September 1, 2000
Something for nothing
© 2000, Douglas E. Welch
In the past I have cautioned against working for free once you have established your computer career, but there are times, especially when you are working as an independent consultant, where giving possible clients a free sample of your services might just be a way to build your business. Below are a few examples for marketing yourself without giving away everything you know.
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A popular method for programmers to sell their software has been the shareware concept. This allows computer users to download software and only pay for it if they continue to use the software. While the honor system probably isn't the way to become a millionaire, it can allow you, as a programmer, to build a dedicated base of users who might eventually be persuaded to purchase a more fully featured and expensive commercial version of the product. It can also assist in the important task of building your own reputation as a programmer.
People who sell services, consultants, trainers, etc., can use this shareware concept to help build your business. You certainly don't want to give away all your expertise, but merely give potential clients an idea of your skills and expertise.
A little taste
One example from my own life was a series of free Introduction to Internet classes I provided at my local library branch. These classes started out as simply a volunteer project. I quickly found out, though, that the class was generating clients for my training and consulting services. I wasn't trying to sell my services at all, but often had several people ask me if I was available to help them with their computer problems at their office or home. Even this "no sell" method generated at least 1 client each week and sometime many more. If I had pursued more of a sales angle during these classes I think I could have easily generated many more hours of work. Not only did it feel good helping people out, but I was also able to make a few dollars for myself. I consider this a nearly perfect arrangement.
While it may seem a bit crude to describe it this way, this type of marketing is much the same as that used at your local warehouse store. They offer a small taste of the new quiche, barbecue sauce, convenience food, etc., in hopes of enticing you to buy. There is a reason they spend the time and money to do this it works!
So what can you do to build your client base? First, if you are a computer trainer or consultant, you can use my example above. Find a good location that will allow you to do a class or question & answer session. You will want to find a location that caters to the clientele you are trying to reach. I tend to work with a lot of seniors so the library was a good fit for me. You might try a local coffee bar, bookstore or similar establishment.
If you are a programmer you might consider offering your skills to a non-profit organization for a reduced rate or even for free, if the project is a small one. In the past I have set up simple database and label systems as part of my volunteer work. It is possible they might have a small budget for projects like this so you can get paid a token honorarium, as well. Work such as this can result in a further professional relationship with the non-profit or recommendations to other groups and businesses who deal with the non-profit organization.
Web site design and maintenance is also in great demand. Teaching a small class on setting up a basic web site, or even just explaining how the web works gives you an opportunity to showcase your web design skills. If you are just starting out doing a few small jobs for free can help to build a portfolio that you can use to sell clients in the future. Again, don't overextend yourself by offering too much of your time. These types of arrangements should always be "win-win."
Finally, a short word on networking at parties and other social events. I am often asked computer questions, both large and small, when people find out I write about computers and technology. While I am more than happy to offer a few words of advice there comes a time when I simply hand the person a business card and tell them to give me a call to set up an appointment. This is sometimes hard for me to do, as I want everyone to have a good experience with their computer, but, like a doctor being asked for free advice, I have to draw the line somewhere and so should you.
There is a world of clients out there who need the skills and expertise you offer. Sometimes you have to reach out and show them a sample of what you can do to be more productive with their computer. Don't be afraid to give away some free samples as long as you are giving to them to people whom you might one day turn into clients.
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Previous Career-Op Columns
September 3, 1999 Labor Day
September 1998 Skills You Need
September 9, 1997 Peeves, Pitfalls and Pickles: Part 2
Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer
consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career
issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities
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He can reached via email at email@example.com