Starting a business is thrilling. And terrifying. If you’ve spent the majority of your adult years working for someone else, you may have experienced certain frustrations that come with that territory—being on someone else’s clock, dealing with a horribly inept boss, putting in a lot of time and effort for too little money, and wondering every day whether you’re wasting your life staring at boring cube walls.
Been there? I have.
The stress that results from a less-than-ideal job situation pushes a lot of people to fantasize about going out on their own, and some eventually do. Being an entrepreneur can mean working when you want to work, not having an awful boss making your life miserable, and although you may not be raking in the millions at first, you at least feel like you’re doing something worthwhile with your life.
You breathe a big sigh of relief. And then you realize you’ve just traded one set of frustrations for another.
Working for someone else meant you didn’t have to pay quite as much in taxes. It may have meant a group discount on health insurance (although that’s a whole different ballgame now). And it also probably meant you didn’t have to find clients.
To say getting clients is crucial to your business is a gross understatement. Nothing else matters if there are no clients to provide the revenue you need to keep things going. No business is a business without customers.
Landing clients is a never ending and a necessary process, but it’s getting that first client that’s the biggest hurdle. So how do you do it? How do you convince someone to take a risk and hire you?
Start With Family and Friends
What else are family and friends for if not to help you get your business off the ground? But you also need to be smart about how you approach them. It’s not fair or realistic to expect every member of your inner circle to buy your product or service whether they need it or not simply because you’re asking them to.
Start by contacting family and friends who could be viable customers. Who might actually need the service you’re providing, or the product you’re making? Those people should be at the top of your contact list.
And while the rest of your close contacts may not be potential clients, they may be able to help you spread the word about your business, and share your launch with their contacts. Then those contacts can tell their contacts, and then…you get the idea.
This can be your first tactic, and it’s one you can use from time to time for the duration of your business. Just be careful not to abuse it. They’re your friends and family, sure, but there’s still a limit to how many times you can ask them if they need the widget you’re selling. When they stop taking your calls, you’ll really know you’ve hit that limit, but try to explore other options before it gets to that point.
Reach Out to Former Classmates
Have you kept in touch with friends from high school or college? Do you belong to an alumni association? While it may not be fruitful to give your elevator speech to anyone you haven’t seen since graduation, look through your contacts to see what your former classmates are up to. Might any of them fit the client bill? Send them an email or give them a call, and offer to take them to lunch (or just coffee—you’re on a startup budget, after all), and ask them for a little time to hear your pitch.
If they’re not willing or able to buy, perhaps they’re in a position to send work your way. Whether you broach the subject with them will depend on how close of a relationship you’ve maintained with them, and how comfortable you are asking for that referral.
Also, check with your alumni association. Do they maintain a database of members that includes any kind of biographical information? Is yours up to date? Some associations may even keep a database specifically for sharing business information. If your alumni association doesn’t do this, maybe now is the time to suggest it.
Ask Colleagues For Referrals
Hopefully you didn’t burn bridges when you left the corporate setting (Link is NSFW, but one of the best quitting scenes ever) for the entrepreneurial life.
Even if you’re no longer on speaking terms with your boss (and your life is much better for it), you may be keeping in touch with colleagues you met during your corporate stint.
It’s wonderful when a colleague hears you’ve launched a business, and they take it upon themselves to share your news, and maybe even send you a potential client or two. Those are the best kinds of referrals. But you may also have to take matters into your own hands and come right out and ask for that referral.
It’s best to request a referral from someone you’ve actually worked with as they’ll be able to attest to your skills and professionalism. But we also sometimes just get to know someone through work, without actually collaborating on anything. Again, it will come down to your level of comfort.
When phrasing the request, do so politely, professionally, and by making it perfectly clear that you’re asking—not demanding or expecting. Never put someone in a position where they either feel obligated somehow, or where they feel uncomfortable granting the request, but even more uncomfortable denying that request.
And if they do say no, don’t hold it against them. You may not understand the reason behind it, but bear in mind that it may have nothing at all to do with you. Some people just aren’t comfortable giving referrals, and some may not have that kind of professional capital to spend. But never discount simply asking for something you need. Sometimes you don’t know unless you ask, and the worst someone can do in that case is say no.
Besides, it may be a “no” now when you’re unproven, but a “yes” later once you’ve got some clients and completed projects under your belt. Keep as many of those bridges intact as possible.
A final word about referrals—be generous with them yourself. If you can honestly and confidently recommend someone else’s work, do it. Help others, and you also help yourself. One of my favorite quotes is:
“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
And a final, final word on referrals—when you get them, say thank you. To every person who gives you one. Every time. A lack of gratitude, or failing to acknowledge those who helped you get to where you are is the quickest path to finding yourself standing alone. Fail to say “thank you” to someone who sent you work, and it may be the last time they ever do so. Besides, it’s just good manners.
Attend a Conference
This may seem out of reach when you’re first starting a business. There’s the travel, hotel, meals, and then the cost of the conference itself, which can vary from hundreds to even thousands of dollars, depending on the event. But hit it right, and you may make back every penny you spend to attend a conference.
The first conference I attended as a business owner was PubCon Vegas 2013. But, just starting out, I couldn’t afford the cost of full attendance, so I bought a networking pass instead. That got me into the expo hall, the social events, and the keynote speeches. During the day, while sessions were going on, I worked in my hotel room.
Speaking of which, I should also mention, I lucked out and got a 50 percent off deal on a hotel room by happening to see a special deal on Twitter. Keep an eye out for things like that!
Even though I wasn’t able to attend any sessions, I saw a lot of people I knew. Even better, I was able to meet several new people. One person I met at the kickoff party is now a client. The projects we’ve done for that one client have now more than made up for what I spent to attend PubCon Vegas.
You might think it’s more affordable to start with a smaller conference, or one that’s local to you to reduce travel expenses. I can see benefits to that as well. My thinking was: larger conference, more people, more opportunity. It paid off for us, but your situation may be different.
Attend Local Events
Conferences aren’t the only events where you can meet potential clients. I’m willing to bet a quick search would turn up numerous business events in your local area.
Chambers of Commerce often host networking events. Sometimes you need to be a Chamber member, but sometimes the events are open to the public. You may also want to consider joining your local Chamber for many other benefits aside from the ability to attend events.
We’ve since switched to a new bank, but when we started our business, we opened an account with a local credit union. They’re very small business-oriented, and host monthly seminars about all kinds of topics of interest to entrepreneurs.
We attended a seminar on SEO (OK, we were also checking out the competition, I admit it), and met someone who contacted us about a large, ongoing project. In fact, we also got a referral at that seminar for the gentleman who is now our accountant.
One evening a few months ago, we attended a meetup at Geekdom, the local start up incubator here in San Antonio. (There’s one in San Francisco, too.) First, we got some great information about health insurance, which was one of our priorities when we started our company.
We met a woman who became a client (whom we later had to fire, but that’s another story), and we met the man who ended up helping us get our health insurance in place. Check out the Meetup site for local events related to your vertical, or to business in general.
Go Get ‘Em!
If you take anything away from this post, let it be this—you have to go out and get clients. You can’t just put a website up, sit back, and wait for the contact form emails to roll in. (By the way, do make sure you have a contact form on your website.)
As the phrase plainly states, you’re building a business, not standing by while it magically creates itself. Get ready to shake a lot of hands, get that elevator speech ready, and then get to work.
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