until I get it up and running.

The first thing he says to me is:

“No way! That’s a waste of your education Bianca, you can’t come back here to Wagga, there’s no opportunity here… you’ll never make it.”

No joke, that’s what he said.

Now picture this: Red rag to a bull!

If you know me at all by now, you know I take the bull by the horns when faced with any challenge so after I calmed down, I talked to my mum and thankfully, she was all for it.

So I packed my bags and moved (for the 9th time in 6 years) to set up shop in my parent’s lounge room and start my first ‘real’ business.

Dad wasn’t talking to me but I didn’t care.1

I was so excited at what the business world had to offer me; I could barely wipe the smile off my face the whole 5-hour drive back to Wagga. (Needless to say I had very sore cheeks by the time I got home.)

So I landed back in my hometown, borrowed some cash off Mum, bought a computer, installed my software, fired it up and started my typing my business plan.

I wanted to do my due diligence so I headed to our local government’s business advisory centre to get the right advice on starting a design business. What a mistake that was!

I copped the same response I got from my Dad. The actual guy in charge says to me:

“You’ll never make a go of it here, Wagga doesn’t need a ‘design’ business, they won’t pay. They just get their design done at the newspaper. It’ll never work. Get a loan, go back to Sydney and start it there…”

This was a small business advisor! No joke. I was like “Are you for real? You get paid to give this sort of dream-shattering advice?”

Enter red rag number #2!

Now I’m even more determined to make this a success so I put my thinking cap on.

Despite my dad’s best efforts to convince me I should have a ‘Plan B’, I’m a stubborn bull and I flat out refused.

“Failure is simply not an option. Stuff Plan B, I’ll just stick here with Plan A until I succeed.”
{Click to tweet}

 

So how am I going to prove them all wrong and get a ton of clients?

Enter ‘the bull’.

As I sit back down at my new desk sporting my best concentration frown, I get to scribbling:

 

Don’t forget, this is 10 years ago before Facebook was a word! (Well technically, they were just getting started but there were certainly no social networks in country Wagga!)

Then Mum handed me a calendar that a school in Victoria had organised as a fundraiser and said to me “Why don’t you do something like this?”

God bless you Mum! I could have kissed her. Actually, I did.

So anyway, I crunched some numbers, did some rough workings of ad sizes, scribbled some drawings and decided to do a local calendar for the shopping area near my house. It was late September so it was the perfect time to promote an annual calendar for the following year.

My idea was simple:

  • Sell 20 x advertising spots in the calendar at various sizes and prices.
  • Design the calendar and all the ads for the various businesses.
  • Use the money from the ad sales to pay for the printing.
  • Print 4,000 calendars and give them to my advertisers so they could distribute to their customers, thus promoting their local shops and all those who advertised.

Of course, I had a few big ads in there for my new design business and on every page was ‘Designed by BRB Creative’. Hey, I needed to leverage off this as much as I could if my idea was to work.

I wasn’t in it for the profit, just the clients, but I did leave $500 spare in my workings for sundries.

Remember, I had no money when I started my business. I had a computer, that’s it.

My desired outcome:

  • Fast exposure for me and my new business.
  • Snag my first few clients and impress the socks off them.
  • Get my business into 4,000 households, 365 days of the year, and cheap.
  • Have enough work to get my business off the ground. (I was happy to just have enough for the first month. I hadn’t thought much past that!)

 

Okay, so I had my plan, and then came the scary part.  Now I had to ‘sell’ it.

Enter ‘the fear’!!!

I quickly got some business cards printed then I created a one-page flyer with a mockup of the calendar showing the ad spaces available. I planned to sell them on the spot by letting the first signups know they could pick the best spots. First in, best dressed!

I was implementing the ‘scarcity’ tactic before I even knew it was called that.

Anyway, I hit the streets. I was going to start door knocking unannounced and make a name for myself. Look out Wagga Wagga, the bull is coming!

(Just for the record, I was a nervous wreck under all my bravado. ;-/)

I had no idea how many businesses I’d have to visit in order to fill my 20 spots but I was determined. I wasn’t stopping until I had them all sold… whether it took me a week or a month. I just kept chanting to myself:

“Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”
 Babe Ruth
{Click to tweet}

 

The first one was the hardest. I got a gruff “Nope, not interested.” The guy wouldn’t even make eye contact with me.

Shaking like a leaf, I went into the next shop where I was told, “Sorry, the owner’s not here, come back tomorrow”.

Okay, I’m getting warmer.

Third one, BAM!

I was greeted by a friendly bald guy2 who was in for a chat. I got to practice my nervous pitch at last and he was sold! 1 down, 19 to go!

A win!! Re-energised, off I went, almost prancing down the street.

And then I knocked…. and I knocked…. and I knocked.

97 businesses later and just under 2 days, my calendar was full. I was exhausted but I was totally booked and that’s all I cared about. 2 days is all it took. 2 days!

I’ll never forget that rush. It was like a drug.

I was going to be successful, rich even! My business was going to have clients. I had restored my faith in myself. I was on a high! (Take that Dad!).

I started organising briefs, designing ads, collecting money and executing my idea. The calendar was a hit (despite some major printing dramas) and the advertisers loved my ad designs so much that I’ve never had to look for work since.

Here’s the tipping point… 

I worked so hard to really impress those first few design clients and what I offered was so much better than what they’d experienced before (remember it was country Wagga over 10 years ago) that they asked me to do more work for them, pretty much immediately. I started designing brochures, logos, catalogues and more for my 20 calendar advertisers and business was booming.

My clients started telling other businesses and before too long my phone started ringing non-stop.

Then the calendars hit people’s homes and I started getting inbound leads from that too.

Within 6 months, I had so much work, I had to move out of my parent’s lounge room, get a proper office and hire my first employee.

I’ve never looked back.

>>> Insert fist pumps at Mr Government Advisor here!

 

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But that was 10 years ago, what about now?

I know what you might be thinking….

“Surely there’s an easier way now with Facebook, LinkedIn, SEO, PPC, websites etc” but do you know what I think? I say:

“Forget about all the modern-age marketing channels and focus on forging real relationships with people.”
{Click to Tweet}

 

I read this post the other day over on one of my favourite blogs, Graphic Design Blender. The owner, Preston D Lee, wrote a similar story about what he did when his leads started to dry up. The blog’s titled: ‘How I got tons of new design clients with this small freebie’. (You should go read it now; it’s actually what inspired this post.)

To get more clients, Preston wrote a book called “10 Elements All Web Sites Should Have” then printed copies and went and dropped them into businesses in person. Not an eBook, a good ‘ole fashioned printed book! Don’t you just love it?!

I think this is a brilliant idea. And that creativity, effort and personal delivery scored Preston a ton of new credibility AND clients.

I know it’s 2013 but old school totally works because it’s unusual. It stands out in today’s crazy clutter… and you need to stand out if you want to grab clients.

 

My final pearls of wisdom on getting clients.

  1. Get creative;
  2. Think old school;
  3. Be fearless;
  4. Brainstorm a way to get in front of people face-to-face;
  5. Persevere; never give up until you reach your goal. Good enough isn’t;
  6. Let your passion ooze out of your pores, every door you walk through;
  7. Keep smiling, even if you’ve just been hit with 20 ‘no’s’ in a row. Keep it up;
  8. Every ‘no’ brings you closer to a ‘yes’;
  9. Practice ‘scarcity’; and
  10. … don’t always listen to your dad. 😉

So forget ‘modern day’ marketing for right now and go old school. That’s what’ll make you stand out. It’s a rarity these days. Take the plunge, polish your boots and get in front of people; they love the personal attention.

 

What tactics have you tried to get new clients? Or if you’re a total newbie, leave a comment below with your ideas and I’ll see if I can help you develop them further.

 

Footnotes:
1I proved my dad wrong and we’re talking again now. I still give him shit about it thought every chance I get. That along with the fact that in Year 10 he made me drop Art as a subject and do Economics instead. He said, “There’s no money in art”. Can you believe it? I have a bit of sport with the old fella these days, that’s for sure!
2The bald guy is still a client to this day!

What do you think? Share your comments below.

 

Author Bianca Board

After 20 years inspiring more than 10,000 designers and small business owners to take control of their business, Bianca is now spearheading Foxley, a brand spanking new SaaS platform for designers. She is deeply passionate about helping distil the complexities of running a web design business - to make it easier for all designers to make the leap from designer to design entrepreneur. She’s a translator of web jargon, a lead generation master, a champion for small businesses and you can Google her brain for endless strategies on how to transform your business.

More posts by Bianca Board
  • Liam

    The Origin Story! Very cool, and very inspiring. It’s by far one of the most buzzy feelings, when all your hard work pays off, and the wheels start turning, its addictive. Well Done Bianca! Hats off.

    • Yep, and I’m ‘The Bull’! Thanks for reading Liam.

      You certainly can’t beat that high when you finally do conquer against all odds. I actually enjoy the roadblocks along the way, it makes me more determined to succeed and I think ultimately I end up a better person for it. You just gotta learn how to ride the waves and tame the bull along the way! 🙂

  • Ryan Jackson

    This is awesome Bianca and your content here is terrific. From 7 years freelancing u r motivating me to hit the pavement for the first time!

    • Thanks Ryan! Go for it! The results will amaze you I’m sure. The first few are really hard but just suck it up because after that, it’s smooth sailing my friend! What that’s saying “The magic happens when you’re outside your comfort zone…”

      I think these days it’s easy to hide behind our websites and social media accounts and forget that at the end of the day, we’re still dealing with real people here, and people do business with people they know, like and trust. So what better way to fast-track the process about 10 steps and just walk straight in their front door!

      Also, on a side note, when we first launched Web123 four years ago, my partner Simon went around to businesses at night and slid brochures under their door then phoned them the next day about a website. It’s not ‘as good’ but he got great results. He just used to drop off 10 or so brochures on his way home from the office with a little hand-written note.

      Let me know how you go! xx

      • Ryan Jackson

        Thanks Bianca
        Great advice, I think going back to fundamentals of reaching out and building a bridge in traditional form has better value for being more personal and making stringer connections with locals. How did you find price points with local business? I tend to find a majority are very budget conscious..?

        • I’m so sorry I missed this one Ryan.

          The most important thing is having confidence in yourself. Always stand firm on the price once you’ve decided it (price it based on your time to execute, printing costs plus a reasonable margin taking into account what advertising space is worth in your area).

          You need to explain clearly and simply how this is a great idea that you can execute well, and explain how you’d see them getting a return. You can’t make promises with results of course, and although they might try to throw you by wanting guarantees, they’re really just yanking your chain; Retailers are experienced promotional marketers so they know no one can guarantee a result! They’re more likely to quibble about price, or they may already have reached the limit of their promotional budget so they can’t take you up on it, even if they wanted to.

          Remember sometimes they’re not going to spend their dollars on you and that’s ok, let them go and move to the next on your hit list.

  • Brett

    Quite an interesting read, you don’t find too many good posts about people’s experiences and how they got going. You hit the ground running and come out in the end with experience, a successful business and inspiring story for others to read and share. Well done!

  • Thanks for sharing this! And wow, what kind of calendars did you print that allowed you to print 4000 of them for minimal price?

    • No probs Danielle! It was a very long time ago so I don’t remember ‘exactly’ but they were 24pp (plus cover) A4 landscape booklet, stitched on the spine with a single hole drilled in the top to hang it on the wall. It had a full colour card stock cover and I think one colour print on the inside pages which were for each month obviously with advertising on the top page when open, calendar on the bottom. 🙂

  • Matt Simon

    Great article Bianca! I Really appreciate the advice. I’ve been trying to find new ways of reaching new local cliental and this is a great idea. I’m just curious on how much you would suggest charging per ad. Thanks again!

    • Hey Matt, thanks for reading! And wow, now you’re testing my skills as it was 10 years ago. I’m pretty sure I had 2 or 3 sizes, and I think I charged around $600, $300 and $150 or the three sizes. I think it brought in around $5,500 all up. I’m more than happy to give you some feedback if you get some ideas together. Good luck!

      • Ashley Tinsley

        Great info! I was wondering that myself!

  • Ashley Tinsley

    I LOVE this! I am totally going to copy you and do the exact same thing! I’m thinking nail salons, dance studios, chinese restaurants… all the little mom and pop shops in my neighborhood! I’m really inspired and I can’t wait to get started!

    • Awesome Ashley, it sounds like it’s time for you to do a 90 day sprint: work really hard, get those clients, focus on your goal and get it happening. Then sit back and see what you’ve created before you take the next sprint. That’s what I do, and it works. Let me know how you go!

  • Kamal

    Thanks for the great article Biance. In fact you should be thankful to your Mom for lifetime who gave you the excellent idea to print Calendars. 🙂

    • HI Kamal, glad you enjoyed it. Yep I do thank my mum, and not just for helping me set up a business in her lounge. I’m sure it wasn’t always easy bringing up a stubborn scallywag like me! 🙂

  • Syaiful Amri

    Very interesting and very inspiring story. Thank you for this article.

  • Nikki Hoza

    I love this idea. I was thinking of doing something similar but doing a coupon/ad booklet that the businesses can pass out to customers. The Ad buyers can have anything they want in their spaces they purchase. There will be 3 different sizes and all under $150 and 3000-4000 printed.

    • Sounds like a good idea Nikki. Have your sales pitch ready, make sure you’ve thought of some typical objections and some good replies, and jump in! Just make sure you’ve got enough fat in those numbers so you don’t go broke before you start! :-p

  • Awesome story, Bianca! Thanks for sharing. I think it all comes down to getting the courage to get out there and sell.

    • Absolutely right. Finding the courage to sell is really what it comes down to for all small business owners… but especially for us creative types; most of us hate selling!

      That’s why next month, in my ProPartner Program, we’re focussing on painlessly boosting sales skills. We’re even going to be running some webinars for the first time so my ProPartner members can can even more help and TLC. It really is the one thing we all struggle with but the one thing that makes or breaks our business!

  • Mandy Milliron

    Awesome story. I am just starting out as a freelancer. I got burnout trying to figure out how to use social media to market myself. This is what I will probably need to do. The only problem is I don’t know how to go about it. The main city near me if full of graphic design completion and my current client already has quite an advertising set up that would make doing your calender idea a bit harder for me to do. However, the town right next door has less designers(they usually go to the other town), but a lot of these shops are of country folk like myself. I am thinking of trying a similar idea to yours, but I don’t know what old school media I should try, especially since I know my prices have to be competitive to other designers. I might even hit up some of my weaving guildmates who might want to adversite their wares with whatever I come up with. I might give them a discount or even barter for some nice yarn or roving to add to my stash. 🙂

  • What a fantastic idea. Very creative indeed.

    Perhaps the next edition could be a guide to (x local business type). For example, if you wanted to focus on a particular industry, say bars and hospitality, you could produce a guide book with short reviews about each venue. Sell ad space to the bigger venue to pay for the costs and implement the same self-promotion tactic to drum up some leads for the business.

    What kind of work did your strategy lead to? Print design or web design?

    • Hey Daniel, thanks for your kind words. And what a great idea on a guide for relevant industries, nice one, I love it! *Adding it now to my blog ideas list.*

      At the time it led to print work which was what I was chasing but it naturally evolved into web. Most of those clients ended up investing in a website and are still with me to this day… even 11 years on!

      On a side note, did you change the name of your business? Were you originally Design Quotes?

      • Yeah we rebranded a few months ago and will be launching a wider range of services so customers can request quotes for just about anything and businesses can register to buy leads.

        However we are still focused on design and web.

        Do you still run courses for operating a design business? Our members might be interested in the material.

  • Absolutely love this post, Bianca! I’m 23 and have wanted to start my own business since forever. I finally actually launched my own web design business on Tuesday after a solid couple of months locked away in my bedroom/office in between sleep and a full-time job, and now I’m brainstorming ways to find my first few clients. I was thinking of just visiting businesses around the area and this post has made me feel a lot more positive about that idea! Thanks heaps!

    • Wow!! I’m so happy for you Kate!! Congratulations for taking the leap into entrepreneurism!! You will love the ride. It won’t be easy but damn is it rewarding!

      Definitely go and see businesses around your area as a starting point. You could even take a printed book or guide you can put together to educate them on how to get results from what you offer. If it’s web it’s easy to put something together. Check out our Top 10 Website Mistakes You Don’t Want To Make over on Web123 and keep an eye out for a course I have coming soon to help you with automating all your marketing — it’s the exact blueprint we use to bring in tons of leads every day.

      Good luck, you’ll blitz it!!

  • Lorraine Moss

    Wow! I feel inspired now. Need to kick my butt and get out there, I am a great procrastinator!

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