Let’s imagine a scenario.  You’ve just left your full time job to branch off on your own, to start your own business.  You really believe in the idea, and you can’t wait to start working with your first clients.  The problem is, you aren’t sure what to tell people about what exactly you do.  It’s something I hear time and time again from newly minted small business owners. “What should I tell people I do for clients when I don’t have any actual clients yet?”  

Ahh yes, it’s the question that plagues us all when we’re trying to explain what we do to someone when we’re not actually doing it yet.  It’s what I call “The First Client Dilemma.” It’s a lot like when you went in for your first job.  Employers want to hire employees with experience.  But in order to get that experience, you have to get hired.  A bit of a Catch-22, isn’t it?

So the question is, how do you get “hired” by your first client?  What do you say when she asks about your pricing if it doesn’t really exist yet?  When she asks about the types of clients you typically work with when you don’t yet have any? When she asks for examples of what you’ve done for people when it’s all still hypothetical?  You want to be 100% honest, but at the same time, you don’t exactly feel great about coming out and saying, “Actually, you’re my very first client! Hope it all goes well!”  Doesn’t exactly instil them with confidence.

I wish I had a simple, 5-step plan to get over this dilemma, but I don’t.  What I can tell you is that you’re not alone in feeling like you’re a bit of a “fraud” when you’re starting something new.  I certainly felt this way when I secured my first paying client.  The first time someone asked me what I charge for my coaching services, she wasn’t the one who freaked out when I told her my prices.  I was!  Because I wasn’t 100% convinced I could charge for something that until that point, I had been doing for free.

Here’s how the conversation went:

Client: “So, how does this work if I want to have some coaching?”

Me: “Well, uhhhh, we would just start whenever you want.  We would kick off with a first session, then continue from there.”

Client: “Okay, and how much do you charge?”

Me: “Well, I charge £XX for an hour of coaching.” (This is where I started freaking out) “But, you know, if that’s too much, or you feel you can’t afford that, I’m sure we can work something out.”

I’ll spare you from the rest of the conversation, and she did sign up to be my first paying client.  However, to this day, I see the exchange as being cringeworthy.  At the same time, I’m extremely grateful for the candid, unsolicited feedback she eventually gave me on the spot about what I said.  She told me she had wished I would have just assertively said how much I charged in a matter-of-fact way and not tried to downplay it or sell myself short.  She said she would have felt so much more confident about the value I could provide.

It all made sense when I heard that from her.  The problem was that I was dealing with a ton of self-doubt at the time.  I had just embarked on building Ilumity Coaching, and I was actually still enrolled in my coach training course.  I almost didn’t feel “ready” to have a paying client.  I didn’t have a certification, I had only done a few hours of “professional” coaching.  I had no business cards.  No website.  No clear business plan. No clear idea of my pricing. Really, nothing.

To this day, I’ve never forgotten what she’s told me, and going through all this taught me a few important lessons.  Lessons that now seem so obvious, but that I failed to fully appreciate at the time . . .

You must believe in what you’re selling

Easier said than done, I realise.  But somehow, some way, you need to remind yourself that you do have something to offer.  That you have come this far in life providing value to others, and this situation is no different.  Because trust me. If you don’t believe in your business, your prospective clients won’t either. The longer I work as a self-employed individual, the more I’ve begun to realise that 95% of success is driven from within. It starts from having a belief, a strong vision that you will succeed.  Because without belief, all the clever business tactics in the world will only carry you so far.

There’s no shortage of excuses when it comes to NOT starting

There’s a first time for everything.  You can always find a billion reasons why you should NOT start yet: no website, unclear service offerings, no existing clients, no clear pricing, no 100% buttoned-up business model.  For me, I struggled with feeling completely ready to start working with paying clients until I got certified.  Until I left my full-time job.  Until I had a name for my coaching business.  Until I had a clear sense of my “brand.”  Until I had a full business plan written up.  The list goes on and on. However, I realised these were all stories I was creating to let myself off the hook of taking a bold step forward.

Being apologetic about what you offer only diminishes your value

One thing I learned from my exchange with my first paying client was that you need not apologise for what you offer.  You need not feel like people are doing YOU a favour by becoming a client.  Don’t worry.  This may sound cynical, but we live in a world where people will go ahead and unsubscribe, cancel their membership, or discontinue their payments for things that don’t provide them with ongoing value.  So if they’re ready to buy what you’re selling, help them feel good about what they’re buying by proudly and unabashedly describing how what you’re offering can benefit them.

At some point, you have to put yourself out there

Even if you don’t feel 100% ready, you will eventually have to start somewhere.  The truth is, you may never be 100% ready.  You may never have every piece in place that you want.  I’m absolutely certain that anyone who knows me well, whether family, friends, or colleagues, would classify me as an EXTREME planner.  Having anything short of a buttoned-up plan is super uncomfortable for someone like me.  However, what I’ve learned is that you will never have every single piece in place, but there comes a point where you have enough of the pieces in place to make your first move.  And only you can decide where you draw that line.

Taking that first step is often the hardest one.  And at the same time, there’s no way around it.  It must be done, so decide when you feel like you have enough in place for you to make that first step.  Then, start.  Take a bold leap and go for it.  Maybe you’ll get the result you want on your first try.  Maybe you won’t.   But I can guarantee you’ll learn more by giving it a shot when the conditions are good enough rather than waiting for the perfect moment that may never come.

Over to you! What are some of the things you’ve learned from taking a first step, especially during those times when you didn’t feel 100% ready to press go? I’d love to hear your experiences.

If you need help developing a strong brand for your small business or figuring out how to get over the barriers blocking you from putting yourself out there, feel free to check out my Personal Branding Resources or contact me for a consultation to discuss your unique situation and how you can relaunch yourself!

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu helps aspiring professionals relaunch their careers to do work that matters. As a keynote speaker, career & personal branding consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast, his passion is helping people gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to pursue truly meaningful careers. Having gone through three major career changes himself, he now shares insights from building & relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals and business owners to build & relaunch their personal brands.

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