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Finding small business clients & finding business

It's damn tough.

I found a lot of synchronicity in Norrick's post on "business failure". Even the bit about the worm farm (I don't care how cruelly it came off, the comedic timing of that remark was excellent...)

In my own case I had nursed along steady hourly contracting work from some local software product houses from 1993 til this past winter. That last gig ended with a "bang" from the last dysfunctional, semi psychotic client.

Currently I am trying to refactor my business to sell to general business customers instead of dedicated technical product departments. There are many, many more "just plain" businesses than there are IT departments that want to use an indie.

Pass #1 at my refactoring has been as follows: I have marketed low end PC and network support services to general small business. 

According to many, many people (including the guy who posted a blog entry "Technical self employment is a fat paycheck to be pocketed") as well as the marketingspeak around Joshua Feinberg's Consulting 101 course, there is a crying need for this kind of service.

I figured that I had little to lose and that it would be an "easy" or at least straightforward nut to crack. After all, with 20+ years in technology, professional polish, and "MacGyver" like problem solving skills, how could I not succeed?

Easy. Yeah, right.

What I found was that nobody really identifies with this kind of service. Or else they don't want to identify with my presentation of it.

I've done the chamber of commerce socializing thing regularly for a couple of months. I find myself talking to a professional vacuum: to a bunch of people selling MLM type services, Mary Kay cosmetics, massage, tax recovery, dog sitting, and other inconsequential low tech personal services; who seem to visibly yawn or look angry about the subject when I speak.  I've posted notices on store bulletin boards. I've shoved business cards in the hands of friends and associates to the point of embarrasment.

ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Referrals from so called supportive business colleagues have been non existent.

Oh, I take that back. One guy at the chamber asked for me to help him with a router configuration issue. I wound up doing nothing but deinstalling spyware boocoox from his system. Took >1 mo. to receive a stinking $225 payment. Asshole.

So, I am finding it very hard to break into a business that my instincts tell me is not even that desirable to begin with. Not pursuing it is not a terribly agonizing decision. And it leaves me with the knowledge that I can't trust someone else's blogs, only my own knowledge of the customer and the local market.

So, Pass #2 will be to raise my sights and realize that my brains and aptitude probably get in the way of presenting a blue collar leaning service like general PC support. To people I've approached, my offering generalist services probably comes off like a guy in a tuxedo and spats offering lawn mowing services.

So: I intend to start targeting specific business categories in smaller businesses under 100 employees - lines of business such as - name it - trucking companies; independent real estate offices; machine shops; whatever else that the statistics I have access to indicate that there are clusters of business in certain SIC code categories.

And if that doesn't work, I will look for another approach.

Actually, my one reaction to Norrick's current situation is that he's giving up his hard won knowledge way too early. He did find business, not great business, but that's the kind of knowledge that can only be gotten through experience. And he knows what doesn't work too.

I found a very brief and informative article on a procedure for targeting and "harvesting" specific markets, and it's not even IT or computer specific:

Bored Bystander
Saturday, May 15, 2004

1> semi psychotic client.

2> Referrals from so called supportive business
> colleagues have been non existent.

3>  Took >1 mo. to receive a stinking $225 payment. Asshole.

4> So, I am finding it very hard to break into a business

I think I see a trend here.  In order to break into a business you ought not to consider them all with such derision and if you get no referrals perhaps others detect the same. Maybe an attitude adjustment is in order.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Believe me --- the derision comes after the fact, not before. I'm patient but not infinitely so.

The chamber is an example. After suffering through endless "entertaining" gasbags hyped on their own egos, I find little to use as a mark of distinction. IE, no way to stand out.

Besides, I'm being frank about circumstances to which nobody but I am privy to all facts regarding them... I had to fire the last client after 7 years, just to save my sanity and self esteem.

Bored Bystander
Saturday, May 15, 2004

First off, let me premise my post by saying that don't put too much stock in what anyone, myself included, says. There are so many factors that play into getting clients that it's impossible to speak in absolutes.

Now that that's out of the way....I've found that the smaller companies can be a royal pain to deal with. They want the moon, can't afford much and frequently end up sitting in your A/R aging report for a loooong time.

But they are much easier to get into than a large company, and they also are great for referrals to get business from larger companies. There's gold in them thar hills, but you gotta really work it and have a lot of perserverance and patience.

Good luck!

Mark Hoffman
Saturday, May 15, 2004

"Actually, my one reaction to Norrick's current situation is that he's giving up his hard won knowledge way too early. "

Surprisingly, I agree.  But financially, I just can't stick it out any longer.

You sound like you are doing the same thing I am - "competing against non-consumption", as an acquaintance of mine put it.  Rather than competing against these Chamber members' current suppliers, you are competing against their lack of any supplier, probably because they are too technically unsophisticated to understand how yu can benefot them.  Even if they do come around, their size all but guarantees that they will nickel and dime you.

After taking counsel with some smart peers and thinking about it, I am convinced that my problem has not been what I'm selling, but the market I am trying to sell it to.

Perhaps your problem is the same?  Perhaps your "tuxedo and spats" marketing style is not to blame, and your target market is.  Have you tried going after the attorneys, doctors and accountants with your generalized PC support services?  They have at least a slightly higher appreciation for the value of technology than you average MLM rep.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

It's difficult to make a living selling a high quality service to people who are basically poor. And there are many small businesses out there who (I suspect) are just scrapping by.  They do it for the independence not the money. 

When someone is making $13/hr, it's very difficult as  computer consultant to do anything for them that will have a reasonable Return On Investment if you're charging $45 to $100/hr.


Either you're saving/making your client more than what they are paying you or you are not. If it's the latter case, then you need to figure out how to offer more value.

If it's the former case, then you need to figure out how to COMMUNICATE (this is a sales/marketing function fellas') that to the customer.


My aunt once tried to talk my uncle into buying her a quilting shop.  He looked at the numbers and realized they'd basically spend $500k on inventory to get her a minimum wage job. The money is just very poor in that kind of business. Folks run them because it's basically a hobby. They make minimum wage but control the show.

Very small mom & pop outfits are typically people selling thier time.  They probably make about what they'd make working for someone else, but they get to be in control. It's a trade off:  more headaches for more control.

The problem with these people, as clients, is that they do not understand how hard the work THEY do is (they undervalue THIER service to thier clients) and they do the same thing to everyone around them.

You do NOT  want these people as clients.

Clients will refer similar clients. I.e., if your current clients have unrealistic expectations ("please rewrite MS Word for $1200. By next month") they will REFER the SAME SORT of client to you.

So... fire everyone who isn't the kind of client you'd like to have 100 more like.

Mr. Analogy
Saturday, May 15, 2004

I think you guys (Norrick and Mr. Analogy) have hit on a good principle. I've been marketing to the poor, to hobby business types, and to ignorant boneheads.

I started going to the chamber because I was assured by some people (by a local small business counselor who mans a state extension service for small business, as well as by officials of the chamber)  that they had the climate to make the kind of connections I needed to generate some new business. I am simply not seeing it. In two months of regular chamber attendance I've gotten one client I don't want to deal with again and one guy who asked me for a technical tip (the latter guy was actually quite nice about it, he touted me in a subsequent meeting). But very few questions and inquiries.

I still think that part of my answer lies in "going vertical" and doing some calling and prospecting of some specific industry sectors. I think my problem has been that I've been unfocused in terms of approaching businesses in their own terms. I'm trying to play the game that the PC service companies play.

I would be much more comfortable selling into business needs and enhancing business process with technology, rather than "remediating PC problem" needs. The dedicated career PC support type doesn't have a clue about integrating systems or writing code and I do and I need to leverage off my own unique value... not fight it by pandering to numnuts.

Bored Bystander
Saturday, May 15, 2004

Amen to what Mr Analogy has to say. I helped out some friends of mine "computerising" their small business when, according to them, their computer supplier turned out to be incompetent.

When I spoke with the supplier, I realised they were pretty capable and had done a good job. But my friends were retailers, and couldn't understand why it took all day to fix a computer network, since they could serve a customer in 5 minutes.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

" ... a blue collar leaning service like general PC support ..."

This is the _essence_ of the problem.  PC support has an almost zero barrier to entry, and is indeed a blue collar industry of this decade.

Got a degree or two?  Software engineer and/or experienced project manager?  Small business IT consulting and support is not for you - the self-taught kid up the street who flunked the GED is your competition, and the clueless customer can't tell the difference.  All they want is cheap and fast, and don't even attempt to tell them that their old copies of Windows 95 might not be the most reliable and secure OS to run their business on.

Mitch & Murray (from downtown)
Saturday, May 15, 2004

Well, admittedly I believed in the following too much. (from the "2 linear miles of HTML page" school of design)...

Bored Bystander
Saturday, May 15, 2004

>Well, admittedly I believed in the following too much. (from the "2 linear miles of HTML page" school of design)...

Gee, sounds like the rest of those folks that go the business shakers to drum up business.

Why not start a clothing store..everyone has to wear clothes..and it all wears out…right?

Why not get into the coffee shop business…after all everyone drinks coffee and look how well starbucks does?

Why not get into the auto repair business…after all everyone drives a car?

The fact of the matter is, whatever business endeavor you go into….it is going to be VERY VERY hard to break into a market.

And if the market has a bunch of low hanging easy to grab fruit…you can bet it get picked very fast. And, with something that has easy entry..then this makes it all the harder.  I mean…most 18 olds can built and setup a VPN network if they play around computers at all. All low hanging fruit is picked out…and what is left is scraps. This is the case for ANY business.

Just try and startup a law practice to day in a city…good luck!

Further, you got all these false hopes up that your only problem was that you must re-target your market you are going after? Are you sure about this?

Fact is…that computer support and repair business for small busses and even home users is really a lucrative market. In fact, when I go to a larger local independent computer store in my City the service department is packed…and waiting times are about 7 or 8 days now.

They even started charging a VERY high rate to bump up your priority (it is called the high priority rate..and believe me…a VERY large portion are paying for that rate..since they want their computer fixed ASAP!!!). In fact, most people seem willing to pay the higher rate to reduce the turn-around time.

Of course…most people feel the same way when their car beaks down..and pay high rates to get it fixed. In fact, the high rates charged to fix computers is more then what dealers bill you per hour when you get your car fixed.

And, talk about a huge opportunity here? Do you see it? You guys just told me that every man and his dog can build and repair computers! Wow..I can get cheap labor and charge high rates…What could not be a better opportunity?

The local doctor has to pay REALLY high rates just to get someone to operate his x-ray machine. So, high service rates..with low cost labor is dream business opportunity right now! (once again..everyone seems not see the golden opportunities here!).

And, looking at large lineup of people at that computer service deport....a good deal of these ladies in line are no doubt SOHO type business. (Small Office…Home Office). We are not talking real rich people here!

So, don’t tell me that there is no market for home, or small business computer repair, or support. Ask your self what happens when a home user’s computer breaks? What heck do they do? What, they just cry..and not get their computer fixed? The amount of computers in homes has likely grown 2 or 3 times the rate at which business bought computers. Business when through a huge consuming and using of computers about 6 or 7 years ago. The home, and SOHO market really took off in the last 4-5 years. So, what do those people do now to get their computers fixed? (if you can’t answer this VERY simple question..then you don’t have a enough smarts or understanding  to get into that market).

Failing to ask some very simple and basic questions such as a above .....and then have a bunch of people jump in say say..yea…that is the problem…no barriers to entry!

Fact is this support and computer repair shop of course is in side a very large and successful retail outfit. So, the real issue here is not that you can’t make money repairing and supporting computers…….the real issues is:

How are you going to get those customers?

So, the answer to the above question about how do you find customers is:

Customers that need a computer fixed are actually found at the point of sale when the computer is sold!…duh man….how else did you think this works???

So, 99% of customers tend to go back for service and support to the place where They bought the computer.

Do I really have to spell out this obvious stuff to you people?

Gee….word of mouth to built a successful computer repair and support business in this day and age? (with the current climate?) Yea…right!!! I suppose with some real good marketing (newspaper adds and a good location perhaps then…yes you can..but you are talking about some serious dollars here to do that right..and EVEN THEN it is going to be a fight for those customers).

Futher..white box retail computer sales are under attack by giants like dell..and that means even harder for you to get into that business. On the other hand, I know the folks in my town that have the dell contract for on site you know the folks that do this in your town? (like again...duh!!). If you not asking questins like are again missing the whole picture.

I don’t want to make this into a large post……(it is already too long!)….but what about those corporate clients that you think you need to go after? Gee…you think they have been sitting around for the last 5 years without any computer support?

The real question:

    How are  you going to steal customers from your competitors? Because if you think those people don’t use someone right now to setup and support their networks, then have a very big serious miss understanding of how business works. 

I remember a few years ago a few support people I know were talking about getting into the application hosting business. (that is where they host your applications….and thus you don’t need send support people to go on site to fix things. After all, these were people running a support company..and were worried about this trend. Anyway..I simply laughed at their idea since they had no plan on how to get customers! (and, in fact, for what they were trying to do ..there IS a way to get customers..but they had no clue on how to do it…and it was not my job or business to tell them how to do this!! If I had the time…I might have jumped on this!).

Anyway…you need a plan on how you will get customers..and 99% of the time that means getting a captive customer..or making one change from their current service they are using.

You can start a flower shop..but you are not going to be the only one in town. And likely VERY few of your customer will NEVER have bought a flower somewhere else? (of course they will have..and likely each sale you make is a loss to some competitor).

You also need to take advantage of technology changes…or something that changes the way business do things. (like wifi..and the opportunism that will wiFi will get a good list of customers that you can then bill for support and other stuff down the road. So, WiFi is a "in" to the business but not for very long.....So..…this is one of those foot in the door trends that can be used to break into the computer support business for example.

I have not been around these boards much of late..since I am just way too busy these days……I got to run right now…and it is 11:24 pm and I still have to meet someone! is discussion we had some time ago on this board about breaking into a business. This one happened to be the software bussines..but really…we are talking about business 101..and this applies to any thing you do from hair cuts…to car repairs..

Sorry I have to run…as I could just simply type on for a LONG time on this subject..but I would suggest you go and talk to someone who is already doing well at what you want to do..and ask them what they did…you will again be surprised at the most give the same one…..

And no..I don't support computers.....

Albert D. Kallal
Edmonton, Alberta Canada

Albert D. Kallal
Sunday, May 16, 2004

Albert, you're validating everything I suspected. I think the missing link for a high-demand consumer type business like this is familiarity. People have to know about you and be comfortable with entrusting you with their systems or computers. Even though the barrier to entry is low and the demand is high, it's still a trust relationship and the nod will generally go to storefronts, support vans, the stores that sell the crap, and other mainstream vendors. Even though the standard of service is general mediocrity, overcharging and discourtesy.

One comment: by "re-targeting" I meant abandoning the low end service market. Stop talking about it in my marketing, stop talking it up. And find specific industries that have needs in common and find ways to use my more unique (and less commonly found) abilities to synthesize, to integrate, to listen, and to create. 

Yeah, I know, Business 101 says that every profitable niche has been exploited. My intuition is that if a service vendor takes the time to understand certain types of businesses, then rapport can be built that transcends the commodity "let's look up the application in a catalog and buy it" thinking.

One motivation for pursuing the PC support market was that I was being lazy. I didn't want to think through targeting of types of customers, I wanted to generalize, and I thought that my abilities and demeanor would carry me through. In particular I didn't want to talk to a lot of prospects in order to develop a few.  I didn't want to think about prospect's businesses in detail. I thought that concentrating on a nuts and bolts business would pay off because, hey, Computerconsulting101 sells those courses for $400 so there *must* be a market. (yeah, there's a market all right ... for courses.)

In return, the generalist market offered little to me because I wasn't very dedicated to it.

In reality the low end market feels like trying to market and sell my own personalized brand of toothpaste in my neighborhood. Remotely possible, but improbable. IE: why would people pay attention to another commodity service?

Bored Bystander
Sunday, May 16, 2004

(from the "2 linear miles of comments" school of design) :)

Some good stuff up there, though.  There certainly exist clients that have money to spend on your services.  A couple of thoughts:

I don't think your "brains and aptitude" get in the way of getting jobs--at least, I don't think so, but I don' t know you.  You do, of course, have to present yourself in a fashion that is relavant to the customer.  An small insurance brokerage owner may expect a slightly different image than, say, a homebuilder.  I'm not saying at all that either one is less professional, just that different areas, of course, have different cultures.

Now, you still don't want to try to sell to people without money.  It's just not expedient. ;)  There are plenty of business owners that are willing to say "screw it, it's not worth fixing right now."  You of course do not want these customers.  You want customers that NEED their stuff to work.  Or, you need customers that you can convince them the obvious financial benefits of your services.

What this is boiling down to is that you want to have successful businesspeople as clients.  This is probably obvious to most.

A thought: why not actually seek out businesses that naturally cultivate lots of contacts?  I imagine you may have your hands full, period, but one successful client that does, say, investment services would presumably be much better than, say, a software shop on the basis that the resulting word-of-mouth might be better.

Good luck!

Sunday, May 16, 2004

My first ever business plan was to provide generic support to people with PC's, 0900 kind of dial up support with perhaps support contracts living off the back of that shotgun marketing.

It even had a great name, Support pc Ltd, and that was my first trading company.

But that business plan never flew, at the time you couldn't vary 0900 rates in the UK and I needed 50p a minute to make any money, at the beginning of the 90's no one saw support as a revenue earner only as a revenue supporter.

Now some of those businesses exist, none of them have the ubiquity that I envisaged or the brand name (when you create business plans the Napoleon in you always emerges) and I think none of them are truly support businesses, instead they're a kind of glorified insurance scheme.

And of course now its far more complicated than it was twelve years ago and there wasn't quite the same feeling of 'all I have to do is google for this and I'll find an answer'.

So I don't think there's this aching void in the market that needs satisfying.

Simon Lucy
Sunday, May 16, 2004

>  feels like trying to market and sell my own personalized brand of toothpaste ...

Bored, for what it's worth, I know a very successful owner of a big advertising agency who thought he would get rich doing just that.

Having done lots of advertising for things like toothpaste, he thought he could make more money setting up a toothpaste business, especially since he was a genius at advertising.

He did all the right things and put money into it, and it's now something you never mention. He still runs the advertising agency.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

I found this

Non-Consumption is Your Competitor:

After searching for "non-consumption" on Google.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

thanks dewd for placing a link to my post on non-consumption!  I am glad someone found it useful.

I've written a much longer piece on non-consumption and answered the original question and commented on what some of you had to say.

Here ya go...

peter caputa
Monday, May 17, 2004

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