If you’re about to set up in business it’s a scary step to take. When you’re going from a reliable income as an employee to the captain of your own ship exploring relatively unknown waters with rewards that are, at best, projections, with no guarantees, it can be exciting, frightening, exhilarating and worrying – all at once.
Unless you’ve run a business like this before you can’t know exactly what it’s going to be like. And every business is different – even in the same industry, so your experience will be different to that of a competitor.
So what’s the secret of generating an income that will – at the very least – match your previous salary? If you’re going into business with the sole idea of making loads of money and living like a king – you probably need to rethink a little. Starting a business is hard work – and, unless you’re very, very lucky, it takes time to get to a position where you’re financially comfortable.
Of course, we’ve all heard of people who have made a million in just a few months, but for each one of those, there are thousands of business owners who have had to sweat blood to achieve their goals.
I’ve experienced every shade of being self-employed – a sole trader, a contracted consultant, an employer and a company director. I’ve experienced the feast and famine that frequently runs alongside being your own boss and trying to keep the ship afloat. I’m not sure that there is a magic formula – but there are definitely things that make a significant difference.
Even if you’re not just starting out, some of these things could give your business a boost.
Who are you aiming to help? The more focused you are on your target audience, the better your marketing will work. You can’t hit a target you can’t see – the clearer your target is, the higher chance there is of hitting the bullseye.
So, if your target audience is ‘accountants’, what kind of accountants are you interested in? Sole practitioners? Local firms? Larger practices? Multi-location firms? Specialists in a particular area of accounts e.g. tax?
Every type of business has sub-sectors and it’s important that you’re really clear about whom you can help best.
- What industry are they in?
- What size of business do they have – by turnover or staff numbers or both?
- What is the leader’s personal style?
- What keeps them awake at night?
- What do they read – online and offline?
It all sounds pretty straightforward – until you sit down and try to pin it down. It’s very easy to get diverted by ‘I could also help this other group of people, and those other people over there, and that person too’. Of course, we can all help a range of people, but there’s a purpose behind my insistence that this is one of the most important exercises you’ll do for your business.
If you’ve ever had a client who loved everything you did for them, who valued what you delivered, who you loved working with – and who was happy to pay for the services you offer – that’s the perfect client.
In an ideal world you’d want to work with lots of clients like that – and that’s much more likely to happen if you actively search them out. It doesn’t mean you won’t work with anyone else who wants your services, but it does mean that you’ll end up with more people who make work a joy instead of a struggle.
The plus of knowing exactly who you want to work with is that you’ll be actively looking for and attracting clients who are a good match. It’s something your brain does for you as part of your Reticular Activation System (RAS).
Imagine, if you were thinking of buying a new car and you’ve found a model and a colour you like, but you’ve barely seen them on the road before. Suddenly everywhere you look you see those cars. If you know what you’re looking for, your brain will spot it!
This will give you a good idea of what would happen if you were looking for a ‘family saloon with plenty of luggage room in a neutral colour’, rather than a ‘Skoda Octavia estate’ (other brands are available!) Now you know why being specific is so important.
What do you do? How does it help your clients?
Beware of becoming a jack (or jill)-of-all-trades. We all have a portfolio of things we can do, but being a specialist will help you to build a positive reputation.
I remember having a conversation with a few business colleagues at an association event. One was a very successful specialist, effectively he did one thing very well and got paid mega-bucks for his expertise. Another was new into business and said “I can’t afford to be a specialist, I wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage, I have to be all things to all people to make ends meet.”
One of the others admitted that he had been ‘a bit of a tart’ in the early days of his business and said ‘yes’ to everyone, but it had always been a battle. He said that when he found a client that his core skills could really help, things improved, because he started doing what he was really good at and loved to do, for this client and then for others. Work stopped being work – it was his passion.
In his case, it had been a happy accident, but it demonstrated the value of being a specialist. To do that you really have to understand how you help your clients:
- What problems you solve for them
- How your expertise makes their life easier
- How much time and money your skills can save for them
This isn’t the time to be modest, you need to understand the value of what you do. If you’re already running a business, ask your existing clients what they value about what you do – and the outcomes they get from it.
If you’re just starting out, you might find it really useful to talk to some of your networking contacts – or anyone who you know who has experience in the industry or business that your ideal client is in. Ask them about the problems and what it would be worth to solve them. The more insight you get, the better you’ll be able to present your skills to potential clients.
How do you apply your focus to bring in clients?
You could pick up the phone and cold call companies that meet your ideal client profile. However, you need to be thick-skinned and be willing to invest a great deal of time to do that. Most people hate it – and it’s not what you went into business to do.
The best way is to build a network. You can do this online through various social media and offline at local networking meetings. To make these effective you need to present yourself professionally and clearly.
Online: The first marketing tool you’ll need to get right is your website – this needs to be professional, easy to navigate (don’t hide things in sub-menus if they’re likely to be important for the visitor), with a strong and compelling message that is focused on the reader.
With social media it’s about being seen as an expert, being visible and using it to educate and market. On LinkedIn, that means completing your profile to ensure people understand the benefits of your service. Your About section is a marketing presentation. On Facebook create a Facebook Page and complete the About section on that.
Platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest have less space for your biography so make every character count. Include a professional headshot and use the same one everywhere. This is the equivalent of meeting someone for the first time – so you need to look like you’re pleased to meet them!
Then you’ll need a posting strategy to deliver ongoing value – so good advice, links to interesting and useful articles or blogs, tips and anything else that sets you up as an expert in your industry.
Offline: Visit local networking groups. In most areas there’s a huge range of options from very expensive membership groups to free ‘coffee and cake’ groups. Ideally, you’ll need to visit different groups to see whether they’re a good fit.
Membership groups are great for developing relationships. It takes time for people to get to know you and understand what you do. As your relationships develop with the people in the group you’ll find more of them refer you to their clients and other people they know.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore the groups that you can pop in and out of. Attend a few, see what kind of people attend them, keep your focus on your purpose. Bear in mind that while you’re looking for referrals, so are the others in the group. Are they a good match for your current and potential clients?
Remember that you’re not looking for new friends (although you may make one or two along the way), you’re looking to develop your business.
Don’t overlook professional bodies and associations – if your ideal client is a finance manager, maybe you should offer to do a presentation on something of interest to finance managers at the local branch of their professional organisation.
Get your elevator pitch – that’s the short-ish answer to ‘What do you do?’ – ready. It needs to be more than ‘We do recruitment’ or ‘I’m a health & safety consultant’. A really good elevator pitch talks about the problems people have – and how you solve them so might be something like:
You know how human resources managers often end up interviewing people who are completely unsuitable? It’s a waste of their time and effort – and often their department managers’ time too. Well, we work with them on a specific profile for their candidates, pre-interview the applicants and ensure only the very best candidates are presented for interview. Effectively, they only need to interview once – as they get the short list first.
This gets people to relate to the issues so they listen emotionally. They remember more that way – and that’s what you want – people to remember you and what you do.
Networking is about being known and remembered by more people – so you can be connected to the people they know. It’s not a quick fix, but it’s the best way to grow a network of advocates who will recommend you and refer business.
And the point is …
When you know who you can help, how you can help them and educate your network about that you’ll get more and more people who will help your business grow. It’s always better to get business that’s recommended than business you have to work hard to win in a competitive market.
Developing this level of focus – whether as you start your business or at any time after that – will give your business an edge.