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From the Basement to Millions

Don't like marketing? Cynthia shares how she built her business one client at a time--and how you can, too.
October 10, 2007
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/218016

Starting a business involves managing a thousand ideas, nurturing grandiose dreams into reality and finding clients to sustain your business. Would-be entrepreneurs are often discouraged from opening a business because they simply don't have an interest in marketing. However, when you consider the basis of any profession, each has something to sell. A physician offers her skills, an attorney, her knowledge, and the rest of us have to advertise our ability to do whatever it is we do in the most convincing way possible.

A desire to be self-employed seems simple enough until you realize you need to actually go out and find buyers for your products and services. Setting up my gift basket shop after quitting my job as an attorney sounded infinitely easier than working at the firm. I assumed I'd tell a few acquaintances about my new venture, they'd tell friends and I'd have a ready-made clientele.

Instead, my neighbors, relatives and former associates thought I'd lost my mind. Who would quit a profession like law after seven years of college? To make matters worse, I was running this operation from my basement. I had an instantaneous setup, but no credibility. I didn't have much to work with.

When I launched the business, I had to take a moment to consider what marketing really was. It occurred to me that building the business quickly would involve introducing my product to as many people as I could as soon as possible.

I started with my bank. When I opened my business checking account, I developed a rapport with the teller who told her manager, who told the vice president what I was doing. As I slowly infiltrated the bank, each individual seemed genuinely interested in purchasing gift baskets. Within two hours of being in business, Le Gourmet had an actual account.

Although I had no inventory, I at least had a client. As I confidently exited the bank, I left with the declaration that my newfound friends could expect upgrades and discounts. I ran out and purchased my inventory retail, and pulled together some attractive products to sell to the bank.

The next day, I delivered a silver tray of chocolate truffles for the employees and a thank-you basket they displayed in the lobby for a giveaway. The bank was kind enough to allow me to exhibit my brochures, which cultivated more sales over the next two days. I made no profit on my first seven dealings with this client, but the value of my new contact was immeasurable and the cost of marketing, minimal.

As more referrals came, I made enough money to scrape together a chamber membership fee. After attending an after-hours get-together that brought in no immediate transactions, I was invited to attend a chamber leads/sales group. Armed with an abundance of business cards, I met everyone in the room and walked out with 30 solid leads and two basket sales to a large Denver corporation. The leads would compile my initial mailing list.

Hoping to strike while the iron was hot, I ran back to the "office" and designed a flyer that I mailed that afternoon. I included a coupon for 20 percent off a basket purchase and an explanation of my newly launched frequent buyers club. Each purchase would earn my clients points for free deliveries and complimentary baskets. My plan was to make it very easy for patrons to buy from my company.

The conclusion I came to is that marketing can be as simple as disclosing what you do. Showing potential customers your wares or informing them of your skills doesn't necessarily have to involve terrorizing would-be buyers into making a purchase. We've all been victimized by the multi-level marketer who came on a bit strong at a party or the door-to-door salesperson who's interrupting your personal time to make the last sale of the day.

If marketing seems distasteful, you have options. Hire someone to sell on commission, offer a finder's fee, or give gifts to those who refer customers to you. No matter what your profession, you or a talented partner or employee can attend leads groups and chamber meetings to sing the company's praises. And PR agencies can give you wonderful exposure, as can an expertly designed and easy-to-navigate website.

The important thing is to let the clients know, verbally and through your actions, that you would love to have their business. Show the client the benefits of using your services. Treat the buyer like gold and keep your promises. When building your company, every client counts.