Getting your first customer can be one of the hardest parts about striking out on your own. Luckily, at Pepperlane , a number of our members have been running their businesses for years. Three of them -- Julie, Liz, and Paula -- sat down with us to share their tips for finding your first customer.
Continue reading below or jump to key insights.
Meet our three stellar members
What kind of services do you provide?
Julie: I provide interior design (including renovations, color consultations and room redesigns) and professional organizing services.
Liz: On Pepperane, I offer Reiki and other energy coaching. I’ve been doing it “on the side” of my main business which is something called Allergy Release Technique (A.R.T.), but I’d like to do more of pure energy healing
Paula: I am a Certified Professional Coach who helps mothers design their life as their kids start leaving home. Figuring out what’s next after mothering can be daunting. My coaching helps these women gain confidence as they get clear on what they want and develop the path to get there.
How many years have you been doing this?
Julie: I have been a practicing interior designer for over 20 years and a professional organizer for over 6 years. I started my own business (design 2 order) 5 years ago.
Liz: I have been practicing A.R.T. for 5 years and Reiki and other energy modalities for 4 years. I came to the practice after suffering some health issues brought on mostly by stress. I personally had extraordinary results so I started my practice to share what I learned with others.
Paula: I finished my certification with Coaches Training Institute in 2012 and started coaching right away.
How did you get your first paying customer? Any insights for people trying to transition from doing it free for friends and family?
Julie: My first paying client, at design 2 order, was actually the mother of a former colleague. I ran into my former colleague at a town function (Trunk or Treat, in Bedford) for my children. We chatted for a short while. I told her that I started my own company and explained what I was doing. She mentioned that her mom had recently moved to Bedford and needed help. I designed and coordinated the renovation of her basement. I also worked on many other multiple projects within her house. She then recommended me to several of her friends and now her daughter (the original friend who referred me to her mom) has now hired me to help her with several projects in her house!
Liz: The first person I charged for my services was the friend of someone who I had seen for free. When I first opened my business, I practiced on and worked with friends and family for about 6 months to build up my confidence and skill-set. At the 6 month mark, I decided it was time to begin charging for my work. I asked those who had been coming to me to tell others about my services if they’d been happy with them.
Paula: My first paying client was a friend of a friend who ended up continuing the coaching after I was certified. I was nervous about asking for a full fee after she had been at a reduced fee but she was willing to pay. I realized then that it was beneficial to both of us to feel that there was a value to our exchange. I find that people want to know that the service they are buying has value. If you charge a fee that undervalues you and your service neither they nor you will feel good about it.
Had you previously provided your services for free? If so, what was different about doing it for payment?
Julie: I often was (and still am) asked to answer design questions, select paint colors and offer organizational tips/tricks/product help. I don’t mind helping or giving my opinions. However, some people do not understand the amount of time it takes to do some of the tasks they request. Although I love HGTV and the many design and organizing shows; it also has made ‘real life’ interior design and organizing a bit more challenging. It takes a lot more time, than what is shown on TV, to design or organize a space(s). TV has a way of making it look very quick and often times people are surprised when it takes longer than they realized. This is also why it is super important to set up realistic expectations at the beginning of a project. Communication is key!
Liz: Starting to charge for my work was a little nerve wracking for the first couple of months. I worried if I was charging too much or too little and if I was providing good value to my clients. The surprising thing I learned was that people actually did better (in my case, became healthier) more quickly when they were paying for my services. I don’t know if it’s because they are literally more invested in the outcome or more likely to follow advice I give them, but it’s a powerful effect. So not only do I feel better and more valued because I’m getting paid, but the people I see improve more quickly.
Paula: During the coaching certification process it was a requirement that I had to have 5 paying clients. My instructor explained that there is an energy to money so it is important that you charge something, even if it’s $1, for your services. Obtaining 5 clients at the time seemed overwhelming but I did it. I basically asked everyone I knew if they or someone they knew would be interested in coaching.
It’s ok to charge a reduced fee at first until you gain experience but try to avoid doing anything for free. You won’t feel good about it and neither will your client! Don’t worry about finding the perfect price point. It’s not a science, just pick a number that feels right to you and go with it. You can always adjust it later.
What would you advise someone who is just starting out about how to find their first paid customer?
Julie: My best and most successful form of marketing is what I always refer to as my: 'kid network’. I have been fortunate enough to have many clients come out of relationships through my kids (their parents and friends of friends). Some of my most successful, impromptu networking sessions have actually been on the sidelines of sporting events, or while volunteering with other parents at the school, or a school related function. It is important for me to add, although I have been very fortunate to secure jobs through this type of networking, it was never my intent. It is critical to always be yourself and not try to sell yourself in an unnatural way and things have a way of working out.
Liz: To this day, I find that referrals are my greatest source of clients. If possible, I would recommend offering your services to friends and family for free or a reduced cost. And focus on the quality of your work instead of on marketing. If you make your clients happy, they will become the best marketing you could hope for. But definitely start charging at some point - set a deadline and commit to it because you don’t want to end up being taken advantage of.
Paula: It can be scary asking for full fee but if you don’t ask you won’t get it! Use a confident voice, state your fee and then close your mouth (and keep it closed!). People also want to know how much they need to pay and HOW to pay (check, Paypal, cash, etc) without any wishy washiness. So be clear and confident!
Key insights for winning your first customer:
- Free is fine - but not for long: Offering complimentary or reduced fee services when you’re starting out is a great way to learn from mistakes, build confidence, and generate buzz. But don't wait too long to start asking for what you're worth.
- Ask and you shall receive: Don't forget: ask for money, ask for referrals, and ask for testimonials. Otherwise you might not get any of them!
- Word-of-mouth: We hear it from everyone, a good experience coupled with a referral is the best and strongest way to get your first customer. Save the fancy marketing for when you've got a few more notches on your belt.
- Communicate clearly: Set clear expectations up front about payments and timing and guarantee good experiences for all.
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