Let's imagine for a second that you're opening up a new shop, a real one, in a physical location. Maybe you sell products (like stereo equipment or art), or maybe you sell a service (like haircuts or tax preparation). You're really good at what you do, and people always leave happy.
Would you ever start this business then immediately shut the blinds, lock the door, keep the facade signless, and only allow customers into your store who email you and guess exactly what you're selling? No! You'd have to be crazy. (Although, now that I think about it, a super exclusive physical store might work for the right type of business and it'd probably be kind of cool.)
What you'd likely do is put a big, beautiful sign out front. You'd keep the door unlocked during business hours. You'd have a nice website with your hours and phone number on it. You'd throw a grand opening party, tell everybody you know to come by the shop, and tell them to tell everybody they know. People don't just show up and buy... they come from somewhere and they need a little warm-up period before they buy.
Occasionally people ask me for advice about how to quit their job and take on more freelance work, or how to get their own projects off the ground. There seems to be one piece of advice I give almost everybody, and I finally figured out a simple way to explain it.
“Make sure people know that you're open for business”
It probably seems so simple and obvious, but it's very easy to overlook. You live and breathe your work every day. You're afraid of being an over-sharer, over-promoter, self-involved, etc. But the opposite happens: a few months after you venture out on your own, you see an old friend at a dinner party. You're friends on Facebook and Twitter, yet they had no idea you were freelancing. Nobody had any idea you were available for work or selling a product.
But you have to make it obvious for other people. You can't be clever and drop hints here and there. There needs to be a big, bold "We're open!" sign on your forehead which states exactly what you do, why they'd potentially give you money, and why you're worth it.
A few basic tips
If you're a freelancer or you sell digital products, this means doing a few basic things.
First, pick a business name that's not just your own name. You don't need to incorporate a business yet, but you need to start taking this new endeavor seriously. Who is more likely to be hired? “Hi I'm Daniel Zarick, I design stuff.” or “Hi I'm Daniel Zarick, I run a small product+design studio in Chicago called #33cc77.” Plus, this isn't just for other people. It's for you. A name helps make this whole thing feel real, and you have to take it a bit more seriously. It's not just you... it's a business now!
Put together a website using your new business name. It doesn't have to be complicated, but a simple URL with a little bit about the new company and an email address is good for now.
Figure out what you're selling. What's your product? Even if you're a freelancer, your “product” is the output of your time. What's that output? Don't overcomplicate it. Offering any more than three products or services is confusing. I should know exactly what to hire you for. It's a common misconception that offering a lot of services as a freelancer leads to more work. But what often happens is you receive less work because people don't know what to hire you to do. Pick one or two skills that you do best, and focus on those. You might occasionally get work doing something else, but it's unnecessary to market those skills.
Tell people. Post on Twitter, on Facebook, make sure your website says you're available, tell people at parties. You'll find something happens: your customers will almost entirely be referrals from friends or other customers, all who know you're “open for business.” My freelance work is 100% referral-based. It comes entirely from former clients, friends who talk to me about client work, or people who follow me on Twitter and see my posts mentioning my client work. When someone thinks “Who do I know who does X?” your name should be the first that comes to mind.
Other than those basics, get as creative as you want. Have a launch party for your business. Invite groups of other people out to dinner who do the same thing you do. Other freelancers are often overbooked or hear about projects which don't fit their skill-set and will gladly hand the work off to you. Blog, like I'm doing now. Create a new piece of art every day and post it on the homepage of your new business and tweet the link. It doesn't have to be self-promotional or sleazy, just has to be self-respecting. Do anything that reminds people of the the most important fact – you're open for business.