“First Client” Interview #5: Clay Doss

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.