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Ask HN: Getting in front of people
67 points by smu on May 6, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 12 comments
Hi HN,

I'm a IT consultant with a background in CS and I'm trying to get an independent business started. Recently, I lucked into two paying after-hours projects and I absolutely loved it! Basically, I had to design, develop, install, educate, sell and price some stuff to make their life and company better. It wasn't always easy, but it's the most fun I had in the last couple of years.

I'd like to continue on this path, but now my problem is finding new clients: How do you get in front of potential clients when you don't know anything about their business? How can you make sense to them? And where to get started?

Any ideas?

PS: My target clients are medium sized local businesses.

Throw an event for medium-sized local businesses where they can learn about a topic of relevance to you and also meet other medium-sized local businesses which are interested in learning about that topic. You will be the belle of the ball, by construction. You can make your presentation 95% pure education and just 5% a hint that you have commercial interests in this area and people will threaten to take your hand off with how fast they give you checks.

This trick builds consultancies.

Do not underestimate how many topics you know which are a) worth significant amounts of money and b) which you'd BURY the average decisionmaker at a local medium-sized business in skill levels. The median journeyman Ruby on Rails programmer is already more qualified to talk about e.g. backup strategy than every. single. person employed at a local law firm with $10 million a year in billings.

I'm anticipating the follow-up question: how do I get this event in front of these businesses so they know about it?

And I'm anticipating that someone will link Patrick's answer... https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6717577

Go to Meetups in your local area. For everything (but particularly ones were members would benefit from your skill set) - small business, entrepreneurs, marketing - whatever. Anywhere employees/owners of the businesses you're targeting (or don't know you could target!) are likely to be.

Have a few drinks and chat with people, but never sell yourself. Wait until you're asked what you do, then explain - but be more interested in them, their business and their problems. Ask for their card, take one of theirs. Follow up in an email saying it was nice to meet them and you hope to see them again in the future. If you can offer any advice based on their business or problem, do so in this email and/or offer to meet them for a coffee or chat.

Rinse and repeat.

Anecdotally I was chatting to a friend who used to work in politics and we were discussing something similar to this. He was always instructed to take MPs drinking, for dinner, for chat - but never talk business. Then he'd call/email the next day, thank them for a great evening and ask them for coffee to discuss whatever/business. Not only would they always meet, but they were far more agreeable or ready to compromise.

TL;DR: Get to know people socially. People like working with someone they can get on with or won't be hard work. If someone actually likes you (and you weren't all pushy), they'll be far more likely to use you than a competitor or recommend you to a friend/colleague.

Three perhaps not so easy steps from an engineer who had to sell:

1. Figure out your value in the eyes of your two clients. Not what you think it is - but rather ask them what they got for their money. It may not be technical at all. The answers may surprise you. Ask also what they didn't like about it.

2. Find local business that are similar to your current clients. Hustle. Ask your clients and anyone you know for any contacts in similar businesses. Hit up meetups, Rotary Clubs, anything at all really. Get a list of similar bussiness and contacts within them (Linkedin can be mined, data can be bought). Once you get even a flimsy contact, get a meeting or send in an email (with clear subject line) and say that you helped company X gain benefit Y, and you'd like to help their company gain the same benefit. Out of the 10 contacts you get to, 5 would want to improve their career and would take the chance to intro you to a decision maker within their organization who can hire you. Pump this contact for problems that are occupying the attention of their decision makers, and figure out how your solution can help with one or more of these problems. Get the meeting with a decision maker. This may or may not be the CEO - cultivate the first contact to figure out who's driving the decision.

3. At the meeting with the decision maker, explain how your solution can help solve problems X and Y. If you're on target, they will be interested, and you can shepherd the deal towards a close from that point. It may be a long process, but once there's a decision maker behind it, you'll be surprised at how many previoulsly insurmountable problems dissipate.

Yes, these steps are much easier than programming a server in Python. However, it's suprising how scared people can be in performing them IRL. If you conquer that fear, realize rejections are not personal and it's a numbers game at the end of the day, you'll be successful.

Referrals referrals referrals. They are the primary way to drum up new (good) clients. People will be hesitant to recommend or be jerks to you when they know the other people you work with. As compared to cold-calling or freelance sites, where people will push you around as much as they can and be cheap about everything.

If you want to cold-call, look for companies similar to the ones you've already worked with, and tell them about the results you were able to deliver (obviously don't name names or anything).

For networking, I do it exactly as iamben described, don't sell yourself in the wrong setting.

I'd say the #1 rule in sales is to ask questions. Call up the businesses you think would benefit from your experience, ask them what their pain points are.

I don't know what your background or area is, but for example if I was to want to sell to a local business I'd want to speak to their marketing person and learn about how they currently acquire customers - and go from there.

Try asking for a referral from the people you already worked with. See if they know anybody else that needs similar work done. Assuming you did a good job, they should have no problem making that intro.

Coming from a sales role, that is the easiest business to earn.

Don't go to meetups. Don't go to conferences until you have some leverage. Take the network you have now and find one or two clients that you can provide tremendous value for. Spend a lot of time with them and hone what you have to offer into a very compelling service.

Once you do that, then focus on a slightly larger client or network that is connected to your accounts.

It's a grind. There's no shortcut.

I've seen a following approach working really well:

Go to the non-IT related training/workshop aimed at managers from SMEs (ideal topics would be related to marketing, sales, creativity, design thinking etc. - areas were people seek inspiration, new solutions etc.) It should be a genuine, practical training (not some kind of psuedo-seminar which in fact is 8 hours long sales pitch by the organizer) which will give you opportunity to do something with other participants, socialize and learn about them.

During the exercises, discussions and breaks use the advice already provided here: show interest in other people and their challenges, ask a lot of questions, provide them with some feedback/inspiration/ideas/knowledge (but without selling your services directly). You'll learn about them and their market and present yourself as a competent, helpful person. As a bonus you can also learn something from the workshop itself. I've seen many relationships build this way on my trainings. Several of them even transformed into new businesses.

Two other suggestions:

- Go to developer conferences. You will make connections with other people who might have leads or other people doing the same thing who don't have time to do everything and might forward projects to you.

- Build a software library in your field of interest (or even a successful product). From experience this will generate inbound interest for customizations. You will be very well positioned to do the work (Sidekiq, Ensembles come to mind).

This is always a challenge for new ventures. I'd recommend really focusing on your value proposition (whether it be development, social media, etc.), and then trying to offer prospective clients an offer that is difficult to refuse (Ex: A 1 month money-back guarantee). Over time you'll build a reputation and clients will begin referring friends to you.

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