Some Non-Sociopathic Sales Ideas for Solo Entrepreneurs Who Hate Sales
The way I 'run' my 'business'
I strongly dislike sales, especially the type that involves advancing myself as the product. I am also a solo entrepreneur who has to attract a constant flow of clients to pay for my life in the weather protection racket that is Southern California. So there’s some tension there.
Navigating this dynamic has required me to figure out a way of doing sales that is, A, somewhat effective, B, doesn’t make me feel like a sleazy sociopath, and, C, allows me to still be whoever I want on Twitter and Substack, which is important to me.
I’d like to share some of my findings. My assumption is that I know a lot of people who have skills and wisdom to offer, and could make a ton of money as solo entrepreneurs, but feel like sales is necessarily filthy. Perhaps these people read sales books that say stuff like ‘make gestures with open hands’ and ‘create scarcity value’ and ‘maintain 90% eye contact while listening’ and then become concerned that monetizing their passion will require rewriting their social conduct from the ground up.
If this is you, I want to say two things. First of all, it’s good that thinking about persuasion makes you feel weird. You shouldn’t want to be a sinister hypnotist. Secondly, you don’t have to be. While some discomfort will be a part of learning how to sell yourself, you can totally avoid being one of those guys you dislike.
Try Just Telling People What You Do, and How You Feel About It
The words ‘sales funnel’ might give you hives. You might think that to attract clients you need a super fancy setup with an email sequence and a free PDF and whatever.
But if your social profiles get a decent amount of traffic, you don’t have to be super intricate and manicured in your messaging. The basic vibe of your online presence will tell people a lot about who you are. Just say what you do. (This also, mutatis mutandis, applies to conversations in real life.)
The cornerstone of my ‘sales funnel’ is one pinned Tweet. I posted it after one particularly good call that left me feeling confident.
It doesn’t do anything I was told to do by sales books, like, “tell your clients what their problem is to create a feeling of need.” It just sounds like me bragging about liking my job. I think that makes me sound like a real person.
Also, this Tweet is not linked directly to my intake form. This might be, uh, insane? But I kind of like it. If someone is intrigued by the fact that I do this, they’ll check out the link to my website in my bio, and fall further into my evil spiderweb. Or they’ll send me a DM. If they aren’t intrigued enough to do those things, they probably won’t be enthusiastic enough to pay for my expensive high-touch services. Again, I don’t recommend that step necessarily, but I recommend the mentality; trust that if you make your vibe available, the people who like it most will click on your stuff, as long as there’s at least one obvious way to get to your website.
Tell People What You’re Not Good At
When my practice began, I was scrounging around for work, and, as a result, I felt pressure to pretend I was equally excited about doing everything and could accommodate any need. Since I’m not a good actor, I was not convincing when I said “oh yeah sure I love it” to questions like, “do you have experience working on sales copy for startups.” (I do have some, but it’s certainly not my specialty, and it’s not what I want to focus on in my coaching practice.)
Now, I do the opposite; during sales calls, I make a point of telling people what I can’t do, as well as saying what I can do. Sure, I can write decent copy, and I can teach you to do basic copy yourself, but that’s not my core offering—if that’s a potential client’s focus, I tell them that they should go elsewhere. Also, my approach isn’t highly structured—it’s tailor-made and iterative—so I tell people that if they want a regularized curriculum with clearly defined milestones established in advance of their first session, they are not going to get that.
This helps people make an informed decision about my services, which they appreciate, and it sets the expectation of transparency. And it provides me with a sense of calm and confidence; I know I haven’t accidentally promised anything I can’t deliver.
I learned this lesson thoroughly during a week when I talked to like ten CEOs who came to me from one highly complimentary post on the Y Combinator forum. The calls did not go well. Only one of them hired me, because I wasn’t a good fit for any of the needs that the others mentioned off the bat.
But they didn’t know that because I said I wasn’t a great fit—they simply intuited it, because, after all, they were all smart people who got funded by YC. It wasn’t like I was deceptive, I just said would be open to doing kinds of work that actually didn’t excite me much, and presumably, my lack of genuineness could be felt through the camera.
I look back on this with shame. At the end of the week, I realized that, not only did I waste everyone’s time with my lack of frankness, but that I potentially missed out; perhaps if I’d defined my services more clearly, some of them would’ve decided that, instead of a content whisperer, they wanted a creative collaborator. By not defining the negative space around my practice, I didn’t allow them to see the positive space.
Don’t Be Afraid to Be Divisive
I have publicly said things like: I think writing schools are a waste of time, most writing advice is terrible, many parts of writing are not that hard if you’re approaching them correctly, etc. This probably has irritated people who are theoretically in my extended professional network, who would maybe share my posts if I hadn’t been so irritating. As well, I regularly publish and tweet stuff that’s weird. There are probably lots of people who think that psychedelic use is not behavior becoming of a professional, or that it’s odd for a writing coach to tweet perfume reviews three times a week. They will not hire me.
But this is all to my benefit! By filtering people out, I’ve formed my own weird market segment. Your ‘niche’ doesn’t have to be defined by top-down research. It can form organically, based on your implied character and values, and those who end up being attracted to those. The composition of that population might surprise you. I end up working with a lot of Effective Altruists, even though I’ve publicly criticized some elements of EA culture. The reason for this is ???. I am delighted by these clients, and I wouldn’t have known to advertise to them.
Work With Clients to Clarify Their Needs
Here’s the version of sales I hate: convince people that doing things exactly your way will get them the life they want, with a tightly scripted message. Here’s the version I like: help people who are on the phone with you explore their problems.
The funny thing about coaching/consulting/freelancing/whatever is that potential clients often have a general sense of roughly where their problem is located, but they’re talking to you because they don’t know how to solve it, which means that the problem isn’t fully defined.
So, instead of beginning a call with a bunch of bliz-blaz about your qualifications and approach, start by being curious about what their issues are. By exploring their situation out loud in dialogue format, you give them something of value they can take away whether you work with them or not. You also give them a sense of what a working relationship with you would look like, and lead them to imagine how good it would feel to find some solutions. This is more accurate, honest—and, I feel, compelling—than any canned pitch you could come up with while feeling nauseous about writing a canned pitch.
Ask Your Clients to Help You, Sincerely
Referrals are basically everything. But asking for referrals can feel weird, like you’re asking for a favor. I circumvent this feeling by being honest about the fact that I’m totally asking for a favor, and specifying exactly the kind of referral I’m looking for. On a last call, assuming that the coaching relationship went well, I tend to say something like:
“So, I’m glad we had a meaningful experience. I want to have this kind of experience with other people, and keep doing this job, instead of a dumber job. So, if you feel like doing me a favor, if you just sent a Tweet out that said something like, ‘hey, working with Sasha was great,’ that would really help me do that. Also, if you know anyone personally who needs help with their writing, and you think we’d be a good fit, I’d appreciate being connected to them.”
This is still one of my least favorite parts of the job. But being upfront about your motives and precisely what you’re asking for makes it feel easier. And it turns out that people often want to help you! Which is nice to discover.
My Approach Isn’t the Best in Every Way
To conclude, be it known that I’m not advocating for these things because I know the best way to make money. I don’t. And I could probably make more money if I was more normal, more slick, and tried to persuade people that I’m the one-size-fits-all cure for every linguistic disease.
But I’d be making that money from people I didn’t feel aligned with personally. I’d feel like I’d taken all the trouble to set up my business without getting to enjoy much personal liberty. And I’d end up doing a lot of work I don’t want to do. Frankly, I would rather just get a job.