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5 Lessons I Learned The Hard Way About Marketing My Service-Based Business Online

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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.

But first, here’s the story of how I found myself struggling after enjoying over a decade of steady success…

I never cared much about marketing my business

When I started my business in 2002, I had no clue what I was doing. And yet, I somehow figured out how to book enough work to keep a roof over my head. Then, I 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. Nothing was broken and I was happy… why fix it?

Then, things changed…

The web design industry changed, the 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 inbox, 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 get a job-job (part-time or otherwise).

What the bleep was I thinking?! How did I get here?

I had no choice but to make my business work and find clients online, and through that process, I’ve learned exponentially more about marketing than I ever did in college.

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 a while 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 loyal long-time customers and those customers refer others to me and that’s kept me going all these years.

But I’ve also had some sad and disappointing days too, and they taught me what can happen when you rely too much on your clients:

  • 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.
  • Another client 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.
  • A regular client who sent me loads of sub-contract projects decided to go in a different direction with her business. And, the steady income I relied on went with it.
  • 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 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 future business. Sometimes just pleasing your clients is not enough.

Building a business means having a plan for how you’ll consistently attract great clients

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 inbox, 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.

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’m once again in-demand and working with my dream customers, I will never EVER drop the ball on my own business again. (See lesson #1)

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 maybe 10 minutes, so if you want people to see it, you have to Tweet it more than once.
  • Your Facebook page doesn’t have the reach it used to, 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.
  • And on it goes…

Getting visible online means doing something every day to get visible.

Marketers all this “consistency” but that’s become such a buzzword we don’t even really consider what it means anymore.

It means..


Lesson #4: Don’t worry about what other people think

Every once in a while 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.

Where will you be a year from now? Where do you want to be? What will you do to get there?

P.S. If this post resonated with you, you might enjoy the workbook I created filled with loads of exercises I did that helped me get clear about how I was going to show up in a much bigger way so I could market my business with confidence and attract clients I love again. Godspeed!

5 Marketing Lessons