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How to land your first client

In 6 months, I’ve gone from not being an audio programmer to having 3 downloadable products, one contract client, and a bunch of other business ideas.

This didn’t happen because I’m smart and really good at both audio and programming.  I know people who excel much more than me in all 3 of those areas.  Realistically, I’m just like you.  I’m a person with a skill set that isn’t quite the best at any particular thing.

I’m willing to bet some of you are also like me in that you want to have your own business, or at least freelance.  Shout out to most every sound designer, composer, etc.

But honestly, when you don’t have clients or you’re just starting, most of you suck at getting the first one.  Don’t worry, I did too.

So for the TL;DR of you, here’s the two things you need to do to land your first client.  I’ll elaborate more below (also feel free to argue with me on Twitter about it):

  1. Do awesome work (and get noticed for it)
  2. Listen to the potential clients who noticed you

That’s it.

“But Adam,” you say.  “it’s not that easy!  You make it sound like there’s nothing to it and somebody will pay me tomorrow!”

Well, technically, it is that easy.  Provided you’ve completed the two steps above, you can actually get a client tomorrow.

But you are right in a way… to get well paid, this takes more effort, thought, and detail put into those two points.  Let me explain…

Do awesome work

Step one is that you have to do something awesome.  It doesn’t have to be the most awesome or even the best you can do.  But it needs to be something which, if presented to another interested person, would get them to react with surprise and delight.  Something like…

“Oh, that’s COOL!”

If one person does that, and they’re not your mom, dad, girlfriend, or best friend, there are other people who will respond like that too.

So think through this.  What does it require to do awesome work?

  1. You need to be somewhat skilled at that something
  2. You need an idea to create (it does not have to be new or revolutionary, it can be novel or a new twist on something)
  3. You need to actually make it, and finish it
  4. You need to shamelessly show it to other people and talk about it

Make sense?  Because to make something awesome (and not outsource it) you need to know how to make it with skill and quality.  You have an idea to make, you need to actually complete it.  Once it’s completed, you go get those “Oh, that’s COOL!” reactions.  Then those reactions beget similar ones, and you also seek out more of them yourself.

That’s building an audience based off of making something and showcasing your work, in a nutshell.

If you already have something cool that people have been mildly impressed by, you can do this now.

Example time:

My Instant-Take Suite (Audiosuite for Reaper) product has made me hundreds of dollars.  In my opinion, not too bad for a little set of Lua scripts.  Here was the process:

  1. Idea – @mattesque said to me, “I would use Reaper if it had Audiosuite”.  Notice, Audiosuite is a thing that exists, but not in Reaper.  A twist, not revolutionary.
  2. Skill – the idea encouraged me to learn how to write Reaper scripts
  3. Talk – I shared the idea publicly and @markkilborn went “Oh that’s COOL!  I would totally use that!”  Mark took me back to point #1 and improved it, and also became my first serious beta tester.
  4. Make – Well… I made the scripts.  I first made a prototype and Mark tore it to bits in a real world situation, super duper politely criticizing the work in the process.  As it got better, I opened it up to other people.
  5. Shameless sharing – The beta test got more people talking, I got interviewed by The Reaper Blog,  and then Twitter and gameaudio Slack blew up for a bit too.

At this point I had a handful of people asking “are you going to charge for this?”.  This turned out to be code for “If you don’t charge for it, I’m going to pay you anyway.”

Seriously!  That was 3 months into me really intensely focusing on programming again.  I am not special, and you don’t have to be either.

Name your potential clients

From my Instant-Take example you’d think you can go to your friends, colleagues, and people at your level and make money – and you can.  But notice that my business is currently at side-business level.  That’s OK, it will grow.

Realistically, if you want to have a successful business you can live off of then have to define your client in advance.

This doesn’t mean we make an imaginary person and say they’re a man or woman in their 30’s, what they like and don’t like, and give them a name.

This means, in my case for example, would I rather have a small independent game studio paying me or a large corporation?  Seattle indie game dev, or Microsoft and Amazon?

Let me be clear, the correct answer to that question is the one you pick.  If you’re happy making less money or working with lots of clients and not working with corporations, that’s fine.  But do realize that if you get noticed by somebody with deeper pockets, it’s possible to fulfill bigger needs and make more money.

Before you go “But Adam… I could never do something Microsoft would notice!”

Chase is the audio director for Forza Motorsport, aka one of the most well-known games that uses FMOD.

Full disclosure – I’ve worked with Chase prior to this tweet.  But I have a backup example…

Zak is the Audio Director for UE4.  This is an email he sent me after I released my book on how to start writing scripts for Reaper.

Full disclosure – I barely knew who Zak was prior to this email, and had never conversed with him.

All that to say – you can gain the interest of, and work with, big, important, rad people and companies.

But you have to think about this, aim somewhere, and be wise.  Otherwise, you’re going to make something awesome and become an “indie darling”.  By that, I mean someone who didn’t make enough money to survive but made a really awesome thing.  These tend to build cult followings and eternal street cred, but not buy food and mortgages.

And before you hate-tweet me – yes, you can make money from “small indie work”.  There’s also nothing wrong with it.  But you need to choose it so as to be satisfied with it!

Listen

This one is actually really tricky.  It’s also where I feel the most shame for audio people.  For individuals whose job it is to listen and use their ears more than the average person – generally we suck at it.

This whole blog actually came to life completely because of this word. listen.  That’s because most people who don’t get work are too busy talking and trying to impress, instead of listening.

I don’t mean listening to learn a skill in the traditional sense.  I mean listening to empathize, understand, and learn about other people.

Only when someone knows you exist and likes you enough to trust you, will they share with you their hopes, dreams, fears, wants, and needs.  Those are all your currency for survival.

When you meet a new industry colleague, do you go right for your business card?  Do you tell them who you are, what you do, everything you’ve done recently, what you’re proud of, etc?  Do you talk with the hopes of sounding impressive because maybe if you’re impressive enough that person will hire you or know someone who can?

Quit wasting your breath, and other people’s time.

Instead try introducing yourself briefly, then ask questions and be interested!  For example:

Me: “Hi, my name’s Adam – and yours?”

Other human: “Hi Adam, I’m <name you should remember>”

Me: “Nice to meet you <name>!  How did you find out about this event?”

You can replace that question with many others, like:

  • “Have you come here before?”
  • “Who do you work for?”
  • “What do you do for <company they work for>?”
  • “What brought you here?”
  • “I’ve seen you here a few times before but never got the chance to say hi – what do you do?”

Say you ask what they do for their company, let’s say they’re an Audio Director (because we want to hook you up with a big shot), how do you follow up that question?

Maybe “Oh that’s awesome!” followed by one of these:

  • “How long have you been in that position?”
  • “Did you work your way up to that position?  How long did that take?”
  • “So I’ve heard the title of ‘Audio Director’ before, but what does your actual day-to-day look like?”

With that, as long as you’re then listening to them and being interested – you’re off to the races!

Example time:

When I met @mattesque and first really got to know him, we were eating pizza with a group at the first Bellingham Audio Bash.  I had some inherent trust built simply by being part of the group.  I’d also done some small music side projects with him, but really we barely knew each other.

That night, he told me he owed a bunch of back tax money to Canada and he wasn’t going to be able to buy gear again any time soon.  He was super bummed.  Almost in the same breath he mentioned a synth that he was really excited about and wanted, but now couldn’t afford.

So jokingly, I told him I’d launch a crowdfunding campaign and get him the synth.  He gave me the green light to legitimately do it, not thinking I actually would.

Then I did.

#gameaudio successfully raised $550 to buy him that synth as a community thank you.

Matt’s a good friend of my, but that’s an example of listening to your customer.

Now, over a year later, all I have to do is go to Matt and say “Can I have 30 minutes of your time?  I want you to tell me what sucks about FMOD.”

He’s then generous enough to give me an hour, and knows that what I’m really asking for is what issues he has that I might be able to alleviate.  We get right down to it, because I care about making his life better and he cares about my mission to help people – whether it’s him or others.

I tell you this because it’s real, it all actually happened.  Even the FMOD conversation (which netted me new potential product ideas).

What are you going to do now?

So I hope you see – the process is truly only twofold.  Again:

  • Do awesome work (and get noticed for it)
  • Listen to the potential clients who noticed you

Yes, there’s a ton to process and do within those two points.  But I’m a fan of breaking things down to their simplest parts.  That’s as simple as I can make it.

I also assure you that I’m a human, and the only way I learned this is by failing at it first.  So you have my permission – go fail again.  But when you fail this time, come back and evaluate what you did and how it differs from the content here.

Then fix it.

Then help people and get paid.

Then tell me about it.  I’m looking forward to hearing your story!


Copyright 2016-2017, Adam T. Croft, all rights reserved.