Help—I still don’t have any clients!

The solopreneurs I coach and mentor, especially those in their first year of business, often tell me how hard it is to figure out how to measure success, how to best spend their time, and how to turn interest into client engagements. While each business is different, a few pieces of advice apply in almost any B2B solopreneur.

First, make sure you know what your prospective clients need, value and will pay you well for. If you haven’t conducted at least a half dozen informational conversations, in which you were able to learn what your market needs and how your prospective clients talk about that need, then you need to invest the time and energy into these essential conversations. See my blog post Making Yourself Irreplaceable for lots more resources on how to conduct insightful informational conversations.

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How to be a GREAT contractor or subcontractor

I may be a one-person business, but that doesn’t mean I’m alone. In fact, one of the most rewarding aspects of being a one-person business is that I benefit from the cross-fertilization that comes from contracting and subcontracting with fellow infopreneurs. I subcontract out specialized work I can’t do myself, and I work as a subcontractor for a number of businesses that bring me in for my specialized skills. Over the years, I have learned a lot about what is involved in being a good contractor and subcontractor. Here are my rules for successful contracting and subcontracting.

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Getting to ‘Yes’

One of the most common traps I see new infopreneurs fall into – and I’ve done this myself, too! – is equating a prospect with an actual, paying client. We meet someone at a networking event or have a phone call with someone we met through social media. The person sounds interested in what we do, accepts our business card, and maybe even says “Yeah, we could have used someone like you that one time.” They may attend a webinar we give or download a white paper we wrote. We end the encounter confident that the person will be calling us shortly with an assignment, but then we never hear from them again.

In my experience, failure to convert interest into engagement is often caused by some combination of the following factors.
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Getting something from nothing

One of the things I often talk about with infopreneurs I’m coaching is the importance of knowing how to make something out of nothing. We may have thought the project we took on would be easy to handle, and it turns out the resources we thought we could use didn’t pan out. Or we thought there would be plenty of information on a topic and we find out that, nope, no one’s talking about it. In these cases, we have to be able to tell a story about what the lack of results tells us.

So, when a project results in far less than either my client or I had anticipated, I ask myself these questions:
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What does a “value-added deliverable” look like?

Infopreneurs know that their value lies not just in what information they find but what they do with the information before they send their deliverable to their client. We often talk about the need to create value-added deliverables, but what exactly does that mean? Isn’t everything you do added value, just because it took your skills and expertise to find the information?

Actually, value-adding is more than “merely” finding the information. It means transforming it into something more. One metric I use to evaluate a deliverable:

  • If most of what my client reads is my own writing, I’ve provided added value.
  • If most of what my client reads is others’ writing, I’m providing little value.

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Are you really hearing your client?

Quick—think about the last time you interacted with a client. It probably felt pretty straightforward. Your client tells you what they need, you talk about any details, and the conversation is done. I recently had an experience that reminded me that every client interaction comes with layers upon layers of assumptions that we often miss.

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Constantly reinventing ourselves

Having seen Hidden Figures and read the book it was based on, I can’t stop thinking about Dorothy Vaughan, one of the African-American “computers” (mostly female mathematicians skilled in complex calculations) at NASA. When she was faced with the prospect of being replaced by a newly installed IBM computer, she taught herself and her staff how to program in FORTRAN. Rather than bemoan this disruptive technology, she gained the skills she needed and made her whole team more valuable to NASA.

While most of us aren’t responsible for getting astronauts into space and back home safely, solopreneurs also have to adjust when something new and unexpected enters the picture.  If we don’t, we may sit up one day and realize that we don’t have the kind of schedule that lets us enjoy our family, or we never seem to have enough money, or our usual clients just aren’t sending us as much work as they used to.

These situations usually arise because we are no longer aligned with what our clients most need, value and will pay for… we are focusing on the HOW of what we do rather than the WHY.  Here are some prompts to help you start thinking differently about yourself and your business.

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Bus-proofing your business… because stuff happens

No one likes to think about worst-case scenarios; we all imagine that we will live an accident-free life and our business will run smoothly until we retire. However, just as we buy insurance while hoping we never need it, we should look at our business operations and imagine what would happen if we suddenly became incapacitated by injury or illness or if you got hit by the proverbial bus. Who would notify your clients, pay your bills, and put your business on pause? Does that person know who your clients are or how to log into your email account?

In addition to estate planning, we solopreneurs need to plan for the unlikely situation in which someone who isn’t familiar with our needs to step into our shoes. The following are thoughts on how to write up instructions for where a family member, trusted friend or colleague could find everything needed to put your business on pause or, in the worst case, close it down for you.

Fill out this checklist (click here for an unannotated version) and give a copy to two people who might be called upon to help in an emergency, keeping in mind that a trusted colleague or good friend may be more familiar with your business – and the issues of a solopreneur in general – than a family member.

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Learning about your unknown unknowns

Recently, I was talking with Kim Dority, a friend and colleague and one of the smartest people I know, and she was telling me about how she had recently pivoted the focus of her business. First, she developed a compelling write-up of the services she could provide to graduate schools to better attract, support and retain qualified students. She then sent this out in an introductory letter to a few of her top prospects to see how it was received. She followed up with conversations, either in person at a conference they were attending or on the phone, to discuss what she could do for each of those prospects. It turned out that no one wanted to buy any of the services she had so carefully crafted. Instead, they all asked for something specific to their needs – to run their internship program, or to develop a series of workshops for alumni. She could not have predicted the outcome of any of these conversations, but each one resulted in some type of consulting engagement.

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“We’ll have more work later” and other pipe-dreams

Recently I was negotiating a subcontracting project with a colleague. He wanted me to lower my price—to which I had already applied a subcontractor discount—by saying he was sure the client would have more money (and presumably more projects) later. My response was “Great! When your client has a bigger budget, let me know and we can get started on this. If it turns out that your client has steady work, we can talk about a volume discount after, say, six months.”

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