Image: Southbank Centre food market, London. Clem Onojeghuo via Unsplash
In this post I explain how I gained a whole new perspective on running my business by being honest with myself.
It's Not A Business Yet
So you have your idea for your business. You’ve got your product or service idea. You’ve bought the domain, set up a website (which you now realise you will never finish because it’s always a work in progress). Your business is on its way!
But wait! Now you realise you may as well set up stall in the middle of the Sahara. No one’s coming by, no one knows you’re there, no one has even heard of you! No traffic is coming to your site because no one knows your business exists.
That was my situation not so very long ago. To make matters worse, most people didn’t even know what my service was, never mind that it could be helpful to their business!
As Mark Ford, creator of Early to Rise, said “you don’t have a business until you get your first sale.” It seems obvious but you need to keep this fact in your awareness at all times when you're starting out.
So, what’s a strungout first-time business owner to do?
Well, did you know … There are people out there who are ready to help you in any number of ways?
- They can confirm your business ideas (or not)
- They will serve as a sounding board for where you can improve and for new ideas
- They’ll help you set up smooth processes to make things easier for you
- They’ll give you valuable feedback
- and they’ll even help you figure out who your best customers are and where you can find them
As a bonus, if you treat these people like royalty they’ll serve as ambassadors for your brand. They will spread the word about your business and make your job much easier going forward.
So who are these magical people?
They’re your all important first users and they will do much more than getting your business off the ground.
In this post I’ll share with you the exact steps I took to get those crucial first users to try my services here at WPStrands.
Your Business Is A Set Of Experiments
I would love to be able to say that I did all of this very deliberately but the fact is it’s just what I discovered as I fumbled my way through the first few months. By putting it all together here I hope you can get a more coherent sense of how you can turn this into a process for yourself.
Luckily, there's a lot of information about customer acquisition (the fancy term for getting customers) online. There are many people who have gone down this road before you who can give you ideas for getting users and customers. You can try manual outreach or cold calls. You can try giveaways, free content or referral programs. You can try advertising, attending conferences and much, much more.
I did none of those. As mentioned in an earlier post, most of what I did do didn’t move the business forward at all:
- I immediately shared what I was doing with friends and family, hoping for a referral. It didn’t happen!
- I made a huge list of web development & hosting agencies here in Switzerland. Then I contacted them cold, one-by-one. I said something like “I see you provide WordPress design/development services. I provide WP support services. Maybe we can help each other?” After sending 200 individually-written emails I checked the results: two replies saying no.
- I foolishly asked people - like WordPress influencers with whom I had no relationship - if they could use my service.
- I tried all the list building guides like this one from hubspot, this one from Sumome etc
- I even started writing. I hated writing. English was the only exam I ever failed in my entire educational career. That was at the hands of a teacher who just didn’t like me. His 39% score (40% was a pass) hit home and somehow convinced me that I just wasn’t cut out to write.
I wrote stuff I never sent. I wrote a few blog posts I hated and even published them. These were WP-related because I thought my ideal customers were interested in WP. Nothing I wrote was focused or had a clear purpose.
- I gave too much free help in Facebook groups to people who were never going to buy! I joined lots of WordPress groups and gave help in there. I didn't realise that people building their own WordPress website were not actually my target audience!
- I was unfocused in my efforts to get the word out - I tried creating a Udemy course, I began publishing my Complete Guide to WordPress Maintenance as a Kindle book and never finished, I half-heartedly took a look at different niches only to drop them soon after ... etc. etc.
One thing I did that has had big long-term benefits was to study marketing; this is still paying off today. I will always be learning marketing.
In general, though, studying didn’t get me any new customers as I wasn’t immediately applying what I was learning.
Do It Yourself
I can’t say that these tactics failed: I did the work needed and they simply didn’t give me the outcome I hoped for. But I still learned lots from attempting them.
And that’s the crux of learning how to run a business; everyone needs to do it for themselves. You don't need to BE alone but you do need to experience the business first hand.
Like Siddhartha in the novel, every person must go through the journey for himself. This is infinitely more useful than just learning what worked for someone else.
"It is a good thing to experience everything oneself..." -- Siddhartha
They tactics above have worked for someone in the past and they might even work for you. You need to find that out.
I couldn’t agree more with Steph Crowder of Courage and Clarity and Fizzle:
”Everything you do in your business is nothing more than a hypothesis. Treat it as a learning process.”
This isn’t said often enough.
”Everything you do in your business is nothing more than a hypothesis. Treat it as a learning process.” via @stephcrowder_
Looking back, I can honestly say that I was struggling to find a voice I could use. Struggling to decide what WPStrands should look like, sound like, behave like.
I was struggling to be me.
And I had no idea.
I continued to have no idea until I finally sat down with pencil and paper and just thought about getting new customers for 15 minutes or so. I like braindumps/brainstorms. They’ve often helped me to make decisions and to get clear on what’s really happening when I'm too caught up in the maelstrom to notice (mindfulness also helps here).
So I scribbled everything down and this was the result.
(Somewhere along the way I got sidetracked with my PC’s BIOS settings and dribbled tea over the page.)
Sometimes brain dumps just don’t do it for me !!
Another few attempts though, gave better results. When I stopped thinking about “getting customers” and really thought instead about “why customers would want automated WordPress maintenance” ...
… the answer dawned on me …
They didn’t want help with WordPress!
- They wanted to save time
- They wanted to focus on their core business rather than on the technology used to support that business
- And they wanted peace of mind
If you're not familiar with Chet's Core Story exercise, this is what I did...
I imagined 73,500 potential customers together in a stadium. (Chet says you should imagine 50,000 but I was imagining Croke Park in Dublin which seats 73,500; a bonus 23,500 potential customers!)
And I asked myself “what would I say to them?”
Not what would WPStrands, the business, say to them but, if WPStrands didn’t exist, what would I, Seán, say to them as a person?
That was an altogether different question.
The only answer that came to mind was that I could simply help some of them with their websites.
(I know, I know, there are many important things you could say to if 73,500 listeners. For this exercise I was sticking to the topic of business.)
So I could just ask them “what’s your problem right now with WordPress?”
I knew I would be able to solve most - if not all - the problems they would have.
Coupled with my earlier insight of what they really needed, I felt like I had had an epiphany of sorts.
I had a new perspective on what my business was and a new understanding of how that business could help people. This was a much more objective perspective based not on what I wanted to give people but on what they really needed.
This is a perspective that allows me to see what my business is from above as a whole rather than from the inside. It's a view of the business from the customer side rather than from my side. It was literally a sudden shift in perspective that has had a profound impact on how I view my work every day.
A side effect of this perspective shift was that I went from being doubtful about what I’m doing to a realisation that it’s all going to be fine.
I find it very difficult to explain this mental shift to people who haven’t had it yet but I’m working on it.
Try. Learn. Apply.
Now how to go from there to getting customers? Well, viewing the world through my new lens I could immediately see how I could help people.
First of all, I had made a point of staying in touch with previous customers for whom I’d built websites. After two of them were hacked, I knew they could do with some help; they readily signed up for ongoing maintenance with me.
User count: 2
Another customer for whom I often did small fixes/changes for free also agreed to sign up for maintenance when I explained why it was important.
User Count: 3
That was my immediate network used up so now came the hard part ...
(This was also the time this blog was born - I quickly wrote a post about what I was doing and asked a few trusted people what they thought. They loved it and the blog was born!)
I was now ready to go back to Facebook and LinkedIn and try again. I got involved everywhere I saw someone having website problems.
This time it was different because I wasn’t trying to get a customer, I was trying to help. As me. In the next few weeks I added another five customers and seven sites.
When I tried to help people from the heart it worked.
User count: 8
Finally, I talked to people in an unrelated Facebook group I was in. I discovered some of them had WordPress sites and they too signed up for a trial.
User count: 10
Now, if this all seems remedial and obvious, it does to me looking back too. I thought I wasn’t grasping for customers but I was.
The thing is, although I'd read about it before, I had to go through it myself. At each false step along the way my mindset was shifting slightly to one that was more true to myself and so more true to the business.
I don't know if every solitary bootstrapper needs to make these shifts by themselves, but I had to.
One could argue that I wouldn’t have had to make these silly mistakes if I'd had the right mentorship. Or the right mastermind group or the right teammates.
That’s probably true. But would I have had the realisations that I had? I’m not so sure.
And… this is the stubborn bootstrapper’s journey after all.
Now when I look at my client list I see a list of people I know well, people who trust me and who I know I am helping day after day.
This change in perspeective also led to the development of my seemingly backward values for WPStrands:
- Each client's personal well-being comes first
- their business comes second
- their business's website comes third
Some businesses and many SaaS can go all out and get hundreds of subscribers at one go. For a service like WPStrands this just wouldn’t work. People need a personal touch.
So now I think it makes sense to build the business one person at a time, one website at a time. This way I can really show clients the benefits of having an expert in their corner.
It’s a slow way of doing it but it works.
There are no real secrets to building a business; everything has pretty much been written already.
You can read a classic marketing book from 50 years ago and find the same advice you hear from honest sources today: Speak from the heart. Speak TO the person directly. Provide what they need.
Like everything else - the foundations are what matters. Trends come and go but these principles will always be true.
Authenticity is the big thing. Once I stopped trying to be a marketer and trying to be a business and returned to being me, it all fell into place.
Setting up your business , getting a website going and starting to add content are just the beginning. From there it's a matter of consistently applying the basics (which are well-outlined in Chet Holmes book).
How did you get your first customers? Was it through people you knew or by using a clever marketing tactic? Let me know in the comments.