I’m not a business expert. That’s not to say I haven’t found a lot of success in my business, but I know I’m not an expert. Why? Because I enjoy hanging out with actual experts, people with 15, 20, 30 years of experience, people who deal with business on a much higher level than I do as an independent, people who create, build, and even sell companies or make multiple millions of dollars on products and services. I enthusiastically attend events like Pressnomics (from which I just returned) and Prestige Conference, in order to surround myself with their entrepreneurial energy and learn from their stories.
I’ve been to my share of networking and business events, and I’ve met the people who only seem to be there to get ahead, grease palms, and present their pitch or business card to as many people as they can get to listen. It’s this prototypical image of a salesman that makes people, especially sole proprietors or independents like myself, shy away from selling, claiming to hate self-promotion.
The most successful people I know are business owners and product developers, speakers and innovators, creating and shaping the software I use every day. But these people are not the ones running around trying to tell everyone all about themselves. And they’re also not hidden away from the crowds, delivering words on stage and then going back to their VIP area.
They’re the ones sitting in an inviting circle in the courtyard telling stories. They’re the ones sitting patiently with a new developer, helping them debug a simple coding problem. They’re the ones inviting you to dinner, or lunch, or coffee, sitting down with you, being genuinely interested in what you have to say and having a conversation. They’re the ones going out of their way to mentor new talent, answer questions, and grow the next generation of successful entrepreneurs and empowered clients.
In the open source community especially, successful people know that we can be competitors without always being competitive. I’ve seen this at dozens of WordCamps and again this past week at Pressnomics (which had a wonderful focus this year on how business is impacted by human connection). While certain information can be considered proprietary, we are all elevated when we exchange knowledge and build relationships, and the community is better served when we can recommend the best solution to potential clients, even if that solution isn’t us.
Selling Without Sales
Successful people do care about the bottom line, and they do care about growing their business. But they know that selling isn’t always just about “sales.” It’s been said that business success is really about people, and I’ve seen that play out over and over again on both a large and small scale. To rephrase a popular idiom:
Tell a person about yourself, and they’ll remember you for a day. Make a real connection and help a person solve their problem, and they’ll remember you for a lifetime.
I got involved with WordCamps, the AIGA, and Girl Develop It because I have a genuine desire to not only continue learning and bettering my own career, but to help other people do the same. I usually joke that speaking in front of a group has been great for my business because I can trick lots of people into thinking I’m smart and then they want to give me money, but there is actually a grain of truth to that. Years of showing up to events, volunteering, speaking, sharing, and helping has meant that my business is now almost exclusively driven by referrals through people I have met along the way, sometimes years later.
I am obviously aware of the strategic value of the events I attend, organize, and speak at. I understand that continuing to learn and share that knowledge helps to position me as an expert in my field. But I am still blown away by how much of an impact being both smart and helpful has on my business, when combined with a knowledge of my own value and some basic education in pricing, presentation, and communication.
If you are smart (always learning), helpful (always sharing), and strategic about your own value, then you will almost certainly be successful.
Learn. Surround yourself with people who are better than you, with people who will push you to do more. Find people with different opinions, who will debate with you, who will challenge you to think about something differently. Read. Read blogs, read news articles, read longform content, read some beautiful fiction. Take classes, attend events, watch tutorials, get better at your career. Practice. Put in the 10,000 hours. Experience life outside of work and let those experiences shape you into a better version of yourself. Listen. Hear people’s stories and be mindful of their lessons. Find mentors, advisors, comrades-in-arms. Find people who do something totally different than you. Assemble their knowledge and iterate on it in your own life. Make mistakes, fail, reflect, and then do it better next time.
Teach. Everyone has something they know that someone else doesn’t know, regardless of how far along they are. The more you learn, the more you can teach others. Pay it forward. Remember the people that have helped you on the way to where you are, and try to be that person for someone else. You never know when a piece of advice, a helpful tip, or even a kind and encouraging word will make a major difference to someone else’s career or life. Be genuine. Help like you mean it. Be honest about what you do and don’t know, provide authentic feedback, and be enthusiastic about your contributions. Share value because you believe it should be shared.
People remember the ones that help them, they remember the ones they connect with, and they remember how genuine someone is. If business success is about people, the best place you can be is right there connecting with them.