How to find freelance work when no one’s offering it to you

Finding work

I flicked the kettle on again.

Waiting to hear the familiar whistle of water heating to boiling temperature, I tried to resist the nervous habits I succumb to at times like this. Cracking my knuckles. Checking my phone. Contemplating the consequence of another week without work.

It had been two weeks since I’d been contacted by clients, and I was all too aware of it. Five minutes ago, I’d been hearing fellow freelancers complain about projects that were taking far too long; tedious tasks that they’d been asked to complete unreasonably quickly. I listened intently, put on my best ‘I know that feeling’ face, secretly wished that it was me in their position.

Click. The kettle finished boiling for the third time in as many hours, and I commenced pouring tea and coffee orders for the 10 or so small business owners who’d brought work into our shared studio that day. Surely something would arrive in my inbox today. Surely I’d be complaining about “too much work, too little time” with the rest of them soon.


Time for a reality check

Paid work doesn’t simply present itself because you want it to or need it to. You might luck out with the occasional perfectly-timed request, but for the most part, you’ll need to work hard to win the projects you want.

So what do you do when the money’s just not coming in, even though you desperately need it to? I asked several of my most experienced freelance friends to explain how they find paid freelance work during quiet times. Hopefully you’ll find their advice as useful as I did during the dead spell described above.* 

Contact old clients


Keeping hold of an existing customer is far easier and cheaper than finding a new one.

Expect to spend at least five times more cash and resources finding new clients than you would by simply making sure your existing customers are well looked after.

If you market yourself for free online, you might assume that there’s no financial cost to the effort of bringing new clients on board. But think of it this way: the time you spend looking for work is time you could be spending on paid work from existing customers.

It therefore makes sense to stay in touch with people who’ve previously paid for your products or services, and to make sure they remember you’re open for business when they need you.

Freelance writer and director Clare Sturges makes a habit of regularly reminding clients that she’s there to help. “On quiet days, I tend to move the furniture in my flat around, look out the window and go for a long walk,” she admits. “Then I email anyone who’s ever given me work. And a few more.”

Ask for referrals


Another reason for maintaining long-term relationships with your clients is the value that they can bring via referrals. If broadening your customer base is important to you (as it is for most freelancers), asking for referrals can be one of the most lucrative ways of going about it.

Dan Spain, a freelance designer and founder of Rabble Studio, has found asking for referrals to be an effective method for finding more work. “I recently asked a regular room hirer at Rabble to keep me in mind if he heard of anyone looking for design work,” he says. “The next week I had contact from a new client who had been forwarded on to me by said room hirer, plus additional work from the room hirer himself.

“Putting yourself forward and letting people know you’re available has always been my go-to. It feels way more natural and comfortable than cold calling or emailing.”

Invest in personal development

While it may not be the fastest route to paid work, spending some time working on your skills and side projects can be a productive use of time when clients aren’t biting.

Creating a portfolio of the type of work you want to attract is a must when you’re freelance, particularly in visual industries such as design, animation and illustration. Freelance animator Stephen Thomas uses any free time in his working schedule to create original work for his showreel.

“I'm not currently set up to bring in new clients from the cold,” Stephen explains. “Instead, I tend to invest this time working on my own projects. It gives me the chance to make something a bit fun, and allows me the chance to try and steer the direction of my career by making the sort of work that I want to do more of.”

If you’re not interested in creating something from scratch, view your empty freelance days as a chance to improve skills that could make you more attractive to clients when they do come knocking. Before she landed her gig as festival coordinator for the Shakespeare Schools Foundation, freelance actor Ffion Williams used the time she spent waiting for auditions and castings to enhance her existing talents and teach herself new skills.

“I tried to keep myself buoyant by creating my own content, developing skills such as instrument playing and practicing things like speed line learning and vocal work,” she explains. “Doing this meant that I was at least match fit when those lovely work opportunities did arise.”

* Don’t worry: my story has a happy ending! While the cash didn’t come rolling in from willpower alone, I used some of the habits outlined above to get back on the freelancing horse and find clients who are willing to pay for what I’m good at. If you’re struggling for work at the moment, I strongly recommend that you do the same.