Your Top Start-Up Questions Answered

Sales & Marketing

Advertising

Q: I am located in a small town in south Georgia. I've been in business for a few months now. I only have six Web hosting customers, and I'm trying desperately to get more. I am planning on putting ads in the newspaper in a local town that is a lot larger and will reach many more people. What do you think? Any advertising advise?

A: I'd be careful about spending a lot money on newspaper advertising. I've not found that to be very effective, and it can be quite expensive. Instead, get your own site in tip-top shape, then spend most of your time promoting it in the search engines and trying to drive as much traffic to it as possible. I've had a good amount of success in several different businesses by putting most, if not all, of my marketing efforts into driving traffic to my site via the search engines. Learn more about traffic at Web Site Secrets and Web Site Garage.

You should also network like crazy. The bottom line is to meet as many people as possible, tell them what you do and ask them if they have any business for you.

Getting Customers

Q: I own a computer network integration firm. To be honest, the business only exists on paper at the moment, along with a bank account and a credit card. Only a few people seem to know I exist at all, and that's where my question comes in. How do I get customers? My problem lies in the fact that I am in a small urban community, with small urban communities surrounding it.

A: Boy is this familiar. I was talking about this question with a friend of mine (with whom I've started several businesses), and he and I were remembering how hard this was for us. Here are some of his thoughts:

  • Find a local coffee shop/Internet cafĂ©, and hold a couple of "seminar" sessions. A local guy I know of is doing just that, and that's how I found out the shop exists.
  • Have some business cards printed up, then frequent places where your target audience (maybe overworked IT folks?) frequent and "drop" them all over the place.
  • Put up fliers or cards at local grocery stores. Offer to help the local library manage its computer services, and see if, in return, they'll let you post a "Computer services provided by XX" in the library or leave some cards around.
  • Go to the local bookstore, and find books that are for what you do, but on a beginner level. Open each one, and slip your card in the table of contents with a tiny "Let me help!" on the front.
  • Contact your local chamber of commerce to get a list of businesses in your area that might be interested in your services. Write a letter to each one (not a mass mailing; you've got time to do each one separately) explaining who you are and what you're available to do. Tell them satisfaction is guaranteed (nobody in IT seems to do that) to get your foot in the door. Even if a few of them rip you off for a few hours, you'll get customers, contacts and experience.
  • Offer to help local churches that are big enough to have an IT staff, again either for free or for very little, in return for word-of-mouth referrals.
  • Radio stations, newspapers, TV stations-anyone who has an audience for their opinion-find a way to get them to like you and talk about you (which is free, and very effective, advertising).
  • Ask local computer stores (preferably independent ones, and definitely ones that you buy from) if you can leave cards or fliers near the front desk. Find ones that do not already have a competing services group, and ask if they ever get requests for business of the sort that you do. Offer them a 10 percent cut of the entire job for any referrals that you end up getting. Again, you might not do this forever, but it's a great way to get some exposure.
  • Target small, nontechnical offices, and see if you can find the person who's been saddled with "keeping the network up" responsibility. This person is probably nontechnical and probably hates it, but is afraid to call in a "big-time consultant" because of the money. Offer to do a free assessment or a free first service call (up to an hour, for instance). If they like what you do and you fix their problem, they'll call you back at your regular rates (be sure to have these fixed and handy, preferably in a flier or on the back of your card, when you go on these "free" introductory calls).
  • Get a magnetic sign that you can slap on the door of your car while you drive around town. Spend a few lunchtimes driving to local computer or office supply megastores.
  • See if there are any small-business associations that meet monthly in your town. If there are, slap on a tie, grab some business cards and go see what's happening.
  • Drop your business cards in every "free lunch for you" restaurant bowl you can find. This increases your chances of getting noticed, and after all that work, it's nice to get a free lunch.

Word-of-Mouth

Q: I'm looking to start a carpet-cleaning business, and I'm wondering how to determine the demand for this service and the level of competition in my geographical area. Also, with the recent recession, do you think I should worry that people will stop purchasing this type of service?

A: The majority of your competition would probably be listed in your local phone book. But you may or may not care about how many other people are competing with you. I say that because in my experience, this is a business where you can start small and grow rapidly with good word-of-mouth if you provide good service. If you don't have to quit your job and do this full time, this could be a very good deal.

My opinion is that there is a lot of money to be made in this business by focusing on service, because so few people give good service. My personal experience with carpet cleaning is that most of the people who offer it show up late, do an OK job, aren't very careful in your house, and overall have a poor appearance and/or attitude. I think that if you can always keep appointments, do a good job, be careful and respectful of people's houses, look professional and be polite, you can clean up (no pun intended) in this business.

If you start this business, be sure to ask each client, after you've done a good job and they are happy, if they would give you the names of two other people who might want their carpets cleaned. If you can call someone and say "I just cleaned your friend Sarah's carpets, and she thought you might be interested in getting yours cleaned-please call her and ask her if she was happy with my work," then you'll have more business than you can handle.

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