Paper Cuts: Finding Your First Clients

Starting a business is hard. Like trying to balance an egg on your knee while doing a tango. Just the same as anything in life, practice and patience make perfect. Although I wouldn't want to practice balancing an egg while doing a tango.... Anyway, when you're building a small, creative business, it's critically important to be able to practice the craft your trying to learn. Which means you need projects to work on, and people who are willing to give you the opportunity to try your new skill on a project for them.

Today for Paper Cuts I want to chat about how I found my first clients, and where most of my clients come from now. But let's back up first, because there's something really important here that I want to be really clear about. Before I could find "real" paying clients, I had to have enough experience under my belt, and I needed portfolio of work that proved I was worth being hired. So let's preface this whole post with the understanding that, when I decided to pursue stationery design, my ultimate goal was not really to find clients, but to hone my design skills, gain experience, and build a portfolio of good quality, attractive, marketable work. Finding clients is more or less a mean to that end.

I'm going to break my tips down by the following levels: NEWBIE, TEEN, SELF DISCOVERY, MATURITY, and BIG WIG. Let's get into this, shall we?

NEWBIE. You've just decided to start pursuing something and you don't really know where to start. Remember, the goal here is to build your portfolio. What's the fastest way to do this? Be your own client. My very first EVER stationery design was my own engagement party invitation 5+ years ago. I then designed my own thank you cards, personal stationery, and save the date cards. Any opportunity I had to give somebody a gift, I made them stationery; birthdays, engagements, Christmas, births, you name it. I took photos of EVERYTHING and shared the photos online. The photos were horrible, but people, Rome wasn't built in a day. I asked friends and family if they had any occasions for which I could donate my design services. I did it all for pretty much nada, because again, my goal wasn't to make money, but to build a portfolio. The more work I did, the better I got. The better I got, the more confident people were in asking me (instead of me asking them) to create something for them. I also began submitting to Minted design challenges, which was a wonderful opportunity to practice my skills and get feedback from other experienced designers. Eventually, I purchased (and learned) Adobe Illustrator, opened an Etsy shop, got myself some spiffy business cards, and knew enough print lingo to hold a 15 minute conversation with the local print house owner. At this newbie stage, I didn't care what kind of work I got, I was just happy to try my hand at something design-y.

TEEN - Now that I had some experience under my belt, I began to feel pretty invisible. I CAN DO THIS! I boldly foraged forward and began charging (minimally) for some services. I created a website, learned about SEO, and created some social mdeia acounts. I posted mostly on my personal Facebook, and did some projects for people outside of my inner-circle. Friend and family were eager to recommend me, and I took on ANY and EVERY project that came my way, even if it was totally not something that fit my desired design style. Flyers for lost pets, retirement party posters, fundraiser post cards, blog banners, résumés and cover pages - you name it, I did it. Somewhere along the way, though, I realized that, while I was learning a heck of a lot, I was headed in the wrong direction. Hanging with the wrong crowd. My heart wanted to do pretty, feminine, whimsical projects, but I was instead working with people who wanted zebra and hot pink raffle tickets (true story). My teen year(s) are where I had enough of the wrong clients to be able to start figuring out what my right clients looked like. I realized that a lot of clients came from word of mouth, and if I was working with the wrong clients (by no fault to them, honestly), they were likely to recommend me to another wrong client. Light bulb moment.

SELF DISCOVERY became very important for me, my business (which was now a thing), and the way I connected with clients. I rebranding my entire company, and kind of reverted back to a newbie, but this time around I took on as much work as possible so long as it fit the style and business I wanted to grow. I turned down all of the jobs that weren't a good fit, and eventually those types of projects disappeared. I began working only on social stationery and wedding invitations. I became completely consumed with learning about paper, print methods, etiquette, typography, colors, and so forth. The deeper my knowledge, the more of a resource I was to my clients, and the more likely they were to recommend me. I also spent a lot of time learning to take photos, which allowed me to update my Etsy shop and broaden my audience. The higher quality photos helped me attract more fitting clients, which brought me work I really enjoyed. Somewhere in this self discovery phase, I also began reaching out to other vendors (photographers, venues, caterers, florists, other stationery designers, event planners, bloggers, etc) who I really admired. I introduced myself, told them about my business, design process, and ideal client. I let them know that I admired them and that I would love to work with them/their clients if the opportunity arose. Networking was/is a huge part of helping me find clients, build a repeat referral base, and learn more about the industry. The self-discovery phase is where I did a lot of my learning around advertising, where I made a lot of mistakes, and where I really began to hone and focus on what I knew was important.

MATURITY - I think this is about where I am now. I've been featured a handful of times, which gets my name out there in the abyss of the internet (although really, I do wonder how folks find me, I feel like such a tiny star in a massive universe), I have fantastic friends in the industry, I have three solid invitation collections that truly come from my soul, I have the confidence to turn down work that doesn't make my heart sing, and I can walk the NSS solo with the ability to have a professional conversation, filled with nerdy print lingo. Nearly all of my clients are people who want to work with me because they know and love my work. I still do a lot of work for friends and family, but I price accordingly. If a client enjoys working with me, I always promise to be as good to their friends as I was to them, and ask if they'd keep me in mind when somebody they know is looking for invitations. I also harvest the power of social media - Instagram seems to be my best resource for finding clients that make me warm and fuzzy inside. I continue to submit in as many Minted challenges as I can, I also submit work for publications, keep in touch with my industry friends (although I know I need to do more of this, sorry friends!), and have a lot of systems in place to help me track my work. One thing that has been particularly helpful is keeping a list of all inquiries and then being sure to follow up with each and every person within a few days. Right now I am really happy with the way things are going, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't also thinking about how to continue to grow and access more clients.

BIG WIG - To me, a big wig is a household name. They have staff, corporate offices, and fancy things like advertising budgets and outsourcing partners. Clients seem to find them, versus them having to go out and find clients. I'm also pretty sure they sit in giant, comfy, faux-fur lined chairs, with a constant flow of freshly brewed coffee at their finger tips. Alllllright, so maybe that's not really what it's all about. To be honest, I'll consider myself a big wig when I'm able to operate a profitable business in a way that supports my personal lifestyle goals. I don't want to be a huge business, I want to be a small business that can support a family. And I want my business to also be a platform to support and nurture other small business women. As far as getting clients, I suppose I need to do more analytics to figure out where my clients are currently coming from, how I can better access them, and then make the effort to place myself in the same arena as them. This may indeed involve more advertising, more networking, and more social media-ing, among other things. I'm not sure yet, but when I'm a big wig, I'll be sure to let you know how it happened.

Wow. That was a much longer post than I had originally sat down to write! Shall I summarize? Yes, here you go:

  • You are your own first client. Design for yourself and share your work.
  • Do work for friends and family, even if it's free at first.
  • Go BIG, then scale back. Take on diversity in your projects, then figure out what you like and do not like.
  • Once you know what sets your soul on fire, only accept those types of projects.
  • Ask past clients (and friends and family) to recommend you.
  • Consider advertising, if it's right for you.
  • Network.
  • Use social media.
  • Take good photos.
  • LEARN YOUR CRAFT AND LEARN IT WELL. Master it. Live it. Be the best at it that you can possibly be.

I hope these little tidbits from my own experience are helpful for you! I'd love to hear about how you found your first clients and if you've had a similar journey to mine.

Wednesdays here on the blog are all about sharing Paper Cuts, which is a behind-the-scenes, down to Earth business advice series. I hope you've enjoyed today's Paper Cuts topic, and look forward to having you back next time! To read past Paper Cut posts, click here.