Taking the Plunge: How to Build a Client Base For Your Small Business

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starting your own business

Happy Monday everyone! You get to hear from my lovely wife today as a part of my Taking the Plunge series as she describes some of the lessons she learned from starting a new business.

I’m a writer who runs my own small business. I’m not the closeted, “I’m a creative genius but awkward socially” type, but still, networking doesn’t exactly come natural to me. Socializing, yes; having fun with co-workers and getting along with people, yes. But introducing myself to strangers early in the morning or after hours at a bar in town, no. However, networking, along with client-building activities are absolutely crucial to the success of a small business. While I wouldn’t categorize myself as a salesperson or even someone who is comfortable with or good at sales, client-building is something I’ve had to engage in to grow our small business. If you run your own small business or are thinking about starting one, building a client base is critical to the short and long-term health of your small business. More and more future small business owners are coupling business degrees with communication degrees to prepare themselves for networking.

Make Face to Face Connections


When I decided to leave my stable, full-time, salaried position, I expected my former employer to be my biggest client. Three years later, we have yet to complete one job for them. I had to scramble to build up a new client base but with hard work and lots of networking, it started to come together. I decided to go after advertising agencies and to build my client base there. I went through the phone book and searched online to make a list of all the advertising agencies within a 100-mile radius of my town. I then whittled that list to the top 10-12 agencies which I thought I had the best chance of developing a freelance copywriting relationship with and scheduled visits to introduce myself to them.

I didn’t ask first for an appointment. Instead, I ordered a bunch of donuts (because ad agencies love free food; who doesn’t after all?), printed up a few posters and ordered a slew of business cards for my fledgling small business. Then, over the course of two days, I drove around to each agency, asking to speak to the person in charge of hiring freelance copywriters. I introduced myself, left the donuts and my contact information (posters and business cards). While it was a lot of work, I ended up getting one of our best clients out of it and built up name recognition and awareness of my new small business within the community of individuals I was targeting as my ideal client.

My advice to you, if you are starting your own small business is to identify your ideal client and then make a list as I did of as many people as you can find who fit that mold. Then, visit at least your top 12 in person to introduce yourself, if possible. If in-person trips aren’t a possibility, call, email or set up a Skype conversation. My experience has been that people are much more likely to give work to people they trust, and they trust people they meet in person or develop a personal connection with.

Look for Local Networking Opportunities


I’m not telling you anything new by suggesting that networking is the key to building a client base. The more people you meet in person, the more connections you will make for your small business. Look for events and opportunities that bring you in contact with people in your ideal client profile. For me, that meant small business owners and advertising industry professionals. I attended breakfasts, joined my local AAF chapter and looked online for Meetup groups with website content and programmer professionals, since they also are in my ideal client profile.

The local or regional chapter of the Small Business Association or your local Chamber of Commerce may be good resources for you. Chambers often host weekly and monthly networking events as well as annual fairs that cost little or nothing to attend and bring a number of businesses together in one place, making it easy for you to connect with them and build them into your client base. Think carefully and thoroughly about joining networking or “leads” organizations that require a monthly or yearly membership fee. As one professional told me, “you shouldn’t have to pay to meet people.”

Create a Website for Your Small Business


A website is the best marketing tool a small business owner can invest in. Make it good. Take the time or set aside the funds to have someone design one for you that showcases your work. In my case, I found a good portfolio theme for WordPress and spent about $40 and 90 hours customizing it to look the way I wanted it to. I then loaded up quality samples of my writing and keyword optimized the entries so that people can find me when they are looking for a copywriter with my experience and expertise. We have gotten a number of good clients this way.

Along with a website, business cards for your small business are a must. Always carry them with you and be ready to hand one out, not only at networking events, but wherever you find yourself because you never know when you are going to meet someone who can become a new addition to your client base.

Set up Social Media so Clients Can Find You


Create social media profiles for your small business that are separate from your personal social media accounts. I recommend hitting all the major ones (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr), especially LinkedIn – it’s like online networking. Spend time creating a LinkedIn profile that accurately reflects your work and skills. After every networking event, career fair or “meet and greet” that you attend, go on LinkedIn and try to find the individuals you met and add them as connections. One of our best clients found us through LinkedIn and it can be a great tool for targeting new clients as you build up your small business client base.

Join Online Job Boards

My last piece of advice for building up your client base for your small business is to identify and join online job boards in your chosen field. My two favorite boards to check are Freelance Switch and Freelance Writing Jobs. There are easily dozens for copywriters. In the early stages of my business, I searched these job boards daily applying for work. Granted, not much came of it but we do see a few hundred dollars of business come our way each month and it helped me stay in the mindset of doing something for my small business everyday.

What did I miss? Do you run a small business or are you thinking about starting one? How do you find new clients?


Photo courtesy of: Shashi Bellamkonda

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John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.


  • Good points! I couldn’t agree more that who you know in business is sometimes one of the most critical elements. You can wait for the phone to ring, or you can grab that box of donuts, get out there, and make it happen yourself. Your ambition is what sets you apart from the competition, so give them hell!

    • Nicole says:

      Totally agree! The first 9 months to a year of running our own business we were probably too passive. Now that we’ve gotten aggressive about networking, we’re building a nice business pipeline.

  • It still amazes me how many small businesses don’t invest the $50 a year into getting a website online. I can’t remember the last time I looked through the phone directory for a small business so any business that doesn’t have an online presence has instantly lost me a customer.

    • Nicole says:

      I know what you mean Glen. The only thing I really use the phone book for anymore is a dust collector on top of my refrigerator. We worked on an infographic recently though that shows some encouraging stats that indicate the vast majority of businesses and small merchants realize they must have a website to be competitive today.

  • AverageJoe says:

    I joined a networking group where you had to pay to be a part and everyone shared leads. It was VERY popular in the Detroit area and I met a few key clients there. However, once I saw how it worked, I just went out and created my own with good professionals that I had a solid relationship with. Structured like a mastermind group, we got together once a month to discuss how our individual businesses worked and what was going on in our segments of the market. Since we were related businesses, not only was it a chance to share leads, but it was important to keep up with news on these other fronts.

    • Nicole says:

      Hi Joe. I think related business is key to making a leads group worth the investment. For us, our related businesses are all advertising agencies, web developers or larger businesses with internal marketing/communication departments. Those individuals just weren’t at any of the leads groups we were attending so we found the local chapter of our AAF group to be better for us. I’m glad that you started your own leads group though and that it’s been beneficial!

  • The donuts idea is genius. I think 99% of people would think of just asking for an appointment to introduce themselves (I know I would!) but you went above and beyond by making those face-to-face connections. I need to do this more in my networking!

    • Nicole says:

      Who doesn’t like food, right? Ad agencies get free food all the time so it’s probably almost expected but in your business I bet for sure you would make a memorable impression, plus it just gives you that much better of a chance of having a face to face meeting with someone at the business you’re trying to get into. Even if only out of obligated grattitude, you’re more likely to get that appointment 😉

  • Great tips… I can tell that you have certainly lived the life.. For most small businesses, your whole life becomes about networking to help grow your connections and client base. This isn’t a bad thing, but a reality that people should know before they make the leap.

    • Nicole says:

      It’s a funny thing, Jefferson, when your kids depend on you to eat, that’s a real strong motivator to do whatever it takes to make enough money to feed them. In the very beginning at still at some points I suppose, that motivates us to do those hard or uncomfortable but necessary things that you must do to build a successful business. You’re right though, it’s maybe an aspect that people don’t fully appreciate before they get into actually running their own business.

  • pauline says:

    Great idea about the donuts. In your field, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to network in real life.and I would have pitched the agencies on both coasts before anything, but your plan is much better, competition would be lower and people happy to work with someone closer. As much as things are done online, they like to know you are near just in case.

  • Nicole says:

    So true Pauline. We’re constantly meeting people who don’t want to “close the deal” as it were without meeting in person. Maybe its the difference between buying a product and buying a service from someone.

  • These are all great tips and timely too. I just left my job a couple of weeks ago to build my business full time. I meet with people almost everyday at a Starbucks or Paradise Bakery and I try to participate in any networking activity that comes my way. I never thought about joining an online job board before so I will have to look into that. Thanks!

    • Nicole says:

      That’s awesome Deacon. Congrats on your success! From your comment, it confirms what I already assumed, which is that it did not come by happenstance but hard work and skill.

  • Free anything will get you in the door much quicker than without. Since I can’t do my job online, I’ve always been active in community organizations, business and non-business. Networking is not my favorite thing either, but it is necessary. We just gave away an iPad at an open house and had a great turn out. Would they have come without the iPad? Hard to say. It does take some faith to shell out for food or gifts if you aren’t sure you’ll get a return, but by investing $400, we made $2300 in 2 hours, so not a bad return at all. Also word of mouth referral is huge for us, probably our biggest draw of anything that brings patients in.

    • Nicole says:

      Wow. That’s an enviable ROI, Kim. It’s funny how no matter how hard marketers (read Facebook) may try to duplicate word of mouth advertising, it’s never as effective as genuine word of mouth referrals. I know when I’m looking for someone to work on my eyes, I want someone who someone I know trusts and recommends 🙂

  • I think networking is one of the most powerful tools that people don’t utilize enough. You never know who other people know and that is why many don’t follow up with others. Anytime I do anything business related, I always make sure to network.

    • Nicole says:

      That’s so true Grayson. With networking, you may either gain new clients or gain gatekeepers who open the door to an abundance of clients for you. Totally worth doing.

  • Michelle says:

    We definitely plan on working with social media a whole lot on our new business. There are just so many options!

  • What a genius and ambitions way to get yourself out there an network! I do pretty much everything else, but I do have a hard time with that cold introduction thingy you were talking about. I just feel so awkward. Thankfully being online and social media takes away some of those cold calling fears.

    • Nicole says:

      I know. I think the best way to become better at it is to just do it. After a few, you get to feeling like you are on a roll and it’s not so bad. I always try to remind myself that I don’t know the future or how any opportunity is going to go so that I don’t disqualify myself. Some of our best clients came from calls I thought wouldn’t amount to anything.

  • Great tips! I totally agree that you have to get yourself out there and make connections with people if you own your own small business. You are obviously doing an awesome job.

    • Nicole says:

      You do. And not just for the sales opportunities but also for the professional growth. I think that aspect of networking is often overlooked.

  • Thanks for the advice about face to face. That connection is invaluable, but it’s hard to get out there sometime. I’ll keep it in mind.

    • Nicole says:

      It is hard to get out there and do it but it always ends up turning out better for us than we think it will. We never regret going to in-person networking events, no matter how greatly we dread them when we’re driving on our way to them.

  • Absolutely fantastic tips! Thank you very much I read the article twice. In the next 24 months I’m looking to start my own business and articles like these are invaluable. I look forward to following this series. Also, what is Mrs. Frugal Rule’s website?

  • I’m on LinkedIn, but have been a bit turned off as it seems to be getting more and more spammy–clogged up by people just trying to sell stuff to each other vs. meaningful exchanges of ideas and connections. I’m not sure I want to invest more time there, but I can see where it could be helpful as you suggest. Certainly worth a try for someone starting out.

    • Nicole says:

      To be honest Kurt, once we set up our profiles we don’t spend a ton of time on LinkedIn but now that you mention it, I at least do see what you’re saying about it getting more spammy. Facebook is getting that way too with all their “suggested posts”. We still find it useful to add people as connections whom we have meaningful conversations with at networking events. We’ve found agencies looking for writers will go on to LinkedIn and search it, come across our profiles and reach out to us, so it has been useful in that regard.

  • Great tips, Nicole. A few things that helped me network and grow my business was becoming very active in my community. Joining our local Rotary Club, PTA, board member at a local hospital definitely helped me grow my presence and business. I also joined a networking group of about 10-12 local women business owners in my community. We meet once a week to share ideas, get feedback and generally support one another.

    • Nicole says:

      Great tips, Shannon. I can see, especially how in your field of work, those connections you made were very strategic and beneficial. It gets you rooted and known in your community which helps build trust, one of the most important if not the most important traits that FAs must have. I also find there to be some value in connecting with other female business owners.

  • I love the idea of going around and introducing yourself with a box of donuts!!

    When I first started a home design business 7 years ago a friend introduced me to networking lunch meetings. I was invited to join a local chapter that met once a week. The group was about 15 people and they were very cool. At the second meeting I received a referral for what turned out to be my best client and she had the most beautiful huge home. After a year of that group I joined a BNI group. I didn’t enjoy BNI very much.

    • Nicole says:

      Finding the right group to fit your business and personality is so critical. Try the donuts (or cupcakes, or cookies, or brownies … 🙂 ) and let us know how it goes.

  • Jose says:

    One thing small business should do is invest a little more than just a measly web presence. It pays to invest a little more to have your web site be attractive and informative. I’ve seen some local business websites that were “abysmal” and I’m being generous! Chiefly because the owner either hacked his way through a “page builder” of some kind or paid a local kid $100 to build his page without knowing what to ask for. Another good way for a rick and mortar to build a local clientele is to host a small barbecue on a weekend. Hot dogs are cheap and you can do one of these for less then $200 bucks.

    • Nicole says:

      I could not agree more with you Joe. I think it’s particularly important for small businesses to invest enough time and money into their websites to make themselves not look so “mom and pop.” You want to look professional and a killer website is a great way to project yourself as bigger and more established and therefore capable (in many peoples’ minds) than you may actually be. Perception is so important and just as you only get one chance to make a first impression in person, the same is true for your website.

  • This is exactly why I shuttered my business and never looked back. If I have to choose between talking to strangers and not having any money, I think I’d rather be broke!

    • Nicole says:

      Well, it’s important to know yourself and how you’re wired and doing what brings you happiness. If you hate talking to strangers and interacting with people you don’t know then running your own business is going to be difficult unless you can run a business that is completely 100% online.

  • eemusings says:

    Free food – it’ll getcha in the door every time!

    Referrals have also been good for me – clients referring me to others, or coming back to hire me for further projects.

    • Nicole says:

      Totally! Pizza, fruit trays, sweets. The investment is completely worth it every time. Same is true for referrals; its hard to see how they are not the lifeblood of every business.

  • Good post. I’m in sales and I agree that a good networking plan is necessary. I once too, did find the idea of talking to strangers rather intimidating. But once you have it done millions of times, it sort of becomes a script where you are acting a part and already know the answers and objections people give. Great persistence you showed. Very inspiring!

    • Nicole says:

      Thanks, Kevin. We never (and still don’t) consider ourselves strong in sales. But we do like connecting with people and meeting other business professionals. So, oddly, networking has turned out to be somewhat envigorating.

  • Justin@TheFrugalPath says:

    John, my personality is similar to yours. In small groups with people I know I can be the life of the party. But stick me with people I don’t know and I become pretty unsure of myself.
    It’s important to network in any business. But when you run a small business everything falls on your shoulders. A person who’s bad with numbers needs to look at the books and a socially awkward person needs to socialize.

    • Nicole says:

      It’s true. There are so many professional skills you develop when you run your own business that you either never had to do or never got the opportunity do when you were employed. We both feel that it’s kind of ruined us for working for someone else in the future 🙂

  • Excellent post. What you have listed her applies not only to small businesses but doing business in general. I work corporate and I find employing these same skills really helps me in that environment too. Working with and building relationships with others is huge when it comes to success.

  • Nicole says:

    One of our favorite aspects of networking and running our own business is the new skills we’re developing, the people we’re meeting and the small group gatherings where we just sit around and talk about technology and how to do our jobs better. It’s exciting and I can definitely see how that would be beneficial as a corporate employee as well.

  • Jim says:

    Excellent post, it goes to show that you are always selling. People often say they are not in sales, but thats not true. You may not be selling a product or service, but you are certainly selling yourself. Ray Croc, founder of McDonalds, was not in sales, but he revolutionized the delivery of hamburgers to the public. How did he do that, outstanding sales and marketing! Gotta get your work in front of people, or else they never know you exist!

    • Nicole says:

      Sorry to take a whole week to respond to your comment Jim! It’s just been crazy. It’s funny you mention Ray Croc…I heard that he always said he wasn’t in the hamburger business but rather the real estate business. 🙂

  • Nicole, excellent post! I love your tip about going and meeting potential new clients in person when possible. You are so right about the trust factor – it makes all the difference!

    • Nicole says:

      Thanks Laurie. It really does seem to help seal the deal when you’re trying to bring on a new client. Not always but its especially helpful for people that tend to keep all their business relationships local.

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