What’s the difference between a solopreneur and someone who just wants to be one? The answer is simple: customers. If you have people willing and able to pay you for the products or services you sell, then you have the beginnings of a one-person business, however small. If you don’t, then however smart your business model, your business is purely theoretical.
If you’re just starting out as a solopreneur, how do you go about bringing in those first, all-important customers that will get your business off the ground, give it a track record, and provide you with the beginnings of an income? That’s the question Josh Shayne and James Darling set out to answer in the second episode of their new comedy Web series Home/Office, based on their own experiences as solopreneurs.
Here are some of the tips they shared:
1. Begin with some freebies.
Giving your work or product away when your objective is to make a living may seem counterintuitive, but it can be a very good way to get started. I’ll always remember the new Chinese restaurant in Woodstock that introduced itself to the community and planted its flag in a village that already had two other Chinese restaurants by inviting everyone to have a free meal on its opening night. People liked the food and it was soon established in spite of the competition.
That same strategy worked for Shayne who volunteered his web design and visual design services for a domestic violence shelter where his mother was involved. It gave him exposure, credibility, and confidence that helped give his new business its start.
2. Find where you’re needed.
You’ll have an easier time finding customers if you identify organizations and/or people who really seem to need whatever you’re providing, whether they’re aware of it or not. I’ve long known my posture is bad and the way I use my body is asymmetrical so I was intrigued when I was at a local street fair recently and saw a chiropractic practice offering quick measurements to show how people’s spines were out of alignment. I stepped onto their device and sure enough, it showed that I hold myself unevenly. I’ve always been skeptical of chiropractic but after checking into this more, I signed up for a course of treatment to try to correct that crooked posture.
3. Cold call.
Cold calling is no one’s idea of fun, but you can make it more effective by combining it with step number 2. In other words, target your cold calls to people who really need what you have to offer. Shayne put this strategy into practice by finding local restaurants with terrible websites. He would walk into the establishment, explain politely that its website could use some improvement, and then pitch his services. He wound up with a solid specialty in food and food service companies that served him well throughout his web design career.
4. Get clear about pricing.
Figuring out how to price your product or service is one of the hardest parts of being a one-person business. “Especially when you’re starting out, you have to quote something and it’s such a weird thing,” Shayne says. “You don’t know what you should charge, so the first time you aim high and that doesn’t work, so then you aim low, and they say, ‘I thought it would be more,’ and you kick yourself.”
With experience, he adds, figuring out what to charge gets easier. “You do a little bit of mental math and decide how much you want to be paid an hour,” Shayne says. “You decide how long a project will take you, add those numbers up, and then present that to the client. If they say yes, they say yes, and if they say no, you don’t kick yourself.”
If your price is too high, he adds, you can offer a less expensive alternative or tell them what you’d be able to do for a sum they can afford. “Eventually you get a sense of what you’re comfortable being paid for different kinds of work,” Shayne says. “And over time you can raise those prices because your time is more in demand.”
In time, he adds, he began posting his rates on his website, something he recommends because potential customers appreciate that clarity. “Clients are often nervous about hiring someone, wondering if they can trust that person. Now my rates are very transparent and they can pick one of three packages that fit their needs best. That helps with my conversion rates, but when you start out, you’re still guessing.”
5. Activate your personal network.
Unlike the Home/Office protagonist, Shayne says he’s gotten legitimate work offers by posting ads on Craigslist. Nonetheless, personal connections are often the most powerful way to land your first few sales. So get the word out about your new business to everyone you know, whether professionally or as a friend, a friend of a friend, or a relative. One fellow freelancer I know got a prestigious writing assignment from a father at her daughter’s play group. You truly never know where a promising lead will come from. “I’ve gotten at least ten clients through my Mom over the years,” Shayne says.
Remember to be your own sales and marketing department, he adds. “You have to hustle. No one will advocate on your behalf.” And if you do, chances are you can get your business off the ground, he says. “If you send out emails, new clients will come in. If you want something, you should just do it, and if you put your whole self into it, odds are it will work out.”