Do You Have a Plan for New Business?

by Jonathan Longnecker

How do you plan for new business?

We get asked all the time how we get leads for new jobs. For those of you just starting out, it's really daunting. Overwhelming, really. Hopefully we can give you a few tips and places to start. But whatever you do - have a plan! Be proactive and work hard for it. Sitting around and waiting won't get you anywhere.

Do great work

First of all, let me get this out of the way: If you're doing bad or even mediocre work you have to get better. Nothing else I say will help if your product sucks. We get so many emails from people asking us, “How do I get better stuff in my portfolio if I don't have the work to add to it?” It's like the chicken/egg problem, right?

It sounds hopeless, but there are lots of ways to do this. Try working on passion projects – or find a cause or community you believe in and hone your skills there. We're not advocating for you to do all your work for free, but you have to take action if you want to get better. Don't sit around and wait on clients to magically appear out of thin air. They won't. Don't sit around waiting on awesome portfolio project to show up, either. Make your own. Also, see Branding down below ↓.

Share that work

Once you have work finished that you're proud of and you know is awesome it's time to share it. Tell people about it. Put it in your portfolio on your site. Back in the day, we would post screenshots of new web designs to Flickr and CSS galleries. Now we use Twitter, Facebook and Dribbble. That stuff will always change. Stay on top of it and make time to keep your site current. If potential clients come by and your last project was 2 years ago they're going to think you're not even in business anymore.

One important point here - while it's good to have your projects in lots of places don't neglect your own portfolio in your own site. It's ground zero, homebase and should always get priority. Potential clients almost always end up here anyway - and as the whims of social media sites change over the years you'll have a place where things stay consistent and searchable. Long term is good.


You don't have to go all power tie and beef up your firm handshake to get new business. Try attending some web conferences and making friends there. If you can't travel, find an online community you can invest into. A blog or forum where you can help others and start to become an authority in your field.

The next step after that, of course is a blog. Keeping up with a blog is hard work, and won't pay off for a couple of years - but man - when it does you'll be glad you put the time in. The majority of our traffic still comes in through blog entries to this day because we planted those seeds years ago.

Finally, if you do great work then your clients will start referring you to their friends. Sometimes you might have to ask, but if you're doing it right it's much more organic and natural. Again, this may take 3+ years to really kick into gear, but once your referrals start flowing you may not even have to get “cold” new business again.


A friend of mine asked on Twitter the other day, “What's the difference between a freelancer and an agency if they're only 1-2 people?” My answer? “Branding.” A strong, recognizable brand that people follow and care about shows a huge difference in business approaches. One focuses on right now and one focuses on the long term.

I believe that investing in the branding of your company creates a healthier business with more opportunities, less stress and more fun. How do you do that? We've initiated quite a few of our own projects over the years like DesignHope, the Kick Awesome Show, Kicktastic and Last Night Ago. Each one of them have brought in business we would have never gotten, and have allowed us to stay in people's minds even though we've been around for a long time.

Case in point? After 2 years of making the nutty Kick Awesome Show, we got a call from the director of jQuery. He had run across Nate's photography, found the show and watched all the episodes in one sitting. We ended up flying to D.C. and working with them on quite a few projects - and we would have never done that if we hadn't decided to act crazy in a field for fun and share it with others.

Again - this is all long tail stuff, but it pays off. And it feeds your need as a creative to work on things you're really passionate about. Sometimes our client work does the job, but sometimes you just need to make something for yourself, you know? It's good for your soul.

Have a Sales Funnel

Eeeek! I hear you say. Sales funnels are super lame and not fun and I would rather hit myself in the head repeatedly with a watermelon! Fair enough. We've been fortunate enough to have a client that specializes in all kinds of sales, recruiting and coaching training so we've learned a lot from them. Full time sales people make it pretty complicated, but we've learned over the years that a small web shop just needs some simple tracking.

The basic idea? Make a list of every potential contact you talk to. If they call you on the phone, fill out your contact form or email you - add them to the list. Then look at said list every couple of weeks and send a followup email. It's that simple. You'd be amazed how many jobs we've closed just by not forgetting about potential work!

From a process standpoint we use a Trello board with 5 sections: Initial Contact, Need a Quote, Quote, Follow Up and Signed. Then we just move that contact through our “funnel” till they end up signed. If you have several employees you're probably going to need something more robust, though. Check out Pulse or Harpoon for full on forecasting and detailed reporting.

Stay Focused, Look to the Future

For creatives liks us this is one of the hardest things to do. We love to be in the moment, completely involved in the projects we're working on - but you have to make time to take a step back and evaluate. For example - when we're busy with lots of work we forget about our Trello board. Then we finish all that work we're doing and have nothing to work on! I wish I could say we know better after all these years, but it still happens.

Just remember - if you're getting close to wrapping up more than one project start paying attention that sales funnel again.

Have a Freaking Plan

Let me just say it one more time. Have a plan! Be intentional. Try different things - but don't get discouraged if some of the long tail stuff doesn't work immediately. It's called long tail for a reason. Remember these important points:

  1. Do Great Work
  2. Share that Work
  3. Network
  4. Build a Strong Brand
  5. Have a Sales Funnel
  6. Stay Focused and Look to the Future

Now go forth, make the business and the dollars!

October 14, 2014

Design, Business


  1. Excellent points! I would add one more, especially for the small creative shops and freelancers. Always stay on top of the technology you use, it changes quickly and can hurt you in the long run.

  2. @Matthew Keefe Thanks for the kind words!

    Actually, though, I have mixed feelings about the technology aspect. Recently I’ve noticed a culture in the web community that focuses so much on using new technology, changing tools, libraries, compilers, etc… that while they think they’re being more effective they’re not.

    You can’t get really good a using a tool if that tool changes every 6 weeks smile

    Overall I do get what you’re saying and yeah there are big things that you need to stay current with. But at the end of the day your client probably won’t care if you used SASS or LESS or nothing at all. They will care if it was done quickly, has a low overhead and is easy for someone else to come in and edit should you ever disappear. What worries me with a lot of the new tech being used is that it creates a lot of dependencies and just generally complicates things to make writings some code go a little faster.

    Related: this all is under the assumption that you are going directly after clients and not trying to be a freelancer for agencies or other web shops. Those types of clients will place more of a value on bleeding edge tech while end-user clients won’t. We think that by-passing the agencies and going after end-user clients is a much better long-term strategy.

    You want people to hire you not for your technical skills, but for your reputation, honesty, character and overall brand. This was the hardest thing for us to understand because we love our craft, too. But craft without a good handle on selling, interacting with people and gaining trust won’t get you very far. If you want to make the dollars, you’ve got to step outside that comfort zone a bit smile

  3. Great article. Thanks for the reminders. So easy to forget to do the basics, look up and say “what happened?”.

  4. @Jeremy Mansfield Man, it really is. I think we still screw it up every time! Thanks for readin’!

  5. I love how you guys use Trello as a deal manager. So brilliant, I’ll have to start implementing that.

    On another note, I really admire the layout of your post here. Great use of headings and bold, making it easier to scan (let’s face it, that’s what we do on the net). Keep up the good work.

  6. @Ryan Battles Thanks, man! I can’t take the credit - I think someone mentioned this in the Kicktastic comments at one point and I thought, “Hey that’s a really good idea!”

    On the layout & format - let’s just say I’ve been paying attention to a certain “battle-tested” blog for inspiration - trying to up my game a bit wink

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