Relationship Marketing

Lessons learnt from my first year in business


I like hearing stories about how new businesses were started. I always find it interesting and inspiring to hear about how intrepid start-ups chased dreams, followed their own paths and managed to do what they love for a living. Some of them succeeded, others failed, but every single one made mistakes and learned lessons along the way.

Now that my business has survived it's first year I thought I would share my own story too. This isn't exactly about how I got started, but about the mistakes I made and the invaluable lessons I learned during my first year in business.


Lesson 1: It takes time to build a business

My first mistake was to think I could have my business up and running in three or four months, when it took me almost an entire year. I completely underestimated the amount of time it would take.

Why did it take me so long? Because before I could even start looking for clients there was a lot of pre-work and preparation that had to be done beforehand around two essential areas:

1. Understanding my market

After working for more than a decade in marketing for large international corporations I thought I was ready to help small businesses with their marketing activities. However, just because I learned a lot about marketing and design during all those years in the corporate world, I didn’t know anything about small businesses yet.

I had to take time to research my target market and understand specific small business owner’s motivations, needs and challenges.

2. Differentiating myself from everyone else

I also had to understand how competitors were already helping small businesses with marketing/design solutions and what I could do for them that others weren’t already doing.

So by way of differentiation, I decided to target creative businesses. I studied how photographers, designers, artists and lifestyle bloggers work, the insights of their businesses, the reasons why they do what they do, and so on. And I finally found a clear direction for my own business: a design studio specialised in lifestyle clients.

Once I had a good understanding of my market and a clear direction for my business, I was ready to build a brand and a website to appeal to this market. I was also able to find opportunities that I hadn’t initially considered, like selling online workbooks and planners to help those creative businesses plan their marketing activities.

In conclusion, knowing how to “do the job” is not enough to start a business. Having a deep understanding of your market is key to avoid important mistakes that can make you waste money and time. This understanding requires a lot of pre-work before you can even register your business name.


Lesson 2: Simplicity is key

Over a decade I worked in different areas of marketing, covering branding, digital marketing, event management, etc, I was confident I could help small business owners with their marketing activities in many ways. So this one was my first business description on my website:

“Grafika Studio is a full service agency that provides comprehensive branding, design and online marketing services in one-stop shop so that you only have to work with one agency.”

That description was followed by a long list of marketing and design services that covered many different areas of my own expertise.

After a few months I changed my website description and reduced the number of services to Branding and Web Design only. Why? Because the wider the offer is the more confusing the business gets.

So after a few months offering help with different marketing areas I decided to focus only on the services I know best. This way I can ensure the best quality in everything I do.

Top quality restaurants usually have very brief menus; they don’t offer a bit of everything, but only their very best dishes, the ones that set them apart.

Does this mean I cannot work with clients from other industries or help them with other areas of marketing? Of course I can, but branding and design services for creative businesses are my specialties.


Lesson 3: Relationships are essential to build a business

When I started my business I thought about so many ways to promote myself, but I overlooked the most important one: networking and relationship building. Until I realised that word-of-mouth and referrals were actually the way in which I was finding my clients.

In the professional service industry, people choose small businesses because of whom they know, and because they think they will make a great team working together. People want to know you before working with you.

So if you’ve just started your business, launched your website and are relying just on, for example, some SEO marketing to find your first clients, you may be about to learn the same lesson than I did: relationship marketing must be the priority in your marketing agenda.

Even if an SEO guru manages to take your website to the top of the ranking, this may lead more traffic to your site, but your website may still be failing to convert visitors into clients.

A relationship-oriented website could improve your conversion rate and get more visitors enquiring about your services. What’s a relationship-oriented website? They're websites designed to engage visitors by starting conversations – through blog comments, social media, chats, etc, and to stay in touch after leaving the website – through newsletters, social media pages, and more.

In this other article on relationship marketing for small businesses you can find more information about how to build a relationship-oriented website.

Every small business owner is in a continuous learning process since they start a new business. Learning from mistakes and improving your business on a daily basis is vital for any small business to survive.

Are you a small business owner? What lessons did you learn from your first year in business?


Key Relationships for Small Businesses


People are the foundation of any business. The most successful business entrepreneurs are those who better understand people’s needs and provide solutions to them. So us, small business owners know that our success depends a lot on our capacity to build long-lasting and positive relationships with different groups of interest.

Building relationships requires time, effort and a mutual benefit for each part. As in any relationship, you must be willing to give, share and support, not just take or receive.

In today’s post I’m sharing some of my best practises to build relationships and how they impact on my business.


Who are those groups of interest

1. Clients. Most small business owners find it easier to sell a new product or service to an existing client than finding a new one. For this reason, keeping in touch with my clients after delivering a project is one of the priorities in my agenda.

Also a happy client can become a referral.  There is nothing I love more than someone contacting me and saying “Hi Rosa… { name of a previous client } has referred me to you to build my new brand or design my new website...” My clients are the most powerful marketing strategy to get new jobs, by word-of-mouth. Meeting and exceeding expectations and staying in touch on a regular basis quite often brings repeat business and new clients.

2. Suppliers. Good vendor relationships will carry you through challenging times or tight deadlines. As they’re also part of my business industry, they are quite often connected to many potential clients and can also refer some work to me.

Employees and business partners also come into this group. I think the main reason why I’ve seen many small businesses to fail has been due to internal issues between business partners.

3. Local community. People who are geographically close to your business could be your best potential clients. Local businesses with a similar target audience, but not competitors, usually offer great joint venture opportunities. For example, if you have a sports clothing store, you can offer exclusive discounts for members of local gyms.

4. Media and bloggers. They may not be your target market or potential clients but they can be excellent influencers. Research has demonstrated that 81% of blog readers trust the advice given by their favourite blogs, and 61% of them made a purchase based on a blogger’s recommendation*.

Getting interest or attention from this group can be challenging as their mailboxes are always saturated with press releases and feature requests. I found the best way to approach to bloggers is by giving a product for free to write a review on it or hiring them to write sponsored content on your brand and products.

5. Competitors. Sharing information, struggles, resources and best practices with other industry fellows can also be a very important factor to build success.

A few years ago, I used to attend industry events, join professional organisations and even be part of their committees. Now I’m a mum and don’t have as much time as I used to before having my baby, I found that a simple coffee with other creative entrepreneurial mums with similar businesses in the area is the best networking activity that I can do on a weekly basis.

I'm honestly surprised by the amount of emails that I get everyday from web design and seo companies asking me if I want to partner with them and outsource some projects. I feel as if someone just sent me an email asking me to marry him and I don't even know that person. I prefer a slower business approach that allows my potential clients and myself to get to know each other and ensure we'll make a fantastic team.


Three ways to build business relationships

1. Social Media

Social media is designed to help people build relationships of any kind, and almost every business uses these platforms for that purpose. People make friends, fall in love and stay in touch with long-distance friends and family members through social media channels. Why can't clients fall in love with your brand or your products through those channels too? They certainly can.

When you have different social media channels you can use each of them to connect with a different group. For example, I found Facebook and Instagram great channels to connect with clients and prospects, Twitter is great to build relationships with suppliers, Pinterest is excellent to be found by bloggers and LinkedIn perfect to connect with industry fellows.

2. Events

Social media is an easy way to connect with your audience but it's not even close to having a face-to-face conversation with someone. An event can offer the perfect opportunity to build relationships with any of the groups mentioned above by meeting and talking to people face-to-face in a relaxed context and friendly environment.

In this other post I offer some event marketing tips for promoting local businesses.

3. Relationship-oriented websites

Yes, that’s right, your website can also be a great opportunity to start long-lasting relationship with potential clients if it’s being properly designed and oriented to build those relationships.

To design a relationship-oriented website I try to think about what my clients would do if it was an event: people come into the venue – your website –, you meet and greet them and introduce yourself – your about page – , then you offer free refreshments – downloadables, discount coupons, free advise and tips – and start different conversations with your guests  - that can be done through your contact page or your blog comments - . And finally you get their business cards for future communications while in your website you can collect contact details through a sign-up form to stay in touch.

This other article on relationship marketing by Sharon Fling published on Business Know-how offers some more useful tips to use your website and email to build long-lasting relationships with your market.

* Source: Quicksprout, How To Develop A Solid Blog Outreach Strategy