The Web is the great equalizer. That was its promise 25 or so years ago when we all started “logging on” to discover the rest of the world.
And it still delivers.
I learned this lesson almost exactly 20 full years ago and it’s still a big part of the fuel behind why Side Project Plan exists—to help individuals level the playing field by building their own personal marketing platform. Especially in the face of brutal competitors.
My story starts in 1998
In 1998, I started my own business. I left my first real job out of college as a branch manager with a first aid and safety supply business and started my company, Insource Safety.
I offered safety training consulting, written safety policies, and training classes to companies in southern California. I started it with zero clients, zero revenue lined up.
Beyond cold calling, as a 27-year-old safety consultant, I knew I would have my work cut out for me competing against certified safety professionals who had been offering the same services for years, maybe decades.
They had client rosters they could tout. They had living stories they could tell potential clients. They had revenue! But I had always felt leveraging technology was a way I could maneuver competitors or at least do things much more efficiently (for more on this way of thinking, see my Write Every Day: Day #3 post.)
I had done this while serving in that first job as a branch manager. We had a corporate office that processed all of our customer orders and produced all of our inventory and product sales reports. But the first thing I chose to do when allowed to hire an office manager was purchase FileMaker Pro so I could have her log every product purchased by every customer.
By tracking every order in this way right there in my own office, I could run instant reports to see what customers had purchased Product A but not Product B (a complementary product). I could see which sales reps were more effective at selling categories of products than others.
I couldn’t get these reports from my own company! But FileMaker Pro, for only $150 and some elbow grease, could tell me all the things I wanted to know about my little branch’s effectiveness. It made all the difference as we doubled sales over the next nine months.
You could say I was data-driven before it was cool.
My first experience with generating digital credibility
Back to my new business and 1998. Despite my lessons with FileMaker Pro, as a new, young, inexperienced entrepreneur in an industry loaded with experienced, senior professionals, I knew I would have to sell myself differently. I turned to the Web.
Insource Safety needed a website, I was convinced. It wasn’t as automatic for a business to have one in 1998, but I felt compelled to create one. I bought Microsoft FrontPage (and later, Macromedia Dreamweaver) and designed the ugliest site you could imagine, if you saw it today.
And actually, you can mostly check it out through the Wayback Machine.
During the morning I’d still cold call for clients and seek business development partnerships with equipment suppliers. During the afternoon, I would work on that website.
I learned about the concept of search engine optimization and how a site should be structured for search engines. And yes, we barely had Google back then, if at all? I don’t recall. But we did have Yahoo!, Alta Vista, and AOL.
The amount of time I spent on the site ate into my cold calling. While I was pulling in some clients from my efforts, as well as my eventual Yellow Pages ad—yes, the Yellow Pages got my phone ringing, it all paled into comparison with what happened one afternoon with a certain phone call.
I remember his name as David Loeb, but I may have part of that wrong. He was the Vice President of Operations with Safeway, and he found me while searching for safety consultants. He had several plants he was responsible for throughout the West. One in particular, in San Leandro, had a history of safety problems and he needed outside help.
It was one meeting and one proposal and boom I had his business. I was able to charge him $3,600 per month for 20 hours worth of work on-site at the plant in San Leandro, and an agreed-upon rate for additional hours at other plants, should he ever want further help elsewhere. (He did, I ultimately did walkthrough audits at several plants around Los Angeles and in Denver).
‘I have no business winning this business’
I distinctly remember thinking that I was not qualified from a background standpoint to earn Safeway’s business. I had experience in conducting safety training classes, yes. I read the Cal-OSHA regulations daily. I studied for and passed the Occupational Health & Safety Technologist certification, eventually. But really, I had never tackled the safety challenges of a dairy plant.
I won David’s business because he found me. We tend to be like that, don’t we? We like to believe we’ve selected something, rather than we’ve been sold something.
I won Safeway’s business because, once David found me and setup the in-person meeting, how I presented myself was in-line with what he expected from his first impressions online.
I had my first experience with winning clients—succeeding online in growing a company—solely through my efforts digitally. Establishing a credible platform.
I was a company of one, but it didn’t come across that way. I knew how to position things.
And it still works today. The SEO strategies and the approach to web design have evolved, but the general principles are the same. You can level the playing field against more established, more stalwart and even more expert competitors through hyper-savvy, personalized, credibility-based marketing.
I love helping people do this. The Web originally promised to be the great equalizer and it has more than delivered this for me, personally, and numerous people I know.