When I was in college, I made a list of qualities I wanted and didn’t want in a spouse. One thing on the dislike list was heavy metal music, to the great amusement of my now-husband, who enjoys a wide range of music including, yes, some heavy metal. Fortunately, I forgot about this list for several years, and came up with a much simpler (and slightly less shallow) list of must-have values before I met him.
These days, I often hear other business owners lament that their ideal client is impossible to find, can’t afford them, or just won’t book for some reason or other. Business is slow. They might have to quit and go back to the day job grind. What to do?!
“Well, who’s your ideal client?” I ask.
And because they’ve followed the advice of practically every sales, marketing, and business book or coach I’ve ever seen, they rattle off a specific description that includes yearly income, geographic location, demographic statistics, home decor preferences, number and types of pets, and favorite brand of orange juice.
The number of people who check all the boxes? Probably zero.
Call me crazy, but lately I’ve decided this is mostly a colossal waste of time.
Don’t get me wrong. I do think it’s important to determine whom your business is best positioned to serve. You can’t be everything to everyone, and perhaps the only thing worse than marketing to someone who doesn’t exist is marketing to everyone. But don’t let your ideal client keep you from getting actual clients!
There’s a fine line between finding and speaking to your niche, and chasing a mythical unicorn client who may not exist. Particularly when you’re starting out, slavishly adhering to your list of “ideal client/project” qualities is probably a luxury you can’t afford. Have standards, but be flexible about them as long as you can still make a profit and not tear your hair out from frustration or boredom.
The ideal client is someone who will pay you what you want to do the work you’ll do.
I long ago decided that my ideal client is someone who can pay me the rates I’ve set to do work that I’m good at doing and find fulfilling. Simple as that. When I first began freelancing, I wrote about water filters and medical imaging devices for clients who were basically the opposite of my “target market”: they were men, they were corporate, and their content was booooo-ring. But they paid me well and I could do the work quickly, so I didn’t hesitate. One of my freelancing buddies makes full-time money working part-time writing about the nudist lifestyle, which she has zero personal interest in whatsoever. But she gets to write for a living and not work in a hellish corporate open office.
I know most of us creative business owners go into business to do something we love, but to stay in business, I honestly think you gotta love the money you earn (and maybe the schedule flexibility you gain) more than just about anything else you get from your work. Not romantic, I know, but that’s what I’m here for.
It was immensely helpful for me to boil down my “ideal client” qualifications to rates, service type, and creative fulfillment. All three of those things are fairly objective and, more importantly, under my control. I won’t work for less than $60 an hour. I’m neither good at nor interested in bookkeeping, back-end web development or SEO keyword stuffing. So I’m clear upfront about that and generally don’t take those kinds of jobs. In all the content that I share, I make sure to include my values and personality, and that attracts compatible clients.
Be the person your ideal client needs.
Rather than spend a lot of time and energy running after the “perfect client,” I’ve decided to concentrate on being the perfect fit for the kinds of people I wanted to work with. (This was also a huge revelation for my dating life five years ago, by the way.) I want to work with mompreneurs with a proven business concept, so I developed packages and pricing to attract busy, successful business owners. My clients want to stand out rather than fit in, so I don’t clog my Instagram with the same flatlays and feltboards everyone else is posting. (Also, I am just lazy.) The people I work with are driven and passionate but not always organized and systematic, so I built my processes to guide them the right way.
It’s okay to think about who your ideal or target clients are and what they want. Just make sure you spend as much time and energy providing the kind of service and product they need as you do looking for them. (And if you do that well, they’ll probably find you on their own!)