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Five years ago, my business partner and I were fresh out of college with nothing but an idea. We knew that we had more insight on social media than the “adults” running ad agencies, which led us to start an agency that specialized in social media marketing.
We didn’t have a website or business cards, and we definitely didn’t have case studies to show prospective clients. Nevertheless, we were able to secure deals, develop our brand, and grow into a team of 15 people with offices in New York and Boulder.
Here are the three steps we took to lock in our very first clients, and how you might be able to lock in your first clients as well:
Be open minded, prepared and enthusiastic.
Attracting customers to a brand-new startup takes a little preparation and a ton of cheerleading — you’ve got to be open-minded, collaborative and the biggest brand ambassador your company has. To start an agency in the digital space, we knew we would need someone with programming skills, but also knew we couldn’t afford to hire anyone. We quickly connected with a talented college student who put together a company website and business cards in return for being our go-to guy for design and development projects.
We spent our early days telling everyone we knew or met about our new company. In fact, the first client we had was someone who was sitting next to me at the poker table, and our second client was someone I got paired up with for a round of golf! In both cases, I continued to be outspoken about what we were doing, why we were qualified and how we could help their businesses.
Don’t be afraid to work for free, at first.
We also made it nearly impossible for someone to say no to our time, thanks to our prices. We were getting our foot in the door by offering our services for next to nothing, and occasionally working for free to build case studies. We let our work speak for itself and, to this day, generate almost all of our new business through word of mouth.
There are tons of articles out there about raising your prices and making sure not to discount what you are doing, and for the most part, I agree. But when you are starting out, the most important thing is to get your product out there and get people to start referring you. If that means working for free in the beginning, do it. The most successful business people didn’t start out locking in million-dollar deals. They started small, worked extremely hard and slowly scaled up the size of their deals over time.
Learn the difference between price and value.
Price is what someone pays for something, value is what someone gets out of what they pay for. As our company grew, we decided to discount our services for specific valuable customers who could help us grow through referrals and case studies. About one year into our business, a professional sports team that was referred to us got in touch. The team wanted to work with us, but had zero dollars allocated for social media marketing (keep in mind, this was 2008). After thinking long and hard, we told them that we wanted to work with them, regardless of the payment terms.
We looked at all of this “free” work as an investment, which in turn became one of the best decisions we’ve made. Working with this reputable team in the sports industry enabled us to advertise our relationship with them and has led to many other teams calling about our services, a few of which turned into paying customers. Ultimately, upper management recognized that social media was driving revenue, and each year since they have increased the budget put towards our services.