When I was seventeen, I was expected to write a series of essays for my college applications. All of the questions that I had to respond to were more or less the same: Talk about your most profound life accomplishment, or reflect on your greatest challenge and how you overcame it. Or, if the university was feeling really creative, they would throw something at you like: Imagine that you were stranded on a deserted island with 100 other people, and you were responsible for providing them all with food, water, and shelter. Based on your life experiences, how would you take action?
Ridiculous, I know.
How is an emotionally unstable, acne-ridden high school kid supposed to answer any of those? What "accomplishments" are they even referring to?
And even though most high school seniors have no real experience, insight or wisdom that would properly equip them for these essays, we still sit down and write them. We learn the art of embellishment. We grasp the concept of “fake it till you make it” and write about how earth-shattering our existence is for 2,000 words.
Why? Because this is what we had to do to get accepted. It is a small yet crucial step that will (supposedly) grant us access into the school of our dreams and see a lifetime of success.
And when new entrepreneurs are looking to sign their first clients, they often come to me with the same question: How do I prove myself to be an expert to these prospects if I lack any real experience? If I don’t have any testimonials or previous examples of my work, what do I do to convince them?
There are four key points that I say in response to this question. I want to share them with you now.
1. You don't need to be an expert to get paid for your work
Here’s a little secret that most people won’t ever tell you: Everyone feels insecure about being inadequate at their craft in the beginning. Even people who have been working in the field for 20 years still hear a voice in the back of their head that says “Who are you to be charging for these services? How long will it take for people to find out that you’re a total fraud?”
So, if you’re worried about your experience or skill, you are not alone. It’s totally normal to feel insecure about this in your new business.
But here’s the good news: No one actually expects you to be an expert. All they care about is you helping them to solve an issue faster than they would be able to solve it themselves.
If you are even half a step ahead of them in terms of your skills and knowledge, they will be more than happy to pay for you for your services.
Here’s one of my favorite examples to highlight this idea. Think about the time you first learned how to cook pasta. Maybe it was a parent or sibling who taught you how to boil the water, put the pasta into the pot, set the timer for 10 minutes, and then drain it.
When you learned this skill, did you turn to your mom and demand that she tell you what cooking awards she had won? Did you ask to see her diploma from culinary school? Did you inquire about her participation on Iron Chef?
Probably not, because it doesn’t matter. All that matters was that she was able to help you learn this skill faster than you would have been able to learn it yourself.
If you can help a client do that - even if you’re still learning the craft yourself - receiving compensation for your work is totally valid.
Making this mindset switch and accepting your skill set for what it is is crucial to gaining clients in the beginning. Otherwise, your clients will see right through your insecurities.
2. Offer free work
I used to be very anti-free work. I was disgusted when someone requested that I write the first three articles for free as a copywriter to “prove myself”, or provide a free marketing strategy before getting started.
But now, I’ve learned that when the idea comes from the service provider and the free work is within reasonable means, this is one of the fastest ways to gain testimonials, build relationships with industry players, gain a reputation for yourself, and open the doors to your first set of clients.
This is also a great option for those who are still uncomfortable charging for their work and want to lower the pressure.
In order to do this, identify a series of potential clients and reach out with a proposal on how you can help them improve. Explain exactly what you do and how you’ll help them see results, and offer it free of charge. Very few companies will say no to this.
If you’re uncomfortable offering full-blown free work, create a smaller, short-term package that you can offer them. For example, if you’re a social media marketer, offer them one month of free social media help. If you’re a business coach, offer them a one-hour free coaching session. If you’re a developer, offer to create a new page for their website. Offer whatever is comfortable for you without feeling taken advantage of.
After this experience, 99% of companies will be more than happy to provide you with testimonials. You then have some new work examples to add to your portfolio and you have a new relationship with a potential client. They could then turn into a new client and they can refer you to others. Win win win.
3. Create content and get it published
I know what you’re thinking: This one is a no-duh. But what most people don’t do is take the blog content that they create and submit it to various publications. If you can get featured in one publication, even if it’s a low-level one with a relatively small readership, this is immediate social proof that you can add to your website.
And within that small readership, even if one of them resonates with your article, they can become a client within 24 hours. This is such a simple step to take, yet most people get stuck at the above mentioned “I’m not good enough!” phase to actually hit the submit button. My advice? Get over yourself and just do it. You can easily identify various publications with tools like BuzzSumo.
So get writing!
4. Go for the low-hanging, local fruit
Most likely, there are people right in front of your eyes who are ready and willing to invest in your services, but you're too busy online to even notice them. These people are your family members, friends, and others in your community.
For example, if you're trying to start a Facebook Ads agency, instead of finding online entrepreneurs who want to sign with you, find local doctors offices, restaurants, and clothing shops. It is much easier to gain the trust and support of local business owners than it is online businesses.
Brick and mortar shops aren't exposed to the amount of online competition that you are in terms of service providers. If you're trying to find clients in a Facebook group, for example, you might be posting within a community of 10,000 other digital marketers. But if you walk into your local dentist office, establish common ground ("My aunt's a patient here!" or "I grew up with your kids!"), and tell them how you can help their business, it will be much easier to close the sale.
Even if these local businesses aren't your ideal clients, they're still a great place to start for getting some experience and testimonials under your belt.
5. Fake it till you make it
This goes back to the above college application story. For whatever reason, this concept gets a bad reputation. This shocks me because every single entrepreneur I know across various industries has used this technique to break through barriers and see success. It’s just how it works.
But when I say “fake it till you make it”, I’m not talking about blatantly lying and creating a false identity for yourself. I’m talking about having the confidence to envision your future and channeling that reality today.
Essentially, your thoughts, words, and self-perception become your reality. If you perceive yourself as inexperienced, that will be communicated to others. But if you perceive yourself as a badass who’s totally confident and capable of helping others achieve success, that will be communicated too.
Here’s an example.
My mom has a friend who had a dream of opening up a clothing store 15 years ago. She didn’t know anything about fashion or retail or entrepreneurship, but she decided to go for it anyway. She got the loan, opened the store, and it quickly became one of the most well-known women’s clothing stores in our area.
How did this happen? She told people that she was a successful brick and mortar store owner from day one. She talked about how people flooded in on her store’s opening day, even though attendance was underwhelming. Her personality was full of confidence when others asked her about her new store was doing. She got her family and friends to wear shirts around town with the store’s name on it and hung up flyers. She created a buzz even when the buzz wasn’t really there.
Essentially, she channeled this imaginary success around her business until it manifested into her reality. And this is what you need to do too.
Just as you had to do as a 17-year-old writing a college essay on your life’s greatest accomplishments, you now need to do that in your business. Identify your skill set and any relevant experiences, and build a story upon them that will make them stand out. Learn how to speak about yourself in a way that emulates confidence, success, excitement, and drive. That alone will sell itself.
I understand that getting your first client in the door is intimidating, but the greatest challenge that you're really facing are your own mental barriers that are sabotaging your success. If you follow the above steps, you'll be an expert booking clients in no time. Now...go!