Promoting Yourself as a Freelancer on the Cheap

I recently found myself without any paying clients for the first time in a couple years and had to think about how to find more work.  If you are a freelancer like myself, you probably don’t have a lot of money to market yourself with.  Here are a few ideas to do it free or cheaply.

Get Business Cards

Getting business cards is key for most freelancers.  It’s cheap, it’s simple, and it works.  If you want people you casually meet at meetings, bars, parties and other gatherings, you need a business card to be taken seriously.  Business cards are relatively cheap.  I created a business design with Photoshop and submitted it to Vista Print (www.vistaprint.com) and for a modest investment I received custom designed, professional grade glossy business cards.  Sign up for their mailing list to get great offers on business cards, mugs, magnets and more (sometimes for FREE, but you still have to pay a small fee to upload your images).

Or go to a local printer.  The smaller, the better.  Although it will probably cost more than the larger internet based printers you’ll not only be able to talk to a professional in person and get a good quality product, but you will get a chance to market yourself with them and possibly network with their customers.  Just don’t steal their customers if you provide over-lapping services because that’s just rude.

Be Honest

When talking with potential clients it is important to make a good impression and to inspire confidence in your abilities.  But don’t get carried away.  No matter how good of a politician you are, don’t misrepresent yourself and give the impression that you are better than you really are.

People are smarter than you think and often have a 6th sense about people and even if they don’t know what is true, they can usually tell if you’re trying to mislead them.  Besides, if you get into a project that’s over your head, it will surely come back to bite you.

Be honest, confident and you will gain the respect of clients and others.

Join Your Local Business Association

I live in a very small town in rural Maine, and even here there exists a business association.  Members include business owners of many of the small to medium sized businesses in the town.  The one in my town meets about twice a month to discuss town events and to generally mingle in a professional way.  Don’t forget to pack some business cards in your wallet before you go!

They will probably require a modest monthly/yearly fee, but it’s a great way to meet other business owners and make a face-to-face impression with many potential clients in a concentrated space.  They often will also plan events for the town which is another way to get low-cost exposure to interested locals.

Keep Tabs On The Classifieds

If you are at all internet savvy then you are probably well aware of craigslist and have looked at job postings there.  While I haven’t had a lot of success scoring freelance work on the classifieds, it’s still worth a look as it is free and requires minimal time.  Find out the other popular job posting websites in your area including the local newspapers’ online listings.

This is also a good way to keep tabs on what the area has to offer, which companies are hiring (and presumably growing) and what skills are desired.  I live in Maine and have found many job postings seeking people with .NET experience.  I am a php programmer and have never touched .NET.  But seeing the overwhelming listings requesting a .NET programmer has me thinking that perhaps it would be worth while for me to pick up a couple books on the subject to add a desirable skill to my resume.

Challenge Yourself

As a freelancer in the world of web development, I need to keep myself on my toes and keep my skills sharp.  It’s OK to take on a project that is a little bigger than you have done before.  Make sure it is within your grasp.  Don’t try to build the next Gmail if the biggest web application you have built is a simple photo gallery.

Learn a new skill.  Maybe you are really good at HTML and CSS and have made some really beautiful static web sites.  If so, it may be time to start thinking about a server side language like PHP, or ASP or if you are more into design and the artistic side, then perhaps learn how to build animations in Flash.

Pro Bono

Doing a little work for free from time to time can be a great way to demonstrate your abilities to potential new clients.  Pick a worthy cause.  It doesn’t need to be a website dedicated to finding the cure for cancer, but make sure it’s something you are interested in.  Even if it’s only a couple hours of service to update their schedule of events or to make a little flyer for the bottle drive.  It works because it establishes your reputation as someone with talent and as someone who cares about their community and isn’t just out to get rich.  People will notice you and you might even make a friend or two in the process!

Do a good job!  If you build a small website for a community organization or design a logo or flyer, do it to the best of your abilities.  This can be a great way to bolster your portfolio and continue refining your skills.

Don’t get carried away.  Lots of people want some help for free, so be picky and don’t get bogged down in non-paying projects that get in the way of your paying client’s projects.

In Conclusion

This of course is a very brief summary on just a few of the ways you can increase your marketability and find new clients.  These ideas could all be expanded upon and added to (and I may just do that in the future).  Please share how you promote yourself and ways you have successfully found new clients.