How to Succeed Without Selling: A First-Person Perspective

When Amy and I launched Matinee Creative back in January, we expected to have to fight for new business. And we figured this-here blog would be one of our most valuable weapons in the battle.

As you can see, though, it has gone mostly unused. Because something unexpected happened: Through very little effort of our own, Matinee landed an astonishing array of clients in its first few months: food and beverage startups; nonprofits; cause-driven digital agencies; global manufacturing brands. Just to name a few.

So we haven’t blogged, because we’ve been really, really busy. This is one of those classic “good problems” to have, and lately, I’ve been reflecting on how we ended up with it. What did we do right? And how might our clients—or other aspiring entrepreneurs—learn from it?

Certainly, we had a bit of a head-start thanks to Amy’s past as an independent freelance designer. Also, we’ve been lucky. The stars have mostly aligned in our favor (Thanks, stars!).

But the more I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized that we did work for what we’ve achieved over the past five months. It’s just that much of it was done unconsciously, with no specific business goals attached to it. But my guess is that if you pursue the following five suggestions with intention, it’ll work out well for your business, too.

  1. Don’t neglect good relationships. When Amy shut down her freelance business a couple of years ago to join me in Agency Land, she could have easily have told her clients to find someone else to handle their projects. Instead, she continued to work for a handful of her smaller, most loyal clients on the side—even though it meant quite a few long nights and hectic weekends. By doing so, she not only preserved those relationships, but also strengthened her reputation as someone who won’t leave her clients hanging. Now  those old Amy McAdams Design clients are some of Matinee Creative’s most valuable referral sources.
  2. Don’t obsess over your image. Sure, it’s important to indulge in some self-examination when you’re planning your business. You need to make sure your brand is strong, and that you’re telling the right story to the right people. But it’s dangerously easy to slip into a sort of entrepreneurial narcissism where you’re constantly looking at the world through a self-serving perspective. Not only is this a turn-off for prospects, but it’s emotionally exhausting. You’re far better off spending your time cultivating an interest in the people and institutions around you. Do this in good faith, and good things are bound to happen for your business.
  3. Be a good neighbor. Amy and I make a habit of talking to our neighbors and patronizing neighborhood shops and restaurants regularly. So it’s no coincidence that we’ve landed three clients whose homes or businesses are within three blocks of our house. Proximity-wise, your neighborhood is the lowest-hanging fruit there is in terms of business prospects. This is not to say you should “sell” to your neighbors (definitely don’t do that). Just be a good neighbor, and the business opportunities are almost sure to follow.
  4. Be a willing wingman (or wingwoman). When we launched Matinee Creative, Amy and I made it clear to our friends in the creative community—web developers, photographers, filmmakers, and even other designers and writers—that we had no problem lending a helping hand if they ever needed a writer- or designer-for-hire. So far, partnerships with other creative vendors have accounted for roughly 20 percent of our business. And we often return the favor, hiring fellow small businesses or freelancers for projects that require work outside of our skillset.
  5. Find a competent, capable collaborator. Amy and I are lucky: We have each other. Our creative chemistry as a writer-designer team is a huge part of what makes us valuable to clients. And being a team makes things much easier than flying solo. Together, we can divide and conquer the administrative parts of the job—writing proposals, billing, handling contracts—according to our strengths. This isn’t to say you should start a business with your spouse. But having a talented, hardworking partner who you can trust implicitly is an invaluable asset to your business (and its clients).

Don’t get me wrong. We don’t have it all figured out. We’re still learning how to manage our time and throughput. We often find ourselves trading off parenting duties so the other one can work on a Saturday or Sunday. And even though business has been good, we wouldn’t recommend that anyone neglect their blog for five months! With that in mind, we look forward to sharing more in this space soon (even if it means the occasional Saturday afternoon blogging session).