How to Get Clients As a New Business
In the spring of 2009, on the heels of an economic crisis, I sat down to lunch with a start-up founder offering the most promising internship opportunity I had seen in over a year.
What I couldn’t get over in that meeting is how a 28-year-old with a tongue-ring had a roster of clients that included Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway. Even though the internship was unpaid, I knew I had to jump at the chance to follow him along as he tried to grow a social media company.
I’m glad I did because 1 year after our initial meeting, I was hired full-time. And 1.5 years after I got hired, we sold the company to a larger digital marketing agency, where I still work today. Getting ourselves from zero to one (read: a business with paying clients) wasn’t rocket science. It took hard work, but below I’ll outline some of the things our founder did to help acquire a new business without a formally defined product.
Wade Into Newness
At the time, social media marketing was a new concept. This was when the number of Facebook business page likes was a standard KPI. What confused me the most as a college senior and eventual full-time employee is that we were wading into this new space without a defined product.
But it turned out to be one of our strengths. Our identity as a company wasn’t centered around a specific product or service. Instead, our identity was a group of informed, experienced, “go figure it out” team that could help companies leverage social media in their marketing efforts.
Social media marketing was rapidly changing and was a very attractive alternative for businesses looking to save money on marketing costs.
Our founder landed a few clients to do this with (more on that later) and it allowed us to become a trusted partner in how our clients expanded their social media strategies. By starting small and focusing on only a few clients, we were able to build relationships that helped us uncover larger problems we could solve.
Our founder crafted his strategy to get us experience, give us breathing room and time to figure out a true product-market fit for our eventual goal of going from 5 full-time employees to a full-fledged business.
Our founder wasn’t spending his days working on a product-market fit in a vacuum. He was out building relationships and networking.
The first step was joining a local start-up incubator, which gave him a lot of local contacts and warm intros to get him started. Our zero to one as a company, in a nutshell, was that incubator believing in our founder’s experience and putting him in touch with the right people.
Subway, the NHL, and Dunkin Donuts didn’t just show up for us to solve their social media problems, our founder had relationships from a previous job and networked his butt-off to get back on their radar. It also meant that we sometimes did free work to get someone’s attention or prove our value.
Doing free work is scary for any business owner — your goal is to make the company profitable. However, if you’re starting with 0 or a few clients, it could be a tactic for you to gain momentum.
You just need one client who’s willing to try your product or service or let you figure out how to solve a problem for them. Ask your family and friends. Hop on LinkedIn, find meet-up groups, attend networking events, direct message 1,000 potential clients on Instagram, etc.
When you do get those opportunities, don’t take them for granted. All you need is one, and if you knock it out of the park, you have a story, a case study, and a referral for you to get your 2nd, 3rd, 4th client, and so on.
Grow with your industry
Staying on top of trends and being an expert in social media marketing was one of our core value propositions. What surprised me when I started my internship was just how much work it took to stay current.
We invested a significant amount of hours listening to influencers like Gary V, setting up Google keyword alerts, attending webinars, etc. The investment in these activities paid off time and again because we were always one step ahead of our clients and maintained our perception as a thought leader.
To frame up our own competitive edge, our founder set a goal for us to never have our client find out about a new social media trend before we did. In my 2.5 year stint at the start-up, I don’t remember a single time where a client surprised us with something we didn’t already know.
When we were acquired, it was for our talent and expertise, not our products. That may not be the typical start-up exit success, but it taught me a valuable lesson: people and companies are willing to pay for expertise.
Growing a business is hard. There’s no magic formula, and even if you apply every piece of advice you’ve ever been given, it still might not work. You might not be in the right industry, competition might be too fierce, you’re product or service just isn’t the right fit, etc.
But after seeing a small business grow first-hand, it really demystified the process of getting early clients for me.
That same founder has gone on to start two other businesses and is constantly pivoting when he doesn’t see a market opportunity after spending time doing it. As we’ve kept in touch, he’s reminded me that getting your initial clients is about those relationships that allow you to take more at-bats until you find the right fit and opportunity.
If your plan is to wait until you have the perfect business idea, you’re making a mistake. Implant yourself in your local business community as best as you can. Talk to businesses, even your local pizza shop — what problems are they currently facing?
You may not be an expert today, but you’ll begin to build a foundational network and bring your ear closer to problems you might one day be able to solve for people.