A 2015 poll found that more than half of small business owners felt they were lacking in clientele.
They all share the same struggle: Getting clients is one of the hardest parts of starting a new business.
Almost 46% said they needed improvement in this aspect, while about 16% were unsatisfied altogether. In 2021, 51% said they have trouble generating high-quality leads on social media.
If you’re not careful, this could be you, too. Use this guide to secure new clients with various testaments of your expertise.
Win Clients with a Strong Portfolio
When I first got started, I’d never worked as a paid writer. I’d only done it as a hobby or in outreach roles for which writing was a secondary responsibility. So, I had to improvise my first portfolio, which included:
- Essays I’d written in college. I made sure to choose the ones with high grades or good feedback. That way, I knew they were representative of my best work. Search for any projects you’ve worked on as an intern or volunteer and include them in your portfolio according to the same criteria.
- Links to blogs I’d written in past roles. I could present these as on-the-job examples of my work, boosting the credibility of those pieces. Plus, those could only be published with supervisor approval, so I knew they were of acceptable quality for potential clients. If there are any company documents you’ve contributed to in the past, include them as examples of professional experience.
- A website with plenty of samples. Write up a few prompts for yourself and put together some deliverables that a client might want. One easy way to get prompts is to look at competitor offers and their past client reviews. Look for what your prospects say they want and the challenges they face. Learn their most pressing questions and note any gaps in service they’re dissatisfied with. Use yourself as a guinea pig or a friend who’s willing to offer a testimonial. You can then publish these projects as case studies.
Curate different versions of your portfolio so that the contents directly relate to each project you’re applying to or the client you’re pursuing. This is critical to positioning yourself in your niche.
You can have as big of a portfolio as you want. But if the presented work has little or nothing to do with prospective clients or their projects, it’ll do you no good.
Tools You’ll Need to Share a Portfolio
Two of my favorite budget- and user-friendly web hosts are Squarespace and Weebly. You might also need a cloud service to upload and share your portfolio. This can come in handy if you’re showcasing large project files or if you’d like to update a sample without having to reformat an entire webpage.
My most trusted, most-used cloud services are Google Drive and Dropbox. Remember: If you move items between folders, you’ll need to update the share link for public access.
You can also use one of your social media profiles to curate mini-portfolios. I use things like LinkedIn’s “Featured” section or pinning Twitter threads of my best work to the top of my profile. These methods can make your body of work more widely accessible and help establish your personal brand.
Additional Tips for Developing Demonstrations
Another high-value item that you could add to your portfolio is a video demonstration. Ideally, the demo would showcase your process for developing your main product. You can even offer tutorials for prospective clients who may be interested in DIY methods.
The latter is unique in that it offers free, high-value knowledge. This empowers your target audience to save money and do the work themselves if they want. At the same time, sharing your knowledge freely signals self-confidence and portrays you as a highly knowledgeable industry leader. Ultimately, this incentivizes prospects to buy from you when they lack the bandwidth to go the DIY route.
Tools You’ll Need to Develop Demonstrations
- Screen recorder: I typically use Microsoft PowerPoint’s “Screen Recording” function. If you don’t have Microsoft PowerPoint, you can use other widely available software, such as Zoom. Start a meeting, record it, and use the “Share Screen” function to capture your demo.
- Camera and tripod: Don’t be afraid to show your face in your demos! Your presence will make them much more personable and welcoming… if they’re high-quality. While you don’t need an entire film set, you must look presentable. Many cell phone cameras are good enough to substitute a camcorder for simple videos. Still, if you’ve got a professional camera on hand, it’s better to use that instead.
- Microphone: Chances are your laptop already has an onboard microphone. Chances are that it’s a crappy mic, too. That said, you might want to invest in a budget-friendly lapel mic. It’ll significantly improve your audio, making your videos more appealing to watch and listen to.
- Light: Videos with poor lighting are eyesores. Believe me; I’ve made my fair share. I prefer ring lights because they’re cheap and portable. But if you’re working with a modest budget, pick a spot in your home or office that’s well-lit by natural sunlight, and you’re good to go.
Caveats to Building a Portfolio
I’ll be honest: Doing case studies, developing samples, and getting testimonials as a newbie can be tricky. You might need to work at a discounted rate—or even for free. I know that seems contradictory to most advice for freelancers and self-employed people, but it’s really not.
No, “exposure doesn’t pay the bills.” But you’ll be hard-pressed to demand pay equal to high-profile competitors without any substantial work or third-party reviews to back up such rates. There’s a time and place for bartering your work—the beginning of your career is usually that time.
(This is why it’s best to start your new venture as a part-time gig. That way, you can still float on the earnings of your full-time job.)
On that note, it’s essential to recognize that your rate depends on the size and quality of your portfolio. As a beginner, you might not be in a position to demand much more than a budget rate. In these cases, striking a deal with someone who’s willing to give a positive (but honest) review for your beginner-level work can be a lifesaver!
Securing Features to Boost Your Portfolio
And keep in mind: Not everything in your portfolio needs to be made by you. Some items can simply feature you.
Specific things that operate as testaments to your expertise include features on industry-related platforms and channels, such as podcasts and Q&A panels. These features can help prop up your credibility while passively expanding your network in the long run.
The best ways to get featured in such programs include:
- Being active on social media
- Attending networking events
- Reaching out to industry-relevant podcast hosts*
*If you go this route, make sure you have something of value to offer. This could be original research, a book release, or a unique, timely industry perspective or experience.
Clients might also be excited by seeing you featured on big platforms, as some of that recognition and positive reputation could pass on to them by association.
Securing Contracts with Stellar Proposals
Getting clients isn’t easy, even if you have a portfolio. It demands a high-level skillset, detailed and dynamic knowledge of your worth, and, at times, a significant amount of lead time to pursue the perfect prospect. This effort does not get easier over time. But when you start on the right foot, you can optimize for a continuous inflow of leads.
All these elements were critical to my ability to secure over 40 contracts in my three-year career so far. Although I didn’t master them all from the get-go, one skill, in particular, helped me overcome my shortcomings: selling my skills and expertise.
By the time I started pitching to prospective clients, I’d written way too many cover letters. So, I had an idea of what did and didn’t work for talent recruiters. The following features distinguished some of my most successful proposal letters that bagged long-term contracts.
|Be clear about your intentions.||Don’t beat around the bush or try to get too clever with your language. Whether you’re doing cold outreach or responding to a recruitment ad, your correspondence must get to the point immediately. Otherwise, you risk confusing your prospect, losing their interest, or sounding “salesy.”||“I am interested in a long-term partnership…”|
|Make it about the client.||Try to avoid making your proposal too much about yourself. Don’t just brag. Reaffirm and reflect your prospect’s needs and align those needs with your experience.||“You are in need of [primary job qualifications], which aligns well with my expertise.”
“Given my years of [state experience here], you’ll find that I am the right person for the job.”
|Be honest about your drawbacks.||Don’t try to paint yourself as perfect, especially when the prospect can easily verify your past experience. You’ll see in the corresponding example that this is not just about being transparent about potential weaknesses. You must also demonstrate how you can overcome those shortcomings.||Prompt: “I’d prefer if the writers that I hire have had some experience with ferrets.”
My response (prefaced by my most notable experience): “Although I do not have personal experience with a ferret… I have impeccable research skills that allow me to write on animals of all kinds, as if I’ve lived with them my whole life.”
|Talk about the tools you’ll be using to complete the job.||This is especially relevant for people who use exceptional industry tools. This is an excellent way to simultaneously set yourself apart and assure the delivery of a better-than-average product for the investment.||“Rest assured that each piece will be optimized… using tools such as Surfer SEO and Ahrefs.”
“All documents are run through Grammarly Premium and Copyscape before submission, ensuring the best product each time.”
Collect Reviews from Happy Clients
Getting reviews and testimonials is one of the most challenging parts of working as a self-employed person. This will be the case throughout your career.
A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 9% of U.S. adults “always” or “almost always” leave reviews for services they receive. On the other hand, 10% do the same for products they buy.
These trends lie at the heart of a key benefit of working on marketplaces like Upwork and Fiverr: Consistent reviews. The former prompts clients to leave ratings and feedback upon closing a contract. This prevents you from having to chase previous clients down once the projects end. And when you deliver a strong performance, your clients will be eager to tell others just how well you did.
Try to take on more short-term projects at first. I’d recommend single-assignment projects or agreements shorter than three months long. This way, you can accumulate your reviews quickly instead of having to wait for long-term projects to end. If you’re set on grabbing a long-term project from the get-go, schedule a six-month check-in to get a testimonial from long-term clients.
Once you’ve collected reviews from one channel, you can repurpose them for others.
For example, Upwork allows you to share reviews as images. When I made my first official business website, I saved some of these and transferred them to my site to build up my reputation outside of that marketplace. I even used them in social media posts to grow my network and online presence.
Services like Wiremo are a great option, too. Create reviews by copying and pasting the public feedback you receive. (Do NOT make fake reviews!) You can choose to mark each review as being from a “verified” customer. Even better: Attribute the reviews to the client’s name if that’s already publicly available or with permission.
Be Smart About the Platforms You’re Using
Some platforms are better for building a reputation and collecting reviews than others. This is one of the main reasons why people are attracted to marketplaces like Upwork and Fiverr. You can accumulate lots of projects in a relatively short period to build up your reputation quickly, thereby qualifying yourself for more (and better) work in the future.
But beware: Don’t become over-reliant on a single platform to bring in leads—especially these freelance marketplaces. They’re known to attract low-quality clients (i.e., people who pay unethically low rates, poor communicators, etc.) and can trap you in a cycle of unsatisfying gigs.
At the same time, it’s good to have those channels to fall back on. Pursuing new clients with cold emails or phone calls can be tough!
Outside these marketplaces, tools like LinkedIn InMail and scouting on industry-specific job boards can help ease the burden of finding clients.
Build Up Your Business with New Clients
Attracting clients is challenging, especially when you’re just beginning your entrepreneurial journey. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to boost your success in prospective client conversion and retention–and they all center on showcasing your expertise.
Building a portfolio, writing smart proposals, and collecting third-party reviews are all tried-and-true methods to gain trust and business. Invest in these steps as you jump into the marketplace, and you’ll have a much easier time as your career blossoms.