How to find customers when you’re a sole trader

Sole Trader

Creative Capsule Founder: Georgie Murray. Souce: Supplied.

Starting your own business or solo venture comes with plenty of benefits: setting your own hours, charging your own rates, and truly working for yourself. For the established sole trader, business can be significantly more satisfying than standard employment. Finding those initial customers and clients, though, can require a little work.

Georgie Murray spent years in broadcast journalism and marketing before going solo. With a lack of career progression, Murray made the leap to working alone, starting Capsule Creative initially while working full time before jumping ship entirely.

Capsule Creative is a comprehensive marketing and creative service, offering everything from copywriting and brand consultation to elements of graphic design, all wrapped in Murray’s personality. “It’s a holistic approach to marketing,” says Murray. “My approach and my point of difference with Capsule is just talking to people, from a business to their consumers, like normal people. There’s nothing too serious that works anymore, in my opinion.”

There’s been no marketing of Capsule Creative to find work. Instead, Murray took a more organic approach. Having successfully faced the initial learning curve, and now with a full roster of ongoing clients, Murray knows a few reliable avenues for finding that all-important early work.

Take advantage of your network

For sole traders looking to follow Murray’s lead, take a good look at your social network. Making your business intentions known to family and friends and getting the ball rolling is a vital first step.

“My first lot of business came from people I knew,” Murray says. “A couple of my friends, whether it be one of their friends or their parents who had a business that needed help, that’s how it first started. It was just who you know, not what you know.”

Beyond directly leading to work, networking can also be helpful in leaning on the knowledge of those with business or industry experience. Even if networking doesn’t lead directly to work, use those connections to learn from the experiences and strengths of others. For Murray, it was her business-savvy friend Raj that came to her aid. 

“He took me out to dinner one night, sat me down and said ‘G you’ve got to think about this properly — how much do you need to survive, how many clients does that look like, what would be their package or campaign value, and who do you really want to work for?’”

Raj did help Murray find work directly — the quick win of networking — but if you can use your network for self-improvement, that will go a long way to securing business in the future. 

Earning referrals

That initial step of networking can be tough, but getting it right can mean onward referrals. Use your initial network and the work it brings — even if it’s only a single client — to get your name out there. The best way to earn work by referrals is to demonstrate your quality. It sounds simple, but people are much more likely to pass your name on if your work is great.

“It all comes down to backing yourself and doing justice for yourself and that friend and their friend,” says Murray. “You can actually prove to them that, ‘hey, you put me in contact with that person and then I did a really good job. I proved to them that I could do it and proved to you so thank you for the connections.’ Then they’ve got confidence to pass you on again.”

Getting referred business from your initial, familiar network also means showing prospective clients that you’ve done great work before — and not just for the person referring you. Murray recommends being prepared with a folio or website that looks good and states your case.

“I think it all starts down to your image — people are always going to look at your website,” Murray says. “So no matter what, even if someone referred you and spoke so highly of you, they’re still going to your website. So you’re still going to need everything there and you still need to back up your credentials.”

Approaching others (and being persistent)

It can be tough, but Murray knows firsthand the benefits of harnessing self-confidence to go after a client. In one instance, she saw a local cosmetic services company advertising for a part-time marketing consultant. Instead of applying, she approached them directly — and persistently. The lesson here is that it’s okay to go after your work; just be direct and confident.

“I did up a whole proposal, sent it through to them, introduced myself, rang them a couple of days later to make sure that it got through to the right person, met them the following week, spoke to them a couple of days later, called again a couple of days later, called again and emailed the following week,” says Murray. 

That effort was enough to successfully land the work. “[The client] said to me the other day, ‘you were so insistent and that’s what attracted me to it because you were hungry for it.’”

Using freelance and sole trader platforms

When hitting dead ends, Murray says it’s a good idea to lean on established online platforms specifically designed to help sole traders search for clients. 

“I’m working with a company in New Zealand at the moment, through the platform Upwork,” Murray says. “It’s a really great resource for creatives and freelancers. I go there if I’m stuck or don’t have too much of a workload.”

Depending on your line of work, there are plenty of freelance and sole trader platforms. Toptal, Fiverr and DesignCrowd are other popular ones. Whichever platform you use, keep a clear idea of your own value, and don’t undersell yourself just for the work. 

“I’ve done a year now, survived a year, I know that I’m half decent at it, so the value of my work also needs to match what they’re paying me,” Murray says.

Final words

For Georgie Murray, the first year of life as a sole trader has been a success. Her model has been one of organic growth, and it shows that you don’t have to spend money on advertising and marketing initially. A great place for sole traders to start is thinking about how to grow a network, earn referrals and generate work off your own back. Follow Murray’s lead and put yourself in a strong position to build into the future. 

Looking for new ways to take your business to the next level? Xero’s Small Business Guides are valuable resources filled with tips and advice on how to take your small business to the next level.

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