When I first started my online bookkeeping firm, I thought things were going to be a lot easier. I’d read plenty of books telling me all I had to do was pick up the Yellow Book, call a few local companies, maybe pass out a few business cards, and within a few months my firm would be up and running.
It sounded great at the time, but as I soon learned ... that wasn’t the case. So after I realized this wasn’t going to work, I moved on to the next best thing: networking online, via bookkeeping groups.
To be honest, I did meet some great people on there. I really enjoyed their advice and expertise, so after a few weeks of getting to know them, I finally asked the golden question: How do I get clients?
Their answer? “Just treat every client like they’re your only client, word of mouth will eventually kick in, and you’ll quickly grow.” At first I was grateful for the answer, but then I thought about it for a few seconds and realized how worthless this info was.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of referral sources, but if you don’t have one client, how are you supposed to make this work? That’s when I realized 99 percent of the information in our industry was worthless, so I decided to take a different route and blaze my own trail.
I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going or what I was going to do, but I knew one thing: I was going to find a way that actually worked and didn’t take forever to find clients. So after months of trial and error, research, and testing, I finally found that route, and in a nutshell, this is what I did.
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Sometimes, Less is More
When you’re first starting an online business, it’s fun to look at all the shiny objects (advertising, social media, blogging, referral sources, etc.). But unless you’re sitting on months of cash and don’t really need clients yet, these methods don’t work. They simply take too long.
So that’s why I started to focus on a solution that had less components, not more. I knew I couldn’t rely on the traditional information in our industry, so after reading Jay Abraham’s book, Getting Everything You Can Out Of All You've Got, a great idea hit me: Reach out to another freelancer whose has had great success in another industry.
I quickly did a little bit of research and one industry really stuck out to me: copywriting. It seemed like all those guys could find work online, and after a few attempts, I finally got in contact with one of them.
After a short conversation, he told me about this platform that I’d never heard of: Upwork
When I first heard of Upwork, I was ecstatic – and ecstatic was an understatement. To be honest, I was surprised I hadn’t heard of this platform yet, but it was exactly what I was looking for!
I didn’t have to advertise or market, all the clients I needed were in one place. Yeah, they had a finder’s fee and I was up against some competition, but I didn’t mind – it was a lot better than aimlessly blogging and hoping for the best.
And at the very least, I figured the finder’s fee was the equivalent of advertising (one that allowed you to find work before paying). So I pushed forward with it, creating a professional cover letter and mass blasting it out to every client on there. And believe it or not, out of my 30 proposals, I didn’t get one response.
Yeah, that hurt. I immediately went from top of the world back to exactly where I started. I thought I had it figured out, but in the matter of 36 hours, I realized this wasn’t the case. And right when I was ready to throw in the towel, I realized a pivotal moment in my career:
If You Market to Everybody, You Market to Nobody
I’d heard the saying a few times but it never resonated with me until then. I’d always just labeled myself as a general bookkeeper and had a generic proposal for all my prospects.
I figured that if I just kept working hard and putting irons in the fire, I’d eventually get clients, a method I later learned is known as the “law of averages.” I finally realized this was the root of all my problems, and after doing some research, I hooked into a mentor who taught me all about marketing and getting clients.
He gave me a lot of information and it’s hard to condense it down into one article, but out of all the information we covered, there’s five lessons that really stuck out to me, and five lessons that can help turn any business around.
The 5 Lessons of Being Self-Employed (and Getting Clients)
1. Never (significantly) lower your prices. It didn’t take me long to get desperate, and once I reached that point, the first thing I did was lower my prices. I figured it’d help me at least get some income and then I could increase my prices later. But as I soon learned, that’s the last thing you want to do.
Why? For two primary reasons: you attract terrible clients, making your life a living hell. We subconsciously think that lower prices = lower quality, a lesson I learned from Robert B. Cialdini, PhD’s book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have slightly lower rates at first. I’m a huge believer in giving yourself room to grow – just don’t go so low that you starve yourself out of the game. Moral of the story: You pay a big price for having a low price.
2. Don’t show desperation. Have you ever heard the term “you reek of desperation?” I had plenty of times, but I never realized how true it was until I started hiring contractors on Upwork.
It doesn’t take long to spot out somebody who’s desperate for a job or money, and even though I want to help them out, it’s hard to hire somebody in this position. I don’t think I have to do much convincing when I say desperate people do desperate things, and that’s a red flag that any hiring manager or company owner will avoid.
Moral of the story: Don’t act desperate, it’s obvious (even when you type).
3. Use positioning to separate yourself from the crowd. I think positioning is one of those terms that’s been overused so much that nobody really knows what it means anymore. And that’s sad, because it’s still a useful tool that can help you separate yourself from the crowd. So what exactly is positioning? There’s a few ways to explain this, but I think the easiest way to understand it is “finding your niche” – and here’s how you can do that:
- Cater to a specific industry (i.e., real estate bookkeeper).
- Cater to a certain software (i.e., Xero bookkeeper).
- Use a mixture of skills (i.e., bookkeeper who specializes in accounts payable).
- Don’t use general skills (i.e., awesome bookkeeper!).
OK, I know what you’re thinking ... “But Sean, I don’t want to silo myself into one industry.” I understand, and you don’t have to. When I first started on Upwork, I made two profiles: one was a real estate bookkeeper and one was a commercial loan consultant.
I started to quickly gain traction on both profiles, and after I built up a good amount of real estate bookkeeping clients, I became a SaaS bookkeeper (and started to grow a good portfolio of them right after that).
Moral of the story: Clients like bookkeepers who closely fit their needs. When you position yourself in a certain way, your ideal clients will choose you over the “generalists.”
4. Tell the client what you can do for them. I think our default method is to automatically start bragging about ourselves. We think we have to do this so we can shine above all the competition, and that makes sense.
But when you read proposals from the client’s eyes, it’s terrible. Like want-to-close-my-computer-and-run terrible. So how do you get around this? Well, don’t take this the wrong way, but when you’re first starting the relationship, the client really doesn’t care about you – they care about what you can do for them.
And that doesn’t mean they’re stuck up or don’t want to hear about you; they just don’t want to do extra work and translate what you’re saying into what it can do for them. This might sound detrimental now, but in all honesty, it’s a huge advantage for you.
All you have to do is frame your skills in a different way (i.e., my experience allows me to complete the job with zero oversight from you), and your chances of getting hired will skyrocket. Moral of the story: This doesn’t mean you don’t have to show your strengths; you just have to show them how your strengths benefit them.
5. Don’t try and do too much. Freelancers and entrepreneurs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but for the most part, they all carry one trait – taking on too much. I know the feeling and I’ve been there myself, but take it from somebody who’s already been there – you’re not doing yourself a favor by taking on too much. It leads to one thing – burnout.
And when you’re burnt out, no client wants to work with you. You’re not on your A-game, and they can tell. So how do you avoid burnout?
There’s a lot of ways around it, just make sure you’re only focusing on the things you need to do now. And once you start to grow, outsource or hire employees to take care of the small things. Moral of the story: Busy does not mean productive.
Bonus tip: Set an alarm twice a day, asking yourself if you’re being busy or productive.
Recap: Build Your Bookkeeping Business
It doesn’t matter if you’re creating the next Facebook or becoming a freelance bookkeeper, the beginning stages are challenging. Just remember, everybody goes through this stage, and once you get through, the rewards are worth it.
There’s a lot of advice out there, but as long as you take care of yourself and focus on the main goal, you’ll get there. But a proven strategy will get you there faster.