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How Designers Can Hustle for More Business – 3 Things You Can Do Right Now

When it comes to marketing and promoting yourself or your agency, there’s probably a few things you’re doing right now. At the very least, you have portfolios on Behance and Dribbble. You may even have a blog.

The good news: you have a web presence!
The bad news: so does everyone else!

Today, Behance, Dribbble and a blog are prerequisites for any designer trying to build their brand on the web.

So what else can you do to stand out and get more business?

First, Understand The Client’s Perspective

As a marketer, I’ve worked with many creative agencies, working with budgets as small as $1,000 to those deep into the six figures. Every single one of these projects started with a search process for a designer or an agency.

At this point, as the client, there are three things I could do:

  • Call someone I’ve worked with before
  • Search Google for designers
  • Ask for referrals

It’s easy to think the search would end at #1, but there are many factors at play here. Maybe I wasn’t satisfied with the previous project. Maybe he or she is not available for the project. Maybe this is not within the designer’s realm of expertise.

For #2, this typically leads me to spend hours looking at portfolios and interviewing people. This is where I sift through Behance and Dribbble profiles. Maybe even put up a post on eLance.

Personally, this step can be fun as I enjoy meeting new people. But this is a disaster for my productivity. There’s a lot of searching and filtering involved which takes up so much time.

I most prefer #3 – asking my network for referrals. I’ll send emails to friends in tech and marketing, and ask them to introduce me to any designers they recommend.

As a designer, these last two options are where you can shine.

In #2, you’re essentially competing with every designer on earth – what can you do to separate yourself from everyone else? In #3, you’ll have the blessing of a personal endorsement, but you’ll need to be introduced first.

So how can you stand out, get more referrals… and get more business?

Hustle Tip #1: Build A Varied Network

The most in-demand designers I know have huge networks with a healthy mix of people from a variety of disciplines: engineers, marketing people, small business owners, etc.

This expands their potential for referrals, while teaching them how different groups of people communicate. Designers who can seamlessly fit in with different teams are rare and highly valued.

You can build a big network by going to meetups – but not just design meetups!

A quick search on will reveal marketing meetups, meetups for entrepreneurs, lean startup meetups, and more. Attend as many of these as you can, and while there, meet as many people as you can.

If no meetups in your area exist – great! You can start one and build a community, further increasing your visibility.

Attending conferences is another effective way to grow your network. Everyone is primed to meet new people and has stacks of business cards at the ready.

If you’re just starting out and can’t afford to attend, then here’s a free hustle tip: hang out at the bars near where the conference is being held, then look for people still wearing their badges from the conferences. Go during happy hour, it’s much easier to strike up conversations when everyone’s loosened up.

Hustle Tip #2: Proactive Outreach

Seek out companies with robust (or growing) marketing efforts, then think of ways to add value.

For example, if you’re an illustrator, seek out companies that regularly produce infographics and pitch your services. Put yourself on their radar and see what happens. Maybe they are unhappy with their current designer or are looking to scale up.

Then, you can explore their competition and their industry. Are there other related companies that could benefit from infographics or related content?

A big part of this is just keeping your eyes open. KISSmetrics, a web analytics service, has built their business on infographics, with co-founder Neil Patel even revealing details about how much it costs them to produce to how much traffic their infographics drive. Armed with this information, you can go to other businesses that could benefit from infographics in their marketing.

Another way to do proactive outreach is to pitch your services to early-stage, fast-growth startups. Keep an eye on TechCrunch for companies who’ve just announced a funding round. Check out Hacker News for companies that are hiring.

As early-stage startups, these are young companies that are almost wholly focused on their product. Now that they have funding and traction, they can now shift some attention to marketing. This is where you can come in. This is typically when you start to see new branding, redesigned websites and advertising.

I’ve known people who have done this, starting small (e.g. pitching to redesign a startup’s welcome email campaign) and being so good that they ended up becoming full-time or long-time contractors for the company.

Hustle Tip #3: Teach Something

It’s good to have a variety of tech people in your network, it’s even better to teach them something.

Case in point: David Kadavy from Design for Hackers. Teaching something to people is the ultimate lead generation tool. Whether you do this online or in person, you can mobilize an army of “students” to vouch for you and multiply your marketing efforts.

Think of something you can teach. You don’t have to copy Kadavy and write a book; you can start just by speaking about design at a tech meetup. You can write a series of design tutorials for small businesses.

Really, it can be anything – the point is to delight people by teaching them design skills they didn’t have before they met you. You then become top-of-mind when someone is looking for a designer.

Get Out of the Building

It’s always been strange to me that the designers that get the most work are usually not most gifted or the most technically skilled. It’s always been people who are good at making themselves visible while adding value.

These designers realize that being a successful design entrepreneur is more than just excelling at your craft. Shaking hands and meeting new people constantly is a crucial part of the game. Excelling at your craft is just the price of entry.

What do you do to make sure you’re always getting new clients?
Let us know in the comments below.

Featured image, hustle by Conrad Bakker.

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