This is a true story. Many years ago, I made a cold call to the CIO of a Fortune 50 corporation and asked for a short meeting to present my company’s capabilities. She connected me to one of her direct reports who happened to be evaluating a pilot project where my company fit in well. Within a month, I had a contract for an initial pilot, and eventually went on to build one of the largest relationships for my company. Along the way, it helped me pay a few bills as well.

What are the odds that I could replicate this experience in today’s market? About zero. Here’s why:

  • Cold calling is dead. No one returns unsolicited calls. Voicemail is another word for firewall. E-mails fare only marginally better.
  • My success was a matter of sheer chance, of being in the right place at the right time. Chance is not a strategy. I never had that same experience again.
  • Busy people don’t want you to contact them. They prefer to contact you when they need to talk to you.

Market research has shown that in today’s market, most buyers will do the bulk of their homework on available products and vendors through a variety of sources. These include: vendor company websites, sponsored events, blogs, user group meetings, peer networks, and so on. By the time they reach out to you, they have a reasonably clear idea of what they are looking for. So, here’s an approach that flips conventional wisdom on its head:

Don’t try to find your customers – let them find you.

This is not to say that you should build your widget and wait for someone to call you. It’s about being actively visible in a way that is non-intrusive, and yet gets you noticed in your target market.

The challenge with this construct, especially for start-up technology companies, is that gaining visibility is hard because you’re a start-up and you’re not advertising, attending big conferences, or sponsoring golfing events. So, how can you be found?

Fortunately, the rules of the game for providers have been changing just as it has been for buyers. With an immense number of social media tools readily available, start-up CEO’s can get really creative about leveraging all the “free” resources available and level the playing field a little against established players with big marketing budgets. Here are five more tips that may help you:

1.) Focus on a tightly defined marketplace. Think of the one specific segment or demographic that you’re trying to reach, and how you can address them in an effective and profitable way. I know of a startup that is working on an offering to help automate and ease the registration process for new patients in hospital settings. Another non-profit startup I came across recently has developed an electronic medical record system focused on the homeless and uninsured population. I love these startups because the target market doesn’t get more specific than that.

2.) Do your research. Most entrepreneurs are known for their “gut feeling” – the intuitive sense that they are right about an opportunity, and they usually have the conviction to stick with it. The smart ones also know that they can be wrong about their instincts, and that they need to be ready to pivot quickly.

The key here is to keep researching the target market, and to keep validating your hypotheses.  How do you research your gut instinct? There’s a vast amount of information out there and it’s easy to get deluged by it and lose context easily. They key is to stay focused on your domain, and start connecting the dots quickly. If your target company is launching a series of initiatives or is focused on some industry issues, check to see if others in the industry are talking about the same thing (not just clients, but other providers, industry experts, and so on). This gives you a basis to validate the relevance of your offerings.

3.) Find a connection. There’s an old saying in business: “People do business with people.” To put it another way, people look for connections. Find out as much as you can about the people you want to meet – you might find a connection through someone else in your business or school network. You can also make a connection with your target clients by following what your client executives think and talk about. The thought leaders in any industry speak regularly at conferences, get interviewed by leading publications, and use social media to tweet and blog about their points of view. Follow them, and you know what they care about.

4.) Be ready to give before you get. All too often, I see companies talk about how great their products are; very rarely do they talk about understanding what their clients are looking for. Sometimes, clients don’t know what they are looking for; at other times they don’t know that your product meets their need. Be ready to engage with them on their blogs and forums in a consultative way to build your visibility. Then, be ready to offer to do something at minimal or no cost to them when you do get an opportunity to connect in person. That investment you make in your potential client is worth more than a thousand unsolicited emails to uncaring recipients.

5.) Be visible. Your website is no longer enough to get the word out about your company and your products. To be visible, your company (and more specifically  you, the CEO) has to be visible in the marketplace. This means: engaging actively in social media through blogs and tweets, participating in online forums that cater to your industry, accepting speaking engagements, etc. These and many other things will help you get your name out there. If your product and message is relevant and meaningful to your target audience, they will notice you.

Building a long-term profitable business is a marathon, not a sprint. So is the art of building client relationships. Press forward as often as you can, but be patient, too. With time, your customers will find you.