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10 Steps for Setting Up a Side Hustle - Step #3 Getting Customers

Authored By: Madeline Anderson-Balmer on 12/23/2020


Family and friends are great when you're starting out

Do you remember selling stuff as a fundraiser when you were younger? Candy bars? Popcorn? Kitchen gadgets? Maybe your parents took catalogs to work to help, or maybe your neighbors, aunts, and uncles were happy to pay you for whatever it was you were selling. But when it comes to making money with something, you can't rely on family and friends forever. And unfortunately for most of us, that cute little kid selling stuff to raise money isn't going to cut it today cause let's face it, most of us don't look like that cute little kid we used to be.

All you need is one

That's right. All you need is one non-related willing-to-pay-for-it human or business customer to determine whether what you're selling is worthy of being a business. You want their feedback. You want to see what product or service they want. And you want to find out if your price is right and makes them want more, or better yet, makes them want to refer their friends. When you find that, you know you're on the right path. 

How do you find that first customer?

It usually takes a bit of work. In researching other sources, I found that the Small Business Association offers eight tips to find your first customer. also provides a similar list. So I've created my own, using those two sites as a reference:

  • Make a list. Have you met people or companies through your research, classes, or even online? Create a list of those people and consider them potential clients. Reach out to them when you're ready to make that initial call, send out that initial email, or stop in to let them know you've got something they need. Do you use LinkedIn? Consider using that platform to keep all those contacts in a central place. Use that platform to keep them informed of your progress and any new developments (like opening your business!).
  • Referrals are your friend. Ask everyone you know if they know someone who might be interested in what you're selling. Ask your brother or the grandma who bought the popcorn, or even past colleagues. Do they know of anyone who might be interested in your product or service? Get active on social media. But make it interesting. No one wants to hear over and over that you're selling something. Provide information, guidance, research, and let them know that you can help. Check out your competitors. How are they interacting on social? Learn from those who have gone before.
  • Tap your network. Don't have a network? Build one! Whether it's through local business meetups, an online chat group, or even past business connections (assuming there is no non-compete clause to be concerned about). Let them know what you're doing and how you can help them. Rather than asking for business, ask for a chance to show them what you can do. Let them know how to get in touch and ask them to help you spread the word. You do need to let them know, though. Otherwise, they may not realize you're starting a business.
  • Get out there on the floor! It can be expensive to rent a booth at a trade show, but perhaps there's a smaller local/community format? Are there any fraternal (K of C, Elks, etc.) groups looking for speakers? Can you present your business over a lunch or breakfast meeting? You'll meet lots of business owners that way and make some essential connections. 
  • Know your competitors. Put together a simple but powerful marketing package and attend industry events, workshops, conferences. Get your name out there and when you get back home, follow up. This is how you can build a network AND maybe even find someone who can help you! Plus, as the saying goes, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. It never pays to create enemies, but staying on friendly terms with competitors provides useful information and possibilities!
  • Join forces. When it comes to trade shows and conferences or community connections, it can take some time to get your name out there. Consider teaming up with a related but non-competitive business to split the conference/tradeshow booth's cost. Barter for each other's services. Build a connection and offer to refer clients if they'll do the same.
  • Website website website. OK, it's usually location, location, location, but the website IS your location in this digital world. Set up a great website, including taking care of search engine optimization (SEO) so people can find you even if they aren't running into you in person. Ensure that offerings on your site are actual offerings, not something you hope to do in the future. Keep it simple but include all the ways to get in touch; email, phone, and physical address if that's appropriate. And monitor those emails, request forms, and phone calls. There's nothing like putting work into a site then never checking to see if anyone tried to connect. That's a wasted effort and does nothing for your business.
  • Go Social. Not into Facebook? Don't believe in Twitter? Not a fan of Instagram? It's time you took the plunge. Social media is a great way to build excitement around your business before you open. It's also a great way to maintain excitement once you're up and running and set yourself up as an authority in your field. Plus, depending on your market audience, it could be the perfect way to stay connected to your clients. To get the full advantage, set your social pages up before your business is running. Let people know what's coming, and reach out to your social network (or build one) before you're looking for their business. 

    Many sites offer tips on how to get that first customer.  They all boil down to taking advantage of who you know, determining who else you should know, and using that list of people in a way that makes sense. 
  • Don't bite the hand that feeds you. Be careful on asks for business. Remember that time you asked your grandmother to buy one more box of popcorn when you knew all along she was going to give it to you? Constant calls or emails for business can result in otherwise possible customers avoiding your calls, ignoring your emails, and letting others know you're pushy. Never a good thing, especially for a new business. Be helpful, offer something they can use, and give them time to consider. Don't try to close the deal at the first meeting. Looking to get your product in local stores? Get involved in the community and build awareness first. Looking to write for a local business? Include a blog on your site and provide them with a link to view your work. You've got to build confidence and trust before people will hand you money.

Take advantage of existing networks. Yes, it's great to start a business and be out there on your own. But some great existing services can connect you to your first customer and give you time to get a feel for the business and what's needed to grow that business. Do a bit of research. For example, the following businesses are services that allow you to sign up with them and do the marketing of your services/product. They collect a fee, so you're not getting the full price for your work. But it might help you get a start without spending a lot of time and money marketing yourself before knowing whether your service is good enough.

Above are just a few samples of the types of companies that can help you get that first customer. They may even offer ways to collect a few excellent references before you go out on your own. Got a different kind of business? Search online for "how to sell…." And you'll find lots of opportunities.

Your first customer will come if your product or service is one that's needed, and you've put yourself out there in the right space. Consider who your target audience is, look at your competitors and who they're working for, and decide where your niche is. Then once you get that first customer, treat them right! Ask them for feedback and encourage them to refer you to others. If what you're selling is something they value, they will let you know, buy from you again, and recommend you to others. 

Ready for the next step? Find out why customers would prefer you over another business with Step 4, What Makes You Better?



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