The decision to hang a shingle and start a business can be one of the most exciting choices that a person will ever make. Few experiences can match the thrill of opening your own enterprise and crafting it your way, in your vision. Yet, becoming an independent provider can also present many risks, not the least of which is fiscal viability. Whether you have worked for years as an employee or are just starting out, there are certain things that you need to know and do in order to become recognized, respected, and, most importantly, able to generate a meaningful income from your business.
Today’s marketplace is unlike any other in history. On the one hand, there is more opportunity than ever before. For example, Web 2.0 has extended our reach and allowed us to go global with our merchandise, skills and services. We can put ourselves out there and let everyone know that we exist and stand ready to serve. The problem, of course, is that these same tools are available to your competitors as well. Moreover, there is always someone else in the Great Beyond that is doing what you seek to do, but doing it better and for longer than you have. How can you distinguish yourself and begin to develop a solid suite of services and a trusting client base?
In order to be successful, I suggest that you take lots of “Vitamin C” and think in the following terms: Clarity, Credentialing, Customization, Contributions, Communication and Connection, Celebration, Collection, Community, Confidence, Charitableness and Cushion.
- Clarity – Before you start, try to clarify what it is that you seek to do. What are your goals, professionally and financially? Do you have the requisite tools in order to make it happen? Create a vision. How do you see your business in Year 1? In Years 5 and 10? What will you need to do in order to get where you want to be? Do as much homework as possible. Talk to people in the field who have gone down the road before you. Ask specific questions about their successes and failures. What would they do differently if they were starting again? Such information can be invaluable as you conceive your way forward.
- Credentialing – There is no substitute for developing your skill set and honing your expertise. Sure, we have all seen examples of people who never got a degree that have since gone on to achieve tremendous financial success. However, these people typically succeeded because they were able to identify or create a need in the market and then develop the expertise (either personally or by contracting others) in order to fill that need. For the rest of us who are not sitting on the next Great Idea (at least not for the moment), skill development and recognized credentials are crucial components in helping us to distinguish ourselves and be viewed as a “go to” person in our field. Figure out the training levels that most successful practitioners in your space possess and identify ways to become similarly credentialed.
- Customization – You likely have heard the expression “Jack of all trades, master of none.” This line describes the profile of someone who has learned many skills but has not come to master any of them or has failed to establish a clear niche within the market. Coaches, for example, may attempt to provide “catch all” services, by offering life, business and other forms of coaching. While the core principles of coaching may apply to all fields, a coach will most often hurt his chance at gaining clients if he fails to clarify – for himself and others – who he primarily supports. Not only will he lose out on developing area-specific expertise (what does it take to succeed in a job search or as a manager of others?) but he will wind up being passed over for those whose services genuinely speak, in clear, direct terms, to potential clients. Make sure to pinpoint exactly what it is that you seek to provide and focus your branding efforts and energies towards that end. In the words of Bill Gates, “My success, part of it certainly, is that I have focused in on a few things.”
- Contributions – Staying on the topic of expertise, it is a good idea to regularly contribute to your field of practice by sharing business-related content with potential customers and the market at large. Create a blog or prepare a short video and post useful, succinctly worded tips and strategies that will inform and inspire others. Find ways to share your insights by mail, email, writing for popular media outlets or trade papers, and linking your blog to your social media feeds. Seek to be a guest writer on other blogs, particularly those with a broad readership. Even if you think that you really don’t have novel ideas to distribute, the fact that you are sharing content indicates that you are (or are aspiring to be) a legitimate authority in your field. Remember, everyone today can be Googled. You want people to be able to look you up easily and be impressed with what they find. Moreover, they should be able to quickly say, “This person can really help me.”
- Communication and Connection – It’s not enough to be out there sharing ideas. Direct communication is also of great importance. People want to know that you are interested in them as people before your interest in them as clients. Find ways to meet people, through referrals and networking events. Then make sure to stay in touch. Grow and maintain a strong and updated contact list. As with many other aspects of marketing and client relationships, this can seem like an onerous task and will often be placed on the back burner, particularly when you are understaffed. However, gaining contacts and then staying current with your list is an important way to deepen relations and confidence over time, which will result in more lucrative sales.
- Celebration – One easy way to gain customer appreciate do that is to recognize clients on their birthdays or other milestones. LinkedIn makes it easy by sending you emails with birthday prompts for people in your network. It also sends alerts about other celebratory moments, such as employment changes (hopefully promotions) and work anniversaries. Take a moment to celebrate and make an easy, positive “deposit” into clients’ emotional bank accounts.
- Collect – It is also valuable to collect testimonials, personal feedback from clients who have benefitted from your services. A short paragraph can be posted on your website, LinkedIn page, or included in your print materials. This gives potential clients confidence that you can “walk the walk” and deliver a positive outcome. While you are at it, prepare a short but diversified list of referrals that others can be directed to reach out to. Think about whom you have helped and what they can share that will give you an edge.
- Community – While the Digital Age has certainly broadened our reach and created an International Community, there is still a great preference out there for service providers that are locally-based and accessible. Think about your insurance company. Are you willing to pay a bit extra for an agent whose office you can visit, that will go the extra mile for you and answer your personal questions? Many people are and would like the same degree of access to other providers as well. In addition, there are those who prefer to support their local community and neighbors where possible. Though you may wish to cast a wide net for your services, it can be helpful to look and feel local for those who seek that component.
- Confidence – For people to want to use you, they must feel confident that you can deliver and in the way that you say (timetable, price point, quality, etc.) Developing confidence is something that typically comes from expertise, experience and success. However, people who are just starting out often cannot hang their hats on too many prior successes. In that case, try to find ways to get out there and quickly position yourself as an expert. Vigorously pursue speaking opportunities. Responsibly offer your services pro bono to demonstrate capacity, build confidence, and collect referrals.
- Charitableness – In a similar vein, be charitable with your time when possible. If you charge hourly, consider adding a few extra minutes every now and again on the house. Throw in an extra service (like a free estimate or session write-up) or a free item (e-book, podcast, promotional item, etc.) that costs you little. People appreciate generosity and are typically eager to respond in kind. So often I have heard successful people say that early generosity and their willingness to “pay it forward” made a huge difference in their ability to get ahead.
- Cushion – It can be very tempting to run after every opportunity that comes your way or to operate on a shoestring budget in order to survive during your earliest stages. Money is usually at a premium and we do what we can to “get by.” The problem with such thinking is that it can quickly derail you from your long term goals and force you to push the panic button. Wherever possible, begin with a fiscal cushion. Give yourself the benefit of time to do things the right way to build your brand and your client base. Go into the process with a conservative timetable for success that will allow you to build from the ground up with clarity and confidence. This will also clearly define your services for all of your clients. The last thing that you want is for someone to offer you a quizzical look and say, “what is it that you do again?”
As noted at the outset, there is no easy way to be successful in today’s highly competitive work environment. So many people are hawking their wares and services and it can be overwhelming just to get yourself out there, let alone to achieve success. The above strategies have been proven to help people take those first, challenging steps with greater confidence and success. In the spirit of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” I encourage you to take your “C’s” early and often to ensure that you begin along a path that will hopefully bring you to the success and fulfillment that you seek.