By Abbi Whitaker
I grew up and went to college in Reno, Nevada, where I launched The Abbi Agency, a creative, public relations and digital-engagement firm. Lots of people knew me, and we built a thriving firm through the relationships I’d built over a lifetime in Reno.
The challenge we’ve faced is replicating that success in other towns — places where we can’t rely on someone who’s been a friend since college to help open doors. During our first half-dozen years in business, we developed a solid base of clients across the country. But like so many professional services businesses, our core business remained close to home.
For us, like so many professionals, the answer was clear: Open a branch office in another city and build a fresh book of local business. The answer may have been clear, but the execution took a while before we got it right. Here’s what we learned:
- Remember that no one knows you in your new market. You may be a respected business leader, the coolest kid on the block or an all-around big dog in your hometown, but in your new market, you’re just another newcomer trying to carve out a spot. It’s almost universally true that the folks in your new market really don’t want to hear about your company’s accomplishments back home. They want to see what you do, here and today. As such, it’s better to under-talk and over-deliver.
- Join. Then join some more. A Chamber of Commerce membership, for instance, opens the doors to networking events and volunteer opportunities that will help you begin to build personal relationships. Don’t spend your limited time with your own professional organization. Those are your competitors, and they’re not likely to create much business for you. Think through where you’ll find your customers in your new town and join their professional group instead. When we’ve targeted clients in construction, for example, we’ve become affiliate members of building industry associations.
- Sponsor events offered by business and professional groups. There’s no better way to position your company as a committed member of the local business community. Your role as a sponsor is almost certain to build relationships with business and professional leaders through involvement with planning committees. This is particularly powerful if you take a leadership role in events sponsored by an organization that’s heavy with potential clients. One caveat: Don’t cut corners by offering to provide pro-bono services in exchange for acknowledgment as a sponsor. Cash donations are far more powerful. Budget for them in your plan for geographic expansion.
- Look for opportunities to do free work. These will allow your firm to establish a reputation for excellence. When you get an opportunity, don’t assign some low-paid junior staff member to the job. Bring the A-Team — the senior staff, the star creative performer, the top management of the company. Never miss the chance to hit a homerun on even the smallest of opportunities.
- Seek out partnerships with established firms in your new market. Even smaller jobs that you take on as a subcontractor will demonstrate your company’s capabilities. They’ll strengthen the network that will bring business your way, and your established partner can make the introductions and provide the references that will open doors for you.
Like almost anything in business, moving into a new geographic market is all about relationships. In all likelihood, you don’t realize the tight-knit network of relationships that support your business in the town you call home. If you’re going to thrive in a new market, however, you’ll need to move quickly and confidently to replicate that network of relationships. There’s simply nothing more important that you can do.
Abbi Whitaker is CEO of The Abbi Agency, a digital engagement firm that offers clients full-force public relations strategies.