We live in a digital age, and if you work in a digital industry it’s easy to think that everyone else does too. But this ain’t the case.
Millions of businesses operate predominantly IRL (in real life) and are often too busy building their business and making money to be hanging out on the internet.
They probably won’t see your Google ad, they probably won’t see your blog post, they may never see your LinkedIn message, and they are unlikely to respond to your cold email.
For these businesses, old-school real-life networking is key.
So how do you find these businesses?
As the saying goes, it’s not what you know - it’s who you know.
Where the big fish swim 🐟
"Go where the money is... and go there often.”
– Willie Sutton, American bank robber
You can make money on your computer. People can land agency and freelance gigs having never met the person in real life - it happens every day.
$7,500 custom-built web application, $5,000 WordPress site, $2,500 SEO optimisation package - these are the common types of “internet sales” in the dev agency space, and those prices are pretty average (it’s considerably lower on marketplaces like UpWork).
But where are those bigger projects?
Where are the $50k projects, where are the 6-figure projects?
Of course, big money exists out there, but as you go up in price it gets harder and harder to land them via a cold email, or a sales funnel involving a video and a contact form.
When dealing with many thousands of dollars, people look to their existing network for referrals and recommendations.
Build your own professional network 👷♂️
"One of the challenges in networking is everybody thinks it's making cold calls to strangers. Actually, it's the people who already have strong trust relationships with you, who know you're dedicated, smart, and a team player, who can help you”
– Reid Hoffman, Co-founder of LinkedIn
I had an easier start to my agency than many people do - because I built a network.
My first ever project was landed through my network, my first 6-figure project was via my network, and my first 7-figure project was via my network.
My professional network consisted of.
- My university nerd friends (one of which was my first co-founder in my agency)
- Colleagues across 4 jobs I had worked in (2 of these were co-founders in other businesses)
- Managers and bosses from those 4 jobs
- Mentors and alumni from a Startup incubator I was in for 4 months
- Clients I’d worked with as a freelancer
- Connections from coding meetups I had attended and spoken at
- People I’d met at coding and tech conferences
I’d worked professionally in software development for 10 years before my agency, and in that time I had unintentionally built a multi-layered network of people who:
- Knew I was a genuine person and a good human being
- Knew I was a talented developer that delivered great work
- Trusted me personally, and trusted my opinion
If you don’t have a professional network, you are playing the game in hard mode.
Your network can help give advice, find leads (warm leads!), find staff, and even find friendships.
If you don’t have a professional network, I recommend you start building one today.
Get off your computer 🚶♀️
“Rule No. 1: There Are No Facts Inside Your Building, So Get Outside.”
― Steve Blank, The Startup Owner's Manual
I think too many people rely solely on the magical powers of the internet to start and build their client services business.
For every day you spend trying to find clients on the net, spend a day building your network - ideally in real life.
Don’t approach this as simply trying to find clients, people see right through that.
Sure, finding clients is a great result of a professional network, but often the person you make a connection with is not your client, but a possible referer or a future client.
Meet people and just be genuine.
Have conversations with interesting people in your industry, and industries you are interested in. Talk with developers, competitors, and other businesses adjacent to your industry.
Attend industry meetups, events, and conferences.
If your local area doesn’t offer this, travel (assuming it’s not too far), or even plan a monthly trip to attend some of these events in a neighbouring (larger) city.
If you have a business niche in finance, healthcare, startups - whatever - try and get looped into that scene. Go where they go. Learn what they learn, and meet people with no secret motive than to meet them.
It’s a little old school, but if you meet someone interesting - ask if they have a business card, and give them one of yours (that sentence might show people I’m 40 years old!).
Follow them on LinkedIn, and shoot them a message saying it was great to meet them, and show that you listened, and are a good human to know.
What a nice person 😊
“I want to be remembered as a nice person who didn't hurt people - except my ex-husbands, maybe.” Eugenie Clark
― American Shark researcher
You need to be likeable, respectful, genuine, and interested.
You don’t have to be super crazy over-the-top nice (in fact don’t be that) - but If people don't like you, you are going to have a hard time in the agency business.
Building connections, finding clients, landing jobs, and hiring staff - are all relationship dependant activities, and they are reliant on you being able to form and nurture those relationships.
Notice I said “interested” not “interesting”?
Sure it’s great to be an interesting person, but it’s an interested person that other people really like. If you can actually listen and ask questions, then they will walk away from the conversation thinking “Wow, what a nice person!”
A puppy’s not just for Christmas 🐶
“Success is about dedication”
― Usher, Singer & Musician
It’s called building a network as you need to build it… constantly. You need to care for your relationships, tend to them, and put in the regular effort.
Meeting an interesting person in your industry (or targeted industry) at a conference is good, reaching out on LinkedIn and getting a chat going is great. Seeing if they want to catch up for a coffee when you’re in the area (your shout!) - that’s fantastic.
And that’s how it works. You just now need to keep doing it.
But this isn’t just about meeting new people, it’s about existing relationships too.
Believe it or not, I’m an introvert.
I like nothing better than watching TV at home, having a beer with my wife at a quiet pub, or seeing close friends for dinner.
But I know I need my network, so I put in the work.
I catch up for coffee, send emails every couple of months, comment on LinkedIn posts, and organise IRL catchups - and it’s now just part of my routine.