Marketing for the Self Employed (an update)
Okay, you work for yourself providing a product or service. You need the phone to ring. You need queries about your product or service in your email in box. You need a clientèle.
Cover your Bets.
I started the Oakland, California version of my T-Shirt printing service in the spring of ’87. For seven out of the next ten years, I maintained a part time job to insure that I could make ends meet. It took time to build a clientèle that could support me. Chances are, you are jumping into self employment with minimal capitalization, so it’s incumbent upon you to insure some level of income.
Marketing plans & scams
It has been my experience that intuition supplies one with plenty of ideas about how to attract potential customers. When I started freelancing t-shirt printing as an undergraduate, I simply copied up fliers (a.k.a handbills) a couple hundred at a time and papered the bulletin boards of the University of Massachusetts campus with them (and the phone poles, and just about any other surface I could drive a staple into). It was cheap and it worked. I lived for years off of my staple gun. I mean staple guns; actually wore a few out. I took care to design fliers that communicated my message in clear simple terms, including the command “Call Steve for a quote”.
A few years back I gave up the fliers method for a couple reasons. First, there were fewer places to hang fliers. As fliers became a more popular marketing technique, they caused more trash everywhere. Cities, universities and what not became smart about eliminating places where lots of messy handbills could be posted. When I started the biz in Oakland in the spring of ’87, I was the only screen printer posting fliers on the UC Berkeley campus. It brought me a ton of business from dorms, frats, clubs, sororities and the like. Within a year, five or six screen printers started a literal wall papering of campus with fliers like mine. I had to hang twice as many to get half the jobs, and it became a low ball market. Who wants to work cheap? Not me! I’ll also mention that it had become a pain in the ass to truck all over town hanging handbills. It just ain’t that much fun. Occasionally, someone would give me a hard time for trashing up their neighborhood, and who can blame them?
From the very start, I also used what has been my number one selling tool, direct mail postcards. Again, I’ve always taken care to craft a postcard that delivers a clear message: “I do high quality custom T printing at reasonable rates, call me up right now for a quote” was the gist of it. I have usually generated my own mailing lists from local weekly newspapers (go after the advertisers and event listers), the local “business to business” yellow pages, the regular yellow pages, and directories from this industry or that. Collect addresses of companies or organizations who you would like to do business with. I’ve also bought mailing lists from data base compilers… my experience is that these lists don’t produce calls or email queries as well as lists you produce yourself.
Therefore I recommend crafting a postcard that hammers you message home, creating a mailing list and sending those suckers out. Wait two or three weeks and mail it again. Do another version of the card and mail that to the same list a few times. Advertising is a process, not an event. You have to repeat it. Keep your message consistent and it will sink in.
You can target lists at specific industries or categories. You can offer special prices at your slow times. Hone your message and drive it home. It works. Be patient.
Another marketing tool I’ve used from the start is advertising in weekly or university newspapers. You can do a classified or small display ad. It’s expensive and slow to work, so be realistic in your expectations for response. I have done campaigns with small display ads in a local tabloid. The response is not great, but it keeps my name and logo consistently in front of a focused audience. With newspaper ads (and print ads in general), be sure to budget enough to run the ad at least five or six times. Again, advertising is a process, not an event. I’m investing 3-4% of my profits consistently into advertising and marketing expenses. Often higher. Do remember to continue marketing when you are busy and flush with success. You don’t want to find yourself low on cash, with no work and no prospects one fine day, only to realize you’ve done no marketing for 21 months.
At the beginning of my career, I used classified ads in weeklies and college papers with a measure of success. These days, craigslist and other online listing sites have taken over the classified function. It's a good way to generate leads and interest, but be aware that it serves a lowball market, you will hear from price shoppers who may not be thinking about quality or service (yet!).
Your intuition will inform you of methods to reach your potential clientèle. I’m a cartoonist who has always been in love with print media. I naturally think of marketing solutions that involve print in one form or another. In this era of digital media, a 21 or 22 year old entrepreneur is going to think of digital based, web based, or maybe blog based ways of communicating their message. Without working too much at digital marketing, I’d say that most my business communication is via email in any case, that’s just the norm in today’s climate of commerce.
Google Ad Words
I've experimented with Google Ad Words as a marketing tool. It delivers a lot of requests for quotes. I have gained some new clients from Ad Words. I recommend a cautious approach to Ad Words, it's easy to spend a lot of money fast with. Start slow with a small budget. Experiment with the wording of your ad and track results. I used Ad Words when I lived in Portland, Oregon form 2005 to 2007. I kept my campaigns focused on the Portland market, as people there are very big on buying local. I had budgeted for a six month newspaper ad campaign in the local weekly Willamette Week when I moved to Portland. I believed it was a good way to introduce my service and message to that community. I sunk several thousand dollars into this campaign. I did get several clients from the campaign, but in retrospect it was clear to me that the money would have been much better spent on a carefully crafted, Portland focused Ad Words campaign.
Over a six month period, I'd invested more than $600.00 per month in a small display ad in Willamette Week. It was a relatively successful campaign in that I averaged perhaps five quote requests per week. However, when I switched my ad budget to Ad Words, a slightly smaller budget got me four times the quote requests! You can see that small business ad dollars may be more effectively spent on new media than old school print media. The funny thing, I've been a print guy all my life, I have ink for blood. But I can't argue with results, and Ad Words kicked ass on Willamette Week!
One caveat, I noticed that the responders to Ad Words were more likely to be looking for a low ball price. The people who responded to my Willamette Week ad had likely seen my clever ad and logo for weeks, and came in for a quote with the confidence that I was a quality shop that would do right by them. I am not a low ball shop, I am selling quality and service and I do not compete on price. I have no interest in working cheap, in “winning the race to the bottom” as I call it. Thus, the Ad Words responders might have been less likely to actually do business with me.
In the long run, the most effective on line marketing would be to create a weekly blog pitch or news letter, and build a list to send it to. People could sign up for your news letter at your website or blog. It would be labor intensive but cost little. It's always been my experience that elbow grease works better in marketing than throwing money at the problem.
There is no right way or wrong way to get the word out about the wonderful gift you are ready to offer for a fee, there is simply the truth that you need to consistently put your message across. If something doesn’t work, dump it and move on.
By the way, as usual, I’ll tell you I’m no huge expert on this. Just sharing what works for me, and a bit of the thinking behind it. I might even recommend looking into some of those books on guerrilla marketing. Do a web search or something. No doubt here are a million people on the web selling marketing schemes. Look out for snake oil salesmen!
Finally, I’ll mention that from time to time I’ve done a campaign of ads, mailers or whatnot that utterly failed to garner even one phone call. Hey, at least it was tax deductible!
What Really Works?
I’ve been running the current version of my business for twenty years. With all the marketing that I do, at least two thirds of new accounts come from recommendations. So the moral of the story is do quality work, be friendly and deliver a solid value. Never give up! Soldier on and do your best.
Just for fun, I thought I'd make a list of how some of my clients came to me:
Sarah's Science, summer science camps for kids and after school science education. Recommended by a friend and colleague in the design/illustration community. Sarah Shaffer, proprietor, is as close to a soul mate as I'll ever find in a client. I do illustration for her too, and we are clearly both from planet bug. Or is that planet slug?
David Boyer Designs, successful designer of Hippy tourist shirts in the San Francisco market. I was already friends with Mr. Boyer, via a mutual cartoonist friend. We've done shirts together since '94 and are still going strong. We owe it all to rich tourists and Jerry Garcia. Thanks Jerry! Goddammit, what I would not give to see you walk onto stage just one more time, Tiger in hand, to rock my soul.
The Residents, legendary San Francisco purveyors of music and satire. Their merchandise person saw my flier in Berkeley on her street! She did not know I'd been a fan for 15 years. When she quit, another merch guy took over and I figured the party was over after five great years of printing eyeball shirts. But no, this new dude, name of Dren, started Astropitch; we went another four years and did massive piles and piles of shirts for such acts as Peaches, Chix on Speed, and Anticon along with many more fantastic shirts for the Residents. Dren then bought his own T Shirt press and took production in house, oh man poor guy I would not wish that on anybody but myself!!!!!!!!
Margaret Cho, brilliant comedian. Fellow cartoonist Adrian Tomine designed a T Shirt for Margaret, and recommended me to her manager for T shirt printing. I did Margaret's shirts from '99 to 2007. She runs a great organization. Honest, efficient and soulful. A real sweetheart, and one bad ass trash talking hot mama. I never saw any entertainer sell shirts faster than Margaret when she was on a roll, her fans are nuts for her. Nothing but fun. Wish I still had the gig, but management changed and I was out.
Apple Computer, I was hired by the chief engineer of a key hardware project to do a shirt for Apple. He was one of my pot smoking buddies from freshman year of high school! Only did one shirt for Apple, as he soon left for another silicon valley company. I got to design it too, did a cool cartoon illustration for the project.
Sony Music Distribution. Shirt & Illustration jobs for Screaming Trees, Alice In Chains, Mike Watt, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and many others. A Sony Music promo guy, Big Tim, was my flat mate in Oakland, he fed me great jobs for years. Here was an exemplary human being who truly wanted to help just about everyone he met, and it was my immense good fortune to know him.
EMU Cultural Forum. This campus organization at the University of Oregon was responsible for putting on concerts on campus. I did shirts for the security and staff for many shows, including Frank Zappa, The Ramones, Iggy Pop, The English Beat, Bill Cosby, Willie Nelson, The Beach Boys, Kenny Loggins and many more. I wrote them a passionate sales letter about how I would go the extra mile for them, and then some. It worked, and it was huge fun early in my “career”.
SFJCC. San Francisco Jewish Community Center. I cold called them on the phone when I was broke in the spring of '87 to see if I could print some of their summer camp or recreation T Shirts. I hooked up with Jefrie Palmer, a great guy, and produced piles of shirts for them over a twenty year period.
OCCB and Bulldog Coffee Shop. From 1996 to 2005, I printed shirts for a variety of Oakland based medical marijuana providers. I was recommended to them by a good friend who was their lawyer. In turn, I had met this lawyer friend through one of my cartoonist pals. This lawyer dude was amazing, he argued cases all the way to the Supreme Court for the OCCB. The medical clubs had a popular product, to say the least. They also loved T Shirts and sold a lot of them. Early on, I took some pay in trade, but soon realized I had no need for thousands of dollars worth of herb! Okay, a little weed is fine guys, but I actually need $$$ to pay the bills! Lots of fun, but some of those beefy security dudes freaked me out a bit.
Sweet Potatoes, a somewhat big time producer of baby/toddler apparel. One of their production supervisors saw my flier on a phone pole on Fourth St. in Berkeley where their office was then located. They would give us fabric panels to print that were later sewn into garments, large scale production stuff. It was funny because I just had a homemade press at the time, and a spot dryer, I was just this side of fly by night! And here comes Sweet Potatoes, giving me runs in excess of 10,000 pieces. Their production guy, Paul, keeps asking if he can visit the shop. It was just too funky to let him in! When he finally realized how small scale I was, he was a bit horrified, but actually was also impressed at what my staff and I could pull off on our funky equipment. He did split after feeding us jobs for three years, as they started sending production offshore. They invited me to match pricing they were getting from Guatemala. I don't think so!
Okay, that's enough of that. Notice that most of these clients came from recommendations or personal connections rather than from marketing messages. Certainly I've gotten dozens of clients as a result of my marketing. But bottom line, if you circulate, have fun and hand out your card everywhere, you will have all the business you need.