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Level 6

How to Be Self-Employed, Part Three: Growing Your Business


Becoming successfully self-employed is no easy feat. However, after talking to so many of you about how you created your jobs and how you found your first customers, we passionately believe in the opportunity to tap into this powerful community to successfully make the leap to self-employment.


Whether you want to hone your skills as an independent contractor, kick off freelance work, work from home or sell on Etsy, your fellow members and their stories enable all of us to learn faster and realize success sooner with fewer mistakes along the way.


If you haven't checked out The Handbook for How to Be Self-Employed, Part Oneor Part Two that covers launching your business, stop right here and head there first (spoilers ahead!). In this section we'll be covering a few of the hardest questions we've had around growing a business on your own. That includes word-of-mouth advertising, making money and building a reputation.


The Handbook for How to
Be Self-Employed: Part Three


1. People say their businesses grow by "word of mouth." What do I need to do to make that happen for my business, too?


It's always a good sign for your business if folks are telling you they heard about you from a random person on the street. In an ideal world,  after you land your first customer folks will start talking about your business with their friends, and suddenly it spreads like wildfire. That's where we all want to be. But getting there may not be quite so easy.


Start small. Great friends are your most loyal customers. Even if they have never used your product or service, they'll rave about you for hours... but only if you ask. If you want people to spread the word about you so that you can build your business beyond just the first 10 customers, ask them to support you!


You'll be surprised how many are willing to help, and you never know when someone has a relative or a colleague who is looking for exactly what you offer. Are you selling products that your pals could bring to their day jobs? Give them a sample to carry around and show off to their co-workers!


If you start by trying to figure out how many people you need to reach in the entire world, word-of-mouth marketing seems terrifying. But you don't actually have to be a national brand right now, or ever. Define what success means for you as you're starting out, and think about how you can reach your own local community first so that then you can scale your advertising when you're ready. Many folks have realized that just by  building their local network through networking and referrals, they can also get more customers.


The best part about reaching out to your community first is that you can treat your first 10 customers as a valuable part of your business. Take their feedback and incorporate it into your work, offer them exclusive deals and discounts, and make it easy for them to refer you to their friends.


When your community has your back and you have a supportive network around you, that's when things will really start to pick up. Members here have learned that by looking for ways to partner with another local business if you need distribution, or building referrals into your pricing, you can find creative ways to bring in business via word of mouth. 


"I can't expect the local community to support me if I'm not supporting them. Both my customers and I take pride in our neighborhood and the amazing produce we have here. I feature local goods and neighborhood artists in my cafe because it makes a difference." – Audrey Vaggione, chocolatier and cafe owner


2. How do I know if I'm running a "successful" business?

You might have the best business idea since sliced bread. And it might be cost effective, easy to use and as important as post-it notes or smartphones. But your success is determined by more than just the quality of what you offer. Once you've identified what you want to achieve with your main goal and you're managing your financial goals, decide what success means for you.


For many of us, that means building a sustainable business where your customers are happy, and they keep coming back for more.


We've learned that one easy way to have truly happy customers is to be honest and open with them. Practice asking for feedback from day one, especially with the folks who are  your first 10 customers. Find a way to gather honest opinions about your product or service, and keep asking regularly. Don't be afraid of tough, negative criticism. Even if it hurts, it'll help you reevaluate what you're working on and save you hours of wasted time on a bad idea. Or give you insight into something you can improve on!


Customers love getting small rewards or recognition for contributing to a growing business. Plus, you'll learn what you're doing wrong *way* before it costs you a valuable client (or a few). That will help you move faster and figure out what your customers consider success, so that you can feel like you are running a successful business. 



"I started shipping free samples in exchange for feedback. The suggestions I got were incredible. Free food goes a long way! Plus, I can rely on these customers to keep coming back regularly." Aihui Ong, owner of Love With Food 


3. How much money am I going to make?

If you've already checked out  How to Be Self-Employed: Part Two and you did the math to understand how much you need to put away for taxes, you probably have a good idea of the annual income you want to make this year. But how much cash will you actually earn? How do you turn a goal for income into real cash flow to support your business?


A great trick we've learned is to use your customers to gauge pricing and profits. Consider the number of clients you work with currently and the number of folks who've shown interest (a good metric is traffic numbers to your website). If tons of people visit your website, but very few customers end up paying for your services, there's a pretty good chance that there is a specific reason you aren't closing the deal. Is your steep price tag steering them away? 


Now, what if you have the opposite problem? If you have unbelievably high demand and you're saying "no" to clients because your hands are full, take a step back. Can you pay the bills? Are you overworked? Experiment by raising your prices slightly, and you'll notice that less customers come to you looking for help. But, each one will be paying you more.


That's supply and demand at its finest, and it's going to help you make the money you've earned. It might take awhile to get your pricing strategy just right, as many of our members here have learned, but it will be worth it when you can manage your time and your customers in a way that keeps you (and them!) happy.



"We learned that we needed just enough customers so that we could set prices that were fair for them, but profitable for us. We knew we were undercharging people when we had uncontrollably high demand and we still couldn't pay the bills." Jordana and Cassius Wright, freelance photographers


4. How do I grow my business beyond just my local customers?

Even though local community support is essential when you're starting out, often you might need to move beyond your local customers and reach out to new communities that are very different from your own so that you can grow your business. If that's what you're ready to do next, think about different avenues that will get you in front of new customers everywhere.


Are you selling a product? Do the research and find out if attending or exhibiting at trade shows, festivals or conferences is a worthwhile investment. Definitely consider the price tag for gas or a plane ticket and everything you'll need to support you (from table displays to lunches), as costs can add up. If it works within your budget, and the event draws the people you want to be your customers, these can be great places to get your work in front of new faces. 


Many folks here have learned that showcasing your work at art shows, or even traveling directly to your audience for large events, will help you grow your business exponentially. And don't forget to always have business cards on hand with your website and your contact information, so folks can shop later if they need to.


Are you offering a service? Look for ways to build your business via word of mouth on the internet. Social media works for some folks, but not for others depending on what they offer. You'll only be able to learn what the sweet spot is for YOU by setting aside 30 minutes each day for testing out your social media goals and trying out different channels.


First work on supporting your personal brand with a Facebook fan page, a Twitter feed and a Pinterest presence. You may find that each service reaches a different type of audience, and one will be more effective than others. Commit to sharing regular updates about what you're working on, links to your website or blog and tidbits of what you're learning as a business owner so that you can see how folks respond. And, most importantly, encourage your happy customers, your friends and your family to share out your posts. 




"So many artists fear criticism, so their work is hidden behind walls. Once I started getting outside and making art in front of people, there were no secrets or criticisms that came too late. I got much farther much faster, and this gave me courage to tackle new challenges." Eric Maruscak, chalk artist


So, What's Next?!

If *you* have a story to share about what you've learned on the way to becoming self-employed, share it with us right here. 


We can't wait to hear more about your own experience!

3 Comments 3
Level 7

How to Be Self-Employed, Part Three: Growing Your Business

How do you figure out your pricing?

Level 4

How to Be Self-Employed, Part Three: Growing Your Business

I love what Audrey Vaggione says when she says that first, you need to be involved in your local community. So true! I volunteer my services with a couple local organizations, but I'd like to expand on that idea to include your online local community -like qbcommunity- so get involved here and learn and grown and have fun!


@LeslieBarber - nice series by the way!


Not applicable

How to Be Self-Employed, Part Three: Growing Your Business

This is an awesome article! I am currently in the growth phase. I have been gaining a great deal of clients via word of mouth (this is without asking for referrals). I am not sure why but I get so nervous when it comes time for me to ask for a referral or a review from a client.  Clients will actually write me letters, emails, and text messages of praise for my work, again, without me asking. Trying to get over the hump of asking for compliments for my work. I kind of feel like doing a job well is a part being a business owner. Why would I not do it well? Especially when the goal is customer retention.

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