How I Landed My First Freelance Client + The Exact Strategy I Use To Find New Business

When I tell people I quit my safe job in public relations to start my own business, the first question they ask me is, “How do you find clients?”

It makes sense. Figuring out how to land clients and find paying work is often a huge barrier for those who want to freelance, start a side hustle or eventually run a full-blown business.

The truth is, I’ve always taken a bit of a different approach to new business development.

I don’t send out cold emails to people I’ve never met. I don’t really attend networking events. I don’t even actively connect with folks on LinkedIn.

So, how do I do it? After all, I side-hustled successfully for four years, and just hit the major one-year-milestone of starting my business, Jessica Lawlor & Company.

To understand my business development strategy and approach, let’s take a look at exactly how I’ve landed clients over the years.

The real story of how I landed my first big client

Five years ago, in December 2012, I stumbled upon an awesome article about public relations written by a guy named Greg Galant. Prior to reading that article, I wasn’t familiar with Greg or with his startup company, Muck Rack.

I included Greg’s piece in in my Start Your Week Right Sunday roundup post, a place each week where I’d share links I loved (as of last fall, I’ve discontinued that weekly series). As I did each time I published a new content roundup, I tagged Greg on Twitter to let him know he’d been featured.

Greg liked and retweeted my tweet that day. I didn’t think much of it.

The next day, Greg sent me an email:

Jessica,

Thanks for referencing my article on your blog!
 
Do you do any freelancing? We’re looking for writers for Muck Rack.
 
Best,
 
Greg

That email led to a phone call which led to an invitation to write a guest post for the Muck Rack blog.

Over the next few months, I wrote a handful of blog posts for Muck Rack, opting for a link in my bio over monetary payment for my work. (Sometimes working for free can be really smart…keep reading!)

In May of 2013, just a few months after I first met Greg through Twitter, we jumped on a call to brainstorm more post ideas. During that call, Greg asked if there were other ways we could work together. He said Muck Rack was interested in producing regular content, and needed someone to manage the process. He asked if I thought I’d be up for the job.

Lots of thoughts went through my head:

Can I do this? I’ve never done anything like it before. Am I capable? Can I handle this project along with the responsibilities of my full-time job? Will this be a success or a complete flop?

Of course, I didn’t let Greg in on my self-doubts. Instead, I confidently said, YES, of course.

Greg asked me to put together a proposal. Cue me frantically googling “how to write a proposal.” I’d never written one before. (Fake it ’til you make it, people).

After sending off the proposal and some back and forth negotiation, I signed my first contract, and officially welcomed my first freelance client, Muck Rack.

Now, five years later, Muck Rack is my longest-standing client. Not only do I manage their blog (we publish three times a week!), but me and my team also manage Muck Rack’s social media presence and I write and lay out case studies on a monthly basis for the brand. Our work together has grown (and continues to grow) with time.

What started out as one tiny blog post grew into an exciting project that allowed me to start my side hustle and eventually gave me the confidence and know-how to quit my job to take my business full time.

I’ll forever be grateful to Greg for taking a chance on a 25-year-old with a blog, an idea and a drive to make things happen.

How I found my other paying clients

I love telling the story of how I came to work with Muck Rack, but I’ve landed my other clients in some pretty unique ways, too.

Curious about how I landed some of my past and present clients? Here’s a brief breakdown.

The Write Life: I’ve long admired The Write Life founder Alexis Grant. She and I became friends on Twitter back in 2010! I avidly read her blog, featured her in a Q&A on a former blog of mine, and fostered a relationship over the years, often catching up via email or phone. Lexi introduced me to the then editor of Brazen Careerist, and helped me land one of my first paid writing gigs. She later hired me to do some PR monitoring work for her company, and this past summer, when I saw she was looking for a new managing editor for The Write Life, I eagerly threw my hat into the ring. I went through the same application process, interview and editing test as all the other candidates, but no doubt, my relationship and Lexi’s knowledge of my skill and work ethic definitely helped me land this role. 

Temple University Kornberg School of Dentistry: My sorority sister Ashley previously worked in the alumni communications office for the Dental School at my alma mater. Knowing my career background, she and I chatted about me potentially doing some writing for the school when we were at an alumni networking event. A few months after the event, she emailed me and asked me to write a couple of articles for the school’s alumni magazine. Ashley’s no longer with the alumni office, but my relationship continued with other professionals at the school, and I’ve continued writing for the office’s publication for several issues.

Crossing Vineyards and Winery: When I officially gave my notice at my full-time job back in 2015, I made a list of professional connections I’d made through my career in tourism PR. Christine and Tom Carroll, co-owners of Crossing Vineyards and Winery certainly made that list. After all, I’d worked with them for four years on various media initiatives. I sent them an email sharing my news and letting them know what I planned to do as I embarked on the journey to start my business. They enthusiastically reached out and told me they wanted to come on board as my first official PR client. We’ve been working together ever since!

Pennsbury Manor: Similar to the above story, Tabitha Dardes, who worked at Pennsbury Manor at the time I quit my job, also received an email sharing my big news. She emailed me back to congratulate me, but there was no mention of working together (which was totally fine; that wasn’t my goal of sending out these emails). However, Tabitha had already been subscribed to my email newsletter, so she received regular updates and blog posts about what I was doing and what I was working on. Toward the end of February last year, she reached out and initiated a conversation about working together on PR and social media for the historic site. Relationships are everything; Tabitha is no longer at Pennsbury, but I’ve continued my work with them AND I’m starting a new project with Tabitha at her current company. Win-win!

Author Cara Bradley: When I graduated from yoga teacher training two years ago, a friend introduced me to an inspiring woman named Jennifer Kreatsoulas. At the time, Jennifer needed assistance with content/social strategy as she prepared to launch her business. In exchange for my marketing expertise, Jennifer served as my yoga mentor, helping me to become a stronger teacher. After a few months of working together, Jennifer started working with one of her yoga connections, Cara Bradley, who was preparing to publish her first book. Jennifer pulled me into the project to assist with social media and PR. After the book launched, Cara kept me on board for another year managing her social media and email marketing strategy. What started out as a trade (I love bartering!) with one expert turned into a high-paying client for more than a year down the line.

Scribewise: Scribewise founder John Miller found me on Twitter! I couldn’t find the exact tweet where we first started chatting, but from our very first email chain, I was able to see that he originally reached out there (After some digging, it appears the day we started talking, a piece I wrote was published by PR Daily, so I’m thinking he may have seen that, and reached out.) We jumped on a call; during the call, John shared more about Scribewise, and I shared more about myself. Still, nothing happened right away. A few months later, John reached out and asked if I’d be interested in writing regular guest posts. From there, I ended up writing more than 30 posts for Scribewise!

Teaching at Temple University: In the fall, I fulfilled a lifelong dream when I had the opportunity to  become an adjunct professor at my alma mater, Temple University. How did I land this gig? Pure persistence. As a PR student at Temple University,  I became close with the PR department head, Gregg Feistman. When I graduated, I kept in touch, and often saw Gregg at various PR events in Philly. A few years after graduation, I told Gregg I’d love to one day teach a class at Temple; he asked me to send my resume (which I did) and he’d keep me posted. Months went by and I didn’t hear anything. Gregg told me they had all their fall spots filled and he’d keep me in mind for spring. He asked me to follow up in the late summer; I did, and quickly received a reply from him, “Can you call me ASAP?” Turns out, a professor needed to drop two classes and Gregg needed to fill a spot for the fall, QUICKLY. I was able to step into that open spot!

My strategy and approach to new business development

Just like I’ve always been a huge fan of transparency, I’ve always taken a very genuine and authentic approach to marketing myself and seeking out new business.

Here’s my secret: I don’t really sell myself or my services. I simply don’t. “Selling” feels icky to me, and it always has.

Instead, I openly share what it is that I do:

  • On this blog
  • Through guest posts
  • On social media
  • Through my email newsletter
  • Through personal emails to connections and members of my network
  • During speaking engagements
  • At my yoga classes
  • In one-on-one conversations with friends and family
  • With my students

Instead of selling, put more simply, this is personal branding.

It’s storytelling.

Have you ever read my Becoming CEO column here on the blog? Each month during my first year in business, I shared an income report, lessons learned, the work I completed in the previous month, as well as the ups and downs I experienced. 

Were the posts interesting? Yes, I thought so. Were the posts useful to fellow biz owners? Hopefully. Were the posts honest. Absolutely. Did they always paint me in the best light? Nope. 

Did those blog posts serve as an excellent marketing tool for my business? Yup. BINGO.

This is how I “sell.” I sell by being myself. By sharing my story. Honestly. Genuinely. Authentically. By putting that story out there for the right people to find. 

All of this isn’t to say there won’t be a day I’ll send a cold email or pass out my business cards at a networking event.

There’s *nothing* wrong with that approach.

In fact, one of my goals for JL&Co this year is to actually find ways to reach out to companies I’d love to work with, but don’t already know. Moving into the future, if I want to land bigger clients and continue to grow, I’ll need to take more risks, so my strategy may change, but for now, THIS approach is what has worked for me.

And this is something YOU can achieve too.

You can write about your experiences online through a blog or through Medium or on LinkedIn. You can write guest posts for other websites and media outlets. You can share your work on social media. You can make genuine connections through Twitter. You can send personal emails to those in your network to catch up with them. You can build your own thriving personal brand.

It’s all possible. I promise.

How did you land your first client? I’d love to hear your story! Do you have any questions about my approach to finding new business?

*Photo via Pixabay

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This Is Why Your Guest Post Pitch Was Rejected

As the managing editor for two popular blogs that accept guest contributions — The Write Life and Muck Rack — I spend most of my days reviewing and responding to pitches and submissions.

To give some context, in February, The Write Life received 119 legitimate pitches/submissions.

Legitimate, meaning, from actual people; not the messages from spambots and content mills we receive on a daily basis. If I included those (which I delete immediately without responding to), we probably received around 150-175 pitches in the month of February.

We accepted and plan to run 22 of the pieces pitched or submitted.

97 were rejected for various reasons, which I’ll explain below.

That’s an acceptance rate of just 18 percent.

Here’s a secret: I don’t *want* to reject your submission! It actually makes my job 100x easier when I can accept your piece.

After all, at The Write Life, we publish blog content five days per week, meaning I’m looking for approximately 20-25 original, creative and insightful pieces per month. At Muck Rack, we publish three days per week, so I’m looking for 12-15 posts per month.

It’s my job to fill our editorial calendars, so believe me when I say, I want your ideas…and I want to say YES to your pitch.

Unfortunately though, for every solid pitch or submission I receive, there are often seven or eight pitches I immediately reject based on a number of different criteria.

Because it’s not possible (or practical) to respond to every single declined pitch with the specific reason a piece was rejected, I’m sharing key offenses to help you avoid a rejection the next time you pitch your dream publication.

Dream of getting your writing published on your favorite website or blog? Managing editor Jessica Lawlor explains why your guest post pitch was rejected.

Here are some red flags that get your pitch or submission sent straight to my “rejected” folder, and what to do instead to receive a resounding “YES.”

1. Not following our clear and specific submission guidelines.

Both The Write Life and Muck Rack have robust “Write For Us” pages detailing the types of posts we’re looking for, the proper way to submit your work and what to expect in terms of payment/promotion when your piece is published.

That’s why I get so irritated when a writer reaches out and doesn’t follow our guidelines. Not following our directions says to me, “I don’t really care what makes your job easier or more efficient. I’m going to do what I want.”

First impressions count, and that immediately puts a bad taste in my mouth. 

For example, at The Write Life, we explicitly ask writers to submit their post as a Google document (even including instructions on exactly how to do that), yet I continue to receive posts as a Word document (I don’t even have Microsoft Word) or pasted in an email. We ask writers to include relevant links from The Write Life in their piece, and I receive dozens of posts with no links.

File under just as annoying: asking me where to find our submission guidelines. Oh boy. Search the homepage or use this handy tool called Google, please.

What to do instead:

  • Follow directions! It’s that simple. A blog creates submission guidelines to help set you up for success. When you carefully read the guidelines and follow them, you’re already two steps ahead of other writers in my book.
  • In your pitch or submission, let the editor know you’ve read the submission guidelines. I love when I receive a pitch that says something like, “Hi! I’ve submitted my post here via a Google document per your submission guidelines. I’ve also included my bio information, as well as relevant links within the post. I look forward to your response!” This tells me upfront you’ve done your homework. I already like you, and now want to love your pitch or submission.

2. Pitching an idea or post that has nothing to do with the content we publish. 

This may be the worst offense yet. On a near daily basis, I receive a handful of completely off-base pitches.

Here’s a good example. I recently received a pitch at The Write Life for a piece titled, “How to choose love.” Uh…

Even if you’ve never read our blog before (which you definitely should before pitching), you can be pretty sure that topic would not make sense for a site about writing.

When I receive an off-base pitch like this one, I assume the writer is firing off that same pitch to multiple websites. They don’t truly care if my site publishes their work, and therefore, I don’t care to consider their piece.

What to do instead:

  • Please…take time to actually read the blog you want to pitch before sending off your idea. Familiarize yourself with the type of content a blog publishes, so you can then pitch a relevant idea.
  • Explain why your idea or piece is a perfect fit for my website. Just a quick sentence or two will do here. Over at Muck Rack, I’ll often receive a pitch from a PR pro who says, “Hey! I saw Nicole’s piece on how to get the attention of a journalist. I’d love to build off of that piece and share tips from a PR pro’s perspective” or something to that effect. Referencing another post on our blog, or explaining why your piece is a fit for my audience helps me understand why I should publish your work.

3. Submitting a piece that looks nothing like what we publish.

If a writer takes the time to read even just 2-3 posts on The Write Life’s homepage, they would notice some key trends.

  • We’re a big fan of list-based posts.
  • We tend to use headings and subheads to break up content.
  • Our writing tone is very conversational, and we use a lot of white space, often breaking up large paragraphs into smaller ones.
  • We link out to other relevant posts from our blog.

So, when I receive a post submission with super long paragraphs, written as an essay, with no links to our blog or external sources, all I can do is shake my head, immediately click to my canned “not a fit” response and hit send without even reading their full post.

Your writing may be amazing, but we’re not going to change up our style and post layout to accommodate. Instead, you can adapt your writing to fit within our style. 

What to do instead:

  • Become familiar with the blog’s style and aim to emulate that as best as possible when you send your pitch or submission. This isn’t to take away your unique voice by any means, but it helps me to see that you understand our style and can make your voice fit within those parameters.
  • Look for the blog’s most popular posts (The Write Life details some of those on the sidebar of our homepage, as do many other big blogs) and use those pieces as your template. Study these pieces; see what they have in common, and then use that knowledge to write a piece an editor can’t help but say yes to. 

4. Sending me an email asking “What should I write?” or “What type of content are you looking for?” 

My core job as a managing editor (among many other duties) is to approve pitches, plan out our editorial calendar and edit and publish posts on our website.

My job is not to brainstorm ideas on your behalf. That’s your job.

So, please…don’t ask me what to write or what we’re looking for.

Again, we’ve likely detailed that information in our submission guidelines. Over on the Muck Rack blog’s guidelines, we even outline some of our top-performing posts and provide a list of our most popular pieces from the previous year to help give writers an idea of what works for our audience.

What to do instead:

  • Read the blog! It sounds so simple, and I know I keep going back to this tip, but it’s really all it takes.
  • Don’t pitch the editor just yet. If you know you want to write for a specific site, but don’t have an idea, hold off! There’s no rush to pitch until you’re ready. Instead, wait until you have a couple of solid ideas you can stand behind and pitch them then.

5. Not making your message personal.

As mentioned, I receive upwards of 150 pitches/submissions per month between the two websites I manage. 

Know which pitches *really* stand out? Ones that address me by name, reference something you know about me, or reference the blog or a post on the blog in a specific way.

No one likes to receive an email addressed “Dear Sir/Madam.” You’d be surprised, but I see this way more often than I’d prefer.

It’s not usually too difficult to find the information you’re looking for about an editor. A simple search of “managing editor” on The Write Life brings up this post I wrote introducing myself and my role to the blog’s community. My name and personal email address are included on Muck Rack’s submission guidelines.

What to do instead:

  • Seek out the name of the managing editor of the site you want to pitch. If you truly can’t find a first name, avoid using a name at all and address your pitch “Hi there” or “Hello Muck Rack blog team” or something somewhat generic but that isn’t “Hello Sir.”
  • Do a quick Google search of the editor. Find them on Twitter; follow them there and check out their latest tweets. See something in there you might be able to mention in your pitch? Do that. Show you’ve done your homework.
  • Be a human being! Yes, I may be the decision maker between whether your post is published or not, but I’m a real live human being sitting on the other end of a computer. Talk to me like you’d talk to one of your colleagues. 

Looking for even more tips on how to get into the good graces of a managing editor? You have to give The Managing Editor Show podcast a listen. Hosts Jess Ostroff and Elisa Doucett offer up tips and advice for aspiring writers who want to get their work published by blogs and websites.

Do you have any questions about working with a managing editor? I’d love to make this post as useful as possible. Leave your questions in the comments below and I’ll answer them there.

*Photo via Pixabay

Want more gutsy content delivered straight to your inbox twice a month? Be sure to sign up for my FREE #GetGutsy e-newsletter filled with inspiration, ideas and action items to get out of your comfort zone.