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How To Get Customers (Without Paying For Ads!)
To win at the beginning, you need to hustle. Here's a playbook.
I’ve brought in over $175,000 in sales to PubLoft without ever running a single Facebook or Google Ad. I got 500 users to my previous startup, Schmooze, without ever running ads. I strongly suggest that, if you’re starting a company, you don’t either.
The reason why ads are toxic to new businesses is for a different blog post, but the goal of this post is to help you see different ways you can get users without running ads! I help many friends who want to start companies with this advice. It all starts with this simple, golden nugget of advice from Paul Graham:
This philosophy means you manually hunt for all of your first customers and convince them to join. Friends, it means you need to hustle. And not just hustle, but hustle in the right ways. The right channels.
Let’s look at some ways you might find your first 10 paying clients as a freelancer. Note, freelance services are typically b2b (business to business), because they businesses have the most need for creative services. Even if we’re talking about a one-person shop, they are still hiring for a business reason, as opposed to a consumer reason (b2c).
Therefore, we’re going to dive into b2b sales tactics. The recipes for selling to b2b and b2c (business to consumer) are different, but the ingredients are the same.
Learn what differentiates someone who can “sell” from someone who can’t
It’s really just a mindset shift. To get customers, forget about scaling, and being “highly efficient.” This is the reason many people spend WAY TOO MUCH MONEY on things that rarely give a good return.
When you recruit your first customers manually, you hear their rejections; you can adjust your messaging and have mini sales chats all the time to get better and better.
The art of manually getting customers is part of my craft. It all started on the following channels, and by learning where I was able to make relationships to start a soft sale — both online and in person.
Your sales channels
As a freelancer or any kind of entrepreneur, you can tap into dozens of channels in which you aim to sell. Learn which ones produce the highest ROI possible (return on investment — meaning your time, money, etc.)
What I am listing below are the channels that have performed best for me and my companies. There may be others out there that work for you! Just learn your market, try different sales tactics, pay attention to results, and hone in on the channels that work best. With that, let’s get into some of those sales channels and tactics.
Many use Slack as a team communication tool. It’s also a great engine for finding communities of like-minded people, making friends, and discovering opportunities to provide value.
For example, right now I’m in 22 slack groups:
They each have a different purpose. One is for online marketers; another is for moonlighters. And one is for the NYC tech scene.
I join new Slack workspaces, introduce myself, dive into the individual channels that are relevant to me, and check activity weekly or monthly. I try to engage when I can, so people can become familiar with me and my name. Then, when someone asks for something I can offer, I respond and throw the “right hook,” but they already trust me because I’ve been engaging for a while already, on their turf.
Ever since Microsoft bought LinkedIn, the platform has improved… and — dare I say — has become fun to use!
Post every day or two on LinkedIn to familiarize your network with your name and face. When someone likes or comments on a post of yours, take the opportunity to message them and get to know them more. Just like on Slack, the goal here is not to meet someone and throw a right hook from the get. Provide value, avoid being a sleazy car salesman, and you might find that people will gravitate to you.
Once you get good at LinkedIn, you can start playing around with LinkedIn automation tools like Leonard or LinkedIn Helper. These tools are very powerful but can be abused and hurt your reputation if used incorrectly. I’ll stay high level here, but if you’re a GigLoft student, stay tuned for a workshop on LinkedIn tools soon.
Facebook has great search functions to find groups that you most align with (or your ideal clients most align with), and Facebook groups can be an extremely effective way to get new clients. I sound like a broken record here, but remember, to make friends and provide value before trying to sell anything. People can sniff out a salesperson from a mile away, so don’t be that salesy person!
Cold email 📨
Although not as effective as three years ago, a good cold email goes a long way. Build your ideal buyer list, find the decision maker at the company, and craft up a beautiful, relevant, and concise cold email.
Remember: you’re not trying to get married, you’re just trying to set up a first date. The “spray and pray” method is not effective anymore. I know, because I tried two years ago, and I tried a month ago — and the difference is obvious. I’m not surprised; I hate getting irrelevant cold emails too.
Instead, send individualized emails that have high context for the receiver. You want a response, not an immediate toss into the trash. You can be personal by mentioning a recent Tweet they posted. Were they just ridiculed by the press? Show her that you stand with her. Anything to differentiate yourself, because people you cold email are surely getting cold emails from dozens of others and they aren’t responding to all of them. So you need to make yours the one they respond to.
Live events 🤝
Going to events and building relationships is a great hack if you’re good with people — and if you want to be better at it.
Find low-cost, high-quality events to attend and start mingling. Remember, you’re not selling, you’re meeting people and building relationships. Build trust in both directions. Stay in touch — when someone has a need, they will raise their hand and tell you.
It helps if you have your own personal funnel, which we can talk about in a different blog post. Regardless, go to live events, meet people, get cards, make good impressions, and most importantly:
It doesn’t matter how good of a conversation that you have. If you don’t do anything afterward, it’s not worth your time in the first place. The key to everything in relationship building and sales is to follow up, follow up, follow up.
Don’t forget or get complacent! Persistence pays off.
There are dozens more important channels to cover in further detail. These select few are the channels that I rely on when I am looking to grow our revenue. They may not be the channels you use, but you should have one common element with mine.
It should be manual. Do things that don’t scale. Have 20 concurrent conversations. Use Post-Its all over your walls. Get your first customers manually.