If you’re in the business of selling products, you need to figure out how to get your products made, and how to get them to customers. But if you’re selling your time, you can’t even really do that; the first thing you need is for a customer to tell you what they want so that you can get started on making it happen. And for that, you need a customer.
This is a place where my bias my affect how useful my advice is: I’ve only ever seen this done in a US suburb, and these methods may not work as well in other settings. If that’s the case, hopefully this will at least give you ideas.
Make it possible to find you
Sometimes you’ll talk to exactly the right person at exactly the time they most need you. This is awesome… but rare. It’s more likely that you talk to someone who may need you in the future, or someone who doesn’t need you now, but knows someone who does, or someone who knows someone who might need you in the future.
In these cases, you have to give them some way to get back to you. The traditional method for handling this is the business card: you give it to them, and they file it in their call-when-we’re-redecorating file, or give it to someone they know. Your business may be better suited to brochures, or magnets, or tiny DVDs, but you need to give them some way of finding you again when they want to. And it’s probably a good idea to have a couple of business cards anyway, because it’s so very much the standard of business interaction.
Now that you don’t have to rely on telling exactly the right people at exactly the right time, it’s time to tell everyone you know. If you’re already involved in social media, then post a twitter update, write a blog post, and share a note in Facebook. Tell everyone what you’re doing, and why (people feel more comfortable saying, “I have a friend who started her own design business because she wanted to give better service than her boss was letting her give” than saying, “You should use my friend’s design business because… um… she’s m friend.. and.. she’s… really cool.”)
You may not be comfortable telling everyone… I understand, and I sympathize. Whether your friends think you should keep your nice respectable job, or your parents think you’re not really qualified to run a business (though they’d never say it out loud), or your wacko uncle thinks all capitalists are evil manipulative bastards, there can be reasons that telling everyone would make your life very uncomfortable. Read The Invisible Mallet, and think about what you’re afraid of. Then use your best judgement… but know that the more people who know of your business, the more people can send you customers.
…with special attention for the important people
This is not “important” people in the sense of people with highfalutin’ titles or political sway. This is the people who are most likely to tell other people about you.
Do you have a friend who starts up a conversation with everyone they meet? They’d be perfect. Do you know a dentist, or a hairdresser, or someone else who has to make conversation with their customers while they’re working? Also good. Is there someone in your circle who’s the go-to guy whenever someone needs a recommendation for a plumber or a new dishwasher? Try to get on his recommendation list.
Set up a time to meet with them — maybe over coffee, or at their shop, or whatever’s convenient for them. Tell them what you do, what kinds of problems you can help with, and what kinds of customers you’re looking for. Emphasize that you’re not asking them to sell for you, and certainly don’t want them to recommend you to anyone who couldn’t benefit from your services. You only want to let them know what you do so that they can help out anyone who would benefit by knowing you. If it makes sense, you could offer them a discount or a free service so that they can judge for themselves how good you are. Answer any questions they have, and leave them some business cards. Offer to help them in some way by taking their business cards and promoting their services, by giving them some free consulting, or just ask them what they’d like.
Look for people who need you
Check out Craigslist employment ads and gig ads. Look for people who want someone to do what you’re already doing. Contact them and see if they’d be interested in your services.
My cousin works as a virtual assistant; many people on Craigslist are looking to hire personal assistants for their business, but many would prefer someone who works from home, doesn’t require regular or guaranteed hours, and isn’t asking for benefits. A perfect match!
My partner’s computer-repair business got started when he found an existing computer-repair business that was overwhelmed with customers and needed someone to whom to send the overflow. He got a chance to build up his business and find clients, and they got to please their customers without having to hire a full-time employee.
Start looking at your promotional budget
All of that was stuff that costs only time, and hopefully has gotten you started. If you have some money, there are a couple more options to examine.
Join a networking group
In my area anyway, networking groups are run by the Chamber of Commerce, and you must be a member of the chamber to join. This can be a worthwhile expense because the networking groups are full of people who meet the criteria described above: they meet and talk to a lot of people, and they’re looking for ways to help their clients out.
Buy some advertising
What kind of advertising depends on your business, your area, and your monetization mix. If you have a good website, you may do best with pay-per-click ads from Google; restaurants like billboards; and many plumbers are still doing well with the Yellow Pages. It will take some experimentation to find what works for you. Do some research on what your clients read, where they drive, and how they do research; pick something that looks likely and fits your budget, and give it a shot.
Work on your other monetization methods
In my monetization mix case study, I talked about how your monetization methods should all reinforce and support each other. Once you’ve handed out business cards and everyone knows what you do, and until it’s time to check in again for a periodic update, the best thing you can do to get customers is to get your blog up and running, or your ebook ready to sell, or you YouTube videos ready for viewing.