Dave Marcello is co-founder of Collabo, a virtual water cooler for solopreneurs. Following a ten-year stint as Director of a marketing agency, he is now a freelance creative marketer for startups and small businesses.
At some point in every freelancer’s career, you come to the understanding that no matter what your specific skill set is, the ability to consistently identify and close new business is the lifeblood of your operation. But aside from schmoozing networks and attending industry events, I find many solopreneurs have difficulty in the business development area. Never fear, there is hope! It can be found in a similar scrappy-and-crafty work environment: startups.
For a just-born, early-stage startup, there is a magnifying glass over every effort made to acquire and grow its customer base. And with limited budgets, laser focus, and unbridled passion, there are plenty of parallels between startups and freelancers. Here are six ways you can adopt a similar approach to increasing both the quality and quantity of new clients.
1. Put proper time and effort into customer development
Startups – particularly those practicing the lean model of building a business – place emphasis on learning as much as they can about their customers’ needs. It’s not uncommon for customer development leads to “do things that don’t scale” when validating an idea by conducting one-on-one interviews with customers and creating interactive forums for early adopters and employees to share ideas.
At Collabo, we offer to have coffee with any of our first users who live near our co-founders. When is the last time you took a close look at your feedback loop with current clients? Do you ask for feedback on your work and areas for improvement?
Next time you complete a client project, schedule a call or coffee meeting for the sole purpose of asking for feedback – both positive and constructive. You’ll most likely learn some things you hadn’t thought about, and it will clearly demonstrate that you’re constantly looking to improve and to please your clients as best as possible.
2. Get creative with your budget and your marketing
Startups are notorious for having minimal funding left for marketing after the product or service is actually built, so they are forced to think outside the box. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t take the same route. Finding and targeting your niche is the key to success here.
Online forums like Reddit (and its thousands of subreddits broken down by topic) offer super low cost advertising and real-time interaction with easy niche targeting. Why not start a Meetup where you share insights into your area of expertise with local business owners? Or search industry blogs and offer guest posts to drive traffic to your website. I’ve even met with local coffee shops where freelancers typically work and offered to provide free power strips, branded with my URL and Twitter name, of course.
3. Test, measure, and optimize
Analyzing and refining conversion funnels has been a hot topic for startups as of late, with a plethora of low-cost software tools readily available to aid the process. But you don’t need to be a data scientist to reap the benefits of optimization. Start small by looking at your website’s traffic (Google Analytics is a great free tool for this) and identifying important patterns. Where is traffic coming from? What outside factors boost traffic (blog posts, tweets, offline networking events, etc.)? What pages are viewed most often and for how long? Think about your ultimate goal for converting leads into clients and evaluate your marketing tactics accordingly.
A few months ago I realized that when I speak to a lead on the phone or in person, they convert to paying clients at a much higher rate than any other method. So, I changed all my main calls-to-action on my website, Twitter bio, email signature, and blog posts to “hop on a free 15 minute call with Dave”, and set up an easy scheduling page on Ohours.
4. Turn existing clients into brand advocates
For most freelancers, word of mouth is the primary driver of new business. And while doing amazing work for your clients is an important step, the referrals process shouldn’t stop there. First and foremost, there’s nothing wrong with asking your clients if they have any friends, colleagues, or peers who could use your services, particularly right after you deliver a kick-ass final product. But beyond simply asking, you can incentivize like a startup, too.
Dropbox increased its sign-ups tremendously by offering a number of enticements to invite new users, such as getting 500MB of additional storage for inviting a friend to use the service, or 125MB of more space for tweeting about the startup. How could this translate to freelancers? You could offer a 5% discount for a pre-written recommendation tweet, or offer a free small project (like a website design audit) for every new lead referred.
These are just some of the unique approaches you can take to adopt startup marketing principles for your solo business. The ultimate goal is to set yourself apart by being creative in customer acquisition efforts, and use your time wisely by targeting the right leads.