How to win your first freelance gig

The biggest hurdle to becoming a full-time freelancer is finding work in the first place. It might seem overwhelming when you desperately need to pay the bills and get the ball rolling. But with the right attitude, willingness and focus, you'll be up and running in no time.

Keep in mind that with the following advice you're going to have to work harder than you've ever done in your life. You're going to have to travel a lot more and meet a huge amount of people. You've also got to accept that not all your efforts will pay off – the key is to ensuring that some of them do. And they will! So roll your sleeves up, prepare to get stuck in and read these tips on how to win your first freelance gig...

Work for an agency first

A good way to start is to work for an agency as a full-time employee. Ensure you do a great job for them, gain loads of experience, become invaluable and then, when you're ready to go freelance, try and strike a deal with your former boss where you can still help out on projects.

This doesn't work for everyone – as some agencies won't need or want to hire outside help. But it worked for me and many of my friends. Just make sure you have a plan B. At the very least, you gained some valuable experience and insight into how agencies work, and how to run a business.

Visit all of your local agencies

When I went solo in 2007, I contacted about 30 agencies across the North West and the Midlands, asking if they needed any PR or copywriting support. I didn't just target the PR firms, I also got in touch with design, marketing and digital agencies.

I didn't send an email, I picked up the phone and asked if I could drop by for a 10-minute chat. I was friendly but determined and just went for it. I gave them no choice but to meet me and really sold myself on the phone. From driving around to about 20 of them – I won my first couple of projects, which led to long-term repeat business.

Do the same yourself but bear in mind that agencies get hounded by freelancers looking for work. Read this article on how to charm anyone and win people over for some extra tips.

Travel further out

Don't just stay on your own doorstep. Expand your horizons and move to different counties or regions to find work. I did this when I started out. I went to London, trekked down to the South West, met people over in Norwich. I basically widened the net of finding potential new work and ended up working for people as far away as Exeter. And that's quite some distance from rural Cheshire – but everything was done over the phone or email.

Use your past connections

People are by far the biggest weapon in your mission to win those first clients, so dig out the old address book and get back in touch with friends, family, old colleagues, former employers or even teachers. Tell them that you're available for work and ask them to keep that in mind if they, or anyone they know, might need anything.

Network, network, network

Nothing beats face-to-face interaction to really connect with people and win work. After all, business is about people, so find local networking events where you can build valuable connections, which could then lead to winning that first gig.

But remember! The hard sell doesn't work here. You have to establish relationships and enjoy getting to know people, rather than pitch your services right away. Read these tips on how to make the most of networking if you're a freelancer.

Have a great website

Once you've gone out there and met people – which I personally think is the best way to win business – you also need to focus on building an online profile that will allow people to organically find you. This means you need a website. And not just any website. It has to be clean, appealing, enticing and a reflection of your skills and work. Think of it as your shop window. Read these 60 ways to create a successful website.

Tackle some SEO

You've got to have a website that's SEO-friendly and attracts people for certain keywords. Don't think you can tackle SEO? I managed to without any previous experience – and within 18 months my website was listed number two – in the entire world – for the competitive keyword 'PR agency'.

Want to learn SEO yourself? Look up Moz for some great training videos and tips. is also a decent learning resource. And then it's also worth following a few key SEO blogs like Distilled and Michael Gray. There is absolutely no excuse why your website can't be on the first page of Google for your keyword. Everything is available to you on the web, so roll up your sleeves and learn some new skills.

Online portfolios are worth it too

You should also probably get yourself on all the major portfolio hosting sites like Behance and Carbonmade, just to cast a wider net.

Make each of your portfolios enticing by writing great bios and uploading a decent profile picture that will make people instantly warm to you, and subsequently want to hire you. Link everything back to your main website and hey presto! You're marketing yourself online!

Get social

If you haven't already done so, set yourself up on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, and have everything linking back to your website or online portfolio.

Make sure you use the same profile pic for each one, so you build your personal brand. It's also worth having a consistent strap line that identifies who you are and what you do. Read these tips on how to make the most of Linkedin and how to make the most of your Twitter profile to get you started. In my opinion, Twitter is by far the most powerful – I've won a lot of work simply by tweeting and chatting to people online, so don't underestimate social media.

Market yourself

Now that you've met some agencies, networked and set yourself up online, you'll also need to market yourself. There are dozens and dozens of ways you can raise your profile. The obvious ones are advertising in your local paper (which I've never had to do) or cold-calling. But I actually wouldn't recommend these... Instead, I'd find inventive ways to grab attention.

A friend of mine started a blog about his love of cycling and won lots of design work from sharing his passion. Another did something for their local charity and it led to lots of local work. And there are many other ways you can market your business – read these 100 inspiring marketing ideas for inspiration.

Do a great job every time

Treat every project with the same care and attention as the last. Consider your work to be a walking advert for your services. Do a great job for people, be nice to work with and they'll not only hire you again, they might recommend you to others. Read these tips on how to successfully freelance for agencies and you can't go wrong.

Above all, remember the golden rule...

Work won't come to you at first – you have to go to the work. That's the key to becoming a successful freelancer. You've got to build up your profile initially before work naturally starts coming to you. You have to be feisty, determined and optimistic. You must never give up.

You have to do a little marketing every single day. That first year will be tough but if you put in the hours, network and always focus on marketing yourself – you'll easily win those first projects. For a little extra help, read this ultimate collection of freelance tips.