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Apr 8

How to Find Bigger Clients When You’re On Upwork

We’ve all been there. Upwork, eLance, Freelancer or other platforms are easy ways to kickstart a freelancing gig.

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Many of us, myself included, got our start with Upwork (well, it was oDesk back then). When you’re trying to find your feet, sometimes the easiest way seems like the best way. But sadly that’s not always the case.

Upwork sure makes it sound appealing though. The clients are all there, they’ve outlined exactly what they want so you can quickly decide if you’re a good fit for the job, and they’ve even told you how much they expect to pay. Seems like an ideal situation, right?

Almost like going fishing at the aquarium: everything is transparent and everyone is on the same playing field. But after a few projects, Upwork begins to become uncomfortable, and you realize…

You’ll never make enough money on upwork.

It’s sad. But it’s true. Let’s revisit the fishing metaphor.

Yep, it’s like fishing in an aquarium, but you and every other person out there knows about it! Those fish are presented with so much bait, they can easily pick the one that:

  • will hurt the least (cheapest)
  • they’ve had before (the job was never actually open)
  • they saw first
  • stands out the most

So that initial thought of “wow, this is so easy and great” suddenly gets washed away when you realize that your application might be trashed because the client only viewed applications until they discovered the first decent profile.

The client might not even view your profile because they spotted a name they recognized from a previous project, or worse – choose the cheapest option despite that person’s skillset compared to yours.

But what about things on the other side? I don’t know if you’ve ever used UpWork to hire someone, but let me assure you: it sucks. I posted a job looking for a copywriter once and had over 1,000 applicants. OVER ONE THOUSAND. I was amazed that many of them had no experience, no portfolio, and could barely stitch a sentence together. These applicants had made it through Upworks vigorous ‘data science’ and landed straight into my inbox.

Mind bottling, isn’t it? Just when you have faith in the system that good work will get its chance if you do your best, you’re not even considered for the first hurdle.

So we’ve established that Upwork is no place for professionals like you…

How do you find bigger clients outside of Upwork?

Well, it’s tough. At least to start – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But there’s faith. Finding bigger clients is absolutely doable with some hard work.

It helps to learn a little about consumer psychology here. Your Upwork client probably was drawn to that platform for one of a few reasons, such as they have no idea where else to look for service providers. They could scour the internet for hours searching for good freelancers, or they could simply log on to Upwork and check out their extensive list all in one place.

Alternatively, they may want to find a deal, or can’t afford industry-accepted rates for professional design. Most people, including clients, want to feel as though they’re getting good deals worth for their budget without doing bad business. Which brings us into our last reason. They might be worried about scams or getting screwed over. There’s a certain level of safety in doing your business through a third-party.

If you ask me, they’re all pretty awful ways to start a professional relationship. So let’s take a look at some of the reasons why bigger clients choose the designers they work with…

They might have previously worked with the designer, or know someone who has worked with them in the past. Perhaps they met the designer in person or discovered them via social media due to their large following. Or maybe they looked at the designer’s portfolio, appreciated their work and envisioned their style successfully pulling off the work that they want doing for themselves.

This list is by no means complete, but you can start to see the difference. Most of these are based around trust. Trust in the designer showing up for work, fulfilling their duties and doing so in a way that merges with the client. The underlying cause for the purchase decision is the same, but their results and actions vary wildly.

So what’s the one takeaway here?

Bigger clients buy assurance, and they don’t look for it on sites like Upwork.

Assurance is everything to a high-paying client. Assurance is the key to find bigger clients and land bigger jobs. What does that mean? Bigger design clients are looking for you to be able to assure them that you’ll hit three major points when you get the job done; they need to know you can complete it to their standard, on time and in budget. When you put your name forward to apply for a job, communicating that you can match these three criteria is key.

By now we’re sure your targets are set on landing bigger clients, so let’s take a look at a simple four-step process to get on their radar and connect with them. Note — we could probably write an encyclopedia on each of these steps, but for the purpose of this article, let’s take a macro view of this flow:

1. Define who you want to work with

This step is key, and not many people do it well. It’s hard to pinpoint your ideal client when you feel as though any well-paying work would suffice. Take the time to tap into what really interests you, what your passions are and your beliefs. Don’t underestimate how much enjoying the work and connecting with it on a personal level of interest can influence the final outcome. If you’re still stuck for ideas you could look at your hobbies and see how they could influence the clients you approach.

For instance, let’s say you’re a craft beer enthusiast — what would stop you from working with a local brewery? Plot out an entire list of breweries, bars, and burger joints in your area. Then learn a little about the corporate leadership and company structure. Who’s responsible for the brand image? Who’s responsible for purchasing media or marketing materials?

Once you’ve done that, figure out all the ways you can make these people aware that you exist. Look up examples of a consumer journey and use a combination of your knowledge and common sense to plot out a journey for each type of business that you want to work with.

2. Get positioned

This is the second step for a reason. You should mirror who your desired customers are and what they need. Tesla may be a great car, but they’d have a tough time selling to someone shopping for an ATV.

You need to decide who your target client is before positioning yourself because otherwise, you’ll cast a wider net in hopes of trying to please everyone. If you’re positioning yourself as a freelancer, I highly recommend developing a very niche style and service offering. In other words, don’t have a website that offers or displays web design, character design, illustration, print work, and kinetic typography in one place. Someone who is looking for an expert will see this and run far, far away.

Have you ever been stood in a grocery store looking for something simple and been bombarded with choice? Sometimes offering a selective number of things, and proving you’re great at every single one, outshines saying you’re capable of doing twenty things – and this is one of those times. If you’re positioning yourself as an agency, or as a “we,” you have a little more leeway, but definitely stick to a defined group of services.

You want a client to come onto your website and see a little of what they’re about. Does your website reflect your vertical? Does it reflect WHO you want to work with? This is where you sell assurance. If they can see a similar color-palette as their own or a similar style of work that they’re used to, then they will feel more comfortable trusting you to produce their vision.

If you’re not sure where to start with this, consider these three questions first:

Do you have great examples of only your best work?

Does your website have grammatical errors? (Always a big no-no)

Do you have references and testimonials available and visible?

3. Be visible

Within your customer journey, you should have identified several opportunities to increase your business’ awareness. Now is the time to take action on these items. Gaining visibility will differ from business to business, but your main focus should be on social media, branding, and SEO.

Crafting a specialized Instagram account, actually GOING to those burger joints and breweries and talking to the staff, connecting with leadership over LinkedIn (without overselling, people, c’mon), being active in local small business groups, or competing in award shows are all good ways to increase awareness for your practice.

Traction is a great book to read for awareness ideas — they claim there are 19 channels for lead generation. Check it out here.

4. Connect

After you’ve run your passive awareness efforts, it’s time for some hand-to-hand combat. Pick five of the people you listed in the first step and buckle your seatbelt. I’m going to suggest something that will go against every one of your designerly instincts:

Invite them to lunch.

Or coffee. Or for a beer. Just invite them out to connect. No strings attached, no sales pitch. Just say you’re new in town/in business/to their shop, and that you’d LOVE to pick their brains for some knowledge. It’s as simple as that. You can shoot them a three line email, or send them a tweet, or even stop by their business and invite them in person. However, you do it, be cordial, friendly, and reassure them that you’re not there to sell them. People hate that.

This really is part of the awareness phase, and it’s almost like a cold call, but if you have no agenda, it takes the pressure off of both of you. When you sit down with them, just ask questions. How did they get their logo done? Who do they work with for packaging? What’s the worst part of their job? Show genuine interest and it will be reciprocated.

Now, you may not get work right off the bat. But if you continue to sit down with people, your name will start to pop up in industry conversations. You’ll be amazed when that first massive design job lands at your feet how far that one connection went.

If casually meeting a prospective client doesn’t come naturally to you – and don’t worry, it doesn’t to many of us – then fear not. We’ve released the First Meeting Worksheet which is absolutely free and all it requires is for you to fill in the blanks. Whether you’re going into your first meeting without a sales pitch or you’re ready to tell them what you can do, this downloadable worksheet will walk you through every step so you can remain cool, calm, collected and of course, yourself.

The silver bullet doesn’t exist

There isn’t any ONE proven way to find bigger clients. Finding high-paying design clients, as in any other sale, is all about people. Brainstorm and follow a customer/consumer journey, and make every effort to genuinely connect with other humans who are positioned to help you grow. It’s even better if you can offer them value immediately, even if it is simply in the form of stimulating conversation.

Already have a meeting?

First of all, congrats! Good job. Without the structure you’re used to from sites like Upwork, nailing that first client meeting can be a little stressful. Don’t worry – it will go away with practice. But in the meantime, we recommend a specific format to that first client meeting. That’s why we’ve put together The First Meeting Worksheet. This will walk you through that first meeting step by step, and give you the right question to ask. Best of all, it’s FREE.

Ben Burns

Ben Burns is a designer that helps growing businesses increase revenue, expand brand awareness, and earn happier customers. Currently, he serves in a dual role as both the Chief Operating Officer of The Futur and as Digital Creative Director at Blind.