In November 2013, I decided to leave my full-time job to start my own content studio. The experience has been exhilarating, terrifying, challenging, rewarding, and gratifying.
I always knew that I would -- one day -- become an entrepreneur. I never thought, however, that one day would be now. What pushed me to do it was the realization that “one day” would never happen. I would never feel experienced, skilled, or talented enough. I had to just do it.
Customer development was priority #1 for launching my business. I didn’t even pick a name for my company (Elate) until 3 weeks ago. My company doesn’t even have a logo or website. And yet, the company has generated almost six-figures in revenue -- it has been profitable from day 1. My company is not venture-backed -- it’s more like the local restaurant down the street because I’m (1) entirely bootstrapped and (2) set up to be a boutique business.
Here are the early customer development steps that I’ve taken -- ones that will carry me through the rest of my career, no matter where the road takes me. I know they can help you too:
Step 1: Figure Out Your Niche
As far as blogging goes, I can literally do anything. What I realized, however, is that my company could add the most value to one particular type of client -- B2B SaaS startups. The fact is that I am in love with this space. Even though I like consumer-facing content, I realized that I could make more of an impact in the B2B SaaS world.
What’s funny about ‘building my niche’ is that I didn’t go through this process consciously -- it happened by accident. I realized back in January that my favorite clients were all B2B technology companies. I ran with it. I love it, and I haven’t looked back.
Tips for figuring out your niche:
Make a list of all of projects, then rank them in order from most rewarding to least rewarding. Use this information to refine your focus.
Answer these questions: What is your ultimate expertise? If you had to define what you do in a short phrase or sentence, what would you say?
Step 2: Tell Everyone What You’re Doing
This piece of wisdom comes from Angie Chang, co-founder at Women 2.0.
“When you first have an idea, tell everyone.”
I took that wisdom to heart.
I told my friends. I told my employer. I told my network. [pullquote]I was astounded by how many people welcomed me and my new business with open arms.[/pullquote]
“We have to work together!”
Fellow bloggers referred me to projects. My friends encouraged me to get moving. I even ended up hiring a few writers who I highly admire to help my business (and projects) scale. Sales happened organically. I did very little cold-pitching.
Tips for telling everyone:
Get active on social media. Follow industry experts, reply and comment on posts, and update all your profiles.
Join a local club or meet-up group. BNI clubs, Kiwanis, and other groups can help entrepreneurs get more business.
Step 3: Give Without Expecting to Get
A common criticism that people have given me is that I’m “too nice.” This is true. People will sometimes take advantage of me, and I will get burned. When this happens, it hits hard. People tell me to stop caring, but the fact is that I simply can’t.
I’ve learned, however, to harness my emotions as an asset. I love to give and offer value to the people around me -- whether it’s quoting them in a piece of content, hiring them to a project, or forwarding leads to them.
I don’t expect anything in return. I don’t think that people ‘owe me.’ I do, however, believe in the power of ‘connection karma’ -- the fact that business owners (and equally giving professionals) are a part of this ecosystem.
Tips for being a giver:
Always respond to emails and questions, even if you don't have an answer or can't help directly.
Think about who you can introduce-- if a friend has a job opportunity, rack your brain to figure out if you know the perfect person. If two friends are in the same industry, introduce them.
Step 4: ‘Friend’ Your Competitors
I referred a potentially big contract to a “competing” business yesterday. And you know what? I feel great about it. The fact is that my company wasn’t in a position to help that particular client rock. My “competitor” brought a skill to the table that my company didn’t have.
Maybe one day -- but honestly, I’m trying to figure things out right now. I’d rather that this particular prospect -- a company that I care very much about -- has what they need to succeed and grow. I’m inspired by the startup founders who keep reminding me -- transparency is key to success in business.
The fact is that my “competitors” and I are always referring work each other. Sometimes, we specialize in different niches, and sometimes, we overlap. In either case, we help one another grow. There's no bad blood. There's plenty of work to go around.
Plus, a competition that is constantly innovating keeps me on my toes. In fact, Danny Wong (an amazing blogger) recommends imagining competitors as 'concerned parties that help keep you accountable.'
Tips for 'friending' the competition:
Determine what differentiates you from the competition, and what differentiates the competition from you. Be willing to admit your strengths and weaknesses so you can better service your customers.
Refrain from holding grudges and creating drama. Competition is healthy, but being mean and petty is not.
Step 5: Build Marketing into Your Product
Great products don’t sell themselves. One of the highest-impact ways to drive growth is to build marketing into your sales process. This is a concept that I learned from Prerna Gupta, co-founder at Khush, a company that builds intelligent music apps. She believes the way you talk about your product is essential to selling it.
'You have to hook them in the first 10 seconds. Most users won’t give you more time than that to make a judgment about your product. If your product can hook them – make them laugh, astonish them, be insanely useful, or just plain and simple get them addicted – they will become your word-of-mouth salesmen.'
Luckily, the “product” that I provide is marketing through blogging. Everything I do -- on a daily basis -- is marketing. In fact, you’re reading a piece of marketing material right now (I’m half-kidding).
This marketing strategy is possible for more than just bloggers. A brick-and-mortar storefront can, for instance, offer a loyalty or refer-a-friend program.
Tips for building marketing into the sales process:
Remember that everything that occurs between you and a customer is marketing. Every gesture, experience, email-- all of that represents who you are.
When you're building a product or service, think about how you can add value into the flow.
Just Be You
Sales can be terrifying -- but it’s something that every founder needs to do at some point. Getting the word out of your business, however, does not need to be “salesy.” Above all, be genuine. Be you.
There is no “one way” to drive growth and get the word out about your business. Harness your strengths. Talk to your customers about what they care about. Follow the road less traveled.