How to Find Consulting Clients
November 07, 2019
If you're considering a move into freelancing or consulting - the one question that's probably on your mind is: "How will I find clients?"
That's the one question I hear most often when I talk about consulting - and it's the one question I felt most vividly when I first started consulting independently.
The good news is that there is a relatively straightforward path for finding new clients. Yes, it takes some time, and yes, it can be a bit of a grind - but you can get there. Here's how.
Start before you're ready
If you're like most consultants, the primary way you'll find most of your contracts is through people you already know.
That sounds like unhelpful advice - but it really points to the type of activity you need to be doing if you think you want to do consulting at some point... you need to get to know people.
That doesn't mean you should go "networking" - it means really getting out and getting to know people that fit in your area of expertise.
The best way to do that is by finding local meetups in your area.
If you're a software developer, find a local group for your language of choice, and go visit. After a few meetings, offer to give a lightning talk. Then a few months later give a full length talk.
You'll grow a lot as a developer by doing those things - and you'll also get to know people who work for companies that could hire you down the line.
Visual proof that you know what you're talking about
The next most important piece of the puzzle is some public proof that you know what you're doing... how can potential clients trust that you can get the work done?
This could be a portfolio, or blog, or ebook (ebooks are magic for this) - but make sure you have something to point to that shows you are an expert in your area.
It seems like obvious advice - but you'd be surprised at how many consultants don't have a public demonstration that they're an expert... and then have trouble finding clients.
Think about it from the client's perspective: how can you be trusted with their work?
The mechanics of finding a client
Ok - so you've gone to meetups, and you have a blog or ebook or youtube channel or podcast... now how do you actually get a client?
First: Start mentioning that you're looking for clients.
Again - this sounds like obvious advice, but you need to actually do it!
Go to the local people who you've met and say:
"I'm starting to look for companies who need help with [X] - do you know of anyone I should talk to?"
The phrasing of that question is important. If you just ask them if their company is looking for consultants - then you're really limited their answers to just "yes" or "no".
By asking if there is anyone you should talk to though - they'll really think about other people they know as well.
Most of my clients in the past have not come directly from people I knew - but people who knew people I knew.
Second: Be watchful for hidden opportunities
Tech companies are continually looking for people to fill software development roles. When people in your network post about their company looking to hire someone in your field of work - that's a great time to reach out and ask if they're ever interested in hiring contractors.
The answer might be "no" or "not right now" - but you will have at least planted a seed in their mind that you're someone who is looking for clients - and that will often pay off months, or even years down the line.
Another method that works well is to be a sub-contractor for another consulting company.
You won't make quite the same money that you could if you went direct to clients - but you also don't have the same hassles that you might if you were in charge of the client relationship; so there are some tradeoffs there.
To do this, find a consulting company (start small: 5 - 10 person companies are often the most open to these arrangements), and just send an email to ask:
"I'm a consultant for [X] and see that you do that as well. Do you ever have projects that you need help with?"
Many small software consultancies I know about have more work than they can handle at one time or another - so you'll be surprised at how often this type of email will lead to work.
How to get a client quickly
Sometimes though - you just can't wait... you need a client quickly.
In those cases, it can be tempting to go to one of the few big freelancing sites out there and look for work - but don't do that!
Instead, here's what I recommend:
Look on tech job boards for jobs that you know you could do, and that have emails of the people who are actually looking to hire (not HR).
Reach out to those people directly and say:
"I'm not looking for a full time position, but would you be open to a contractor?"
You'll get a lot of people who don't respond, and a fair number of people who say "no" - but I'm often surprised by how many are interested!
Smaller companies are often more open to these arrangements (less red tape), and it's best if you can get the direct email of the person who leads the technical team - so look for those situations especially.
Also - if you do get a "no", you can always follow up with:
"No problem - do you know anyone else I should talk to?"
The tech world is fairly small - and so don't waste an opportunity to ask for introductions.
You only need a few
Independent consulting sounds big and scary at first, but remember - you only really need a few clients to have a really good year.
This isn't a high-volume sales game; but rather it's more about getting to know people and showing that you can do the work
That doesn't mean it's easy!
...but right now the world is clamoring for more and more software developers.
So don't get discouraged by the "No"s... you only need a few "yes"es to make it all worth it.