The first year or so in business I mostly freelanced for other people: Neil, who encouraged me to start in the first place and whom I shared space with, and another old colleague. Neil had great dreams of us forming a partnership and building business together. When Neil’s work dried up, he became very angry and frustrated. We began to spend a lot of time at Betty’s, in a dark booth where he’d say things like ‘but we’re so talented, they should be knocking down our door.’ One afternoon after weeks of this, plus angry bouts in the office I realized two things: one, Neil didn’t know how to drum up new business and two, no one was going to find us in our dark booth at Betty’s.
I needed to find them
I literally stepped out into the sunlight and went back to the office where I Googled things like ‘business development’ and eventually ‘networking’. I didn’t even know what networking was, but I found some great options and started participating. I think a CAWEE breakfast was the first. I also tried Wired Women’s Network and Small Business Meet-up where I met my very good friend Richard. He introduced me to another group and on it went. In very short order I was co-hosting a Toronto event, met tons of new people online and offline. Not only actual clients, but great referral sources and like-minded business people I could identify with and learn from. They were positive and driven, like – as it turned out – me.
Payback is not instant
I don’t know the typical length of time it takes to start seeing results from networking efforts, I’ve heard six months. However, just know you are unlikely to meet a million dollar client your first time out. It takes time to build trust and a proper understanding of what you do. The key is to keep at it, find a group or two you like and go regularly to build relationships, while also trying new places – online and offline.
For me, I started networking in May 2003, got my first related client in early July, then my business exploded in September that year. The rest, is history.
The small business community is, well, small.
I built my business through word-of-mouth. I did meet the occasional direct client at events, but for the most part I was referred by people I met at networking events, and then later by happy clients.
When you are out there meeting a lot of people they grow to know, like and trust you, and understand what you do. Then you are top of mind when their friends, colleagues or clients are looking for your services. I often saw the the same people over and over at events – building great relationships. I also looked for opportunities to speak at some and began to build my reputation as an expert in the field.
People talk. The community is small and I soon found that a surprising number of people in the small business community knew who I was. I was being introduced to people as ‘great designer’ or ‘the one who gets things done’ which was an early favourite and became an important differentiator for Rapport.
The best fuel for sales momentum: deliver a great experience
I didn’t find I was up against a lot of competition, but was certainly up against negative stereotypes of flakey freelancers and difficult divas. When Scott Stratten of Un-Marketing called me for the first time he said something like ‘I advise people to get professional logos and websites… I need someone to send them to. I’ve been burned by designers who couldn’t deliver before, so you have one chance and one chance only.’ He referred me to one client, I took great care of her and he referred me many more after that.
Unfair as it is, referrals that don’t work out reflect badly on the referrer. On the flip-side, great referrals make them look good and turns them into your biggest fan.
For clients, a great experience is essential to keep them coming back and prompting them to refer you to others. This is where it’s great to understand how they feel about your services. See our newsletter on how to do this. When we had clients interviewed as part of our own re-branding and saw that good design and competitive rates were just table-stakes. What they loved about us was the relationship, how easy it was to work with us and how well taken care of they were. That may sound soft, but remember the negative stereotypes I was up against – it was huge and wonderful to have that reputation.
Now we work extra hard to ensure work is done well and delivered on time, to create a professional but friendly experience from start to finish. This has been a mandate of mine since my solo days, but has developed into a strong culture and internal processes that work just as well for the ten of us.