Let’s say tomorrow I had to start my business from scratch. No existing clients, no existing following. How would I build an audience? How would I attract customers?

We’ll suppose all of this, because lots of people start businesses every day without an existing group of people eager to work with them. They know how to do something well (their craft), but might not have customers at the start.

So let’s say that’s where I’m currently at—starting out, great at a craft but no one to provide it to. What would I do? And we’ll use web design in the example, since that’s what I know.

I’d start by listening to people who were looking to hire web designers or who had already hired web designers. How were they conducting their search to find one and where? What questions did they have about the process? If their experience with web designers was bad, why? What did they wish they knew before starting a web design project?

And then I’d offer to help. Did they have questions? Did they want a second set of eyes to look at anything? Did they want to brainstorm what to do next? Did they want a second opinion? Was there anything they wanted to know about the industry? And I would help them without offering my own services or charging them. More importantly, I wouldn’t be pushy about it, I’d simply try and answer questions I saw.

This help wouldn’t be a month of work or redesigning their whole website. Instead it’d take the form of emails, chats or talking things out on the phone/Skype. Basically: a free consult.

This would start with a single person. Then another. Then another. I’d talk to as many people as possible, until I started to notice definite trends in where people were having issues or not understanding things. Their pain points in the process. And I’d do all of this without pitching or selling myself once. I’d simply offer help or advice to anyone who wanted it.

Talking to these people would do two things. First, it’d be an opportunity to share my knowledge with the type of people I wanted to work with (without asking anything in return). Second, I’d learn what my future audience was looking for, where they were getting hung up on in projects in my field and how I could effectively communicate with them to help solve those problems.

Long before I’d start selling anyone anything, I’d be building a relationship with the people I had helped in some way. I wouldn’t build this following so I could “promote at” or sell to them later. I’d build and foster relationships with these people so I could continue learning from them. It’d be a mutually beneficial relationship, since they’d receive my help and I’d receive their knowledge.

From there the path could diverge. I’d either write publicly about what I learned on a blog, eventually compiling it into a free book—full of insight into common client issues and how they could be resolved. Or I’d use that knowledge to create my own services, since I’d know where my potential audience needed the most help. I’d probably do both things. And I have a feeling that group of people I’d been helping would promote what I came up with, without me having to constantly promote/sell at them. And this is the key—they’d help me because I had helped them (although I would never expect it of them).

My new business would be based on helping others first. Not because I frown on capitalism and want to sit around a Skype video call singing kumbaya. I’d do this because I know that’s how you can build a loyal client-base and following. And because I truly like helping others.

For many people, the above idea might seem like advice for how to build a charity or what you do for close friends—it couldn’t possibly be applied to a business that makes enough money to put clothes on children, food on a table or pay rent. But this is how I’ve built my current business, which has a 4-5 month waiting list. It’s how I’ve released books that have sold 1000s of copies. It’s how I’ve approached my entrepreneurial work for the last 15 years. I’ve simply helped others, using my skills, because I enjoy doing it.

Too often people make the mistake of trying to build an audience for their business by thinking about themselves first. By thinking about making money first. By thinking about what’s in it for them above anyone else. By thinking about how they can reach “X” number of followers to stroke their ego. This attitude comes across in how they interact with others, use social media and how they promote what they’re selling. People see through this type of behaviour.

Motives are transparent (even if we wish they weren’t). So it would be transparent if your business focus was helping others first.

If you approach work as helping others instead of how you can make money off them, everything fundamentally changes. People are drawn to you. They are willing to invest in you, because you’re invested in helping them.

The best thing about having a business that’s genuinely geared towards helping others is that it can cost nothing to get started. No investors or investment on your part, no hardware/software, no secret tactics or even strategies. Nothing but being a decent human being, sharing what you know with people who’ll listen, which should come naturally to everyone. And then what you do will sell itself.


I’ve run my web design company for the past 15 years using the above idea. You can follow along with me on twitter.