Don't Be So Bashful
When it comes to marketing themselves, IPs are their own worst critics. "I'm never doing a good enough job at self-marketing," admits Hollis Thomases of Ad.vantage, a Baltimore, Md., firm that provides on- and offline advertising and marketing services. "I'd like to have more money at my disposal, and more time." Indeed, it's a notorious Catch-22 of self-employment: You need to market yourself to find new clients, but you're too busy with clients to market yourself effectively.
Still, until scientists can clone human beings, IPs will need to make the most of their current marketing strategies. Putting it off might be tempting -- imperative, even, if an important deadline looms -- but don't neglect to market your business for long. Business may be thriving by word-of-mouth now, but, in the long run, marketing is as crucial to keeping your business lively as is, say, good coffee.
A Necessary Distraction
The rewards of self-marketing are obvious: new prospects, increased sales, the growth of your venture, and money saved. What's not clear, however, is how to squeeze these activities into your daily workload. So you stuff envelopes while you download files; you drop business cards all over town while running errands; you call old colleagues for referrals. Somehow, you have to squeeze in promotional activities, either as part of the working day or as a wee-hours pursuit.
"If I don't work, I don't eat, so I have to be quite disciplined about getting work done," says IP Lois Carter Fay of Newport News, Virginia. Fay provides public relations, marketing, and writing services for technology and business-to-business companies. "Like most microbusinesses, the workload fluctuates greatly as a result of my marketing efforts," she says. Primarily Carter Fay markets herself through referrals from current and past clients, colleagues, and members of organizations to which she belongs, including the National Association of Women Business Owners and the local chamber of commerce. "Because my business is so diverse, I have learned to ask for specific referrals. For example, I have sent out letters saying, 'I find I now have the time to add a few quality clients to my roster. If you know of one or two technology companies looking for help in building traffic to their website or a business-to-business firm in need of a newsletter, please give me a call.' This has proven quite successful."
To get her name out, Carter Fay also contributes articles to business publications. "I write how-to or business profile articles for small business publications in my local area. I have written for Inside Business, Virginia Business, Richmond Business, and the Newport News Daily Press," she says. "The positive effects are three-fold: My name appears as a byline for potential clients to see; I can use these articles for credibility in my portfolio and during new business presentations; and I meet many potential clients who like the way I write and consequently hire me. This is a very effective way to spend my time, especially when I'm later hired to write an ongoing newsletter, develop a brochure, or provide marketing help on a monthly retainer basis for the companies I profile." Carter Fay spends five to ten hours a month writing articles. "More than that cuts into my profitability."
Although many IPs hope to have their names mentioned in the media, tech-recruiter Debbie Mancini of Arlington, Virginia, found that "getting ink" isn't always the business boost you might expect. "I got a call from a magazine reporter who was referred to me through one of my business networks. I should have been suspicious from the beginning since she wasn't very organized and didn't sound excited about the article," Mancini says. "When I finally saw the story in print, I was embarrassed. The magazine wasn't the quality I expected. The good news is I don't think too many people read it."
On the other hand, a different article turned out to be a real marketing coup for Mancini. "I responded to a question on [ an Internet mailing list] about setting up a site," she says. "Much to my surprise, it was from a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and he interviewed me for a story that appeared on the front page. Okay, it was just a line or two, but it was the front cover!"
Mancini tries to be disciplined about self-marketing. "About once a month, I vow to do five marketing things a day. It usually lasts for a week and then I get swamped again, but at least it's something," she says. For example, Mancini says she might register her name with an online business directory or create a banner ad for the web. She also includes on her list tasks that help improve her marketing skills, such as subscribing to a how-to magazine or attending a marketing seminar.
IP Lora Meisner of Tacoma Park, Md., schedules marketing activities into her daily routine. "Fitting marketing into my schedule isn't always easy, but I just remind myself that signed contracts can be broken and the business relationships of today can be gone tomorrow," she says. "My goal is always to build a customer base while continuing to serve the accounts I'm working on now. I will actually block out time on my calendar for marketing. Whether that means entering numbers into a database, searching the Internet for e-mail lists, calling about mailing lists, or making sales calls -- whatever the task is on my list -- I put aside adequate time each week. Sometimes I stuff envelopes in the evenings while watching TV."
If marketing on an ad hoc basis is more your style, the Internet may prove a convenient medium. Always available, the Internet is a virtually free way to promote your business, join business-related discussion groups, and learn new skills. For Thomases, who markets herself in the off-hours ("if there is such a thing," she quips), the Internet is also the marketing tool of choice. "It's mostly late at night or on weekends. Fortunately, the Net is open 24 hours. If I want to submit an article, post to an [ online discussion group] or e-mail a webmaster [ to ask for a link to my site] , I can do it at any time I please."
At various busy times, IPs may simply lack the time to market at all. One solution to this problem is to recruit an unpaid college intern, as Thomases has. "Already, it has made a difference in my workload and my ability to concentrate," she says. "But at times it's disturbing to put part of your livelihood in an intern's hands. Unpaid college interns don't have the same motivation that an entrepreneur does," she says. "They have no vested interest other than their own education and career-opportunities to get work done on a timely basis, for example. When you delegate a project this way, you rely on that person to do a job as well as you would. That can be hard to get used to when your own reputation is on the line."
For every marketing success story, there's a lead balloon. You try; you fail; you learn. Often you incur expenses that don't pay off in sales or contracts. "I was just getting started, and didn't really generate business right away," Thomases recalls. "I spent a lot of money on advertising thinking I was going to get at least some return on investment, but got none. Because I couldn't run my ad with enough frequency, it ended up being a big waste. I ran two separate kinds of ads: One was my big co-op ad, which I only ran twice, and not consecutively at that; the other was a classified ad in the Monday Technology section of the Washington Post. I ran it for 10 consecutive weeks, and it did generate some leads for me, two of which moved beyond the inquiry stage, but I only closed a sale on one. I don't know if frequency would have improved my opportunity, but being able to afford some better display ad space might have." She adds, "One area of advertising I would have liked to be able to afford is display ad space in the Yellow Pages. Another would be to purchase display space in a trade publication."
Thomases' most productive marketing effort, on the other hand, cost her nothing. "I conducted a free seminar on web marketing. Twenty people attended, and nearly all of them stayed afterwards to talk about my services," she says. "One has already purchased $1,000 worth of services, and I have had two meetings with other prospects as a result of the seminar. One gentleman took me in on a pitch to his client, and another is awaiting some funding and then wants to work on an ongoing basis. I've talked to two others about future opportunities. All have joined my weekly marketing tip e-mail list. The whole experience was incredibly uplifting, and I can't wait to do it again."
Alan Singer also found that offering a little free advice was a worthwhile investment. A former Wall Street research analyst, Singer, the lone star of AS Business Consulting, helps New York City's Silicon Alley start-ups to develop business plans and proposals for venture capital. "Early on, I offered a firm's chief operating officer some excellent insights for monitoring cash flow and where to look for ideas and creative inspiration," says Singer. "In turn, he put me in touch with several of his good professional contacts and allowed me to grow my reputation to where it is today."
The Anxiety Factor
Feelings of self-doubt about your marketing efforts can be depressing, but they can also keep you on your toes and push you to do more. "I could be doing better," says Carter Fay. "In the last few months, my time for marketing has been severely limited due to a change in personal circumstances. That means I don't have as much work coming in now as I would like. So I'm playing catch up -- talking to clients about more work, calling people and asking for referrals, distributing a newsletter, developing a site and promoting it, and on and on," all under time pressure.
Anxiety may inspire you, but it can also affect how you conduct your business. "I think I'm doing the best job I possibly can," says Singer. "I put my heart into everything I do. There always exists the temptation for me to doubt myself and second-guess my every move, but that's counterproductive. I have taught myself to let go of any other emotions that run through my head. In this manner, I show up strongly for my clients, who are paying good money for my services."
You Call This Fun?
Perhaps the best approach to self-marketing is the unconventional one: marketing for fun. As an IP, you are your business. As you grow personally, so does your venture."I organized a farmers' market for my downtown Jersey City community," Singer says. "Here I met the director of economic development of Jersey, the mayor, and many fellow entrepreneurs. Through my involvement with the Hudson County Alliance for Rational Transportation, I've met many civic leaders in the Garden State, including one of our Senators," Singer continues. "In this manner I socialize as a natural extension of what I do for a living. I don't look at developing my business as a job. I look at it as a way for me to pursue my passions in life."
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