Only one column this week (because, sigh, #reallife), but we're tackling two questions from readers today that cover some similar ground!
Here's the first question, from I.M.:
I'm a 24 year old designer with 5 years of actual work experience. I'm entering that stage where I'd like to start finding my own personal clients for my side gig and I'm finding it difficult. I'd like pointers on how to put myself out there (apart from the web) and how to approach people whom I think I can help. I've seen so many cute local businesses popping up where I'm from (Puerto Rico) and I'd love to be able to offer some of these businesses my expertise!
And here's another variation, from T.F.:
How do you promote and sell your brand and products to potential clients?
I'd like to take a different approach to how this kind of question is usually answered (usually with a list of actionable tips and advice) and instead, share the philosophy that has worked for me in hopes that some version of this might work for both of you. I firmly believe there are other ways to up the brand awareness factor and bring in those potential clients without feeling fake or icky, and be warned that I usually take the "long-game" approach to this kind of thing, so your mileage may vary!
Build your brand by working on relationships first
People like to say that part of the journey to building a successful business means being willing to invest in yourself. I think it also means being willing and vulnerable enough to invest in others.
I'll use this example to quickly address the core question in Letter #1, which is how to put yourself out there in person and approach people who could use design help. If this were a different column, you might see some advice that encourages this person to start offering services directly to these businesses, or maybe sharing some criticism of what they're not doing well and offer a solution to fix it. But because this is The Quiet Creative, my advice is to actually take a step back and think about how you can establish a relationship of value before putting design work on the table.
Part of building a sustainable, long-term business for yourself means taking the time to figure out what you are meant to be doing, and who you're meant to be doing it for. Are these businesses a good fit for you because they align with your goals and values as a designer, or are they just a good fit because they're conveniently located nearby? Deciding you want to work with these people because they align with something deeper than just money and convenience means putting the work into becoming a source of value in the relationship, and possibly without reciprocation (that’s the vulnerable part -- nothing has guaranteed returns!). When you can start defining your brand and your products / services as inherently valuable without needing to be qualified by what the potential customer is willing to pay, the more valuable and attractive you'll be.
Invest in your potential clients
So to address Letter #1 directly -- a practical, real life bit of advice would be to invest in these potential clients and become a customer first. Get to know them better and establish a genuine connection. You might find they're already in better hands than you think and you can instead continue your goal of becoming their favorite regular. Or maybe over time, there’s a natural opening to approach them about future projects. Since they'll actually know you (or at least because you won't be a complete stranger), you’ll have that relationship which could develop into something that's mutually beneficial for both sides.
I believe in building client relationships that last, and for me, my success is partly rooted in the fact that my clients have chosen, time and time again, to come back to me regularly with more work, or to refer me to friends who need work. Some of these treasured, long-term relationships are what they are today because I took the time to invest in them first. I wasn't looking for any specific opportunities, and I was genuinely interested in what they did or sold, but so many of the opportunities that followed happened because the relationship existed.
invest in your fellow creatives
I've spent a good chunk of time talking about the relationships you form with potential clients, but another crucial piece of this puzzle is forming relationships with other creatives, because believe it or not, these people might end up promote you and your brand even more than you do! Having a stellar reputation and knowing that others will vouch for you could be as good as gold to a potential client looking to give you their business. And you can't really achieve this kind of excellent word of mouth without, you guessed it, investing in other people and making those connections. To specifically address Letter #2, if you're trying to promote your brand from scratch, this step is even more important. If you want to get people interested in what you have to provide or say, they have to know you exist.
To do this, you need to be actively building your creative network and community -- these are people you might naturally see as your competition, but they could end up being one of your most valuable resources and cheerleaders as you build your client or customer base. These are people who will think of you when others are looking for designers and send qualified leads your way. They'll be the ones who sing your praises in online or local networking groups. They might even turn to you for their own design work.
So what does that look like? It means being helpful, being intentional, and mostly, getting outside of your comfort zone and actually ENGAGING. That might look like a willingness to answer questions in online Facebook groups. Or being the person that will hop on a call with another creative to discuss business issues, just because. Maybe you're the one who shows up to local events and always has something positive to contribute to the conversation. Or you're the best advocate for other creatives and their products so people are naturally drawn to supporting you too. It might take some time to figure out what actually works for you but it's worth that time!
Here's a quick list of some of my favorite creative groups and communities (some in person, some online) that could provide a fantastic place to start forming those creative relationships:
The driving force behind the #communityovercompetition movement (I wrote about my own experience with it on their blog!), Rising Tide is an amazing resource and support group for creatives all over the world. You can participate online in the general RTS Facebook group or on a more local level through their TuesdaysTogether meetups, which have both an online (FB group) and in-person component. And Letter Writer #1, it looks like they have a TuesdaysTogether group in San Juan, PR!
An incredible network of female business owners and entrepreneurs, led by business mentor Heather Crabtree. While the presence is mostly online, I adore Heather's heart for this group, which is to provide as much support and access to resources to business owners and creatives of all different levels and experiences.
A breakfast lecture series for the creative community with chapters located in many major cities across the world. Because this is an event that is built on being a local, in person experience, it's a fantastic way to get a feel for the pulse of your creative community.
Part lady mastermind, part group biz coaching, but all heart, this collective of amazing individuals is led by Cyndie Spiegel, a kick-ass speaker and small biz coach for women entrepreneurs. I had the pleasure in participating in a cycle of the Collective last year as I was just starting to consider the possibilities of my business, and Cyndie really pulls together a quality group of women from a wide range of industries and backgrounds, but with a similar heart for supporting and encouraging other women in business.
While there's certainly a time and place in all business to be really focused and strategic about promotion and growth (with such great resources and options out there, it'd be foolish not to!), I believe the ideal first step toward authentic, organic brand promotion and awareness happens when there is intentional foundation building and investment in relationships.