Hooray I’ve started a business! Now what? A new business crash course in “getting out there”

Starting your own business and following your passion is one of the bravest, hardest and most rewarding things you’ll ever do. It takes a lot of courage to leave behind the safety of a 9-5 job and a secure pay cheque and put all of your faith in yourself. While you may well have a business plan and some great products and ideas, the hardest part of getting off the ground is figuring out how to get out there.

This is evidenced by the plethora of emails I get every week from new business owners, full of all the enthusiasm and passion you need to succeed but feeling overwhelmed, wondering how to stand out in an often crowded marketplace and how to get noticed by brides. Sorry if this is a bit of an epic post, but there was no simple one answer to how to “get out there”. This may take a while, but if you’re a small business, print it out and highlight the bits you find helpful!

Get to know the wedding community

John Donne (and not Jon Bon Jovi, for you About a Boy fans) was right when he said that no man (or woman) is an island. If you were in an office, you’d have colleagues, but you’re a sole trader or small business – you need your allies.

Start by doing your research – it’s a big industry with lots of players. The best place to start is by reading blogs and magazines and spending some time on Twitter and Facebook (if you’re new to the industry and you want to meet some people but don’t know how to find other industry folk, tweet me @thevintageveil and I’ll give you a shout out).

How do I tweet?

Twitter is a big conversation and should be treated as such. Sure, it’s a  place to let people know what you’re up to and tweet out your links etc. but more than that it’s a place to talk to people. Here’s a tiny little mini guide on using Twitter as a business:

Do follow and say hi to like-minded professionals in your industry.

Don’t follow hundreds of people / celebrities at once. Twitter is about a slow build, build a relationship with the people you follow.

Do retweet things you find interesting and be helpful where possible.

Don’t follow everyone who follows you. It’s not a rule, just like you don’t have to be friends with everyone you encounter. Some people think it’s just politeness, but I’m more of a fan of authenticity. Follow people you connect with and find interesting.

Do take the opportunity to go find out about local tweet ups. Don’t worry if you’re not officially invited, contact the organiser and say you’d like to come, people are generally very supportive and will happily have you there!

Don’t bitch and moan, not about your problems, not about other people in the industry. Even posting a cryptic “someone” is pissing me off message is really uncool and makes everyone in your news feed paranoid that you’re talking about them. Remember this is your professional account, every time you think about hitting publish on a bit of a whinge, ask yourself “if I was a bride reading this, what would I think?”

Do talk to people on their merits or because they’re nice to you and not because you think they’re important. We all have to start somewhere. I have a friend who felt really ignored at the start of her wedding journey because she was a “nobody”. She’s now a hugely successful designer and all the people who ignored her are falling over themselves to feature her, but her loyalties are with those that helped her get there in the first place. Give people the time of day to be nice and not because you have an agenda.

Don’t randomly tweet people and ask them to retweet your business stuff. It’s awkward and a bit odd, like approaching a stranger in the street and asking them to hand out fliers for you. The mighty Kat from rocknrollbride.com put it best in her blogging workshop (and perhaps the best advice I’ve ever had on social media management) that if it would be weird in real life, it will be weird on Twitter.

Do look out for styled shoot opportunities that might be good for you. There are loads of people doing loads of shoots all the time, so really research the people you’ll be working with and make sure you get some great portfolio images you’re allowed to use out of it. I’ll touch on this in a minute…

Don’t only use Twitter to network with professionals, brides use Twitter too – don’t bombard them with info about your business but generally be helpful and nice to them and make them aware of you.

Do be aware of follower numbers – don’t follow hundreds more people than are following you.

Don’t do long Follow Friday or Wedding Wednesday lists. Most people will be too nice to tell you directly (including me) but they generally tend to just annoy people. There’s nothing personal or friendly about tagging someone arbitrarily in a long list of other names. My rule is that IF I do a Follow Friday (or #ff for the uninitiated) I will choose individuals for specific reasons why people might like to follow them. Rather two or three personal recommendations than pages and pages of Twitter names that can come across as spammy and clog up other people’s news feeds, or even a list of two or three people such as your favourite bloggers or designers. Here’s an example:

THUMBS UP @thevintageveil: a special #ff to @randomweddingprofessional for their really insightful and passionate post on cakes this week, definitely worth a read.
THUMBS DOWN @thevintageveil: #ff @randomweddingprofessional @notsorandomprofessional @mydadsdog @myneighboursgoat @personinevertalkto @personwhounfollowedmemonthsago @unclebob @someonewhonevertweetsmeback etc. etc.

Facing the Facebook crowd

Many small businesses make the mistake of using Facebook all wrong! Facebook can be a great vehicle for getting your stuff out to brides and getting to know the industry, but it can also be your undoing if you’re not clued in. Here’s my mini, mini, mini crash course in Facebook management for small businesses.

Do start a business page, as opposed to a personal profile or group. It’s the easiest and most accessible way for your audience to interact with you and puts a bit of professional distance between you and your customers.

Don’t bitch and moan. Facebook is no different to Twitter when it comes to maintaining your professionalism.

Do interact with and comment on other business pages as your Facebook page instead of as you personally.

Don’t spam people. It’s seriously annoying, especially for more established businesses, when every small business under the sun comments on your wall linking to their own page and asking you to like them back. It comes across as spammy, needy and inconsiderate, even if you really didn’t mean it to. Leave genuine comments and people will like you back out of respect, not duty.

Do bully your friends into liking your page to get numbers up and encourage them to share and comment. Everyone has to start somewhere and what are friends for eh?

Don’t solely post things that are about you and your business. The occasional inspiring post, beautiful image or well-timed question can be real conversation starters and make people feel more involved with your little corner of the Internet.

Do run regular Facebook competitions and promotions to keep up your likes and keep people interested.

Don’t post lots of links at once as it will reduce the amount of people who see them, that’s just the way Facebook works, space them out by a few hours.

Do  think about what time of day you’re posting. Try to catch the morning commute / start of work or the evening “in front of TV” crowd for maximum impact.

An image from an early Under the Vintage Veil styled shoot, © 2012 the mighty Emma Lucy Photography, who I’ve repeatedly worked with since because of her professionalism and talent

Styled shoots and building a portfolio

You may have the prettiest products in the world, but it’s no good having wonderful products and no way of showing people! Styled shoots are a great way of getting your work out there and getting them featured in magazines or on blogs. However, with so many teams of people meeting up to shoot together, you need to make sure you’re working with the right people and that the end result will be worth your while:

Do your research. The key players in a styled shoot are the stylist / coordinator and the photographer. You need to trust that the stylist can put together a great team and that the photographer can capture your work, so look at their portfolio and track record before you commit.

Don’t sign up for everything going. Be selective with the opportunities you take and think about your audience the whole time. For example, is a gothic shoot going to reach your market when you’re a contemporary cake designer? It might be fun but the end goal is to get your products out to your customers.

Do find a team you like to work with and keep in touch / work with them in the future. Finding great people to work with can be hard so build up a little white book of contacts.

Don’t be a diva or a pushover on the day. Find comfortable boundaries and a good mix of being cooperative and helpful and making sure you’re represented in the best way. Be easy to work with while staying true to yourself, and always follow the brief you’ve been given.

Do mix it up a bit. While it’s important to find people you’re comfortable working with, don’t fall into the trap of shooting with exactly the same group of people every time or at the same venue.

Don’t break the rules. If you’re asked not to show people the pictures before a certain date, for example, it’s for a really good reason.

Do make everything clear from the start, from how you’d like to be credited to how you can and can’t use the images in future.

Don’t forget to shout about any resulting coverage and if you’re featured on a blog, ask the blogger for a badge so you can link back to the feature on your site.

The Strawberry Hills stand at last year’s National Wedding Show was so inviting and unique that I booked them for my own hen party. Image © Emma Lucy Photography

PR, advertising, wedding fairs and branding

So you’ve made some industry contacts, gathered some fabulous images of your products and now it’s time to show the world what you can do! Consider investing time and / or money in PR and advertising. I’m not going to go on too much about that here because I’ve written extensively about it in the past – first of all, here is my post on the differences between PR and advertising, and, if you don’t have a PR budget, a guide to contacting bloggers. I strongly suggest that you read it before firing off any emails as first impressions count!

One thing I’d add to your PR and marketing drive is, no matter what else you do, attach a blog to your website so you can regularly update, showcase your work and keep the content on your site nice and fresh for Google / show off your achievements.

All’s fair in love and weddings

One of the most direct routes to reaching brides is the traditional (or in some cases, not so traditional) wedding fair. I haven’t written very much about this yet, but if you are going to put your faith and money into a wedding fair, consider the following first:

Do think about your audience in the same way you would if you were featuring on a blog or doing a styled shoot. If you don’t have a big budget, choose a smaller fair with a good reputation that’s within your niche.

Don’t fade into the background. What do you do that’s unique and different and how can you best showcase that to the brides walking past your stall? For example, we do Q&A sessions at wedding fairs, bring along actual samples of our DIY work, have a large screen with our posts scrolling along and give away relevant gifts, like a mini wedding SOS guide. Do something that represents who you are and lets the world know that you’re there.

Do gather data by running a competition and make sure brides give permission to be added to your newsletter or database.

Don’t forget to brand everything you give out so that people don’t forget who you are!

Do give special incentives for people to book you or buy from you at the stall. An on-the-day discount and perhaps a slightly less generous discount for people who book within a certain time period?

Don’t be pushy. If you’re friendly, natural and approachable, there’s no need to pounce on poor brides walking past you, stuffing them with leaflets and going for the hard sell.

Do make sure you’re listed on the fair’s website and that you take advantage of any coverage they put out.

Brand new business? Brand your business!

Think about the strongest brands out there. They know who their audience is and they are very clear on their own identity. Everything they put out there, from their web copy to their products to their logo is in line with their brand and image.

The keys to branding are consistency and authenticity. Does your brand represent who you are as a business? Is your brand strong across the board? For example, you could have a kick-ass logo and website and really lacklustre web copy, which is incredibly jarring for anyone who stumbles across it.

Brand alignment is also really important. Try to collaborate with brands you admire. For example, if a designer you love is having a customer event and you’re a cake designer, offer up cakes for the party. If a respected magazine is having a celebration and you’re a hire company, offer your services. When choosing brands to work with, try to find respected professionals with a great reputation whose audience and customer base is similar to yours.

And a few general final words of advice…

Be nice! Just be nice to everyone, don’t get into conflict, don’t start a big “thing” with someone. If you’re not comfortable with something, be firm and polite. If you’re not a fan of someone, politely walk away. If you don’t want to take on a job, don’t be rude when you turn it down.

If you make mistakes or if something doesn’t quite work for you, don’t beat yourself up. I must have made every mistake in the book on my Under the Vintage Veil journey, and that really is OK! Learn from them, don’t dwell, don’t seek reassurance from the world, just move on and try a different tactic next time, people forget quickly and your mistakes will soon be yesterday’s news if you don’t add fuel to the fire.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, NEVER FEED THE TROLLS. If somebody is trying to argue with you for the sake of it, laugh and ignore it and focus on the positive comments, don’t get drawn into a social media war.

And very finally, all of this means nothing if your product isn’t genuinely worth it – don’t just say you’re different, show people through the calibre and quality of your work and let your professionalism speak for itself.

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