How to get experience and credibility when you are just starting your biz

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CleanOlivia, one of my readers from Australia, sent a thought-provoking question the other day that I felt would be a good discussion-starter for those beginning a business.  She writes:

"I’ve decided I’d love to do professional organising (only just emerging in Australia), and am reading lots of excellent books on the actual work/counseling and also marketing and business info.  The biggest question is, since I’ve been a Personal Assistant, and that’s the only thing I’ve ever done (18 years), how on earth do I break out of the mold of the old job, and find the guts to actually TAKE ON A FIRST CLIENT in my new field?  I mean, to study and ponder and learn and prepare is one thing, but actually going out there and DOING it, I have no idea where to get the "nerve" from.  This could be the difference to whether I take off or not.  How do I go from preparing to doing?"

This is such a juicy question because it highlights a number of challenges for first-time entrepreneurs:

  • How do you get experience in a new field so that you have a track record of completed projects and satisfied clients?
  • How do you gather the confidence to "put yourself out there" in a new way to the world, when you might not be totally convinced that you are competent yet?
  • Where can you find your first client?

Here are some suggestions for each of these questions:

Gaining Experience

  • If you are brand new in your field, you might want to "test drive" your service as a volunteer.   Choose an individual or organization that would be an excellent case study and that would provide clear "before and after" results.  Gain agreement from your client that if she is satisfied with the results, you may use her as a reference for future clients and would use her project as a case study for your marketing.

    So in Olivia’s case of being a professional organizer, she has a great opportunity to choose a client with a terribly messy office or closet.  She can take a "before" picture, do the work, then do the "after" picture.  If she does a stunning job (which I am sure she will!) she can take a picture of her satisfied client and ask for a two-sentence testimonial. This will be great for her website or marketing materials.
    (Note to any newbie organizer in the Phoenix, AZ area … if you need a great "before" and "after" filing project starter client, let me know!)

Gaining Confidence

  • Find yourself a mentor.  There is nothing like hearing "stories from the trenches" from someone who used to be in your position and now has a thriving practice.  You can get information, resources and confidence-building from the right person, or group of people.  You may also join a professional organization or community forum like Startup Nation to get some ideas and support.

    For Olivia, I would heartily recommend two wonderful professional organizers I have come to know through this blog:  Jessica Duquette of It’s Not About Your Stuff and Ariane Benefit from Neat Living Blog.  They are very open and supportive people and I am sure would share tips and tricks with you, as well as give you encouragement to make the leap.

Getting Clients

  • Obviously, there is an art and a science to small business marketing.  If you are concerned with just getting things going and taking on a few clients, start with defining your niche. That is the specific segment of people that you will target for your marketing efforts.

    For just about anyone these days (well, anyone with the something meaty to share and who likes to write), I would recommend starting a blog on your topic, since it is a great way to showcase your expertise, build community, test ideas and develop a friendly relationship with potential clients.

    In Olivia’s case, since she mentioned that professional organizing was just getting started in Australia, maybe she could partner with a more established service professional such as an accountant to provide financial organizing services for their clients.  Whatever niche she chooses, I would recommend starting in a targeted way, then as she gains exposure and experience, she could branch out to other groups.  Some of my favorite marketing resources for service businesses:  Action Plan Marketing and Duct Tape Marketing.

I know that everyone here is rooting for you Olivia … the time to act is now!  Get your volunteer starter client lined up and see where it takes you.  To any of my Aussie readers, if you happen to be looking for someone to create order out of your chaos, let me know (pcs (at) ganas (dot) com) and I will pass on the info to Olivia.  I am not sure which city she lives in, but with the power of networking, we could probably line her up a client or two. (Update:  she lives in Melbourne)

Other suggestions for Olivia?

13 Responses to “How to get experience and credibility when you are just starting your biz”

  1. Olivia says:

    **Thank you!** . . Pamela and everybody for your fabulous advice and comments. I’ve read every word, and clicked every link. I hardly remember I was ever a Personal Assistant now. That was then, this is now ! I’m invigorated and I now *am* my new role ! Thank you all again, Olivia.

  2. hello

    i stumbled upon your blog and it’s so amazing that you have such a wealth of info! i really enjoy reading this post and i found your blog so very inspiring for a newbie like me.


    cindy 🙂

  3. Leo Archer says:

    Gaining enough experience to get started

    One of the big questions people ask themselves when the desire to start their own business strikes is how to gain the necessary expertise and skills to be able to hang their shingle and start doing some business. Pamela Slim,

  4. Alexius says:

    Hi, I want to start a business that I have plan thoroughly but I am still studying, so should I continue my studies or should I hit the streets? Alexius, 17

  5. Aaron says:

    I am in a service industry in which I have some experience but a whole lot of passion and drive. The best way to gain experience is to start small.

    Starting small will allow you to make mistakes and organize yourself. You will slowly but surely get those larger opportunities that you will have already prepared yourself which will allow you to shine when it counts.

    Good Luck.

  6. Hey, Pam, thanks for the mention! I like the idea of offering to work for someone for free or at a low rate, although I didn’t start out that way myself. I just took the plunge and made sure that people knew that I guarantee my work, so if they weren’t happy, I wouldn’t stop until I knew they were. This eliminated the risk for them.

    I have played around with so many different types of services that I offer, I recommend that your Aussie friend allow herself to make some mistakes at first, to realize that it’s part of the learning curve. Also, as I mentioned the other day in my Career Mom Radio podcast, my first dollars would be spent on a good business attorney to set up the business model the right way and a good bookkeeper to set up my books properly. This is advice that hardly anyone heeds because it is not romantic, but it is sound business sense that will save thousands of dollars and many headaches!

    all the best,



  7. They can be useful at the outset, but there is some risk with freebies (or lowball contracts)… you have to be careful not to get too much of a reputation for them.

  8. I’ve been a fan of John Trosko’s blog at for a while now, as I am a “closet” organzing nut – I get such a thrill when I look at my plastic boxes I labelled with my favorite toy – my label maker.

    John’s blog is entertaining, full of good ideas and links to sites where I can buy stuff, and it offers voyeuristic glimpses into the lives and homes (anonymously of course) of my fellow Los Angelenos.

    I think a blog is a great way to build a presence and credibility in your community. And after about three months of blogging consistently, you should have enough useful content on your website to not be ashamed to promote your blog to your local Chamber of Commerce, or local newspaper (along with that helpful article you wrote for them to publish).

    You could also hook up with real estate agents, moving companies, interior decorators, D-I-Y stores, party planners – anyone who “gets into” people’s homes at times in their lives when they want their homes to look good.

    Just a few thoughts…

  9. I definately agree with doing a few “free” jobs. It lets you try your new craft. You get better by “doing”. You build a portfolio. And if you do a good job, you will have clients RAVING about your work.

    That really is ALL it took to get the ball rolling for my web design business a few years ago. Now clients find ME!

    You definately get back what you give then fold!

  10. Michele says:

    I’m also starting an organizing business. I think of niches where advertising and “networking” are well-established. New parents could be a good niche. There are free mags catering to parents in my city. An ad could be effective. Hospitals often give new parents a packet of local resource info when they leave the hospital. I’ll see if I can get a flyer put in. I’m first donating my services to a few people in my parent’s group to develop a before/after portfolio. I also just photographed the makeover of my fiancee’s garage! Hope this helps! Good luck!

  11. Eleanor says:

    I agree with all the suggestions already mentioned and would add the following:
    I would suggest 2 things – one is to join a business club or network of like-minded people who can support you in what you are setting out to do; secondly try it out on your existing network – friends, family, colleagues etc. Is hard to do but if you can ‘sell’ (your idea) to your peers, you can sell to anyone. And it will give you experience which will boost your confidence. Remember, one step at a time, usually taking the next step is enough to get you moving and one step often leads to another! It works for me.

  12. Thyaga says:

    I belong to the hi-tech industry and i don’t know whether this book will be usefuil for Olivia or not. Once you get started and get your first few customers, how do u make the next Big leap – that is the crux of Geoffrey Moore’s book : Crossing the Chasm. Probably, that could help her too.


  13. Great advice, Pam. I’ve worked with quite a few folks who started by working for free and a testimonial. I often recommend people look to their friends, family, neighbors, etc. for potential clients. Then take them to lunch, and offer to provide services in exchange for a reference or testimonial (with the understanding that they give one ONLY if they are happy with the service).

    I worked with a woman is a similar situation as Olivia. She wanted to start doing custom flower arrangements /centerpieces, something she’d done as a hobby for about a year. She offered her pieces to friends to use at parties and other events to get exposure. She had her first clients within a few weeks.