One of the questions I’m often asked is how I got started working for myself. How did I pick up clients early on. It’s something I’ve written about in the past, but also something I know people are interested in learning. Recently I was asked the question again by David of prova.fm who’s a reader here as well as a member of my small business forum.
Marketing can get complex in the details, but it really boils down to a few things.
- Understand as much as you can about who your client/customer is and figure out where your client/customer spends time.
- Build a brand in front of potential clients/customers. You have to decide what your brand is and stay consistent in everything you do.
- Convince potential clients/customers to buy from you. Differentiate yourself from the competition. Answer the question why should someone buy from you.
- Listen to existing and potential clients/customers and refine your business to better meet their wants and needs.
- Expand how many people you can reach by building your brand in front of new communities.
There are many different ways to achieve each of the above and many details in each step, but no matter how you market your business you’re going to do the above if you want to be successful.
Also know that each of the above isn’t necessarily a step-by-step. The way you differentiate yourself is likely a component of you brand for example. The above points work together.
Back in 2003 I was let go from a job here in Boulder. IBM had bought our company and the software we worked on duplicated software IBM already had and did well. They kept a few people on, but most of us were let go. It was the second time in couple of years I’d lost a job through no fault of my own. Working for myself had been a dream for as long as I could remember and the timing seemed right. In fact I’d been kind of preparing for it and teaching myself how to build websites the entire time I worked that job.
There was one major problem. I had no idea how to find clients or get started in business.
As it turns out a friend of mine was also in need of work at the time and together we decided to start a web design and development business. She would design the sites and I would build them. A friend of hers needed a site or at least was willing to let us develop a site for her. We were in business.
In between working odd jobs to help pay the bills we worked on the site and before you know it we had created this thing online. Shorty after another friend in need of another site and we were working again. Next up was a site of our own and after that site we celebrated for the night. Then a funny thing happened.
We had no idea what to do next.
With no more friends needing sites we reached out to the small business administration to learn what we could about running a business and marketing it. We joined local Chambers of Commerce and networked a bit. We tried some very limited advertising. Neither worked and a month or two later we were pretty much out of business.
Learning from Failure
She decided to go on to other things, but I knew this was what I wanted to do and started up again on my own. I looked at where we went wrong and thought most of it was our marketing. I didn’t really know exactly what to do, but I knew it was important to get my name out there and joined a few forums . I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I did have some ideas. I had been devouring books on marketing at the end of the partnership and the start of my solo venture.
One book in particular, “Waiting For Your Cat To Bark,” by Bryan and Jeffry Eisenberg pointed me in the right direction. On of the ideas in the book is to speak the language your customer speaks and not the language you speak. Cats meow, so trying to communicate with them by barking is pointless.
Where I applied this piece of advice was in the forums I joined. At first I was thinking I’d join webmaster and seo forums, but it dawned on me that none of the people there would become my clients. They could become friends and I could network with them, but they weren’t going to hire me.
I spent some time looking through a dozen or so small business forums. The people there were potential clients. I looked for forums that were active, had sections about design, development, and seo and didn’t have a lot of people answering questions in those sections. I basically set myself up as the expert in what I do in one or two communities and spent as many hours as I could answering questions. I never solicited business. I just tried to be as helpful as I could.
It took a couple of months, but then one person contacted me and then another and then another. I had started building a client list from the people I was helping. It makes sense. They needed help with their website. They knew I built websites. They knew I knew how to build websites since I’d been helping people do that for months right in front of them.
What I had been doing those couple of months was building a brand in front of a small group of people who were likely to have need of my services. I’ve continued to do that over the years and eventually set up my own small business forum further building my brand in front of potential clients.
I also spent time looking through classifieds, mainly Craig’s List for any potential job. It didn’t lead to a lot, but I did land a client or two.
Blogging for Traffic and Branding
The other thing I started early on was this blog. Creating new content for the site did several things. It again helped build my brand. Instead of answering questions on forums, I was basically doing that here so anyone who found my site would hopefully see I knew what I was doing and that I could back up what I was saying on sales pages.
New content also meant new opportunities to be found in search engines and generated links into the site. It’s much easier to link to informational content then it is to sales copy. Most of the early posts didn’t bring in much traffic, but some did. And as they acquired a few links they helped other pages on the site rank well and bring traffic.
Again it didn’t happen right away, but in time people found this site through a search engine and some contacted me about work. The blog also gave me a voice, albeit a small one, in the communities around the topics I wrote about. That’s helped develop new friendships and expanded my network.
Rinse and Repeat and Buy Some New Shampoo
Most of what I’ve done since early on was to continue what I started. I still post at forums. I still write posts here. The main difference is I’ve expanded both activities.
I expanded into other social communities like Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn, though my participation can hardly be called prolific. I commented on other blogs in the community and began writing guest posts where and when I could.
I’ve always done my best to treat my clients as well as I can. In time they began recommending me to friends and associates and many of my clients have come to me through word or mouth.
In addition to expanding where I market I refined my business by listening to what people wanted. Clients started calling and asking about WordPress so I spent more time learning to develop sites as themes. Now a significant amount of my work revolves around WordPress.
My clients told me one of the reasons they continued to work with me was my personality outside the job so I redesigned this site to be more friendly and better reflect who I am, since it was apparently a way to differentiate myself from the competition.
Where Did The Money Come From?
You might be wondering how I survived those early days before I had enough clients to keep me busy. It wasn’t always easy. Several times I wondered if this month would be the last. I had one thing going for me, which is I know how to live without much income. In years prior I’d lived something of a Bohemian lifestyle and could survive on less than most people.
I also took on debt, mainly through credit cards. In my first year if I could charge it I did. The credit card companies loved me and extended my limits and I extended how much I used the cards. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it did keep me going. Debt is nothing to be afraid of. What I did amounted to getting a very high interest loan, which I began paying back as soon as I was taking in more than I what I was sending out.
In that first year I also took on odd jobs to help pay the bills. Painting a house here, staining a deck there, cleaning out someone’s garage or helping build a swing set. If they were willing to pay I’d spend an afternoon helping out. It wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, but it helped pay the rent.
Persistence Pays Off
A big part of succeeding in business is persistence. Most people give up within a year or two. You can’t. You have to keep at it. The effort you put in early does pay off, but you have to give it time. Let me share another story.
One of the jobs I landed through Craig’s List was some light php programming. The work wasn’t much and I wasn’t very confident with php at the time. Instead of charging a fee I worked in exchange for a few things this person had that I needed.
He’s a designer in town and about a year later needed some more php programming for a site he was working on. Who do you think he called? This time I did charge (It was a bigger project and I was more confident in my abilities) and in the process landed his client as a client of mine.
He also recommended me to a friend who needed to pass on one of his clients after taking on a full time job. I’ve also done more work over the years for the original person I found through Craig’s List.
What began as me doing a few days of free work for someone down the road has turned into thousands of dollars of paying work, but only because I stuck it out long enough. Had I closed up shop in that first year all those clients would have gone to someone else. You have to hang in there and give your efforts time to pay off.
That’s pretty much how I got started. I don’t suggest following exactly what I did, but rather understanding the ideas behind why I did what I did. Consider my path in regards to the steps I mentioned at the start about how marketing works.
- Early on I decided to work with micro business owners and decided that a number of them would frequent small business forums.
- I built my reputation and brand in front of those people by helping them as much as I could and in the process displaying my expertise.
- This display of expertise along with getting to know these people by genuinely interacting with them, helped differentiate me from others they could have contacted.
- I listened to what these people were saying on the forum about the problems they had with websites and their objections to hiring someone. I also listened to my clients when they told me what it was that made them stay with me. I refined my business according to my strengths and the needs and wants of potential clients.
- Over the years I’ve continued to participate in the same and new communities and I’ve worked expanding the sites where my writing appears.
I hope my story helps in some way to get your own business started. More than anything I would say to stick with it and keeping doing what you can to improve your skills in design and development, but also in business and marketing. Things can get rough at times, but if you’re persistent you’ll outlast the competition and get better at what you do and you’ll give your efforts time to pay dividends.
How did you get started freelancing? What problems are you having gaining your first few clients?