How to find, book, and onboard your first client

How to find, book, and onboard your first client

Ashley Gainer's Layout avatar

Hey, you fresh, hip new web designer, you! Starting your web design business is exciting, isn’t it!  How’s business going?

What’s that? You’re still looking for that first client?

Cool. Everyone has to start somewhere, after all. Once you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ll have a great process for finding and onboarding new clients. It’s just a matter of getting there, right?

You’ve got this. Here’s a plan of action for you:

Finding your first web design client

The first step in any business is to find the elusive first client.

Actually, sometimes clients aren’t elusive at all – they practically show up out of nowhere.

layout by flywheel find book onboard first client man and woman in business casual attire shaking hands outdoors

Whatever your situation is, here’s what you need to do to start finding clients:

1. Make sure you have a great site.

Your own website needs to be the best you can make it. Sleek, professional, and up to date. When in doubt, go minimal – less is more when you’re trying to impress. This needs to showcase your abilities as a designer – it’s quite possibly your only portfolio piece, after all!

2. Consider contacting local web design agencies.

Ready to start your own design agency? Here’s the guide to growing your business and increasing profits!

Ask if they need a contract worker or some temporary help with a project. You may be able to get some one-off projects that you can use for your portfolio, or you may even be asked to join the team and start getting client work that way!

3. Think of subjects you know and love, look them up online, and contact the owners of any crummy sites you find.

You have to be really careful with this, because no one wants to hear that their site is crummy – so include lots of praise for the company when you reach out. (You love their product. You know they’re the best. You want to help them succeed.) An easy approach might be to look in their footer for their copyright date and offer to do a refresh.

4. Ask around.

layout by flywheel find book onboard first client man at desk on laptop with flywheel website on screen and posters books and camera lenses at desk

You know people, right? Then you probably know people who need websites. All it takes is a few emails, maybe some working it into casual conversations, and a few posts on social media. Let your friends and personal network know that you’re taking on new web design clients. If you know someone with a web design agency, even better. The occasional Facebook status update is a great way to get leads from your network. (Want more on this? Here’s a great story of finding clients through natural networking.)

5. Consider doing a freebie or two.

Note: this should be a last resort. I’m not a big fan of giving work away for free – so at least see if you can barter somehow. And no matter what you do, don’t lose money. Let the company pick up the hosting fees, software costs, and whatnot. If all else fails, get in touch with a local nonprofit you appreciate and offer your services to them. At least then you can get the feel-goods in addition to a portfolio sample.

Is your design business currently a side gig? Explore this guide to grow and expand your design side business.

Booking your first web design client

Hey! You got a bite! That’s awesome! Here’s what to do next. 

When you have no portfolio, no references, and no testimonials, it feels pretty discouraging to sit with a prospective new client and try to convince them to hire you. Don’t worry – you don’t necessarily need to have references and testimonials. If you can demonstrate that you know what can help them and that you can deliver it, you’ll still have a good shot.

As you prepare for the “pitch” (whether it’s an email or an in-person thing), take a look at the current site (if there even is one). What are some obvious flubs going on? Look for any low-hanging fruit that you can fix to improve the site. It could be site speed, layout, color scheme, site clutter, or even not being responsive. If you can find specific examples of websites that get the same issues right and then reiterate that you can deliver those same features, you’ll come across as an expert and build trust.

The key with businesses is that everything comes down to the bottom line, and if you can speak that language, you’re going to have a great pitch. How is the user experience on their site causing them to lose engagement or conversions? If they want to send coupons to people but their newsletter opt-in is hard to find (or it doesn’t mention coupons), there’s an obvious fix. Get a sense of what results they want from their website, and then expand on what you can do to help them get those results.

layout by flywheel find book onboard first client hand holding credit card typing on laptop with wallet and smartphone nearby

And remember – you’re a fan of theirs, not just somebody off the street telling them what they’re doing wrong. You’re there because you’re a fan of the company and you want to help them succeed even more than they already are.

Onboarding your first web design client

Aaaaaah! They want to hire you! You’ve agreed on a price and you’re about to get started! You have a client!! This is a big, fat, fantastic thing. 

Now don’t screw up the onboarding.

This is a critical part of the process, and you really need to get it right. But don’t worry – if you keep a few things in mind, you’ll do just fine.

First off, you need to do an in-depth questionnaire with them. Your goal is to figure out who their market is, what makes them stand out from their competitors, and what their expectations are for the new site. Put together a client questionnaire for them to answer (on paper!) so both you and the client can reference it as you go along the project.

Second, you need to do a good job of setting and managing their expectations. If it’s Tuesday and they want the new site done by Friday, that’s probably not going to happen and they need to know this right from day one. Timing, milestones, and turn-around times need to be part of the conversation. You also need to be clear about when and how you can be contacted, and what your usual response time is.

layout by flywheel find book onboard first client laptop with code on desk with desktop and lamp in background

Third, get a feel for what the client likes visually. Make sure in your questionnaire that you ask for examples of their competitors’ sites, their comments on what they do and don’t like, and even some examples of other websites that they like (and why). Be ready to incorporate their own branding and images into the design, and get clear on who’s in charge of the copy and when it will be delivered.

Now is the fun part

When you’re at the very beginning, things feel kind of terrifying but also kind of awesome. Hitting each one of these milestones – finding prospective clients, pitching them, and then actually onboarding them – comes with a huge thrill that you’ll want to repeat again and again. Don’t let fear and intimidation hold you back – go get ‘em!

More tips and tricks on working with clients are just a click away!

Download the interview pdf form here!

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