Today I want to share the story of someone who is building a successful business online by turning her services into products. As writers, journalists & publishers move their business models online, I can’t help but feel there are important lessons here.
Sarah Bray started her website strategy & design business three years ago and now has more clients than she can handle. We were able to chat last week, and she had some compelling advice for those building their personal or professional brands online. Here are the main takeaways:
- Turn your services into products.
- Test ideas before you launch.
- Listen to your existing customers to identify new product ideas.
- Social media is a critical marketing channel.
- Be yourself.
Okay, let’s dig in.
Turn Your Services into Products.
She also just completed a “Gold-Digging Excursion” – a month-long course for 50 people.
Sarah openly prints her prices on the website, so potential clients know exactly what they get for their money. Compare this to many consultants who list off the many things they do, then say “email me to discuss how we can help you.” That email address or phone number is a huge barrier. Sarah has removed it.
She explains the decision:
“[The packages] came early on, out of connecting the dots from what retail businesses do and what other types of businesses do. I thought: ‘Well, why don’t web designers do this?’”
“It’s really intimidating for a lot of people to go on a web designers site who is really good. They don’t want to get in touch with them because they aren’t really sure how much it’s going to cost or what it includes. Then I realized there are basic things that you do for everybody and just start your packages from that. At least it gives people an idea that ‘I can hire this person and it will cost me this much.’ People have a fear of getting into something, then having it add up. Or if people give you an hourly rate and an estimate of how long it will take, what if it doesn’t take that long. I was trying to solve some of those fears and get people talking about what they need, instead of looking around and wishing & wondering and being scared to open the door.”
Another challenge she had to get past was clients wanting just website design services, without the overall online strategy that goes behind building an online presence. She was concerned that delivering tactics without a strategy would leave clients disappointed:
“I started out offering a list of everything I do, because I really wanted people to ‘get’ the strategy. Then if you just want a website and none of the strategy that goes along with it, you can subtract this much.”
“Now, there is a base price, and if you want me to work on the strategy, it’s like a different product. I’m getting ready to launch a whole new set of packages that will solve the problem of some people not ordering the strategy part, which is what I’m best at. I don’t want to NOT do that for someone. Everyone has this idea of me, and if they don’t get that, they will leave disapointed. They will have a beautiful website, but not know what to do with it.”
Test Ideas Before You Launch Them
Last year, Sarah began developing an idea for an online class – a four week course for about 50 people. She called it an ‘Excursion.’ The actual class – the Gold-Digging Excursion - ran in April and was a big success. But she learned a lot during the early process of choosing the topic.
At first, she was going with a different topic entirely. After developing the idea, she began prepping for launch, only to be shocked at the lack of interest:
“I was going to do a whole ‘branding’ excursion about ‘how to get people to change their minds about you. ‘I starting writing a blog series about it, and it just completely flopped. I was getting no interaction.”
“So I abandoned ship right before I was getting ready to launch this thing and I totally recreated it based on what I knew people needed, rather than what I was interested in at the moment. Then I became interested and passionate about it when I came up with the ‘gold-digging’ analogy.”
“I think metaphors inspire me and a lot of people to connect the dots about what this is going to do for you. When they can relate it to something else, like the gold rush. It’s a very similar thing, the gold rush to the internet rush. People are running out here to try to stake their claim in it, and find ways to actually make it work.”
This reminds me of the teachings of Eric Ries with his Lean Startup theory, and Steve Blank with his Customer Development theory. Both center on working with customers to develop products, instead of developing products before you are sure there will be customers.
Need New Product Ideas? Listen to Your Existing Customers
I asked Sarah about the difference between what clients initially ask for (website design) and what they need (an overarching online business strategy.) She describes what she has learned from clients, and how it has shaped her product offering. Listening and observing their real needs – often hidden needs – is crucial here.
“The only real gauge I have is my own clients’ experience who come to me after years of trying and not being able to make anything out of [succeeding online.] I think the economy has spurred that – the realization that ‘my local stuff is not working anymore, how can I get in on this whole online thing. It seems to be the only thing left to try.’”
“Most people are looking for the design part of it initially, and they think that will solve all of their problems – just having a prettier web presence. I encourage them to get into my site before we think about working together. People then realize that it’s not the design itself, its the whole strategy that goes behind it – a strategy that is moving forward, not a “set it and forget it” type of thing. This has to become a different paradigm for you.”
“Maybe they’ve noticed what other people are doing, or have thrown up Twitter or Facebook buttons on their website, or put the blog on the homepage, and that’s not working. And they just though “Why?! I thought that was the magic bullet.”
This is why giving clients ONLY what they ask for can lead them and you to failure. So Sarah read between the lines to find the goals that her clients weren’t specifically asking for, and then worked to give them something that would produce real results.
Sarah recently discovered a potential new product offering during her Gold-Digging Excursion. She had a bonus section where she would evaluate her students’ websites, and it was very popular:
“The most popular part of it was the bonus points section, where I went and actually evualated websites for volunteers within the group publicly. So people could see exactly what I was talking about when I talked about content strategy or the mailing list thing, the web copy, or when I talked about packaging your services. They could actually see the real-life examples of what that looked like. That got a whole lot of excitement, and got me thinking, ‘Wow, this is really neat, I can spin off of that.’”
In fact, she created much of the course as it was in progress for similar reasons:
“I was creating content throughout this course, I didn’t just have this set content, and that is what was going to be taught. I decided to get feedback as we were going as to what people needed. When new things were posted, I would email the group.”
Social Media is a Critical Marketing Channel
When Sarah first launched her business, she spent time and money on traditional marketing channels that she thought she HAD to do:
“I think everybody does this when they start their business, they think: “I have to do postcards and mail marketing; I’ve got to maybe get on some forum and Craigslist.”
“All these things that do not work, but we do them. I tried everything. I thought I had to have the perfect business card – all that crap that does not work.”
So what worked for her?
“Then, I found Twitter. It’s not just Twitter as a tool, it was that I could find people to work with that really embrace my values, and not just working with people because they are local or they live near me. I can work with people because they have a similar thinking, and my services are the exact fit for what they want.”
“At that point, I was scrambling to de-search engine optimize my site for local search. I was like “I don’t want to work with local people anymore.” I went the complete 180 opposite direction. Now, I am trying to get back into the local scene because people are embracing social media more, it’s not so hard to connect with people on that level.”
Another thing Sarah learned when she launched is that you can just be yourself.
“At first, I was really afraid of being a freelancer, of being a one-person show, so I did what a lot of new entrepreneurs do, I pretended I was bigger than I actually was. Not by directly saying it, but giving the impression by saying things like “we do this for you” and “we do that for you.”
“Then the world just kind of opened up. I decided it was okay that I was doing this as one person. I can just be one person online, and it’s okay, and be celebrated actually. Then I realized nobody cared about my homepage where you say how awesome you are, they just go to the blog. So why don’t I center it all around the blog. It just spiraled from there.”
She has also been incredibly honest about the challenges of managing her own business, with a blog post like this one: “The Year of the Breakdowns,” where she writes:
“I think I’m going to call this the year of the breakdowns. I feel like this has been a recurring theme in my life and in my writing lately — breaking down. And it’s embarrassing, really. But I have to write about it. Because I can’t write “Top 10 Ways to Fix Your Blog Posts” when I’ve just gotten down off of a two-hour crying jag.”
From all indicators, this level of honesty has really brought her closer to her community and allowed people to relate to her more easily. I think when you are honest like that, people root for you, they join your team to help.
Overall, Sarah has an incredible energy to push things forward for her and her clients:
“I am always launching. I like to always do new things, and always be improving on everything. In the traditional business world, I was not able to do that as I would have liked.”
Thanks to Sarah for sharing her story and the lessons she has learned in growing her business.
Let me know if I can help YOU grow your online brand: @DanBlank, 973-981-8882 or firstname.lastname@example.org.