So, you’ve decided to start your very own side hustle? Good on you! From my conversations with hundreds of people in their 50s and 60s, I can tell you, without hesitation, that working as a freelancer or consultant is one of the fastest and most effective ways to boost your retirement savings.
But, here’s the problem. While most people who want to start a consulting business have the skills to succeed, many don’t know how to go about finding their first few customers… the ones who will love their service and scream about their experience from the rooftops.
Since I am already 7 years into my own consulting journey, I thought that I would share a few of the things that I have learned about finding clients that will help you to pay the bills (without driving you crazy!)
This is the advice that I wish someone had given me when I was looking for my first 3 clients.
You Probably Already Know Your First 3 Clients
In preparation for writing this article, I did a quick survey of 20 people in their 50s and 60s who have started their own consulting or freelancing businesses.
All but one of these people told me that their first clients were people that they knew. Some of them worked with a family member or friend to get their feet wet, but, the majority found their first clients through their business networks.
This mirror’s my own experience as a consultant. Since leaving my corporate job, more than 7 years ago, I have worked with over a dozen clients, many of whom stuck with me for year after year.
How did I find them?
First, I created a list of all of my business associates, former colleagues, managers, friends and family members.
Second, I ranked the people on this list according to how well I knew each person and the likelihood that they would have consulting work that I would be a good fit for.
Finally, I called each person on my “top 50” list, one per day, until I found 2 people who had open projects that I felt that I was a fit for. Of these 2 potential projects, one turned into a 2-year gig that grew my confidence (and my wallet).
Is it possible to just send out an email blast or post on LinkedIn that you are looking for clients? Sure, but, I wouldn’t recommend it (at least not as your only strategy).
People are busy and it is way too easy to ignore an impersonal message. It’s much better to take the time to reach out to each possible lead one at a time.
Bonus: At the end of each phone call, regardless of whether I thought that the conversation was on track to lead to a project, I asked one simple question. I’m not kidding when I say that this one simple question doubled my client list in the first few years of my consulting business. The question I asked was:
Who is the one person that you think might benefit from me helping them with their marketing?
More times than not, my friends and colleagues had one or more people in their network who they were willing to connect me with. And, since getting in the door is the hardest part of looking for consulting work, their support was invaluable!
Do This BEFORE Reaching Out to Your Contacts
Let’s be honest, most of us are not great at keeping in touch with the people we have worked with. But, I promise you this… spending 10 minutes a week commenting on your colleagues public Facebook posts, tweets and LinkedIn posts will make a massive difference when you start to look for your first 3 clients.
If you haven’t done a great job of staying connected to the people in your business network, I recommend doing the following, at least 3-4 months before you start looking for your first 3 clients.
First, follow the people you think are most likely to be able to help you on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media channels. Make a point to comment (in an authentic way!) on their posts.
Second, make a point of looking for small ways to help the people in your network. This could be as simple as recommending the occasional awesome article or suggesting another person in your network who may be a good fit for a job that one of the other people in your network has open.
Finally, I recommend setting up a Google News alert for each of the people in your network. Make a point of congratulating them for any business wins or positive PR that they are associated with.
What if You Don’t Have a Big Network… or Your Contacts Don’t Need Your Help?
Is it possible to start a successful consulting business if you don’t have a big network or you aren’t able to convince the people that you do know to work with you? Absolutely! It just takes a bit more time and effort.
Here are a few of the many ways that you can look for clients outside of your network:
Freelancer Focused Websites
Ok, I’m going to be honest here. I’m not a huge fan of sites like Upwork and Fiverr – at least not from a freelancer perspective. Why? Because, when you sign up as a freelancer on one of these sites, you are competing with 1,000s of other people with your skillset.
How competitive is it on Upwork? Well, according to their own search tools, only about 8% of freelancers using the platform have made any money at all!
This is not to say that you can’t be successful on freelancing platforms. I know one writer who has made over $200,000 on Upwork. It’s just that you really need to work hard to stand out. At the end of the day, there are just easier ways to find clients.
This can actually be one of the most powerful ways to meet new potential clients. If you are still working and have permission to work on the side, you may even be able to use corporate events to build your network.
But, even if you are starting out completely on your own, there are always local business networking events in pretty much every city. Looking for Facebook groups related to your services can be a good place to start, but, personally, I have had more luck with meetup.com.
Just a few words of caution. When you are starting your own consulting business or getting into freelancing, it’s easy to slip too quickly into sales mode. And, as anyone who has ever attended high school knows, the easiest way to end up at the unpopular table at lunch is to try to hard to be popular.
Instead of seeing the people that you meet at networking events as potential clients, try to look at them as links in a chain. They probably won’t need your services right now, but, they may know someone who does.
So, connect with as many people as possible, follow them on social media and on LinkedIn and, after you have built some credibility, ask them if they know anyone who might need help.
Good Old-Fashioned Cold Calling and Cold Emailing
This is one of the hardest ways to get new clients as a consultant, but, if all else fails, it may be your only option.
The problem, of course, is that most of your potential clients receive dozens (if not 100s) of crappy, spammy cold emails every single day. These emails are impersonal, poorly written and a waste of time to read.
In my experience, it is much better to focus on a few leads per day and really try to customize your messages than to spam your message out to anyone that you can find. Here are a few tips for making your emails stand out.
First, make your email personal. Do you have something in common with them? Have you (honestly!) been following them for a long time and feel comfortable commenting on their work? Have you been interacting with them on Twitter for ages? Have you faced a similar challenge to one that they are facing now? Can you give a genuine compliment?
Lead with something that shows that you aren’t just sending a mass email. It really does make a difference.
Second, focus on what your potential client wants, not what you want. After my emotional hook, I always try to get to the point and explain: 1. Why I am getting in touch and 2. What’s in it for the recipient.
Finally, don’t go for the sale in your first email. Give your potential client win/win reason to contact you. Can you offer them something for free, even if it is just an hour of consulting time? Be creative!
When All Else Fails, Live Your Business
It never ceases to amaze me how many would-be-consultants sit there and do nothing when their first few clients don’t drop into their laps.
If you find yourself in the position of having some extra time on your hands, start living your business. What the heck does that mean? It means stop complaining and start building yourself into a recognized expert in your niche.
Set up a WordPress blog and start helping people with your articles and videos. Write a book. Help non-profits or charities by providing your services for free. Become active in social media. Basically, just get out there and start doing your stuff.
Eventually, as your audience grows, you will find more opportunities than you have time to work on. And, along the way, you may just find yourself having a little fun.
Have you started your own consulting business or started to work as a freelancer? What have you found most challenging or rewarding? What advice would you give to someone who is just getting started?