This interview is the fifth in a series I started to share how web designers and developers got their first client.


Clay Doss hails from Sioux Falls, South Dakota and currently lives with his wife and daughter in Jasper, Indiana. Today, the bulk of his freelance work comes from coding web projects for other web developers. His journey into the world of freelancing began in a much different place, though. In this interview, he tells the story of his first client with the lessons he learned along the way.

1. How did you get your first client?

I forget where, but one day I randomly read that many professional photo retouchers charged hundreds of dollars an hour for their services. That blew my mind. I was a young, creative computer geek and already had been dabbling in Adobe Photoshop for a few years. Digitally manipulating photographs was always fun, so the idea of charging hundreds of dollars for it sure sounded like a swell business prospect to me!

Well, to get anywhere in the art field, you need a portfolio of your work. I had none. So to build up my intial portfolio I weasled my way into a modeling community online. Inside I found countless models struggling to break into the biz. I found that some had only a handful of painfully amateur and lackluster photos. So I deliberately searched for the most gorgeous models with the worst photography I could find. I offered to freely transform their photos in exchange for using the before and after shots in my portfolio. The models were all too thrilled to get their photos fixed up and I was getting closer to a legit portfolio.

Next, I searched for the very best photographers that were clearly new to the business. The ones that were obviously doing their own sloppy retouching, had no reputation yet, but had photos with great promise. I approached these talented photographers suggesting that collaboration between us newbies could be beneficial to both of us. This led to some great relationships with a couple of upcoming star photographers. My retouching took their photos from great to AMAZING! And their beautiful images added great power to my portfolio. Our individual businesses grew very rapidly through this collaboration. Without powerful allies, the road to success would have been much slower for each of us.

During the couse of all this I also entered several retouching contests. Surprisingly, I managed to win every contest I entered, and though I received no prizes, I received much recognition.

With my portfolio ready, I began searching for paid retouching requests. However, it didn’t take long at all before the word started spreading all on its own. People soon began contacting me inquiring of my process and rates. Yikes! Crunch time had finally come and it was incredibly nerve-wracking! I had no real process yet and had no clue what to charge. I did as much digging and research as I could to uncover the competition’s rates, but retouchers are strangely secretive creatures. I decided to set my rates a little higher than what I imagined other retouchers were charging to see what would happen.

An example of Clay's work retouching a photograph ("before" on the right, "after" on the left)

An example of Clay’s work (“before” on the right, “after” on the left)

Photographers balked at my high rates. I feared I had screwed up my chances. Yet, for some reason, eventually they always decided to give my service a shot. Those minor price squabbles made me even more terrified of disappointing, especially with art being so subjective to personal opinion and so much money on the line. But my philosophy has always been to deliver the best product I possibly could and, no matter the time or cost to me, just always end with a happy client. Despite my fear, every single client was downright giddy with excitement over their transformed photos. Even to this day I believe all of my clients have been excited repeat customers.

2. What did you learn from that first experience?

For me, I first had to assemble a portfolio of work. Starting at ground zero with no experience made it necessary for me to do some free work initially, but it was also neceassary to limit this free work to a short time and quickly grow beyond that. As a newbie with little experience and low confidence, it can be terrifying charging money for the first time. Forcing myself to be bold and fake confidence was the biggest thing I had to learn through all of this. Fortunately, my work quickly proved itself and I eventually grew to have great confidence as an expert in my field.

I also learned that clients can very easily develop the attitude of “I’m paying you to work for me now let me boss you around and waste your time.” In fact, I learned that lesson just through my initial non-paid work! So from the very first paying client, despite my fear, I made the intentional effort to always subtly convey the impression that I was a very busy man who could live without their work and that it was a “privilege” to talk and work with me. There were numerous ways of doing this, like always being incredibly short and succinct, never fighting to get their work, never attempting to convince them to hire me, and just being very matter of fact with absolutely zero “fluffy” nice stuff. Mind you, I was always 100% honest and truthful in all things. This communication tactic simply set the groundwork for how a client should communicate with me. My clients all developed a very healthy fear of me. It ensured that I was unquestionably the one in charge. It kept things moving quickly and efficiently. Clients likewise kept their communication succinct and, being afraid to bother me, only contacted me when absolutely necessary. In short, being in control saved time, made everything easier, and I was never pushed around.

3. What advice do you have for folks trying to get their first client?

Be bold. Be always learning. Be honest with yourself and your clients. And eagerly accept helpful criticisms. The retouching world is a highly competitive field, but I managed to bypass the myriad of competitors quickly by being an eager self-learner open to helpful suggestions.

My motto has always been, “Under-promise. Over-deliver.” Living and working that way has never failed me once and is perhaps the single greatest factor in my line of successes. Whatever your line of business, apply that motto and I’m confident you will be rewarded.

Hey there! Ready to get your own first web development client? I've written a free course to get you started! Sign up today: "Four Weeks To Your First Client".

This interview is the fourth in a series I started to share how web designers and developers got their first client.


Chris Frick is a native of Jasper, Indiana. I met Chris a few years ago while I lived in Jasper. He was attending the local community college at the time and interested in pursuing a career in web development. Chris worked hard at it and I watched him go quickly through multiple iterations on his own website and keep going. Just recently, he met one of his career goals and started a full-time position as a web developer for a local manufacturing company.

1. How did you get your first client?

My first client simply and conveniently fell into my lap. While still in college, my English professor, who is also a writer and public speaker, stopped me in the hallway one day and asked if I would be interested in building her a Web site. Sure enough, I jumped on the opportunity for some real experience outside of the classroom.

At that time, I had already taken all of my Web development classes, and was involved in an internship with a local Web design and development team. I had mastered HTML and CSS, and dabbled with Javascript, PHP, and WordPress. I was prepared and more than ready to take on my first project, and I couldn’t have had a better first client. She knew that I had some artistic ability, and that I did well in my design/development classes, so she pretty much gave me compete freedom over the design. That’s something that doesn’t happen very often.

2. What did you learn from that first experience?

I learned so many things from my first client experience than any others, I think.  At that point, I began to realize that most clients know exactly what they want, but they usually don’t know what they need.  I also learned just how many hats a Web designer/developer wears on a daily basis. Although I’ve read it a hundred times in a multitude of design and development books, I just didn’t quite get it until that first client experience.  The most important thing I learned from that experience is that I absolutely love Web design and the process of creating something from nothing.  Loving the work you do is a big part of success.

3. What advice do you have for folks trying to get their first client?

Go into it like you’ve been doing for years.  In a lot of cases, your first client won’t know that their’s is your first project, so be confident (but not too-confident).  Also, treat your clients like kings.  The most powerful advertisement is word of mouth, so the better you treat your clients you obtain, the more likely you will continue getting clients and grow your business.

Hey there! Ready to get your own first web development client? I've written a free course to get you started! Sign up today: "Four Weeks To Your First Client".

This interview is the third in a new series I’m starting to share how web designers and developers got their first client.


I met Nick Johnson at a conference for Christian businessmen in September of 2007. Within a month of meeting, we decided to go into business together and started Sabramedia. Years before, Nick had started his own web development business, which had grown from that first client to a thriving, two-man shop. Today, Nick leads development an ecommerce platform and Pigeon, our foray into the newspaper industry.

1. How did you get your first client?

Technically, my first client was my dad’s business. Kind of obvious how I came by that one. It was the summer of ’98 and I was 16 years old. I had no idea how the Web worked. I had poked around on it at school and my parents had just upgraded from a 28K baud modem to a 56K and we were surfing the web screaming fast.

My dad was an artist so he needed a website to show his art catalog. I began developing the site in Netscape Composer. I remember looking at the source code view and figuring out that tags made text “do stuff”. The first time I wrapped text with the <b> tag (made the text bold) was an incredibly exhilarating experience. I knew then that whatever this was, I wanted to do more of it.

Then I started doing all kinds of hideous things like flashing text and marquees, ugh, I get sick thinking about it. I think it was the thing to do in the 90s. Not too long after that I picked up a HTML4 book, by Molly E. Holzschlag, and couldn’t put it down.

With that backstory in mind, a couple personal web projects, and a brush with network engineering in between, I didn’t actually open up for business until January 2002 under the name Harmony Design. By this time I had taken a few courses and learned a lot about the Internet and World Wide Web. I need to pause here and give a lot of credit to Eric and Cara Stalsmith. They gave me some resources and opened my eyes to the web development world like I had never seen it before. You have to understand, nobody around me at the time was into computers or the Internet. I felt like an Island. Then this couple stopped by to sell my dad ad space on their website, and I was super excited to talk with these people. I probably wouldn’t have got into web development, or at least as soon as I did if it wasn’t for Eric and Cara.

I leased my first shared-hosting account and setup (yeah, it was a dot biz). My first ‘official’ client was a private shipping company owned by some friends of the family. They didn’t have a website and knew they needed to be on the web. I knew that I wanted a residual income business, so I decided to resale hosting to all my web clients. I outlined a scope and sketched a layout. I showed it to them and sold it to them. I set the price a bit higher, then worked in a discount. I had picked a few sales practices from my dad. They bought it. I was on cloud nine, $500 bucks for a teenager was a lot of money, plus I was being paid to do something I loved. I think I danced around a bit when I got the go ahead. I also had my first monthly paying client at $15.95 per month. It doesn’t seem like a lot now, but at the time it was the beginning of a dream. I think I finished the site in about two weeks.

2. What did you learn from that first experience?

I don’t know if I learned it on the first client, but I began to realize that getting clients was about connections and building relationships. I was able to use my dad’s website and this private shipping website now as references. The next few websites were all based on referral and connections.

3. What advice do you have for folks trying to get their first client?

The best way to build a solid business is through consistent communication and going the extra mile when it’s not needed. People remember that kind of stuff and they talk about you, in a positive way. That talk inherently leads to more business. I didn’t advertise for years. The one time I paid for a print ad was a total waste of money. I’m not saying print advertising is bad, there is a time and place for it. It certainly is not what you spend money on getting your first few clients.

Hey there! Ready to get your own first web development client? I've written a free course to get you started! Sign up today: "Four Weeks To Your First Client".

This interview is the second in a new series I’m starting to share how web designers and developers got their first client.


Joshua Wold and I go way back. We’ve been playing together since we could crawl (I had about a 15-month head start) and we started our first business together before either of us broke double digits. Today Joshua is an accomplished web designer and, on top of his full-time design work at Sabramedia, he runs his own freelance design business on the side. Joshua is also responsible for the great looking design work you see on my site.

1. How did you get your first client?

I landed my first web design client at the age of 18. Prior to that I’d had experience in graphic design, as well as a few personal web design projects. But I’d never done web design for a client. I found my first project on Craigslist. After going back and forth a few times by email I closed the project at $400. The scope included logo design, website design and setup, and a shopping cart. Yeah, it was a bit more than I could handle.

The funny thing about the project, though, was that I’d recently made a trip from Indiana to Georgia. The client, unaware of my location, insisted that we meet in person, the only problem was that she lived in Chicago. I drove from Georgia to Chicago, and then back again, without telling her I was out-of-state. I really wanted to get the project. As far as I was concerned, the experience I’d gain was more than worth the money spent on gas. While I wouldn’t do it again, it was definitely a big moment in my mind. I met with the client, collected the initial $100 down payment, and set to work.

Due to delays (mostly on the client’s part), I completed the scope of the project within about 4-6 months.

2. What did you learn from that first experience?

A lot. I learned about scope creep, how to close a sale, and how to communicate with a client. I also learned the importance of properly pricing a project. The experience I gained as a whole from the entire project was more than worth it.

3. What advice do you have for folks trying to get their first client?

Be willing to put yourself out there and do something that’s uncomfortable. While I don’t recommend taking on a project that’s too big to handle, it’s ok if the project stretches you. Also, when you’re closing the project, be careful to not oversell yourself. It’s better to promise a few things and over deliver on those, then promise everything and mess up the entire project. There are many unexperienced web design professionals willing to take on projects that are too much for them to handle. These folks lack professionalism, and in some cases, scruples. My biggest advice to new folks starting out is to start small enough that they can handle the projects they take on. Make it your challenge to improve our profession by over delivering and doing your best in every project you undertake.

Hey there! Ready to get your own first web development client? I've written a free course to get you started! Sign up today: "Four Weeks To Your First Client".

P.S. This post is also available in the Serbo-Croatian language.

This interview is the first in a new series I’m starting to share how web designers and developers got their first client.

mattgeriMatt Geri has been a close friend of mine for quite a few years and I’ve had the privilege of working with him on projects of all shapes and sizes. Matt is a programmer and in addition to his successful career as a freelancer he has developed several relatively popular WordPress plugins, with plans to do more plugin development in the near future. Matt is married to a great woman named Megan and they have a baby girl on the way.

1. How did you get your first client?

I got my very first client by chance as I wasn’t looking for work! I was a teenager at the time and spent most of my time building websites as a hobby. My mother worked for a guy who had a business in the air conditioning industry and he needed a website. He was also interested in setting up some niche content websites. My mom, being the ever concerned parent that she is, jumped at the opportunity to send him my contact details and with that, he become my first proper web development client.

2. What did you learn from that first experience?

I learnt a great deal from that experience. Everything was so new to me, I had never dealt with someone in a professional environment before and I quickly had to get my act together.

The hardest part was figuring out how much to charge him. I had no idea! Luckily for me, he made sure that I got paid what I was worth and wouldn’t accept a quote that was too low. You won’t find many clients like that these days!

I also learnt how to manage clients expectations, it’s always good to over deliver on what the client is expecting from you. You’ll quickly become their go to person as they know that you will always give above and beyond what they need.

Lastly, I quickly learnt how to manage my time. This was an important one for me as it’s something I really struggled with. It’s really not nice being late on a project deadline!

3. What advice do you have for folks trying to get their first client?

Firstly, tap in to your existing network. You’d really be surprised at how many people you know, know someone who needs some web development work done. Also, continue to grow your network. Use tools like twitter to connect with people. I’ve received a lot of web development work from people I interact with on Twitter.

Secondly, release something open source! Whether it is a WordPress plugin, theme or even advice in the form of a tutorial or article. Get your name out there so that people can find you.

Hey there! Ready to get your own first web development client? I've written a free course to get you started! Sign up today: "Four Weeks To Your First Client".