Offering a little guidance…

27 Dec

So most of you know, I business coach on the side. It’s something I enjoy doing. Today, I recieved a note from a newer less experienced graphic designer, asking me for a little guidance in the world of freelance. He needed guidance in marketing, sales, and business in general. We talked a LOT and when we were through, it dawned on me that perhaps I could use what we’d written and offer it to other’s as a way to get some free advice.

So … here it is. I’ve changed names and removed personal info and web addresses for the person, so to protect their identity.




What am I doing wrong? Oh, I know partially what I’m doing wrong. I’m not out there beating bushes looking for clients. Not on a regular basis anyway. I’m not making cold calls. I only went up and down one street handing out cards to people. I only went to 2 fairs and also to 1 chamber event.

I just feel like it doesn’t work. Pass out my card. Pass out my card. I don’t do any follow up though. Maybe I should. “Hi, I gave you my card, do you need a designer?” I feel that if they needed a designer they would have called me. I feel they take my card because it’s rude to turn it down. Easy to take a card and then throw it away.

But I’m not marketing myself. Outside of bidding on the Internet I’m not doing ANYTHING else.

My dentist recently had a new logo and brochure designed. I didn’t even know she was thinking about doing that. It looks like crap but she’s quite happy with it.  : Shrugs: what do you do?


What do I do? I don’t pass out my business cards on a regular basis, I don’t spend any money on marketing (except my hosting and such), I don’t beat the streets, or ick, god forbid, cold call… perhaps I should. But I’m swamped as it is…. so for now, I don’t need to do those things. I “market” on blogs, forums, craigslist.

Here’s what I’m thinking based on your description of how it’s going now… you’re not confident enough in yourself. Understandable of course… as it’s very nerve racking to put yourself out there, especially when people aren’t showing much enthusiasm or interest. You’ve got to change that and that alone and I’d be willing to stake my reputation that you’d see results.

People go to me because I show them that I am the expert and that I’m passionate about what I do. On forums (small business forums and the like) I set myself up as the expert, and because of that, after I’ve earned a little trust, people start asking questions. When I first got started, I would also do a mock up for EVERY new client (well… the bigger ones anyway). A mock up (at first) would take me a few hours, but it would have I’d say a 90 percent success rate of giving me the edge over the competition. Once I had a bit more in my portfolio and a bigger base to rely on, I stopped doing mock ups… although I still do them when I feel that a customer is unsure, or if it’s something I’m either really interested in or a client I really want.

And remember this too… as a designer, the future of someone’s business is in YOUR hands. So don’t act JUST like a designer. Designers are a dime a dozen these days. You need to be MORE to a company. You need to show them that YOU are valuable to them in more ways than one. You’re a visionary. If they were to bring you their business, you’d help them mold it and shape it to do and match where they want/need it to go. Meaning you’re going to want to do a LOT of research about their industry, their competition, their past, present and future. When I started, I picked an industry. It made it a bit easier. I became an expert on that industry. Now I handle so much more than that industry, but it really helped me to nail it all down.


I’ve seen you mention elsewhere about posting on discussion boards. I’ve started to do that. I’ve found a few other design boards out there.

Without naming specific boards (I don’t want to work in your “territory”) what type of boards have you looked for? I’ve started looking for magazine publishing boards/forums but haven’t found many.

How is it that you market on blogs? Do you post comments on other people’s blogs? Again, what blogs are you looking at?

I’ve tried to put ads on Craigslist. Seems like a waste of time to me. I’ve not kept up with it though.

Yes, your suspicion/analysis of me is spot on. Lack of confidence. I lack what I feel is a killer portfolio. I feel the samples I have are mundane and not knock your socks off. I’m in awe of what others have on their sites. I feel I rush through everything and it shows. Plus I wasn’t able to take my more recent work from my last employer, and that sucks.

Mock ups? I’ve stayed away from mock ups and specs because of the anti-spec attitude I’ve seen on this site. Occasionally I have put time and effort in designing a spec but I’ve always lost the bid. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong there.

So, you picked an industry first, did research on that industry THEN started advertising yourself to those people looking for potential clients?


As for boards or forums… don’t look for design ones. You’re not advertising to designers. (Unless you are). First off… pick an industry. For me, I chose Construction and interior design. So I then found the forums where those folks hang out. Look for small business forums (there are many out there), look for contractor forums, marketing forums, chef forums… whatever industry you choose to make YOURS. Now of course you can stray … but put your focus on one. Plumbers, Dentists, Coffee Houses… find out where those people hang out… and make friends. The benefit of sticking to an industry is the referrals. For example, if you did a website for a general contractor. And he loved your work; you could then go after his electrician, his plumber, his painter, his decorator. All from ONE guy. Realtors are good too as they know and use their networks of friends and coworkers a LOT.

Blogging is relatively new to me… so take what I say with a grain of salt. I’ve started a business blog and I have a more personal one… both still discuss the industry and the business. The one thing i’ve noticed with blogs though is that they can give you boat loads of traffic. Whether or not it’s all targetted traffic or just random, i’m not sure yet. But I’m enjoying the SEO benefits so far alone. But with blogs… it’s interesting because you have to be active to get people to you. You have to post consistently and you have to comment (with a link back to your blog) on other’s blogs. It’s VERY important to do that…and you’d be surprised how many people will click that little link in your sig. I like wordpress as a blog as a whole… they do a lot of SEO for you so you can just focus on writing the blog.

Putting an ad on craigslist IS a waste of time, don’t do it. At least not yet. Focus your attention on the GIGS section of that site. Now you’ll have to keep in mind that there is a hell of a lot of crap you have to wade through. We have a generic email we send as a response that we spruce up depending on the ad we see. When I first started my business, I took the time to wade through all of the horrible postings, and you’ll be surprised, they may post that they have no buget, but if you talk to them and get your foot in their door (not literally but just show your worth to them) they’ll up their budgets FAST. I’ve made over 100K from Craigslist alone in the last 2 years. So it IS possible, it’s just a little time consuming. Once you build a base, you don’t have to do so much work to bring it in. That’s where I’m at now. I don’t do much marketing these days… and that makes me happy.


“Yes, your suspicion/analysis of me is spot on. Lack of confidence. I lack what I feel is a killer portfolio. I feel the samples I have are mundane and not knock your socks off. I’m in awe of what others have on their sites. I feel I rush through everything and it shows. Plus I wasn’t able to take my more recent work from my last employer, and that sucks.”

I thought so. If your portfolio lacks… then do something about it. Honestly… that’s the ONLY thing that sets me apart (at first) between the 100 other firms bidding on a project. First impression takes less than 10 seconds to form and that 10 seconds will make or break you. If you don’t have the paying customers to fill your portfolio with, then do some mock ups for some fake companies, or do some mock ups for some real companies.

For example, last year I was helping another designer friend learn a little marketing trick. I’ll teach it to you. When I first started, I knew I was too inexperienced for people to really even give me a chance. So I picked 3 companies I knew I wanted to work for… that I knew I could really help. I didn’t pick companies that were necessarily out of my league either, smaller companies are best in the beginning. I then looked at their websites or marketing materials (or both) and did some mock ups of what I thought they needed… based on research. Then, I emailed em. (Of course put watermarks on em and everything). I let them know that I was a designer who was looking to add to their portfolio and that over the years i’d taken an interest in their company. That I was practicing and had come up with a design and would love their input on whether or not it would be something they would be interested in. By the way, if you choose to do this… make sure to check copyright dates… you’re gonna wanna make sure to do something that hasn’t been updated in a while… not something they just spent money on or you may rub against the wrong way

It’s a sales technique I learned a long time ago. Put something in your customer’s hands… something they want. Then essentially take it away…well we can’t take it away… but they also know that the only way they can have that mock up is by hiring YOU to do it. This will prove your worth without having experience.

I am VERY anti spec. so believe me I’m NOT encouraging you to do spec work by ANY means. But when you offer a Mock Concept it sets you apart. You don’t by any means have to spend a TON of time on it. But the more time you do put in it the better you’ll be able to nail the client. I have built up a library of elements and layouts that I can use anytime I need them which really cuts down on my time. And once you prove yourself to a client, you won’t need to do mock ups for them anymore.


I’d love to do magazine work. I’ve searched for magazine publishers and magazine forums. I’ve not found much. Maybe it’s because that is still too wide a category. Magazine publishing still offers everything from A to Z. Using your example I should target interior designers or plumbers that are looking to launch a magazine. ::scratches chin:: hmmm….

I helped design a real estate magazine for 3 years. I’ve also designed coupon magazines. I’m comfortable with this area and I have the talent. I know what they are looking for. I need to find these types of forums.

Blogging: I’m still at a loss as to what I should write on MY blog. I guess I could go read various design magazines and books then post my thoughts on what I’ve read on the blog. But isn’t that appealing to designers? No, I am not looking for graphic designers as clients. Should my blog be about my target audience? I’m a designer and I’m targeting Realtors. Should I blog about that? Or blog about their designs and so forth? Just tossing this out there.

I’ve not consistently searched Craigslist for jobs. I’ve done that very hit and miss. I’ve been disappointed at the lack of response though. I’ve just not kept up with it. I should search it a couple of times every week and post things.

Here’s a question for you. You mentioned your generic e-mail that you tailor to the job. I’ve been doing the same thing with e-mails and bids on the freelance sites. I wonder how effective my wording is though since I’m not getting bites or feedback. Am I saying the wrong things? Am I saying too much? Am I saying too little?

My question to you is this: What is your generic presentation like? How long is it? How detailed is it? What do you say in your generic proposal? Would you be willing to show me a sample or two of a proposal you submitted either as e-mail or on iFreelance that actually worked and attracted a client? I don’t need to know what the client was or what you bid (well, maybe I do. Maybe it would be nice to see what they said their budget was and how you countered it).

About your mock ups: Real text? Generic text? What type of mock ups have you used? When you send a potential client a mock-up do you tailor it to that client or is it just “Sample Head here. Sample text.. bla bla bla…”?

You picked 3 companies you wanted to work for. How long did you spend researching them before making a pitch? You looked at their marketing materials? Were they local companies or how did you get their marketing materials?


No I wouldn’t even think about the ones starting a magazine, although in some ways you could.  If you really like magazine publishing, there are essentially 3 ways you could do it.

  1.  Design the ads that go into the magazines.  Grab some of your junk mail, grab some of your favorite magazines, find the CRAPPY ads that are in there, remake them and pitch away…
  2. Contact the junk mail magazine dealers themselves… you know those magazines you get in the mail that are all just ads for local businesses.  Contact the business and see if they have a designer they refer. Offer a special price to get your foot in the door.  See if they go for it. this could be a long shot though only because typically, they already have someone lined up… but always worth a shot.  But your portfolio will need to be SMOKIN for this one.
  3. Look at the folks who need catalogs published.  Again, lean on junk mail for some guidance as to who you should contact first.

Your blog… focus on how articles like:

  1.  What you need to hire a good, reliable designer.
  2. The top 10 marketing/design techniques for YOUR small business
  3. When it’s time to scream and run… the horror behind advertising and how to avoid these common mistakes.

You’re not advertising to designers, so don’t talk about the technical aspects of design.  Yea you can cover bits and pieces… but keep it geared towards your clients and what is important to THEM.  Also don’t feel compelled to write a TON.  These people are business owners like you and me… they need to be able to skim it and get it… short and sweet.

As for craigslist… once a week won’t cut it.  You want to go through all the major cities creative/computer gigs (search for Design under gigs) on ALL major cities throughout the US.  15 minutes a day will get you through all of them.  But do it daily.  The faster YOU respond to their ads, the more likely they will respond to yours.  Remember, they get 100’s of responses from ONE ad and they have to weed through all of that.  Tell them you’re interested in hearing more; provide a link to a good portfolio and a link to contact you.  My letter is maybe 2 paragraphs tops… usually less than that.  I’ll get you a copy.  The key is to work links into it… so that if they ARE interested, they can find out more about you easily.  Your rate of return is somewhere between 10-20 percent…. So if you send out 10 emails… you’ll get 1 response maybe 2.  The more emails you send… the better off you’ll be as far as getting results. … At least until you build your portfolio.  It’s tough… don’t let anyone tell ya it’s not… but it’s easily doable…and once you build yourself a base, it gets a LOT better.

Send me your letter you’ve sent out… send me what you’ve said on IFreelance and it will give me a better idea of where you’re going wrong.  I’d be willing to bet you’re being too wordy.  Or too short… there’s a fine balance. Also… this may sound dumb, but your sig in the forum, doesn’t have your link.  I had to type in your address in order to get to your site.  I know… you may think lazy… but believe me, the easier you can make it for people to access you and your business… the better results you’ll have.

What’s the traffic look like on your site?  Do you keep track?

You want some examples of my mock ups… here’s some links and some explanations…

Ok this was done a while ago… it’s an older mock up… but it’s a good example so we’ll use it.

I found this landscaping company with the most horrendous looking website I’d ever seen… so I sat down and made a list of all of the things this particular company would possibly want or need on their website.

They’d need a home page, a place to list their services, perhaps they’d like  a way to make some plant sales and collect payments online, they’d need/want a portfolio section, maybe some FAQ’s and a contact form.  Then if they want to do some heavy marketing, they could incorporate a blog.  I stole a paragraph from their site describing the company themselves, and then the rest I either made up or used a text generator for.  I maybe spent 15 minutes on it.  Limit your time or you’ll just be wasting it.

They loved it… and didn’t contact me for a few months.  Then randomly called one day because the owner couldn’t stand it anymore, he had to have it.  And of course after that they do what all clients do and change the design, mangling it over time so bad that now I don’t even use the live link as a portfolio piece (on a side note… I don’t typically take care of maintenance for my clients, but maybe that’s a mistake I made… up to you)

Marketing is more like planting seeds… you have to give it time to germinate.

Here’s another example of an older mockup…

This lady is a realtor.  She never did go with me on the website, she went elsewhere and her current website is CRAP believe you me… however, she’s been a great referral source to me over the years, and I handle a lot of her print work.  We still talk about when she’ll have the budget to get the site I’ve done for her, and I’d be willing to bet it will happen eventually, when she’s ready.  (Update:  6 years later she FINALLY asked me to take on her website, and it’s vastly different from this original mock up – but the feeling of her brand stayed true to what I originally pitched.  Funny – in that 6 years i’ve had maybe 20 different refereals from this one woman.  All from this silly mock up that I spent 10 minutes on) But look at this mock up…It’s incredibly simple. There’s nothing to it at all… but the overall look gave her an idea in her head that showed her what I could do with her business’s image.  That was all it took.


This is my generic letter I use on my bids and e-mails:

Beginning of Letter:

My name is Olsen Last Name. I’m writing to offer my services as a freelance graphic designer.

I am a graphic designer with over 17 years experience. I have extensive experience in the publishing industry designing everything from newspapers to magazines. In addition, I design covers, advertising, newsletters and other commercial jobs.

About this point I customize it to the specific job. I mention the project, my bid and rates, number of revisions, turnaournd time, etc…

I am accustomed to working under tight, daily deadlines. As a freelance graphic designer I can provide you with quality work at a reasonable price and offer quick turnaround on most jobs.

I am proficient in using Photoshop, Freehand, Illustrator, and InDesign. Please visit my online portfolio at

If you feel you could benefit from my services, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my proposal. I look forward to hearing from you.

Insert Professional Sig here *edited for privacy sake*

End of Letter

I’ve wondered if it wasn’t detailed or specific enough.

The links you sent me are all on Are you doing this to market yourself?


No I have an account on deviant art because I like getting critiques and it’s easy to upload a personal portfolio. I’ve never gotten a client from deviant art… but I’ve made a lot of friends in the industry.

Your letter seems ok… It is relatively short, could be a bit shorter actually… but it’s ok.

Looking at your site…. I’d reduce the size of your logo a bit…Its current size makes you come across as a little dated. Designer’s websites are a bit different than your average website. You need to really shine there. Think about it like a display for a bakery. The more appetizing the display is, the more sales you’ll bring in. Don’t be afraid to PUSH the client, as in your letter, there’s no sense of urgency.

You want them to ACT now! You’re a busy guy, you’re hot in demand. They’re going to want your expertise above anyone else’s. You need to encourage them to write you back. Ask them a question; try to schedule a phone chat… ANYTHING to get the communication going because if you can do that, you’ll be able to sell them your services a lot better and you’ll be a lot more memorable.


Breaking the chain of thought for a moment…

I’m looking through your DeviantART gallery. Two of your pieces feature motor racing.
Are these clients or spec pieces? How were you able to get these clients?
The reason I’m asking is I’m a major race fan. Indy Cars specifically.

This is an area I’m familiar with and would be up my alley. I was wondering how you attracted such clients so that I could target such clients.


I found him on Craig’slist actually. He had an ad up for wanting to find a book designer. He had an incredibly low budget at first but after we talked more, and I told him we’d take payments, it turns out he’s spending close to 10K. It’s a monster of a project though. Book design and layout of over 300 pages for a Formula D Drifting book. We’re about 3/4 of the way finished with it. After this he wants a website and has already referred us to 2 other folks in the industry (he’s a photographer) and the book is sponsored by Circuit City which got our name out there even more. The reason I’m telling all of this to you is because I wish more people would give more credit to what you can achieve with something like Craig’slist. Last year I landed a 20K client from Craigslist who’d posted an ad for wanting something cheap. People will say they are cheap until you show them why it’s worth it to be expensive.


Thanks for taking time to chat with me today. I’ve appreciated this. It’s giving me a LOT to think about and a few directions to go.


You are most welcome. Business Coaching is something I do for a lot of people… and believe me; I understand that this industry can be tough to navigate. I am not perfect by any means; it’s all one big learning process. But if you really put the time, the effort and the patience into it, even a business in a saturated industry can soar.

That’s actually why I’m opening my second business. I want to help all the designers out there who have so much talent and no confidence or knowledge in getting their names out there.


3 Responses to “Offering a little guidance…”

  1. seattlegraphix July 19, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Personal Blog of a Graphic Designer and commented:

    This came up today – thought i’d “re-blog it”. Moved the advice info from the word doc it was in to the post so it’s easier for folks to view.

  2. off-page seo July 29, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    hi!,I really like your writing very so much! I need an expert in this house to resolve my problem.
    May be that’s you! Taking a look ahead to peer you now.

  3. Carole December 16, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but
    I find this matter to be actually something that I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complicated and very broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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