If you build it, they will come.
Wishful thinking. And unfortunately, it’s the mentality many first-time entrepreneurs have before opening their doors.
I, too, fell victim to this Hollywood logic. After putting the finishing touches on my first group of services and launching my website, I was certain the dough would come rolling in.
Well, it didn’t, and I was crushed. But I eventually rebounded and landed the initial client base I needed. If you’re in the same boat as I was once, here are some suggestions worth considering to get you over the hump.
1. Open Your Mouth
This suggestion is a bit direct, but true on so many levels. How can you expect your business to grow if you keep it under wraps? So each time the opportunity presents itself, find a creative way to introduce your new baby into the mix.
There’s no such thing as overexposure, at least in my mind. When I initially decided I was going to become a financial mentor (way before I began writing about money matters), most of the people I spoke to regularly knew my intentions.
And while some may have grown tired of witnessing me bubble over with excitement as I explained my ideas, they didn’t hesitate to spread the word to others in their circle. Long story short, someone tried it and loved it. The rest is history.
2. Guest Post
Want to become a subject matter expert? Cultivate relationships with reputable bloggers and ask to contribute to their website. If the content is relevant and intriguing, your name’s sure to start buzzing around the Web. Guest posting is ideal if you have no interest in starting and maintaining your own blog or if your website is in desperate need of more traffic.
I initially underestimated the power of guest blogging and didn’t quite see how it would help land writing clients, but business was dry and I didn’t have anything to lose. So I gave it a shot and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I made.
I didn’t get paid for the first gig, but it opened the door to even more opportunities, and the blogging side of my business has been on the upswing ever since.
3. Attend Conferences
Working behind a laptop day in and day out can get a bit lonely at times — not to mention the fact that it’s not all that conducive to finding lucrative clients, either.
That’s exactly why I began attending conferences: to get out, meet new faces, and communicate to other attendees all I had to offer.
My most memorable experience was this past February, at a free conference in New Orleans hosted by Entrepreneur Magazine. I met a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs who inked deals with others on the spot, and I’m confident you can do the same at conferences you attend.
4. Host Workshops
I’m a big fan of hosting free workshops on a subject you’re knowledgeable about. The key to success is revealing just enough information to leave your attendees begging for more information. They’ll have no choice but to purchase your product(s) or patronize your services to completely settle their curiosities.
During my days as an avid couponer, I penned a book on the art of couponing and needed a way to attract new readers. So I reached out to the local library and they agreed to let me host a 30-minute seminar. Couponing was hot at the time, so attendance was through the roof and I stumbled upon another opportunity: one-on-one couponing sessions. As for the book, I never followed through with the publication because I ran out of steam and I got more than I expected out of the individual sessions anyhow.
A host of seasoned entrepreneurs have added workshops to their arsenal because it’s an easy way to bring in potential customers, and their sales dollars, without exerting too much effort; I’m no exception to that rule.
5. Speaking Engagements
Many people are terrified by the thought of public speaking. But there’s a strong chance that if you take the risk, you’ll be rewarded with at least one prospect in the audience who’s interested in what you have to say — and in learning more about your business.
Don’t know where to find speaking engagements? Search online or in the community paper for local events and offer to present free of charge.
To settle your fears, think about this: Do you remember the details of the last public speaking engagement you attended? If so, how about the intricate details of their presentation? Probably not! The same applies for you; even if you screw up, no one will remember it after a few days, or even hours, have passed.
6. Pro-Bono Services
While you don’t want to make a habit of giving away your product or service, it can pay off in small doses, especially when you’re just starting out. It’s no different from a working hard at an unpaid internship in hopes of landing a full-time, salaried job.
Find people who are willing to use your goods or patronize your services free of charge in exchange for feedback or a testimonial. Serve them well and you’ll gain the credibility you need to present yourself as an experienced business owner to potential clients in the future.
This will also give you the opportunity to work out any kinks in your business systems or smooth out any rough edges before presenting your offerings to the general public.
7. Social Media
Connect with everyone you can on social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Post regularly, but don’t spend all your time bragging about yourself or your business. Speak people’s language — and it may vary by site — and really work toward building your brand as a knowledgeable resource; the remainder will work itself out.
If you have some marketing funds to spare, consider promoting or boosting posts to garner more attention for your company. In fact, beginning in mid-January, small business owners may need to pay to promote Facebook posts if they want them to be seen by as many followers as in the past.
Still, the ability to target users with such extreme specificity makes advertising your business on Facebook, Foursquare, or Google Adwords an enticing option, depending on the products or services you offer. It can be surprisingly cost effective, too, since you’re only paying to reach your target audience and you typically only pay when someone clicks through to your website.
8. Message Boards
Find the forums where members of your target market hang out, and get active in the message boards. Find a thread that applies to your business and focus on conveying how your offerings can benefit other commenters and solve their problems.
An additional benefit of checking message boards is that the adamant, most active consumers will practically give you the game. In other words, they will communicate everything you need to know about the problems they’re facing, and this invaluable market research is the perfect opportunity to cultivate a solution to solve them.
9. Start a Blog
Like writing a guest post, blogging can help you establish yourself as a trusted resource in your field and garner online inquiries. But before you head to Blogger, WordPress or any of the other platforms, hear me out for a second.
Blogging is hard work, and requires consistency to pay dividends. Posting only when you feel like it or failing to produce quality content worth reading is the quickest way to drive readers away and waste your time. Don’t expect to blog for a few months and then strike it rich; things just don’t work that way in the blogging world. It’s a long-term investment in your business.
If you’re committed, start a blog — either on your website or through a free service like WordPress (but pay for a custom domain name, which will cost only $10-$15 a year) — and use it as a tool to communicate information your target market wants to hear. They may not use you the first time around, but it gives them time to build their own relationship with you and feel secure when it’s time to move forward.
Operating in a little black box is another surefire way to send your business into the trenches. Simply put, you need to network to spread the word and keep things rolling until the world knows who you are. Networking may take a little time to pay off, but it definitely works.
On several occasions, I’ve met business owners who didn’t need my services, but indicated they’d tell others in their circle about me. In fact, during my first few months in business, I heard this time and time again, but the phone wasn’t ringing. But after some time had passed, the inquiries started rolling in. Make the upfront investment in reaching out to people, and a little patience will pay off.
11. Job Boards
I’m not a fan of job boards, but I wouldn’t be doing you any justice if I didn’t include the suggestion in the list.
In my industry, bidding on a job board for a low-paying gig is a path of entrapment that can lead directly to burn out and frustration. But in other industries that are desperate for talent, entrepreneurs sometimes find their big break by using these boards.
My advice: Understand that it’s a long shot when applying, but take the chance anyhow if you’re qualified. Even better, post an advertisement that highlights your unique qualities if the site permits you to do so.
This site is my exception to the rule about job boards. A few years back, I was looking to expand the copywriting side of my business, so I posted an ad on Craigslist highlighting my background and services. It was a bit weird for me, considering I’d never done something like that before. But I didn’t lose anything by putting myself out there.
There were a few ridiculous offers that arrived in my inbox, but the greatest reward was landing a lucrative gig with a multi-million dollar entity who fell in love with my ad; they still send work my way quite frequently. Never in a million years would I have thought corporate executives actually peruse Craigslist for talent, but I guess you can’t knock something until you try it.
As for the job advertisements, apply at your own risk. As on other job boards, the competition is stiff, and low-paying gigs aren’t worthy of your precious time anyhow.
13. Cold Calling
While you may think direct mail is much less frightening and more efficient, the truth is, people throw pamphlets in the recycle bin just as often as they hang up on telemarketers.
But one thing still remains: You’ll only get so many rejections before someone bites the bait, so don’t be afraid to pick up the phone.
And over the years, I’ve also noticed that prospects tend to be much more pleasant on the phone. They’ll at least hear you out, when if you send an email they may automatically delete it. So perfect your pitch and start calling.
14. Barter to Gain Experience
I’ve already offered a number of ways to offer up your service in exchange for reputation-building feedback and experience, but this one is a great way to minimize your fears and get something of value in return.
When launching new services out the gate, my clients have bartered everything from spa treatments to tutoring sessions. And in most instances, they hit the nail on the head by securing the feedback they needed and either acquiring a new customer or having their name passed on to others who eventually ended up doing business with them.
15. Advertise for Free Around Town
Handing out flyers to random pedestrians or folks you encounter isn’t necessarily the best way to reach serious prospects, and it costs money to get all those flyers printed and time to distribute them. But have you ever considered slapping a magnetic sticker on the side of your vehicle? It’s one of the easiest ways to attract new prospects without having to exert any effort. If someone sees your ad and is interested in the products or services you have to offer, they’ll reach out to you.
My local print shop offers these tags for $25 a pop, and they’re all over town. And from what I’ve been told, they actually work quite well because half the legwork is already done when prospects approach you with a need. All you have to do is tend to their inquiries in a timely manner, speak their language, and you should be all set.
Another option: Visit local businesses that are frequented by residents, such as barbershops and spas, and request to display your business cards.
16. Be Your Own Publicist
Instead of forking over hundreds or even thousands of dollars to a public relations firm, act as your own publicist out of the gate. Try calling local print and digital media outlets that may be interested in trying out or reviewing your products and services.
Writing a press release and sending it to local news outlets or websites that cover your industry can be a great way to get your company’s name in front of the general public. Time the release to coincide with an event, award, milestone, or promotion, and make sure to include any special recognition, community involvement, or other noteworthy items. Include your contact information and make yourself available to field any questions or interviews.
17. Spend a Day Working at Starbucks
Random suggestion, huh? Well, many entrepreneurs hang out there on the regular. In fact, I’ve met everyone from therapists to recording artists simply by sitting at a table and pecking away at the keyboard. And you just never know; a quick conversation can spark a long-term business relationship.
Still no luck? It may be time to return to the drawing board and reassess your product or service to determine if it best suits the needs of your target market.