First of all, let me apologise at the length of time it's taken me to post a follow up to part 2 of setting up your own business. One of the things that you come to realise when you run a business is that often you can't get down to doing the things you want to do when you want to, because there are so many competing demands on you, and the big demand on my time at the moment is the financial year end, so I apologise wholeheartedly.
This article is going to take a different approach to the rest of the series, and I hope you like it. If you like, you can think of this as Part 2A. This article is the result of input I've had from others and the viewpoint of one of CodeProject's most famous business men, Mr. Marc Clifton. So, without further ado, I'd like to take you on an interview between myself and Marc.
This article will not guarantee success. It is not intended to replace all the hours that you are going to have to work in order to develop your client base, and it only deals with working with clients.
So Marc, how do you see marketing and how do you look at marketing yourself?
Well, Pete, marketing works in two ways - namely, how do people find you, and how do you reach out to others?
Interesting. So how does this work for you?
Well, a company hires marketing people and spends money marketing itself. As a "soloist", money is cheap, especially when you don't have any. But you probably do have a lot of time, at least until you land that big contract, and time is money! So, invest in yourself by spending the time to market yourself. Even when you land that big contract, keep investing some of your time in marketing. You never know when that contract will go south, leaving you with anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months (or more) before you recover your income stream. If you haven't been marketing yourself while also working, it'll likely be 6-12 months before you recover. And by then, you'll have given up and taken a job while wishing you were working for yourself, being your own boss.
But, in your case, you have a certain amount of marketing going on through CodeProject. Doesn't this help you? After all, people who know CodeProject know who you are. It doesn't take long for people to get to know who Marc is without even having to use your full name. You share a certain illustriousness with other CP luminaries such as Josh, Karl, Sacha, Chris, Nish, and Christian. To a large extent, you are a brand name because of your time on CP.
After starting MyXaml and writing all those CodeProject articles, I was interviewed for an online magazine, people hired me, and it led to what a friend of mine said once: "you know, the name Marc Clifton has become branded." The ultimate in marketing is to have your name branded: "Xerox this paper for me", for example. Your name, as a brand name, associates you with your product and your services. It's quite gratifying to be told "you know, when I interviewed this fellow and told him you were working on the project, his jaw dropped and he exclaimed 'You have the famous Marc Clifton on this project???'". Yeah man. Branding.
Nice. That leads to the relevance to you of an online presence.
Nothing beats having the Internet and search services working for you, 24/7/365. Get yourself into the presence of these search engines.
(I assume this means that Marc gets one day off every 4 years ;->).
What are you selling? Your mother or your expertise? I would imagine your expertise. Put together a website that illustrates your expertise. Load it full of buzzword bingo terms so that search engines will find you. For example, when I wrote MyXaml, I, of course, used the word XAML in lots of places. When people Google'd for XAML, the MyXaml website was one of the first few links at that time! And believe me, it generated interest.
How about blogging? In my first article in this series, I touched on the importance of blogging and how this should be handled when you are representing a company. Specifically, I talked about not being controversial with a company voice. As a soloist, what are your opinions on blogging? How do you see it, and how does it differ from my corporate viewpoint?
Blog about what you're an expert in, and blog about what you're learning and investigating. And that's part of investing in yourself--spend time learning about something you don't know anything about, and write about it. Apply your expertise toward things you are learning about--build technical bridges, and you will discover that you build people bridges.
A blog is real-time--I rarely read people's old blog entries--and its value is in keeping abreast with what others are doing and the sites and technical articles to which they link. Your blog should keep people abreast of your interests and link to your website and your wiki.
In understanding the difference between a blog and a wiki, I've come to feel that a blog is like a journal or a diary. But a wiki is a hierarchical repository of knowledge. It's searchable, and can be filled with interesting tidbits of knowledge. Document tips and tricks about the Operating System and the tools you use. Post code snippets and examples using newfangled technologies. Unlike your website, which presents your "face" to the world, the wiki is an information organization tool. And, a wiki is a good place for sound bites of information rather than full-blown, professionally written articles that is more appropriate for your website.
That's interesting. I must admit that I haven't really considered the relevance of a wiki to my company and my customers. Sure, we have an internal Wiki, but that's no use to our customers. Thanks for the hint.
Any other hints? How about advertising?
Google ads let you create a small advertisement within your budget constraints. I've used these effectively to market MyXaml, and I think that Google ads are an effective way to also market yourself and your services. Track your clicks, play with the keywords, and give it a few months to see if you feel it's working for you.
Is there some new technology that doesn't have a lot of web presence yet? Parallel FX? Cloud computing? .NET 3.5? Find one of these technologies and put keywords on your website, blog about it, put some wiki pages up that show some stuff you've done in that technology. The point is, ride the coattails of what the technology leaders are doing, so that when someone does a search on that technology, your website, blog, or wiki comes up.
Marketing is not voodoo. You have the tools to track the hits, the blog trackbacks, etc., that your website is getting. If you have downloads of sample applications, track those. The information is invaluable in determining whether you are reaching people. Ask others what their website statistics are. You'll probably find that people are willing to share statistics as it gives everyone more information, and you're networking with others at the same point.
Your sig is a free and "in the face" way of advertising yourself. How many forums do you visit, and how many posts do you make? Every post should have a sig on it that advertises (discretely and professionally) your services. Every time I make a post on CodeProject, inane or not, I think "hey, there's my sig and someone may contact me". I even advertise my neighbor's bed and breakfast on it, and because it's such a curiosity item, when she did an analysis on her website hit count, do you know that CodeProject links were her number one hits?
That's interesting Marc. It's one of the areas that I really struggled with when I first started out on CodeProject. Way back, I made a conscious decision not to advertise my company's services through my sig because I didn't want it to seem that the only reason I was posting was to get free advertising, but I'll certainly think about this again.
Consider visiting forums that have to do with your hobbies and non-technical interests. Model railroading? Photography? Pedigree dog breeding? Post there, and put into your sig your services. Networking outside of your technical area is an untapped market. Consider this. The technical market is saturated with consultants. But what you want to do is find people that, if they see your sig, will think, "hey, this guy and I already share an interest in biodynamic farming, and I could use a new website, let me give him a call". You've now circumnavigated the minefield of service providers by having a special relationship with someone because you've posted outside of your primary market.
This works. Many of my contracts have come from associations with my neighbors and my son's school, both the staff and the parent body. They may not be megacontracts, but they sure are nice to put some money into the Christmas fund.
Offer something. For free. It's the bait that gets the fish to swallow the hook, line, and sinker (a contract for you).
What about free services?
One of the simplest things to set up is a focused wiki. Draw people to you by offering them a service--a place to chat, a place to contribute something themselves, a place to find some technical information.
Don't be an anonymous cog in the wheel by contributing to an Open Source project, create one of your own! There are several sites for hosting Open Source projects (SourceForge being the most famous). The point is to get yourself "out there"--be visible to people. Link to your OS projects on your website and on your resume. To be totally crass about it, frankly, it doesn't matter if you even contribute to your own OS project other than getting a basic website up that defines the goals of the project. The point is, it's a vehicle for making yourself more visible to the techno-world. The goal is to have your name or your company's name appear when someone does a search for the technology "NeXtGreatThing".
You're an expert, right? Well, buy a copy of Camtasia, and make some training videos in something in which you're an expert. Post them on YouTube. Post them on your website. Put them in your sig. A video is great--I can hear your voice, and if you have a webcam, I can see what you look like (Camtasia can put your webcam pic into a small window as part of your screen video). As a result of seeing and hearing you, I've now become emotionally invested in you by the fact that you are now a presence in my consciousness. Hopefully, not a presence I want to expunge.
If you haven't watched one of those Microsoft Channel 9 videos, try a few. It's amazing how sound and pictures will get you to buy into total hogwash. It's amazing how you start nodding your head in agreement to logic chains that, if you were to write them down, would sound like total tripe. You don't believe me? Try it out. Train your brain to really listen to the words. Close your eyes. Replay sentences until you have your own thoughts about the topic rather than filling your mind with someone else's thoughts. That is the power of AV--it turns off the analytical part of your brain because you are constantly having to process the auditory and visual inputs. It doesn't give you time to "stop and think". It fills your head with someone else's thinking.
Use that to your advantage to sell yourself and your ideas.
Can we touch on an area that we all know and love you for? Your writing.
Well, your presence in the technical community is another important marketing tool. Invest in yourself by writing. If you say you're not a good writer, that's even more reason to write, because you'll become a better writer and a better communicator.
When I first discovered CodeProject, I was grinning from ear to ear because here was finally a way for me to write without going through the horrendous process of finding a publisher, getting an idea approved, going through the technical editing cycle, dealing with peer reviews, and finally, a year later, when the idea has lost most of its value, the article gets published. I also like online articles because they are searchable, so they stay relevant for a much longer period of time, and I can publish them in a variety of places (usually my website), whereas a magazine may have restrictions both on original content and on whether (and when) you can publish the article on your own website.
Oh, did I just slam publishing articles in magazines? Well, there definitely are some advantages. First of all, most of these magazines actually pay you money for your writing. So, you get exposure and you get paid for that exposure. If you succeed at branding yourself, magazines will pay more for your articles because your name sells magazines. Also, consider hooking up with editors in different countries. Ask them if they would be willing to translate your article for you and publish it. It's a global community, you've got to start thinking globally.
So what do you think about networking? Obviously, there's this whole honking great CodeProject network thing going for you, but how do you approach networking in person?
I used to think that "networking" meant going to user group meetings where a dozen, a hundred, five hundred or more geeks would all sit and watch a dog and pony show, and maybe I'd land that next big contract chatting with someone in the men's bathroom line. That is not "networking", unless you're a Congressman from Idaho (Google it if the joke goes over your head).
Go to user groups, not as a participant, but as a presenter. If you go as a participant, ask intelligent questions. Make yourself known to the audience and the presenter. Hand out business cards. Eat pizza.
But primarily, find out the user groups that are in your area (say, a hundred mile radius, somewhere you can drive to in a couple of hours might be well worth it). Find out who runs the user groups, ask them what their primary focus is (if they have one), ask them what they are looking for with regards to future presentations, and see if there's a match. If there's no immediate good match, suggest a few topics in which you feel qualified and see if anyone is interested. Attend a few meetings to get a feel for the level of quality, the "looseness" or "tightness" of the meetings, whether there's hands-on time, or is it all PowerPoint dog and pony.
Start a user group. Contact your local schools and libraries and see if you can get a room for free. If you contact a school, tell them you'll provide free pizza and soft drinks and the high school students are more than welcome to attend too.
Bar camps are not about learning how to mix drinks. They are loose conglomerates of technical presentations. Rather than loading up on Jolt to stay awake through the Virtual PC reboots of Microsoft's dog and pony shows, a Bar Camp is all about people of all types making presentations. They're short, and they're cool, and you won't fall asleep. The coolest ones I've seen are by 16 year old kids that know how to rock the latest technologies. They'll blow you away with the real problems they are dealing with and the real solutions to those problems. They're also fun--a few people, very open discussions, and it's a great way to practice and polish your presentations for your clients and your user groups.
Take training courses. No, I don't mean attending a training seminar where you'll be another anonymous dweeb in the crowd. I mean, hold your own training seminars. Contact companies and find out if they are interested in tooling up to some new technology. Ask them what kind of presentation they'd like. Do they want a 30,000 foot view of WPF, or some hands-on training? Do they want some outside, independent advice on their policies and practices (nobody ever listens to employees, but they will listen to a highly paid consultant). Put some basic training course plans together and publish them on your website, then tailor them to the specific needs of the company.
Wow - you've certainly put some thought into this.
When you think about outreach, think outside of the box. Remember that your market is already saturated with people trying to get business. A market saturated with marketers is not a market I want to sell my oranges in. Think outside of the box to find clientele. Think about outreach.
Contact schools and ask them if they need help administering networks, upgrading systems, making technology recommendations, training faculty and staff. The important point is that you're making lots of contacts. You may not end up administering a network, but you may end up calling Joe's Architectural Design and saying, "hey, Amy at the school your kid goes to suggested I call you because she remembered you want some business automation software written". A recommendation is 50-90% of the sale.
While you're talking to that school, ask about mentoring programs. Do they need mentors, not just in programming, but perhaps you're good at Math or English? Besides making contacts outside of the box, mentoring is a great way to improve your communication skills. When the client stares at you with a blank expression and you realize you need to figure out how to say that technobabble you just emitted in client-speak, you can draw on your mentoring and presentation skills to get that client to nod his/her head.
Obviously, the information above is biased by my own experiences. I've been fortunate enough to be in the right place and the right time to land a couple contracts more than 10 years ago that got me started as a (so far) marginally successful consultant. I had several failed attempts before then (never start in the game industry). I worry about failing in the future, and considering where I am financially today, I think some might argue that I'm not very successful. However, success isn't just measured by money. My girlfriend didn't have to go to work today (it's a snow day), we slept in, had breakfast at 10:30, I've been enjoying the week that my son has had off, and I'm writing this article while watching the lovely snow falling outside the window. Life. Consulting is hard work, but you feel alive. The people you meet and the things you do are fascinating and diverse and challenging.
Thanks Marc, and I think we can all agree you're definitely a success in our eyes.
I couldn't have written this article without the invaluable help of Marc, so I'd like to thank him for taking part in this rather unique (for me) article, and I'd like to thank everybody who has commented on previous articles. Please, as always, keep the comments and suggestions rolling in - as you can see here, they really do shape the direction of this series.
In the next article, I'm going back to basics. Following several rather nice requests and comments, I'm going to be posting a lot of the paperwork that we produce to give you a head start. These cover things like Contract Schedules, TOAs, and so on.