LXer Feature:Survival Guide For Women In FOSS: Drumming Up Customers

Posted by tuxchick on Nov 22, 2005 10:09 AM EDT
LXer Feature; By Carla Schroder
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Striking out on your own means entering a whole new exciting, fulfilling world. You'll meet and handle new challenges, and develop self-confidence and poise worthy of a UN diplomat. You'll directly reap the rewards of your creativity and labor. Today we'll talk about how to develop a solid clientele, and finding customers that you enjoy working with.

Related articles:

Survival Guide For Women In FOSS: Striking Out On Your Own
Survival Tactics For Women In FOSS, part 2
Survival Tactics For Women In FOSS, part 1


Drumming Up Business

The biggest hurdle for most freelancers is scary visions of what it takes to get some actual paying customers. The phrase "drumming up business" has its origins in purveyors of various dubious medicaments setting up a stall in the town square, and beating a drum to draw a crowd. They always had a shill or two planted in the crowd, and had to be more skilled in hawking the maximum amount of product and high-tailing it out of town before someone got sick and the townspeople turned hostile, than in developing a stable, long-term business.

We don't want to do that. Here are the things you don't do:

1. Go door to door
2. Launch a big advertising campaign
3. Spam

For a small businessperson, whether you're a lone freelancer, or have a small staff or partners, the key to being happy is to carefully select your customers. That's right, you don't go around hat in hand, tugging the forelock, going all suckup to beg for any business you can get. Target the people or businesses you want to be your customers. There are some jobs you simply should not take, and you'll know which ones these are, just listen to your gut. Don't be afraid to say no and refer them to someone else. It's tempting when you're starting out to take any job you can get. But a bad one will come back to bite you in so many ways you'll wish you had sold your blood to buy food, or gone begging, or eaten leaves and roots, instead.

How do you do this? In the most natural, easy way possible: by building a wide network of contacts and getting to know a lot of people. Networking is everything.

Networking Your Way To The Top

Networking is not difficult. Unless you're an extreme introvert, it's fun and sociable. The way to get started is to first make a list of everyone you know. Absolutely everyone, including checkers at the grocery store, doctor, dentist, and any other professionals that you give your business to, parents of your kids' friends- the works.

Then work up a 30-second pitch. Tell all these people, except the ones that you think suck and don't want to talk to, that you're open for business, what you do in 25 words or less, and you want either their business or their referrals. Give the ones that are receptive a half-dozen business cards.

The next step is to join groups. Community support is very important, so find some kind of volunteer service to do. Be careful and selective with this, because volunteer work can grow out of control and eat your life. You want to pick something that you can sustain over the long haul, and not get burned out on.

Business networking groups are OK, and you should have one in the mix, but I think you're better off joining groups centered around activities that you like: hiking, sailing, bird watching, stamp collecting, quilting, bowling, softball- you get the idea. Then you'll be doing activities that you enjoy, forming relationships based on common interests, and mingling with real people who aren't trying to sell you stuff. You'll get to know them, they'll get to know you, and then you'll be able to make informed suggestions. Like when the local banker is griping about "danged system locked up hard twice, and corporate support is more useless than feet on fish," you have a perfect opening to say "Maybe I can help you. Can we sit down and discuss a couple of ideas?"

Don't be afraid to say "I'm giving you my business. How about giving me a chance to earn yours?" After all, good business is give-and-take, and you should give your business to the businesspeople and professionals who support you.

All Business Decisions Are Based On Relationships

If you need a Freelancer's Rule to Live By, let it be this: There Is No Such Thing As A Purely Business Decision. All Business Decisions Are Based On Relationships.

Sure, there are occasional exceptions to the rule, but it works. Most of your customers are completely uninterested in the technical details of what you do, and for deities' sake shut up about that stuff unless you are 100% positive they really want to know- they just want results, and they want to be confident in you personally. This means don't dither and speculate and blather on about the defects in their system and all the things that can go wrong- tell them "I can do this, it will work fine, and you will be happy." They want reassurance and confidence, not excessive details. Focus on results. Don't tell the intricate details of setting up automatic security downloading and patching, for example; what they need to hear is "I will set this up so that it automatically keeps itself updated with the latest security fixes, and I will monitor it at our agreed-upon intervals, and you won't have to worry about a thing."

I bet you're already thinking "That's the way I talk to people!" Good. Keep doing it. Women techs sometimes think they need to aspire to the geek stereotype of the obnoxious scruffy listening-impaired know-it-all. Well no, you don't. Social skills and courtesy are definitely the right way to go. I don't know how such a negative stereotype became the face of tech, but it's not true for the majority of women and men that I've met, and it doesn't work.


As you have doubtless already figured out, this can be summed up in word: Reputation. Which means you have to behave yourself at all times. You'd be amazed at what people notice about you, or pick up through the grapevine. So you want to establish yourself as a dependable, approachable person that people can talk to, and you will listen to them, and not give them a raft of stereotype geek attitude. No one cares about your resume, or certifications, or any of that usual human resources blah blah- they want to know they can trust and count on you. The world is full of cocky hotshots who think they know better than everyone else what is good for them. While they are running around mouthing off, you're going to be picking up happy customers.

Business Card Strategies

Let's take a minute to talk about business cards. Some people never get them right. They either go all minimalist and leave off important information, like what they do and where they are, or they gum them up with all sorts of useless marketing buzzwords and fancy unreadable graphics. People throw away brochures and flyers, but they keep business cards forever, so think of your business card as a tiny billboard. Make it work for you. All you need is:

-Business name
-Phone number
-Email address and Web site, if you have one
-Physical or mailing address. Include your city, state, country, and postal code, because in these here Internet days you never know how far your name will travel
-Short descriptive phrase that tells what the heck you do

My business cards are simple. I make my own, which you can do IF you have a good-quality printer and can get good card stock from the office supply. If you have a crappy printer, spend a few bucks at your local business services shop (Kinko's, Staples, what-have-you) and use their good printers. I put a slightly modified Tux on mine because the little guy always brings a smile to people's faces, and Larry Ewing, Tux's creator, generously gave permission to let anyone use Tux. (Google on "Tux gallery" and see what other people have done.)

The copy is simple: Carla Schroder, Ace Computer Goddess. Plain English Spoken Here, followed by contact information. On the back I have a list of services. People remember it, and generally respond positively.

When you're designing your business card, make it OCR (optical card reader) scannable. A lot of folks scan business cards into contact-managers, so make it nice and machine-readable.

Your business card is meant to be used to help people remember you after they have met you. It can't do all of your marketing for you, though it is an important piece. Never ever count on people remembering- give them the card.

Business Name Strategies

Now I hate to burst any bubbles, but the fact of the matter is most entrepreneurs agonize for days and weeks and months over their business name, and it's all wasted, because they try to invest all sorts of Deep Meaning into it, or make it too cutesy, or worse, too long, or worse yet, something weird that people don't even want to try to pronounce. Most customers will relate to you and not even remember your business name, unless you create one that is appealing and catchy. In my nearly-humble opinion, it's good to name it for yourself. Something like "Xena W. Princess Database Consulting." Which also avoids trademark hassles, because your name belongs to you.

Naturally I won't stand in the way of anyone who wants to call their business "XMeh{;", or something equally opaque- that's your choice. Because you have a second chance to tell people what you do with your slogan: "XMeh{; - Dependable, Powerful Supply Chain and Point-of-Sale Technology."

Remember to look at your business from your customer's viewpoint- from this perspective flows wise decisions.

Gearing Up For The Long Haul

It takes time to build a solid business. Once you start getting happy satisfied ustomers, they will do a lot of your marketing for you and send their friends to you. Just hanging around and being visible does a lot. A person who is not your customer today may become your customer next year. Always keep the door open.

Our next fabulous installment of "Survival Guide For Women In FOSS" will cover more kewl stuff like we've been doing. Watch this spot!

Carla Schroder has had a variety of jobs and businesses: auto mechanic, landscaping and housecleaning, massage therapist, freelance Linux/Windows computer geek, and technical writer. See Enterprise Networking Planet and Enterprise Unix Roundup Tips of the Trade for fab weekly Linux howtos, and be sure to purchase copies of her Linux Cookbook

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Drumming Up Customers djohnston 3 2,699 Nov 23, 2005 7:22 AM

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