The longest journey starts with a single — well, when you're starting an agency, it all starts with that first client.
Finding that first client isn't always easy. After all, you don't have a shiny portfolio or a bunch of case studies or testimonials shored up. You may have a personal track record, but your agency?
Heck, your website may be so new it couldn't achieve authority and SEO in a timely fashion even if you were the Einstein of digital marketers.
Fortunately, lots of other people have walked this path. They've got some great stories, stories which could help you start your journey. Here's what a collection of other founders had to say about their own beginnings and the challenges of finding the clients that they built their agencies around.
You don't have to sell to Aunt Marge, but being excited, passionate, and eager to share your story can take you a long way.
Husam Machlovi - With Pulp
Husam Machlovi launched With Pulp this way. "I told all my contacts what I was doing. This included ex-colleagues, friends, and family."
His first client came through a family friend. He notes the project was small, but it turned into a few projects.
"More importantly, it gave me some experience under my agency name that I could use to advocate for With Pulp."
This early advocacy continued to pay dividends. "Months down the line, one of my ex-colleagues moved into a management role at a new company. And they needed our help on a big project."
Don't have a large family or a lot of friends or ex-colleagues? No problem. You can talk to anyone you want.
Caitlin Strempel, Founder & CEO of CRS Digital Marketing did.
"I found my first client at my gym. We were in a group class together and started chatting about what we did for work.
He could tell how passionate I was, and eventually needed the services I offered.
It goes to show if you are friendly and open to meeting new people then doors and opportunities open!"
Today, CRS Digital Marketing works for major brands such as Under Armor, Lexus, P&Gs, Olay, and Yahoo.
Share Your Successes
Marco Baatjes sort of fell into agency ownership. Bottom Line Cents launched after he got his first client.
Marco Baatjes - Bottom Line Cents
Prior to launching Bottom Line Cents, he was running 6-figure eCommerce stores instead.
"I used to share my eCommerce sales results in private Facebook groups," he says. "This led to a lot of exposure for me and my brand. As a result, I landed my first client for a Facebook ad campaign for their eCommerce store, which was successful."
This can be hard for some people (especially the women of our industry). As a kid, I was always told it wasn't nice to brag, that nice girls didn't toot their own horns. But the nice thing about living in a results-oriented world is people want to see results. It is perfectly okay to share them.
Promises get ignored. Hard numbers get attention.
Personalized Cold Emails
Don't be too quick to shudder away from this one. If you do it right, it can be super effective. You just have to be focused and targeted, instead of spammy.
You don't even have to be a big company to pull it off. David Alexander, a solo consultant, scored his first client this way. Of course, it all started with some focused research.
"I searched for companies in different industries systematically. I compiled a spreadsheet of my findings."
On his spreadsheet, David listed the company name, the web address, the industry or niche they operated in, and his own score out of 10 for the quality of their web design, the quality of their content and message, and the current state of their SEO.
"Armed with this information, I would highlight any rows that contained companies that had a poor score on one of these metrics. Then I'd contact them using a semi-automated system. I had an existing template that I combined with a little personalization based on the specifics of each recipient."
The amount of personalization varied from time-to-time.
"Sometimes I would do a deep dive and share a fair amount of information with the prospect to demonstrate my abilities, and to give them some tips. This led to a much higher conversion rate."
It might seem like a lot of work on the front end; hours and hours, in fact. But it's also a highly proactive, numbers-game approach. Working like this is guaranteed to score at least a few clients, and if you make them happy it's sure to bring others.
Get Started With Start-ups
You're a start-up, they're a start-up. Match made in heaven.
It's also a way to safely "git er done" if your agency is starting out as a side-hustle. That was the case for Gabe Ruane, Co-Founder of Turn Agency. He was still doing full-time work for a different agency when he got his start, so he had to look beyond his immediate network.
"I started to connect with startups that looked like they had a real shot at catching on.
There were some excellent news and PR sites listing SF-area startups as they came onto the scene, so I'd check in daily and search for companies in interesting sectors: solar, technology, biotech."
Note, that you, of course, might find different things interesting, so you'll want to tailor your approach to the things that excite you. And you'll need persistence...and maybe the ability to keep your day job for awhile. This strategy took some time to pay off.
"I reached out to about a dozen over a few months, offering free work on a small engagement based on what they clearly needed, as far as I could glean from their website (if they even had one yet)."
Even though he was offering free work, it took awhile to get a response. "My one and only nibble on that offer of free work was from a solar startup with an experienced entrepreneur co-founder. He knew they needed to elevate their brand in order to secure funding and land initial contracts based on their new technology."
Ruane stresses that being clear and honest about your intentions is vital when you're taking this approach. "I wanted to impress them for free, and once the relationship and trust were established, I expected the next round of creative work would be fully paid. As they grew, and I believed they would, I wanted to be their go-to for all things brand, design, and marketing. I said that outright, and asked them how they felt about committing to that going forward. They were all-in, because they had nothing to lose."
Keep in mind this strategy can be risky. After all, many start-ups won't grow. They'll crash and burn, and you'll have put in a lot of long hours helping them do it, many of them unpaid. But if you've got a good eye for potential success and the patience and resources to nurture these relationships, you won't have to find clients. You'll just cultivate them.
You don't have to go all-in with free projects. Leanna DeBellevue of DeBellevue Global Marketing offers a nice way to get it done for less time and money.
"The first thing I did when starting out was to join my local Chamber of Commerce. Each month, there was a list of businesses that were new to the chamber, and were having ribbon cuttings to celebrate. I offered to highlight their event on their social media sites free of charge.
I created the content, and in some cases spent the $5 or $10 to boost a post. They were so happy with the results and the turnout from the social media responses I immediately became the go-to person in town.
It was an easy buy-in. They were able to sample my work and I was able to show our skills.
Leanna DeBellevue - DeBellevue Global Marketing
I like this method because it means you've given away one thing, and only one, on a limited scope, and nobody who comes to you will expect to get anything else for free. $5 or $10 per prospect is a pretty affordable advertising budget to work with. If you plan to make social media marketing one of your core service offerings, this could be a nice place to start.
Talk the Talk
If you're anything like me you've occasionally dreamed of being a Jay Baer, Marie Haynes, Rand Fishkin or any of the other major names in digital marketing who jump up on stage to deliver awesome presentations on the ins and outs of our industry.
Sure, I froze up when I had to do a presentation at a BMI meeting, giving half of the talk to the ceiling of the restaurant, but that's beside the point.
My daydreams don't have time for that kind of logic! And, well, I can always improve.
Thing is, getting better at public speaking can help a lot, and there are dozens of local opportunities to jump up on stage.
Ask Paige Arnof-Fenn, Founder of Mavens and Moguls. I don't know if she ever delivered a presentation to a ceiling, but she did get her first client by giving a talk to her own professional networking group.
"Someone from the audience came up to me after and made an introduction, which resulted in my first project a few weeks later. I felt great that my talk was so well-received and generated meetings and referrals as follow-up."
Arnof-Fenn says this was the first time she knew she had a real business. And she never stopped getting out in front of crowds.
"I still give lots of talks. It's a great way to generate leads and businesses." She suggests using examples from her experiences, and joining networking groups to meet "multipliers." "They talk to everybody and know everyone. They have a large following, so don't forget to connect with them online, too."
Finally, she suggests staying active on social media so you can share your talks and content, allowing your followers to spread the word.
The "Old Fashioned" Way
It may seem ironic that so many of these marketers got their first clients by using just about anything other than traditional digital marketing tactics. But don't worry: if you're a straight up introvert who knows nobody, can't small-talk for beans, and might just give presentations to your shoes, you can still succeed.
"I got my first clients advertising on Google," says Jeroen Minks, Founder at Vazooky Digital. "My core business is PPC, so I know a thing about advertising on Google."
I'm not saying Minks is a straight up introvert, by the way; we didn't talk about that.
Jeroen Minks - Vazooky Digital
I'm just saying that you can certainly find clients by using the very tactics you intend to use on their behalf, whether it's through PPC, content marketing, or social media marketing.
If you know how to promote a business, then you know how to promote your agency — and you should probably be doing some of that anyway.
The only question is whether these tactics will be capable of producing the quick wins you need to keep going. If you have a budget for PPC, for example, this should be no problem. If you don't, you certainly know that building web traffic can take some time.
If you plan to do it that way, review this Q&A with Matthew Woodward: he got 2,000 visitors to his website right out of the gate, and you'll need his insights on digital relationship-building to get anywhere in a timely fashion.
These prospecting techniques all have some things in common
If you're still trying to score that first client, you'll want to take note. Even if you don't think any of these techniques will work for you, it's worth it to give them a try, step outside of your comfort zone, and let the results speak for themselves.
Add these unpaid and paid strategies to your arsenal to secure that first client.
If you're not willing to do these things, then you've got to have some money in the bank, because you're going to need to use PPC, the only real quick win in digital that doesn't come with some relationship-building.
You can, of course, always use a mix of both. If you've got the cash, both is a highly effective way to go.
Most of all...
You've got to do something. If you've been sitting around wondering when business is going to fall in your lap, stop. The business is never going to fall in your lap.
These techniques are all helpful when you get into a business slump, too.
What's your secret sauce?
If you've just founded your agency and have just scored your first new clients, how did you do it? Help out your colleagues by sharing your successes in the comments below.