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How do you find customers?

I know this is a burning question in the minds of many entrepreneurs and freelancers. 

I don’t have a “how-to” guide that will guarantee your success, but I would like to share my perspective because it is not just about getting more business, but also about creating a better world for everyone :). I also admit that what I about to share does not apply to everyone or every business model.

My first customer was my first employer. They were buying what I had to offer, my unpolished, raw programming skills fresh out of school. I did not like that customer, but they taught me a lesson: 

your customers should find you, rather than you finding them. 

It took me almost a decade to understand it, though. 

My second customer was my second employer. But this time there was a big difference. They called me, and I had to decide if I wanted to work for them, not the other way around. They had already decided they wanted me there.

This may seem like luck, and that is what I also thought for a while. But it happened again with the third employer. And after that, I stopped being an employee and became a freelancer. And the people I work with today found me. 

It wasn’t until I read about inbound marketing that I understood what was going on. And that, in fact, luck was just a part of it, and maybe not the most significant part. 

What I was not doing was not sitting around, waiting for clients to call. I was continuously working. Either to improve my skill or to generously solve other people’s problems. 

When I began my freelance work, I’ve spent the first two years doing volunteer work. And they have been the best years. In those times, I would only do work that was profoundly satisfying to me. And I discovered how nourishing it is for the soul to be able to choose the people you are working with or working for. 

To paraphrase Seth Godin, the way to get clients is to do work that matters for people who care and to do so generously.

Can you run a business and not talk to anybody?

At my core, I am a computer nerd. I am excellent at talking to computers. Not so much when it comes to other human beings.

For a long time, this was the only thing I would do. I was the happiest when I got the project specs on paper, so I could read them and implement them, by myself.

But when I decided to become a freelancer, I realized that I had to talk to other people. I had to talk to the people I wanted to serve about their goals and their vision, but also about money. There were times when I knew had to say “no,” but I couldn’t. There were times where there was a conflict that had to be resolved through better communication.

I wish I could say there is an easy “how-to guide” to learn to communicate better, but there isn’t. I just had to practice — one awkward conversation after the other.  

And it is still hard at times. Especially when I need to make a change in how I price things, or in the terms of the engagement. 

So why go through all this trouble and stress of learning to be a better communicator?

Although it seems obvious now, here is the lesson I resisted the most: to find clients and to keep finding better clients, you need to learn to communicate. There is no way around this. 

You need to know how to tell your story compellingly; how to communicate your pricing and how to negotiate in your favor. You need to be able to use your conversation skills to determine how you can best create value for your clients. And, in some cases, you need to know how to let some clients go. 

By avoiding communication, I would frequently make wrong assumptions about what was valuable for my client, and that would jeopardize the relationship and the project. 

If you don’t learn to communicate better, you will have to let someone else do the talking, write the copy on your site, create the video, and tell your story. And even if they do a good job, they are not you :). You will continue to depend on someone else. It will be comfortable, but you will be limited to your view from the “back seat.”

If you are still not convinced then maybe this will shake you up a bit (as it did me): 

“The better communicator will determine the price.” 

A business-savvy website should consider money, and therefore price. And you can spend a lot of time and money optimizing the technical bits, but if your communication is off, your success will be limited.  

I will end this post with a book recommendation. It is the most expensive book I’ve ever bought, but it’s worth every dollar: Pricing Creativity by Blair Enns. Don’t think that if you don’t work in the creative business that this book does not apply to you. It does! And it is all about communication.

A gorgeous website is different from a GOOD website

Can over-designing things become a problem?

We like pretty things. I get that.

We like the restaurant to be clean and inviting. Easy to understand.

But where do you draw the line? Where do you find a balance between pretty and functional?

I struggle with finding this balance my work. I want to use data to make a decision and not just my gut feeling.

I am a computer nerd. I design software, I write code, and I take pride in my work. But I am often faced with this dilemma:

Should I invest more in software design or graphic design when working on a project?

Nobody will use a pretty app that is not working.

I think we can all agree on that.

At the other extreme, some people will use an ugly app because it solves a big problem reliably.

But I want to do better and find some middle ground.

Good software design improves stability and performance. Makes maintenance easier, thus reducing the costs.

Good graphic design makes the user experience more comfortable. Reduces the learning curve and makes your application more widespread.

So how do you split your budget? Is it 50/50? Or should you focus more on performance, for example?

The more I think about this, the more I realize that your target audience is the one that will dictate what your focus should be.

If you have software that helps people to solve a big problem, probably nobody will care that it is ugly, not intuitive, and incredibly awkward to use. If they are desperate for a solution, they will accept one, no matter how it is delivered.

On the other hand, if you are talking about a game with bubbles… well those need to be some pretty bubbles to keep the audience engaged. In the case of games, you are not after a solution; you are after an “experience of play.”

How does this apply to websites?

I guess if your offer solves a significant problem, you can be forgiven if your site’s design is still from the 90s. But if there is a lot of competition, then a good design may help you stand out.

And this word “may” is where the problem comes in for me. How can I quantify it in terms of a website goal? It is intuitive to think that a good design will increase sales, but you also need to know how much? You need to have some idea of how close you will get to your end goal, so you know how much you are willing to invest in that good design.

Designers are very excited to make things pretty, to make them pop, to make them unique. And I understand that. You are making art, and you want it to be beautiful. But is it really useful?

I fall into this trap myself with software when I over-design something just for the pleasure of creating a “perfect design.” But in the end, that does not benefit the client all that much. There are so many examples with people doing very well, by using poorly designed tools.

They’re also amazing designs, both software, and graphic, that nobody uses.

To help make this decision more comfortable (and profitable), I’d like to know a way to quantify the benefits of excellent graphic design. Any thoughts?

WordPress and the Email Problem

Have you ever had a WordPress site and your outgoing email was just getting sucked into some kind of black hole, never to be seen again?

I have discovered through experience that this is very common. And the problem is not with WordPress, it is actually with your hosting provider.

The only reason WordPress seems to be the most affected it is because it is so widely supported by hosting environments and that it is free. And not all of the hosting providers do a good job with delivering your email.

When your website is using what is called a “shared plan”, this means you share the server resources with other websites as well. And those websites may not be as friendly and ethical as you are. In fact, because it is free and so easy to use, there are many people who abuse the email feature of WordPress to send spam.

The easiest solution for the hosting providers, in this case, is to just block the outgoing email capability for everyone, including you!

This does not only affect shared plan users.

After 10 years or running an online business, and keeping an email quality score of 9+ out of 10, our email got suddenly dropped. We had a dedicated server, so we were not sharing our IP with anyone else. And we only found out of this problem because of our customers complaining about not getting their orders delivered. Yaiks!

Contacting support did not help. There was just a general reply that all outgoing email was now routed through a different grid and they were very strict in their rules. The problem was that everyone was treated the same: spammer or genuine business! And of course, the common rules were those applied to spammers. The good history and reputation of our business did not matter anymore.

Complaining did not help so I had to look for

Alternative solutions

There are two that I found:

1) Move to a different hosting that knows how to manage outgoing email well. At the moment of writing, the only one I can recommend is SiteGround.

2) Buy an outgoing email service.

I will focus on the second one because there are some mistakes I made and lessons that I learned.

Since we were used to having free outgoing email with our server, it did not make sense to me to get a paid service. So I just looked for companies who offered free email delivery if you stayed under a certain quota.

This plan backfired big time. Most of our email was sent all right, but it was going straight into the spam folder of most of our customers.

Out of the Spam Folder

The problem was that the free plan was again shared with other people who were in fact spammers.

It was time to do the math and it became obvious that we were losing a lot of customers because we could not communicate with them any longer. At this point paying for a high-quality outgoing email service began to make much more sense. Once I took the leap I had no regrets. The kind of tools you get with a paid service, and most importantly the deliverability, generated more than enough customers to cover the costs.

For an online business where it is important to stay in touch with your audience, it makes sense to have a paid email solution.

I have used SendGrid in the past and I was very happy with them. But I have moved to MailChimp because of their better automation and better integration with WordPress.

Some Technical Details

Correctly setting up outgoing email involves some technical details about DNS, MX records, DKIM, SPF and others. These are beyond the scope of this article, but if you need some guidance ask me in the comments section.

What is Value Based Pricing and Why should your business care?

If you hire me to do a website for you and it takes me 40 hours to do it, would you pay me $6,000 dollars? What if it takes me 20 hours? Should I charge only $3,000 because it takes less time and effort?

I used to think that indeed, if something takes less time to do, then I should charge less.

But there is a problem with this approach. Charging for time punishes me for being good!

As I have built many websites, I can work really fast, I have a lot of prebuilt components that I know how to integrate, and I can foresee and prevent a ton of problems. This means that I can produce a quality site much faster than a couple of years ago. But because I put less time into it I get less money for much better work. The better are more efficient I get, the less money I make.

Because of this conflict, there is always a counter pressure that says: “don’t work fast, don’t be efficient… because the slower you work the more you can charge the client”. When I charge for time-spent there is no incentive for me to deliver high-quality work fast, other than my personal integrity.

An alternative way is to do “value based pricing”.

This means that you should charge what is worth to the client, regardless of how much time or effort you put into it.

This may sound unfair to you. I know that was my first reaction! Just because I have more money to spend this means I should be charged more? That sounds like a rip off!

So let’s look at an example.

You have realized that you have more mobile users on your website than you used to. But your website is not mobile friendly! This means you are potentially losing a lot of customers.

After crunching the numbers you realize that if you got 10% of the mobile users to buy from you, you would double your annual revenue from say $200k per year to $400k. So that is an increase of $200k per year.

Do you think is fair to spend $20k to get that increase in revenue? That is 10%. I think it is fair. And there are people willing to spend 50% to get that increase because they will continue to generate the new revenue year after year.

So the question should not be how much does it cost, but rather how valuable is this to me and how much of that value am I willing to spend to get it? 10%, 50%, 80%?

Why would you spend 50% and not 10%? The answer is that spending more reduces the risk of failure. You know the saying “don’t spend a lot of effort to solve a small problem and don’t spend little effort to solve a big problem”.

Why is value based pricing important to your business?

The short answer is that it gets you to think on how you can add value, instead of how you can cut costs. There is no limit on how much value you can add, but you can only cut costs so much before there are no more ways to cut.

And when you think about value, instead of cost, you get clarity.

Here is what I mean. When a client wants to hire me to do something I try to work with them to determine the value of what it is they are trying to do. And in some cases, they realize that they were focusing on the wrong thing. They were willing to spend money on a change that did not actually add any value to their customers.

Thinking about value first made that clear and allowed them to make better decisions on how to serve their clients!

Credits

This post was inspired by Chris Do from TheFutur. Thank you, Chris!