At some point, every business-oriented person asks the question, “How do I grow my business, sales, network, etc.?” Business growth is not a passive activity. Just because you build it, they will not necessarily come.
Be where the action is.
Be at Toastmasters. Be in church. Be on the first page of Google search results.
Finding opportunity in the IT business is probably easier than most industries. The vast majority of businesses and people have ongoing IT needs. The same rule holds true for business in any industry, though – Be where the action is. If you do not get into the marketplace and just wait for people to discover you or your product, no matter how good either is, few will find you and fewer will buy. Meet the people in your industry. Meet the people around your industry. Always be looking to help others accomplish their goals. When people see you are a person with capability to get “it” done, then you will attract more business.
Consider your competition as opportunity.
Do not automatically view competition as bad or the enemy. Many of AIE’s opportunities came through understanding the needs and wants of competitors. In the IT world, being able to take advantage of every opportunity is virtually impossible. Often large projects require skill-sets that are not native to the originating company. AIE will supply certain skills for competitors' projects, and we go to our competitors looking for skills during our large projects. For example, we have found AIE can get network wiring done efficiently for projects our competitors manage. The wiring jobs have matured into a practice within our company.
Always look forward to larger opportunity.
To grow your business, you must grow the size of your opportunites, as well as the quantity. Be a person that sets himself up for bigger opportunity. Often, that setup requires continuing education, longer hours and grit. In the IT world, I look for people who continue to get certified on current technology, shoulder large workloads when the big opportunity presents itself and have an attitude of getting things done in the face of difficulty. Wiring a warehouse that is full is not easy — that's why people appreciate and pay for that skill! Our large opportunities came when we learned to use lifts and get to 40-foot ceilings.
Do the difficult things.
Everyone can do the easy things in your industry. Do the difficult project, accomplish the tedious tasks, plow the new path — this is what bring business in the doors and makes people want to know you. There are far fewer people in the world that do the difficult, and those people get attention and premium pay to do those difficult things. Another thing to remember is that what is difficult now may become easier as you learn. Our first wiring jobs were tough and had a learning curve to them regarding quoting, procurement and installing. Now that we have been through many jobs, they have become easier for us.
Our marketing process has not really changed since AIE began.
We have added some activity since we have matured, such as search engine optimization and leveraging lead generation companies, but our core people-networking to generate business is still our main marketing activity.
Everyone knows the sale is driven by selling yourself first, then the company and lastly, the product. The best marketing advice I can give is to make yourself a product worth buying, and then meet everyone you can to tell them about that great product — you!
Start-ups require a specific marketing strategy.
We started where we thought we would find traction the fastest, by reaching back to some of Ben’s more recent IT customers from his former days as a W2. We were able to secure a few clients, allowing Ben to focus on establishing the delivery side of the house while I continued to focus our expanding our marketing efforts.
Another early step was to establish a website, promoting services we currently offered and showcasing services we had in beta form. We knew it was critical to create an image that portrayed our desired destination, rather than our current state. We were able to see this strategy work early on, when we decided to feature a service on the home page of our site that we weren’t fully ready to deliver. The idea was to begin promoting the service while we worked internally to prepare to deliver it.
One week after promoting the service on our site, we received a call from a colleague who had a client looking for that exact service, noting he had stumbled on our site and saw we offered it. A few weeks later — and a lot of late nights working to button up the deliverables — we landed what would be one of our higher grossing accounts for that time. The key? Don’t be afraid to “market” it into existence! The caveat? Just be sure you can deliver what you promise!
Persistence is required with all marketing efforts.
Shortly after we established our site, we took to the marketing street to promote it. We began seeking free or inexpensive ways to promote our business. We chose this route not because we thought this was the best approach, but because we thought it was the best approach given our resources. However, consistent marketing of our services via these online classifieds began gaining traction. Soon, we were able to drive companies back to specific landing pages on our site that promoted the services they sought. Ultimately, the goal was to establish a repeatable process of placing these ads that required minimal output with consistent ROI. And since persistence pays, we have enjoyed numerous healthy accounts through these strategies.
Innovation pays the biggest dividends.
In our second year of business, we received a call from an online ad we placed. This company had a need for a specific service we offered. They serviced the exact client base we targeted, and had complimentary services to what we did. At initial glance, one might consider us direct competitors. However, after several meetings, we established a great rapport and began doing business as their partner. It was through this partnership that we ultimately launched one of the most influential ongoing campaigns present in our company: coopetition.
There are companies that see everyone else in their industry as competition; and hence, they must be avoided. There are others that find ways to work with their competition and discover hidden opportunities that otherwise would be overlooked. We have chosen to permanently dismiss the idea of competition and gladly embrace cooperation with all inside of our industry. As a result, we enjoy numerous formidable partnerships that continue to blossom to this day. Innovation, even in the way one sees relationship marketing, can yield big time.
Risk small investments for big ideas.
Risk suggests the possibility that something bad or unpleasant might happen. However, risk is also the fertilizer for ideas to succeed, and should be seen as a necessity for business survival. Early on in our business, I began marketing our company passively by meeting with fellow business owners in various business owner seminars and networking groups. While there were many times that it seemed futile to be attending these routine meetings, I knew I was in a relationship business and relationships are built on trust and likeability. And so I continued to take the risk of spending my time there versus more “productive” places.
At one of these meetings, I was introduced to the owner of a company that had an innovative smart device nearly ready for the market. However, he had a need for this device to be connected to the end-user networks via cabling work and firewall configurations. The potential to provide this service for his company had a tremendous upside. But first, we knew we would have to invest a significant amount of research and development time on our end — a significant risk of our engineers' time. In the end, it paid. Our partnership with this company still exists today, and our cabling work has blossomed into a full service line for our company.
The key to success in marketing is persistence, innovation and risk.
Our marketing efforts have significantly evolved and more budget continues to be applied toward the efforts. The challenge is to have the intuition and ability to disrupt the marketplace with viable alternatives. Anyone involved in marketing will tell you that no single approach will work all the time. Even effective approaches have diminishing returns over time and must be supplemented with variations, and eventually, will require complete overhauls.
Technology can be somewhat vanilla, and there is a constant need to experiment in finding ways to differentiate oneself from the competition. What hasn’t evolved is the principal fact that persistence, innovation and risk have yielded the best returns over time.