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How to Get Your First Web Design Client

My first client was a chocolatier in Michigan. Steve and I built the original site for $500. It included a homepage, some photos, and a menu that allowed customers to submit a candy order form without having to use a fax machine. The owner was convinced that no one would ever use the order form…but it ended up being a huge boon for customer happiness (and her business).

This was in 1999.

At the time, I lived in Plano, Texas. Which really has nothing to do with South Branch, Michigan. Except for the fact that Steve’s dad would go hunting in Michigan and would always stop by Sherni’s Candies (we no longer manage the site) on his way out of town to buy gifts for friends and family. Over the years, he forged a relationship with the owner, and when Steve and I decided to go into business, he suggested we give her a call to help her out.

There was nothing game changing about how we got our first client. But…it was really exciting. I remember getting the check in the mail along with several boxes of chocolate for us to photograph to use in her website design. It was exhilarating. Sure, we had to actually deliver said website, which I had only a little experience doing (for myself), but I knew we could figure it out.

I’ve found that as long as I know the first step, I can usually make the rest happen with a little persistence.

But if you are sitting there reading this and thinking: “that sounds way too easy Brent, I need my first client and that just isn’t happening for me!”

Don’t worry…I got you covered.

Strategies & Tactics Are For Businesses

If you don’t have a paying customer yet, then you aren’t a business yet. You have an idea, but no revenue—which means it’s just a hobby.

(Feel free to take some jabs at me if you disagree…)

But before you run off reading some marketing book talking about how you need to create a scalable, social media-based, SEO-targeted, viral content marketing campaign, think again. I hear from tons of web professionals that complain about not being able to get that first (or second) customer.

My first question is: “where are you looking for them?”

The responses vary, but most of the time it has to do with building their own website, trying to get ranked by Google, or by getting active on Facebook or Twitter. All of these are death traps for the newly minted.

Whether you like it or not, you aren’t an expert yet. You have some skills, and you want to get paid so you can hone your talents and hopefully one day make a living doing something you love.

When Sherni’s hired us, we didn’t have a website. We didn’t even have a business name or legal entity. The check we got from her went straight to the legal fees that, at the time, were required to set up an LLC.

Marketing takes time and money. You have neither. You need a client now!

(And I bet your house isn’t lined with hundreds or thousands of dollars.)

Hang Out Your Shingle

We got hired because we told people we had a business. I sat down with Steve and his parents, and we told them what we were doing. Then I told my parents. Then I told my best friends, and they mentioned it to other people I went to school with.

The cost of telling someone what you are doing is zero.

People that love you are invested in your success. They don’t have a choice. At the time, I think my parents mentioned something like this to a couple of their friends, “not sure what my son is doing…him and his friend are starting a web design business.” They weren’t even talking about our operation in a positive light. They were speaking more in the tone of a worried parent wishing his kid would spend more time studying than reading acronym-laden books. But the fact is that they couldn’t help but tell some of their co-workers or friends.

The result was our second client.

After that, a classmate of mine worked at CompUSA (remember that place?), and a customer came in one day asking about how to set up a website. My friend had no idea, but he got the customer’s phone number and let him know that I would give him a call. I called this guy and ended up getting a stake of their business and office space when I needed it.

Which led to a half dozen other projects and clients.

Trust Is Everything

When you have zero portfolio, zero experience, and zero clients, the only thing you really have is trust. I was able to leverage the trust I had built up with people seeing me grow up into a “I’ll figure it out commitment,” no matter what happened if they hired me.

I didn’t get hired because I knew how to build websites. The clients thought I could build what they were paying me for. The reality was that most of the time I didn’t have a clue how I was going to deliver what they needed.

I couldn’t show them examples. I had no client references to send them. All I had was my word and a family or friend connection to vouch for me. Basically, they all knew that I wasn’t going to run off to Mexico with their money. So they hired me.

Signing Numero Uno

If you are at client zero, looking to get to client one, stop thinking in terms of “marketing” or “strategy.” Why? Because getting that first client is so much easier than that. Tap into the network that is right in front of you, and you’ll get your first client before the month’s end.

Start by making a simple list of everyone close to you. Then, one by one, have a conversation with them about what you are doing. Tell them what you want to achieve and the types of skills you have.

Don’t pitch them.

Just ask them to listen to you and, if anything, offer advice on where you could go to next. People love giving advice. And people also love helping other people.

Not everyone will deliver you a nicely wrapped customer. But that’s okay…

Because you only need one.

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