A common scenario
A lot of people in my network started freelancing right after the mess left by the financial crisis of 2008 cleared up. There was a large demand for quality overseas software developers coming from the US.
In our case, my co-founder landed a nice gig, pulled me and another colleague to the project, and with the growing demand for more quality developers on the project, the two of us started the company and hired some people to join the team.
A few years later, the project came to an end, and we were left with a compact and competent team, but without a portfolio to boost our sales process, if there was in fact a sales process to speak of.
You see, both of us were technical people, and being focused on solving the technical issues on the project, there was no business development going on for the duration of our engagement.
I know of at least five other companies in my network that started this way, and three of them sadly dissolved as their engagement on the project ended. We chose to try our best to survive.
Our post mortem
After assessing our situation we came to these conslusions.
we've learned to work as a team
we knew what kind of output could be expected from each of us
we established an initial version of the development process (we use an evolved version of it in the company today).
we've learned a lot about product development, agile software development and picked up about half a dozen technologies we haven't had a chance to use beforehand.
In essence, we've built a strong technical team able to deliver high quality work.
While there's a lot that goes into selling software development services, the technical ability of the development team is still at the core. And as a one project company looking to transition to a software development agency, having a strong technical team can help immensely to build initial trust and land new clients.
We've identified the strength of our team as our biggest asset, and decided to focus on our technical expertise when looking for new clients.
As stated above, getting new projects with no lead generation strategy and no portfolio to speak of proved to be a challenge. We've had to find different ways to build trust with potential clients. The four methods below worked for us in trying to achieve that goal.
1. Leverage your technical strengths in sales
When running a small company, chances are you're not swimming in a steady stream of leads.
While having more quality leads is certainly better, having less leads usually means you can have the best people talking to them.
When doing initial calls, I always try to focus on delivering value to the lead through a free consultation. I try to assess their pain points and determine what the best solution for them would be. If I determine that our expertise doesn't match their project or that there is some other obstacle preventing us from working together, I always try to refer them to other people in my network that are better suited.
People that I talk to are in different phases of developing their projects. Some are ready to start and are looking for vendors, while other are just exploring all of the avenues they can take their idea through to turn it into a product.
Whatever the phase they are in, I always try to provide genuine advice on what I think would be best for them and what to look for when and if they finally decide to go through with the project.
Sometimes you won't hear from them again, but sometimes that initial call is enough to build trust and convince the client to go further than they were expecting to go before talking to you.
2. Develop a demo for free
Investing a small amount of your time to develop a simple demo for the client will help in building trust and increase the chances of being hired.
Just as our engagement on The Battery (the project that we built our company on) came to an end, we launched a cold email campaign, emphasising the technical abilities of our team with an offer to help agencies complete their projects in time.
We got some interesting replies, but the most encouraging one was from Blenderbox (check out the case study here).
There was almost a 100% match on our respective technology stacks and they were in the middle of a project with aggressive deadlines, and unsure if they were going to be able to complete it in time.
They were open to work with us, but wanted some assurances that they are hiring a quality team. We offered to build a demo for them, showcasing our ability to deliver with Django and React. We utilized our entire team to build a small feature modeled by a real time feature that they had to implement as part of the project.
After a day of intensive coding, we deployed the demo to Heroku, gave them access to the Github repository and recorded a video to demonstrate the functionality.
They were impressed by the quality of our work and professionalism of our demonstration and hired us for a test period of one sprint.
We ended up working for them for over a year, helping them deliver all phases of the project in time and earning their praise.
3. Offer discovery for free
I wrote about the importance of product discovery in my previous blog post Four steps to ensure project success. All of the bigger and more established agencies I have any insights into will not accept the project if the client is not willing to pay for discovery.
Due to their rich portfolios and constant stream of leads, they are able to tell the client that in order to work with them, they have to pay for them to do product discovery.
Now, this is certainly a smart idea. Accepting to give a quote or estimate on a project without doing the discovery is a risk of potentially epic proportions.
But if you're a small agency with a limited portfolio and not getting a bunch of leads your way each day, you might find it difficult to persuade a potential client to pay for this extremely important part of the project.
As I stated in the article, you should almost never skip discovery. So, when dealing with an interesting prospective client, consider offering to do discovery for free. You'll receive an opportunity to understand the client and the project better, and enable you to talk to other project stakeholders. If you impress and earn their trust, you will certainly increase your chances of landing the project.
4. A money back guarantee
People are careful who they trust with their money. And rightfully so; for every good company out there doing quality work, there is at least one other company looking to earn a quick buck.
Giving the client a guarantee that they will not have to pay anything if they are not satisfied with your work after a couple of weeks, accomplishes two things:
Shows that you are confident in the quality of your work
Gives the client a peace of mind that they will receive a delivery within just two weeks, after which they will be able to asses if what you shipped is of sufficient quality
We regularly offer a two week money back guarantee, as long as we're confident that a quality delivery is feasible within those two weeks. Most of the time it is, but there are complex projects where delivering in such a short time would mean cutting corners and introducing a technical debt to be resolved later in the development cycle.
Bonus point: Referrals
As a bonus item, I felt like I needed to mention the most straightforward way of earning trust. Being referred to a new lead by a previous client builds trust instantly and dramatically increases the chances of landing the project.
Each lead we've gotten through a referral ended up becoming a client. In fact, we've recently added asking former clients for referrals regularly and repeatedly as part of our sales process.
We've used all of the methods above and still use most of them when trying to sign new clients. As we've grown our portfolio and continue to grow the content on our website, we find that less time is required to build trust with new leads.
This has gives us the confidence that the long term strategy for growth is and will continue to pay off. Regardless, building initial trust is of paramount importance when trying to get new projects. Even though we won't have to use these methods as often in the future, they are invaluable tools to keep in our toolkit for when we need additional help to sign new clients.