Freelancers: Here’s how to “cheat” your way to those elusive first clients

Ashley Hoyland is just getting started as a freelancer.

She's looking to make a name for herself writing direct response copy—but she's intimidated by the thought of getting clients.

She says:

Hi Josh,

Let me begin by saying how impressed I am by your copywriting skills. After looking at your website, I could tell I was reading a master at work – your ‘work with me' section is brilliant!

The reason I'm sending this email is because (from one copywriter to another) I'd really like some advice.

I've just started offering my services as a copywriter, and I've decided to completely narrow down my services to just offer direct response / email copywriting (as you do) because I love this type of copy. If you could answer my two questions below, I would be HUGELY in your debt. Don't worry, I won't step on your toes business wise.

– When you first started out and didn't have a portfolio or a list of client results / testimonials, how did you attract your first clients? Were you scared you couldn't deliver them results?

– What advice would you give to your younger self when you first launched your copy business, now you have all your experience?

I know that you're extremely busy, so let me say in advance how much I appreciate any time you take reading this email and / or responding to me.

The way I got my first couple of clients was, I cheated. 🙂

Here's what I mean…

A lot of freelance copywriting books will tell you to go out and try to find some businesses who will let you write “on spec”—in other words, you only get paid if your copy works.

This isn't a bad way to go if you have the luxury of time. It's hard work convincing people to gamble with their advertising dollars, and you'll probably find yourself fighting with them over what constitutes “good” copy. They're going to want to keep doing what they're doing.

If you take this path, gird thy loins for battle.

What I did (and what a lot of other successful copywriters did) is this:

Go find an experienced copywriter who already has clients, and offer to apprentice under them.

You work for cheap (even free), and in exchange they show you the ropes and critique your writing.

Be willing to do grunt work like research and customer interviews at first. (A lot of experience copywriters would love help with this stuff—it's tough to find virtual assistants who know how to “think like a copywriter” and dig up the research gems that make for great copy.)

I've done this twice now. The first time I was probably making less than minimum wage, and the second time I was volunteering.

This one thing has easily cut 5-10 years off the time it might have taken me to work my way up on my own.

Often your copywriting mentor will start to refer overflow work to you—and voila, you have your first few clients.

The apprenticeship approach is also a great treatment for the “I'm scared my copy won't deliver results” jitters.

You SHOULD be scared about that.

You WILL write copy that fails—sometimes for no apparent reason.

That's just how it goes. Copy is only part of a successful campaign. You don't control the other variables.

Having an experienced hand reviewing everything you write will give you a huge confidence boost. You'll take more risks and write more fearlessly.

Now as for advice that I would have given my younger self…

The #1 thing would be: “Get started sooner.”

I wanted to be a copywriter from the first time I read “The Boron Letters” by Gary Halbert.

But I let myself go and get all intimidated. Copywriting seemed hard and complicated, and I told myself that I'd never make it.

I wasted 2 years that way—I could be much farther ahead if I'd just gone for it.

Since you're already past that point, I'll tell you another thing I'd say:

“Don't get hung up on your lack of past results. Most clients don't care as much as you do.”

This still amazes me, but it's true.

My expectation when I started freelancing was that every prospective client would hound me for specifics about all the homerun multi-million dollar campaigns I'd engineered.

And starting out, you don't have any of that.

Chicken and egg. Egg and chicken.

I rarely have clients ask me about specific numbers from past campaigns.

They usually want to see some of my work. And they want to talk to me to judge whether I am an authority on copywriting. (Which really means: “I know more than they do, and I project confidence when we speak.”)

If you don't have a portfolio, just put up a blog and start writing about copywriting and marketing. Make each post a little salesman for your services—demonstrate your authority and your skill as a writer, and close with a solid call to action.

Most of my clients are 70-80% sold when they come to me just from reading my website.

And final bit of advice:

Testimonials are SOLID GOLD. Aside from your email list and contacts, they are your #1 asset.

And not every “testimonial” has to be about results you can track in a spreadsheet. I've had success befriending direct marketing “celebrities,” winning their trust over time and then getting endorsements.

You can also get mini-testimonials from people who ask you for advice and appreciate the help you gave them.

Make collecting testimonials your new hobby—it'll pay off big time.