I’ll get right to it: the biggest marketing mistake I’ve made as a solopreneur is to not market my business at all. If you’re looking to attract clients online, don’t be like me. I’m going to share the five biggest lessons I’ve learned the hard way as I’ve made strides to up my online marketing game and change the course of my business.
Why I never cared much about marketing my own business
When I started my business in 2002, I had no clue what I was doing. And yet, I figured it out and managed to book enough work to keep a roof over my head. Then, I somehow just kept keeping a roof over my head, so I kicked my heels up on the desk and enjoyed the hell out of that.
For years — I’m talking 12+ of ’em — I never ran out of clients or gigs. I had a nice little referral base, people with big projects and RFPs would come to me, and I had enough of a reputation to coast. So I traveled, I lived my life.
I spent my working hours building online brands for clients, but I never really did that for myself. Despite having all the “how to” skills to put an online marketing machine together, I just never had a “big reason why” and so I never did. Nothing was broken and I was happy… why fix it?
Then things changed. The web design industry changed, competition changed, and I moved from my home in Alaska to Croatia and when that happened, a lot of my local clients abandoned me. All of a sudden, I wasn’t in demand, work didn’t just magically appear in my in-box, and I had no marketing game. Making matters worse, I was no longer able to head out of my house and shake hands with people face-to-face, or even go to get a job-job (part-time or otherwise). I had no choice but to make my business work and find clients online.
Sadly, I really didn’t even have a website to use as part of a marketing program, what I had was nothing more than a fancy digital business card in case somebody needed my phone number. (At this point I’d like to remind you that I’m a web designer.)
What the bleep was I thinking?! How did I get here?
When I finally woke up and realized I needed to reach clients online and build up my reputation and visibility, I realized that the game had changed a LOT since early days. Back then having a blog was such a relatively rare thing that just having one was enough for people to notice you. In 2018? A whole-nother ball game.
Playing catch-up has been hard work. Had I been working on my own marketing for the last 15 years… I don’t even want to imagine where I’d be now. I bet piña coladas and very expensive shoes would be involved, though.
If you’re just starting out, or even if you’ve been at this awhile and you’re not where you want to be, I’ma share the best nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned studying at the school of online-marketing-hard-knocks:
Lesson #1: Always put your own business first
If you’re doing a service for clients, and you spend all of your time “doing the doing” but you never take time to market your own business, you’re in “job” mode — that’s just not an entrepreneurial mentality. I’m not judging you, that was me — I thought I was an entrepreneur, but I wasn’t really running a business, I was running a job.
Instead of having one boss, I had lots of little (client) bosses. My primary goal was to make sure all of them were super happy so they’d tell all their friends about me, so I invested extra hours, extra effort, I went the extra mile. Instead of investing time in my own business, I invested in theirs.
And I’ll admit that it works out pretty okay in a lot of cases – I have some loyal long-time customers and those customers refer others to me. But I’ve also had some sad and disappointing days too, like:
- A favorite client broke up with me when her publisher offered to pick up the tab to redesign her website, but only if she went with their web designer. I think I cried a little, I remember I was pretty devastated. We’d been working together for years and had so much fun and got great results too! This was not personal, just business.
- Another time a friend of mine — someone with whom I’ve enjoyed wine-soaked conversations about life, love and the meaning of it all — hired someone else when it was time to do her redesign. The new designer was in the right place at the right time with the right offer and I wasn’t. Not personal, but man that made me feel yucky.
- A regular client who sent me loads of projects decided to go in a different direction with her business. And, steady income I relied on went with it. A big blow for sure, but not personal, just business.
- One of my thought-leader, “connector” clients who used to put me in touch with lots of people which led to loads of work for many years took another job with another company and they had in-house people doing the stuff that I used to do for her, so I fell off her radar. Ouch.
These types of things happen when you’re not minding your own business. Customer loyalty and satisfaction is soooooo important, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a good idea to count on your customers as the only way to get repeat or referral business. Sometimes just pleasing clients is not enough.
Building a business means having a plan for how you’ll grow and profit. Without that, you have no control over things like:
Your prices — without a steady demand for your services and a solid reputation, you’re going to be competing on price and have little choice about it
The services you offer — you know all of those things you do for cash that you’d rather not be doing? You’re not going to be able to gut those things and do the type of work you really want to be doing
The clients you work with — rather than working exclusively with people you really enjoy working with, you’ll be at the mercy of your referral network and whoever happens to show up in your in-box, you’ll have to say “yes” to just about everyone whether it’s a good fit for you or not
Without a strong marketing game, you’re at the mercy of whatever falls out of the sky and lands in your lap. Lands-in-my-lap marketing.
Lesson #2: You don’t have to be more than you already are, you just have to leap more.
When the panic really set in that I needed to find more customers for my pipeline, I thought, “gosh, I need to completely change EVERYTHING!!!”
I took a million courses, read a billion books and blog posts, I hired “experts”, did masterminds and talked with coaches — you name it, I tried it.
But none of that helped me get clarity about my business, it only gave me more ideas, more things to think about, more problems to sort out, and more work I felt I needed to do before I could “start.”
The amount of skill, education and expertise I had at that time was exponentially more than when I first started out in business, and yet, back then I was doing much better. Why is that? Because ignorance is bliss: I just LEAPT and figured shit out along the way.
Back then, I went right into action mode — I called people up and said, “Hey, I am starting a business, can I treat you to a sandwich to pick your brain?” Those early lunch meetings led to so many referrals that I was able to pay my rent for months. I didn’t know how to do all the stuff, I just dove in.
It was when I just started doing stuff that things really started to turn around for me. There’s no course, no coach, no blog post or book that can compare to taking action.
I made mistakes, I’m still making them — but I’m learning and making progress.
And while I have some incredibly exciting projects on deck, I’m once again in-demand and working with my dream customers, and my pipeline is full for awhile — technically, I could kick my feet up and coast, but to hell with that! I will never EVER again drop the ball on my own business. (See lesson #1)
No matter how busy I get, I’m going keep applying consistent effort toward my big-picture vision-board goals. Right now this means waking up at an ungodly hour to put my business first before I tend to clients, and until I reach the point where I can hire people to take some things off my plate, that’s what I’ll continue to do. (Nobody ever said it was easy.)
Lesson #3: Ask relentlessly
Probably the biggest mistake I’ve made is putting all of my value out there on offer and asking people to pay attention to it… once. I asked one time.
Nobody likes a spammer, I didn’t want to be that. I didn’t want to appear desperate or cheesy or be “one of those people” who’s constantly making noise so people will pay attention to them.
And then nobody showed up. Whaaaat??? HOW CAN THIS BE? I worked so hard on this and crickets.
I must really suck.
I must be saying something really stupid and useless that nobody cares about.
I must have made a miscalculation somewhere.
But I’ve come to realize that getting attention and visibility online means asking way more than once. People are mostly going to miss the message the first time, and the second time and twentieth time too. When you think you’re being a gross spammer, nobody else is even noticing.
A Tweet has a lifespan of 8 minutes, so if you want people to see it, you have to send it out more than once. A lot more than once.
Your Facebook page doesn’t have the reach you think it does, what you post there is only going to be seen by a fraction of your followers.
Putting a pin on Pinterest and calling it good will never get you traffic from Pinterest.
Getting visible online means doing something every day to get visible.
I won’t lie, it’s a lot of work to put all the pieces together, but once you have your system and you’re just maintaining, it gets way easier.
Lesson #4: Don’t worry about what other people think
Every once in awhile I pose a question on Facebook to ask what people think about various marketing tactics: using pop-ups, chat boxes, Pinterest, email, you name it. I love these conversations because I like knowing how real people feel about them rather than relying exclusively on “you need to be doing ____” advice from “experts”.
But here’s the thing: there’s always a wide range of opinions when it comes to marketing tactics. Some people don’t like certain ones, some people don’t believe certain things work, some people think you’ll be a horrible gross cheesy spammer or a complete and utter moron if you do something.
But rarely can you know whether a tactic will work for your business until you try it. Even if you’re working with an “expert”, experts sometimes get it wrong.
If you decide you’re not going to do a certain thing just because some people don’t like it or might think less of you, you’ll probably end up doing nothing at all.
You’re never going to please everybody.
Some people might think you’re a cheesy gross spammer and utter moron … so what? Are they paying your bills?
There will always be people who’ll think you should do it differently. If you let them stop you from trying something that might actually work for you, you’ve given their opinion more power than your own.
What matters in marketing is whether you’re getting results, not what people (who are not your customers) think about your tactics.
Also? Nobody cares as much as you think they do. And this is the truth. We get so afraid to put ourselves out there because we think we’ll screw up in front of the whole world, look stupid, get it all wrong. See lesson #3 — people just aren’t paying attention to you as much as you think they are. And even if somebody thinks you’re an idiot — if you’re getting results, it just doesn’t matter. But you gotta try stuff to know what works best for you.
Lesson #5: It’s all about perseverance
People are always trying to sell us on the notion that things can be fast and easy. That may get them a nice spike in blog traffic, but frankly, I have more respect for your intelligence than that. You’ve achieved big things in life, did they come easy? Of course not. Consistent effort and perseverance is the magic formula.
Don’t give up on a tactic just because you don’t get overnight results. Dig in a bit deeper — it takes more time and effort than you think you need.
You’ll run into all kinds of, “How I exploded my business to six figures a month in just three weeks” crap out there. It’s clickbait, don’t fall for it. Keep your eyes on your own plan and keep at it. And when nothing seems to be working … just keep at it some more.
People give up too easily if they don’t get results right away — and THAT’S why it fails. So don’t buy into the bullshit. Nobody’s showing up? Persevere.
Pay attention to stories of successful online business owners and you’ll notice a common theme — when they were just starting out, it was a whole lotta nothing. For a LONG time. But they kept at it, and then kept at it some more.
That’s my plan. To keep showing up. I truly believe that if you apply consistent effort to a thing, eventually you’re GOING to get results. Right? Hasn’t that always been the way when you’ve put your mind on achieving something?
Playing the long game
My promise to you is to show up on this blog one year from today after applying consistent effort to the system I’ve set up for myself and to tell you the results. A year because we tend to want overnight results but really, success rarely works out that way. I’ll bet on me, and take my chances that perseverance will pay off.
Where will you be a year from now? Where do you want to be? What will you do to get there?
I’ll see you then!