You're smart, tenacious and exceedingly good at what you do but, alas, not wealthy or flush with venture capital. You've started a business, and now you need to tell the world. Given our druthers, we'd all like to run ads on TV, in magazines and in newspapers. But if you don't have the budget to advertise in these mediums consistently, you're probably wasting your money. What's a poor entrepreneur to do?
The good news: Many entrepreneurs find low-cost methods of reaching their target markets to be exceptionally effective. It's a good thing, too. According to a recent survey by The Willard & Shullman Group (www.wsgresearch.com), small-business owners often look to their own resources (cash, credit cards or personal lines of credit) for capital-making lean and mean promotion methods a necessity. Two low-dough approaches are public speaking and business writing. These marketing methods allow ye of little cash to make a big splash, attract clients and increase product/service visibility.
GET OUT THERE
Right in your own back yard, there are limitless public-speaking opportunities. If you belong to a trade organization like the chamber of commerce, contact them to see if you can speak at trade shows or seminars. Contact adult or continuing education outlets to see if you can teach a class. Volunteer to be a guest lecturer at the local university. Put together your own free seminar and send invitations to prospects.
Because the terror of public speaking outranks the fear of death for many people, preparation is key. You may want to start with small groups until your comfort level is increased. You'll find that having a fairly standardized presentation makes for an easier time, as you'll be well-versed on the topic and potential questions from the audience. For each event, study your audience, and add in real-life examples that are pertinent to the group's interests.
At the very least, have handouts for the audience-overheads, too, if possible; charts, graphs and before-and-after stats are great ways to illustrate examples. There's nothing lamer than a presentation where the speaker just drones on and on with no handouts or visual props. Try to engage your audience from the outset, and encourage people to ask questions or meet with you after the presentation.
Practicing your presentation before friends or family is one of the best ways to shoo away the nervous butterflies many of us feel when speaking to a crowd. Let them give you constructive criticism and throw you curveball questions. (My husband, for instance, prepares me for any crowd by heckling me.) Once you've gone through the verbal presentation, work in any audiovisual components to ensure all are working correctly. Have a glass of water on hand and sip from it; pretend to field responses from your "audience."
One entrepreneur who used public speaking to great advantage is Shannon Entin, 31, founder of health and fitness site FitnessLink.com. Entin got speaking engagements at industry trade shows and developed a program about how fitness professionals can use the Internet to build their businesses. Talk about low-cost marketing-Entin actually got paid to speak!
THE WRITE STUFF
Another way to market your business without a lot of cash is by writing articles and books. You can start small by contacting the business editors of local publications. Plan to write about a topic you know well, and support your assertions with research, interviews and personal experience in your business. Once you get some clips of your best work, you can query larger regional or national publications. You'll need a copy of the latest Writer's Market (Writer's Digest Books, $27.99, www.writersdigest.com), and you'll need to do your homework on the audience for each publication.
In addition to public speaking, Entin found success by securing feature articles in industry trade publications. These articles cost Entinnothing but her time, and in some cases, she earned a writer's fee. Entin parlayed her experience into writing a book when she became a co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Health and Fitness (Macmillan, $18.95, www.fitnesslink.com).
Another way to become an expert is literally to write the book on your specialty. Noah St. John, 33, author of Permission to Succeed: Unlocking the Mystery of Success Anorexia (Health Communications, $14.97, www.permissiontosucceed.com), is the founder of The Success Clinic of America, a Hadley, Massachusetts, firm where St. John coaches corporate and individual clients who want to stop limiting their own success.
St. John has built both his reputation and business through publishing; he started by self-publishing in 1998, and the book was then released through Health Communications. St. John's advice on publishing a book also applies to writing articles: Find something interesting to say, find an interesting way to say it, and give it a "grabber" title. When developing the premise, title and hook for your writing, make sure you can state your point, in just one sentence. For his own book, he uses "This book is about why so many smart, creative, talented people push their own success away."
As for the business aspect of publishing, St. John offers the following tips: Self-publish before going through a traditional publisher, get a fabulous headshot of yourself, and make the front cover impossible to ignore. St. John also says you need to be prepared to be your own media expert, publicist, direct marketer, salesperson and cheerleader-never let another person determine your fate.
St. John and Entin both used publishing and public speaking to further their businesses on very little money. Entin had just her personal savings, and St. John started with about $4,000. By employing targeted tactics for gaining recognition, they have both grown their enterprises into profitable businesses with a national client base.
The world's oldest marketing techniques are word-of-mouth referral and networking to get those referrals. Graphic designer Lisa Muller-Jones, 32, owner of mojo graphic design in Portland, Maine, started her freelance design career in 1990 and went full time in 1996. Muller-Jones has never done any paid advertising-her entire client base is from referrals.
Muller-Jones had been working for a large corporation with international offices when she took the great leap into self-employment. She gave up the benefits, the perks and the security to start her own business, and she did it with no money-just her car, a cell phone and a computer.
To make her career change even more daunting, she moved to a new city while her business was in its infancy stage. Within 18 months of moving to Portland from Chicago, Muller-Jones had a roster of 12 to 15 clients per month. How'd she do it with no money and no advertising?
"Fearlessness, follow-up, friendliness and flexibility," says Muller-Jones. "When my husband, Max, and I were set on moving to Portland, I sent e-mails to 10 advertising agencies asking for a meeting." Of those 10 e-mails, she got five responses, five interviews, and she converted three of them to clients within six months. "I've done some print advertising on a trade basis and not gotten one call," she says. "I believe the personal relationships with prospects and people in your industry are far more powerful for attracting new business."
Once Muller-Jones gets clients, she finds ways to keep in touch with them regularly. She's constantly doing "best practices" research and sharing information she's unearthed. "It's an immediate-need business, and I have to be the one they think of when they need a brochure, a logo or a package design, so I'm always in touch." That approach has worked with amazing speed for Muller-Jones: Her first full day in Portland, with not even an apartment yet, she landed a project for a shoe manufacturer through an agency. "I called the agency to check in, and they said 'Can you be here in 40 minutes?' " She was.
Kimberly McCall is the president of McCallMedia & Marketing, Inc (www.MarketingAngel.com). She is the monthly "Game Plan" columnist for Entrepreneur magazine and a frequent inc.com contributor.