So let's take a look at strategies for those starting out, be it in SEO, web design, or other small, web-based businesses. Those of you who have established web businesses, it would be great if you could share your experiences and strategies in the comments :)
Making The Start
How do you make the start? You've got a computer, an internet connection, and a few ideas. How do you get from that point to a thriving business, when you have no customer base, no money and no experience?
Yeah, it's hard.
But you'll literally work through it :)
Society Is Testing You To See If You're Serious
Ask anyone in business, sports, music or any other competitive human endeavor how they got recognized in their given field. They'll most likely tell you it didn't happen overnight. Whilst talent, luck and having the right connections play a part, the one trait common to those who succeed is persistent hard work.
In Outliers, a book about how people achieve extraordinary things, Malcolm Gladwell found that to achieve mastery in anything - be it golf, webdesign, programming, music, fashion - takes roughly the same amount of time: 10,000 hours.
Thankfully, we don't need to be masters at running a small business before we start one, else no one would ever do so. But the underlying idea is sound - persistent hard work is the key to success.
Being persistent sends a message to those around you, including potential customers, that you're serious about what your doing. If they see you often enough, doing the thing you say you do, then you'll eventually be recognized for it.
So if you feel you need to prove yourself, you're right. Society actually demands you do.
What Is Worth Getting Serious About?
Many people start businesses because they enjoying doing something. Someone who plays sport may have the desire to be paid a good living wage for playing the game she loves. Someone is good at art, so he wants to be a designer.
Whilst there is nothing wrong with this approach - having a genuine passion for something will help you get through the rough times - I'm sure you can spot the potential problem. There might be a LOT of people who have a passion for the same thing. The more people who want to do something, the more effort you need to put in in order to stand out.
In terms of sport, it's relatively straighforward. The sprinter with the fastest times gets recognized and progresses. Those sprinters with slower times either get better, or go find something else to do. In business, its a little more complicated, but the principle remains the same.
You need to stand out.
Supply And Demand
Think carefully about supply and demand. Ask yourself: is there sufficient demand for what I want to do?
Let's say you want to do web design. Is there demand? Why, yes, the demand for web design services is almost infinite. New companies start every minute, and most of them will need a web presence. Established companies who already have a web presence change their design from time to time, thus creating even more demand.
Now let's look at the supply side.
How many people want to be web designers. The answer is: quite a few. In fact, it would appear that web design demand is more than met by the supply of web designers. What happens in such situations is there is a downward pressure on prices, because those who create demand have a lot of supply to choose from.
The world is oversupplied with web designers. At least, it's oversupplied by people who call themselves web designers. There's a difference, of course, between someone who owns the tools of production and those who use those tools well to solve business problems. Owning a camera does not make someone a commercial photographer. Likewise, those with the most artistic design skills may make lousy web designers if they aren't focused on business aspects.
Recognizing the reality of the situation might may you reconsider your choice of career, and opt for an area where there is heavy demand and short supply instead.
Another way to face this problem is to differentiate. Can you do something better than other designers? You may be highly skilled in contemporary graphic design, in which case you may choose to place strong emphasis on displaying your portfolio, and target the type of clients who appreciate - and will pay for - this expertise.
You may have, or can acquire, detailed market knowledge in one particular niche - i.e. travel sites, real estate sites, etc. Clients, generally speaking, are a lot more comfortable with providers who understand their area of business. You have an advantage if you can speak their language, rather than just the self-absorbed language of design forums.
Can you focus on a geographic area? i.e. the immediate area where you live. Sometimes, people want to deal with someone local.
What is the thing you can do for which there is a market? If there are too many competitors in that market, then slice that market up until you can find a niche. Aim to be top of that niche. Then put in persistent effort working that niche in order to build reputation.
Chris Pearson gave away a number of popular free Wordpress themes on his site, created designs for popular sites (including Copyblogger & SEO Book), and then created the Thesis theme for web developers, which has since done 7 figures in sales volume. Yes Wordpress themes have become commoditized, but due to his strong marketing and continual increase in product value he was able to differentiate & build a solid business model. In his own words on starting out, Chris wrote:
Before I launched Thesis, I created a few free WordPress themes that became extremely popular. Although these themes defined the early stages of my career, they are really nothing more than visible markers of a learning process that continues today with Thesis.
Once you've decided on an angle, you then need to establish yourself. Society wants to see how serious you are.
It is very difficult to market a business without some form of track record. But every business needs to start somewhere, and they don't start with a track record. So, the most important task for someone starting out - in any occupation - is to get one.
One way to get a track record is to treat your first few jobs as a marketing cost. This is the cost of establishing a reputation, and if you make any money at all from these first few jobs, it's a bonus. The aim is to get referrals and a portfolio of work.
Approach charities or small local business who need a web presence and offer your services for a deeply discounted rate, or for free. It's a win-win for both parties, because they may not be able to afford web design, and you need their testimonials and experience.
Be sure to make it clear that the job is being done at a discounted rate, and let them know what your usual rate it. This way, they'll perceive value, and won't be in for a shock when you ramp your prices up for any future work. Focus on building a positive relationship with these clients. If they are happy with your work, they may well refer you to others.
Once you have a track record, the risk to a future customer of hiring you is diminished. You become a known quantity, which puts you above the wanna-bes.
Is this working for free? Some might consider it that way, but it could also be seen as just another marketing expense, like advertising. Many businesses, including big, established businesses, give away products and services - in the form of loss leaders - in order to help get their foot in the door. People who train for careers pay to learn, whilst as a freelancer, you can potentially learn on the job for free. Clients can teach you a lot about your own business , especially where your strengths and weaknesses lie.
It's important not to stay cheap or free, however.
Some think the easiest way to get business is to undercut competitors on price. This can be a self defeating strategy, especially for the sole operator, for a number of reasons:
You get cheap clients - people who seek the lowest price probably aren't placing much value on what you do. These type of clients, ironically, can also be the most demanding. They want the most for the least, and will often push you on the amount of work you deliver.
Someone else can always undercut you. There will always be a competitor who has a cost base lower than you do. From there, you're locked in a no-win race to the bottom.
If it looks cheap, it is cheap. It's human nature not to value something that is cheap, and place a lot of value on something that is expensive. In the book How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer, the author describes an experiment conducted with wine. Participants were told one bottle was cheap and one was expensive. The expensive bottle got rave reviews from tasters, and the cheap one - not so good. However, the labels were switched. The expensive wine was actually the cheap wine.
Perception counts for a lot.
So if your angle is cheap, make sure your margins are still high enough to sustain you. Only you know how much you need to survive at any given time.
Alternatively, target ruthlessly, either by offering a superior, needed product, more niche know-how, or find some other angle where there is untapped demand. Be prepared to prove your worth by providing case studies describing how you've solved people's business problems in the past.
Got any other tips for those starting out? It would be great if you can share what you know :)
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