Ross has decades of experience as a CIO, but now that he’s trying to build his own business with his superpower, he’s having a hard time figuring out how to get people to pay for his expertise. His companies, the Systems Sherpa and DallasDigitalSolutions.com, help small businesses with digital transformation, local marketing, and SEO, but how can he get traction when so many people have so many different pieces of advice about what to do?
If you’re trying to turn your expertise into a business, this episode has a bunch of great tidbits to help you get started. One of the first things we get into is a story I’ve told a few times on the show. It’s about a guy who invents a universal bug spray. It works great, it takes care of ants, roaches, spiders, everything. The problem is that, when he markets it as the “universal bug spray,” nobody buys it. What he realizes is that nobody ever wants a universal solution to their specific problem, even if it might actually be the best thing for them. They need to hear language that tells them you understand what they’re going through and know how to best help them. In our story, what the bug spray inventor does is repackage that same universal bug spray as three separate products: an ant spray, a roach spray, and a spider spray. It’s only then that it starts flying off the shelves because of how well it works.
In this episode we talk about how to get your business off the ground by niching down, and really listening to what your first few customers are saying in order to build your messaging going forward. Being able to repeat that language back to other folks in a niche looking for a solution to the same set of problems is how you become the go-to person in that space. We also keep an eye on the future, and how Ross might be able to make parts of his business more passive as he grows. Lots to learn here, and listen closely for an amazing ah-ha moment!
Pat Flynn: What's up, everybody? Pat Flynn here, and welcome to episode 1070 of Ask Pat. Thank you so much for joining me today. You're going to listen in on a coaching call between myself and an entrepreneur just like you. Today we're talking with Ross, who had been recently laid off. He is an expert in his field, however, he's looking to start a business by serving with his expertise and his superpower. We're going to talk about how to do that. There's a lot of options, and I think that may have been a little bit of the problem. So we're going to talk through that, and we're going to have a major breakthrough by the end. You'll hear it.
Before we get to that, I do want to thank today's sponsor, which is Freshbooks.com. An amazing service and Cloud accounting software to help you manage your online business finance. All you have to do is, if you want to check it out and see how it works, literally all you have to do is go to freshbooks.com/askpat. Make sure you enter “Ask Pat” in the “How did you hear about us?” section. What that will do is, it will give you access to automatic invoicing, to automatic keeping track of your expenses, to dealing with your income and learning what categories they go into. Making it easy for you to create those documents and reports that will help you understand what's going on in your business. P and L’s, balance sheets, and all those kinds of things, happening automatically. Again, I want you to just check it out. Freshbooks.comaskpat, and just make sure you enter “Ask Pat” in the “How did you hear about us?” section. All right, let's get to today's chat with Ross. Here we go.
Hey, Ross. Welcome to Ask Pat. Thank you so much for being here today.
Ross: Yeah. Thank you, Pat. I am just tickled to be here with you all.
Pat: I love that. Do you mind sharing a little bit about yourself and what you do, with the audience here?
Ross: Sure. I started out life as a technology professional. I've been in IT, software engineering for twenty-five years, and in October I was laid off from my position. I'm from Dallas, married, have two boys. My stepson has autism, my son has autism and Down Syndrome, so they're very, very special to me and they've taught me a lot about love and acceptance. Anyway, October I was laid off, and after spending about a month hitting the bricks with the recruiters, I decided I needed to do something a little bit different. So I decided I wanted to try and take some of the expertise that I've had as a CIO over the last fifteen, twenty years, and bring it to small business. I have a huge, huge heart for small, local-based business, and been trying to get that started ever since. It's been a little bit challenging. I haven't had a lot of traction, so I hope that as we talk over the next few minutes, that we might brainstorm and get some ideas.
Pat: Yeah, well, I'd love to jam with you. Tell me a little bit more about what you can offer, as a former CIO, for small businesses. What are the problems you're helping to solve?
Ross: There's really three areas that I help with. That is operational excellence, road-mapping . . . With the big digital transformation, a lot of small businesses don't really understand how to apply systems and systematize their business to scale and grow. That's really one of the things that I really help business with. I walk, with small business owners, through a strategy and road-mapping and business improvement. Help systematize their business so that they can stop working in the business and start working on their business, and get out of that minutiae. That's the first thing that I do along customer service lines, along helping with cash collections, and just operational excellence in general.
Then, part and parcel of that, because I've had limited traction trying to get that started because I think people understand when I did a survey with them, with probably nine hundred of my contacts, it was clear that the people that I talked to had challenges with time and process and things were manual and onboarding. So I think businesses connect with that, but they don't really understand what to do about it. So I've added onto that. Started working with a company called PinPoint Local to offer digital marketing. Kind of, website design, SEO, technical SEO, and hosting services, because I think small business can understand that they need to gain more customers. Those are the three big things that I'm working on. Road-mapping, operational excellence, in that kind of context, and then the digital marketing piece. Does that make sense?
Pat: Very clear to me, and I think that there's a huge need out there. I remember going to a service the other day at our local mall, for example. When I went in, everything was just still being done by hand. I just couldn't believe that, hey, we're in the 21st Century now. Things are changing, you're not keeping up here. I see this over and over again. Even for businesses that are online, some of these websites are from the late 1900s, it seems, and it's like just, wow, okay, we need an update here. My daughter's dance school still collected payments by hand, and I'm just like, this must be an accounting nightmare for everybody. How do we keep track of people who paid and didn't, and all this stuff. So I, a hundred percent, and through my own personal experience, know there's a huge need there. What I would want to ask you is, where have you gone to see who has these needs specifically? In other words, are you reaching out to any particular market or niche, in particular, to start out?
Ross: Yeah, so, I think the easiest way for me to explain it is, walk through, very briefly, the process that I went through to identify who and what and how.
Ross: I think if you look at the market that I want to play in, or that I'm trying to really help, it’s small business. Probably under the hundred million dollars a year in gross revenue, with between five and, maybe, twenty employees. In that sort of space. I've got three friends who are very small business owners. One's an insurance agent, the other one owns a staffing agency, and another owns a pool company, that are perfect avatars for the folks that I'm trying to service. I interviewed them, and then I sent out a survey to about nine hundred or so of my contacts and said, look, what are the . . . I used the term “pinching.” What is the single biggest thing that's pinching you right now? I got, probably, a fifteen percent response rate, so I've got quite a bit of data. I was surprised I got as much response rate from the survey.
Pat: Yeah, that's great.
Ross: I took that, and I picked another five or ten people, and I did a deep dive interview with them. What really was pinching. That gave me the general market, but companies from five to fifty employees and, say, under a hundred million dollars a year. That's a pretty big territory. There's a lot of ground to cover there, so I'm struggling because I haven't gotten any traction. I'm helping my three friends, but they're family, right?
Ross: So it's trying to get that message out, and if I need to focus on a particular vertical? Do I need to focus on insurance? Do I need to focus on distribution? What I'm dealing with, Pat, I think is deeply needed by small business. And you're right, just from the examples that you used, and that's consistent. It's not been a variation from anybody I've talked to, or the survey data. It's consistent, one hundred percent, yes we do that. But, for some reason, trying to get that traction has just been super challenging. Does that answer your question?
Pat: It does. I love to hear that you've had a specific demographic or target market in terms of size of business, how well the business is doing in terms of capital. That's great. I would, however, be more inclined to think that a person may be more interested to work with you if they know that you are the answer for that particular business' problem. These companies are getting asked by a lot of people to do certain things. To get online, to build their business, to streamline things, from all over the place. I think people know they need this help, but they just don't know where to get it from because there's so many different places they could get it from. That's kind of what you're competing against. A quick story here. There was a guy, and I don't know if this is true, but it makes sense to me, I once was told this story and it made complete sense to me. Whether it's true or not, it doesn't matter.
There was a guy who invented a bug spray, and it was a universal bug spray. It could kill any sort of bug that you might have in your home, so he sold it as a universal bug spray. But it didn't sell very well, because people with an ant problem want the ant killer, people with the roach problem want the roach killer, people with the spider problem, like me, want to just escape. But the thing is, when he then took that same formula and packaged it as an ant killer, a roach killer, a spider killer, what have you, they sold like hotcakes, because a person goes in with a specific problem and a specific need and they go, “Oh, I need that specific solution.”
That's why, when you had mentioned, ‘I don't know if I should go in a specific vertical,” I think that would be a great place to start, because here's what happens when you do that. You have language that that particular business can respond to. “Oh, you have distribution needs. Well, I know exactly how to streamline that and make sure that . . .” All the words that they would normally use in day-to-day business, you would regurgitate to them in a way that would start to make them go, “Oh, my gosh. This is the solution I absolutely need.” Versus a lot of the language you were using up front, like road-mapping and digital transformation. That's the universal bug spray, and that doesn't resonate with someone who has manufacturing, packaging, and distribution problems. It's the same thing, but when you start speaking their language, people start listening. I think it was Jay Abraham who said, “If you can define the target problem better than the customer, they're going to automatically assume that you have the solution.” What's kind of cool is, you have your pick of where you want to start. It may be with one of these three that you've already helped because then you can dive into that. What's cool about this, too, is people who have an ant problem who solve that ant problem, share the solution with other people who also have an ant problem.
Pat: Meaning, if you are the person who helps any small business insurance company, and you become known as the small business insurance company guy to help with small business insurance road-mapping and digitalizing. I like . . . digital transformation speaks really well too. Digitalizing a small insurance company’s business, and bringing it to the world that we live in today, I mean, people start to share that we everybody in that space. They all know each other. They hang out with each other, they go to events with each other, and this is how you can begin. This doesn't mean you would have to forever pigeonhole and lock yourself into becoming that person, but that's just where you start. A couple of things happen when you start to grow in that vertical. You either love it so much that you can't even imagine doing anything else, and stay there, and you just own that space.
Or, you get the systems down and you go, “Okay, this is very similar. This insurance business is very similar to this kind of business, so let me got there next.” A person who owns a CrossFit gym is very similar to a person who owns a yoga studio, and then you can start to go a little bit more horizontal from there. When you're starting out, that's what you need to do. What I would recommend doing, and I'll stop talking here to get your response in just a minute, is picking a vertical and getting one new customer in that vertical. Just going there and positioning yourself as that person to help that particular kind of company, learning that . . . It's so amazing that you're doing these surveys, by the way. Most people wouldn't have gotten that far, and it's great that you have those skills. Now do a survey in the insurance space, and I'm just using that as an example. But then you can start hearing their language of, “Oh, I have this specific need for my insurance business.” You can take that problem and go to somebody else and say, “Hey, do you have this problem?” “Oh, my gosh. You're speaking my language, you're in my head. How did you know that?”
Pat: They're going to know you have the solution for it.
Ross: Right, yeah. That's a really good point. I think I get wrapped up with, well, this is applicable to any business that's in this space that's trying to optimize, grow, and scale. One of the things I wanted to ask your opinion about was, part and parcel of that, is focusing on a package of offerings, which is why I started doing some of this digital marketing stuff—websites and SEO. I think, like with my insurance agent friend, and my distribution center friend, and the pool company friend, they understand. They're trying to get their customers in their zip code plus the surrounding zip codes, let's say. They're not trying to be national. I thought that that was a good package, or product offering that I could use as a lever to get into other markets as well. The reality is, you've got to have a website, right? You've got to have SEO. So there's that piece, and then create this offering specifically in a niche. What are your thoughts on that, if I'm making sense?
Pat: Is that the biggest problem that they have right now? I think it's a great offer, it's an obvious offer. That's something everybody needs. Again, going back to what—
Ross: But is that the biggest pinching thing that they've got right now?
Pat: Right. What I would recommend is, picking that vertical, like you said. Solving their most important problem. The thing that's been killing them, and that they've always wanted to do. If you can solve that problem for them, well then guess what? They're going to want to work with you more, to do these other things. That's one way to go about it. Or, you pick that thing that you were just talking about, and you become that guy. “Hey, you know what? I'm going to not focus on the other things right now. I'm just going to be the local, get more customers guy. I will help you get every single customer that is in your region, who wants your thing, to find you.” And you become that guy, and that's your market. Of course, that then allows you to go into different spaces. But again, that's a very specific solution for a very specific problem. You could go either way, I don't know which one . . . and in terms of which one you do or start with, it might be a test. It might be try to get one customer with the one vertical thing like I talked about, or try to get a customer in this thing, and just see what you're most excited about. Or, maybe it's your gut that you listen to, but you have to pick one and focus on it. It's when you go, “I'm the repairman for everything . . .”
Ross: Right, right.
Pat: Well, I don't have to repair everything, I just have this one . . . My refrigerator broke, I'm going to hire the refrigerator guy.
Ross: Right. Focus, don't dilute what I'm trying to do, because then I'm not going to do anything very well.
Pat: You said it better than me. That's important at the start, and the cool thing about this is you learn so much by even just trying to get, literally, one client. Work on getting one, serving them. Even if your systems aren't in place right now that's okay, because you're learning about what their needs are, how they work, how they reply, how they comment, how they respond, what their payments are, and how much they have to spend, and what their needs are. Then you can make a decision. Okay, do I want to keep going green light, or do I want to retreat and go back this other direction, because I tried that, it didn't work. When you try to do everything at the start, you can't get any customers to test out.
Ross: Okay, I get that. I really connect with it.
Ross: The next challenge that I would ask is, what do you feel would be a really good approach to get that kind of offering in front of other people? Let's say, for example, we'll use my insurance friend, because I was working with him this morning.
Pat: Oh, cool.
Ross: I've got this solution, I've got this streamlining package, or offering that I've now put together. I say, “This widget will solve this problem for you, and it's a really big pain in the neck.” Do I put that on my website, do I offer that as a . . . The challenge is now, that I've got to use a megaphone, or I've got to figure out a way for . . . yes, my insurance agent friend can give me referrals, but how do I get that in front of enough eyes that I can get traction on it? Am I making sense?
Pat: You're asking a great question, because you already have this relationship with your friend, how are going to get other people to even find you, right? First of all, with your insurance friend or anybody that you move forward with, especially with something so important as the work that you are offering them, I would definitely make it clear, when you have your price points and your offerings, to go, “Here's how much you will save as a result of implementing this.” So that there's a clear dollar value. Not every industry has that, and it seems like what you are able to help people with, there are numbers there that are going to be very clear, such that a person could go, “Whoa, it would be stupid of me not to say yes to this situation, because look at what I'm going to get on the other side of it.”
Just making sure that that's always known, and on your website, or wherever you start reaching out to people, I would actually, at the start, have it be a very non-automatic thing. Meaning, whether it's a contact form that you'd have to go into your email to see. People reaching out to you to get a consultation, or whatever. I would imagine at the start it's going to require a lot of face time, or one-on-one time, or phone calls, to start having these conversations. What's cool about this is, you might be happy with just five clients. I would also reverse engineer, how many clients do you need to do what you want to do?
You might not even need a website, to be honest. You could just phone call, or reach out, or go to an industry event, and make connections with people and just, those clienteles alone, you may not even have to worry about a website to start. This is a very common thing. We think we need a website that has ten thousand visitors a month to succeed when, really, you could just go direct to the people who have that problem. If they have that problem, if you can regurgitate their problem back to them in a way that they will resonate with, you don't need a website. They will go, “Whoa. Okay, how did you know I have that problem. I have been looking for a solution for so long.” There are also groups of . . . this is the nice thing about niching down too, and staying in a vertical, is that people in that vertical talk to each other, and have places where they go and talk about their problems. Some of them have influencers that they trust to go and get recommended information.
If you could build a relationship with that influencer in that space, perhaps there's a person helping people in the insurance space who you can connect with who might love to work with you and go, “Wow, I found this guy, his name's Ross. He will help you with all your backend needs to digitalize everything you're doing. I know that's what I normally talk about, so I wanted to invite Ross on my podcast and start talking to you about this. If you end up working with Ross, here he is. He's giving me a little commission.” That could be a win for everybody. It's not necessarily always direct to that person on your website, sometimes it's just direct to that person wherever they're at. Also, direct to the person that they already trust. It could be an influencer in that vertical who is helping those people build businesses, and/or helping them in some other way, that you could become a resource for. Sometimes it just takes one person with a little bit of clout in that space to recommend you, and if you do have a solution that would really be helpful, then again, like I said, it could be a win for everybody.
Ross: Yeah, that's a great idea. The thought of actually getting an influencer in that vertical space and talking to them about doing blog postings or podcasts.
Pat: Yeah, be on their podcast. Help them out, too. Offer them value. Maybe they might have a little insurance business of their own, and if you were to send them a one-page, “Hey, my name is Ross. I notice you have this thing, I love what you're doing here. Here's my superpower in this space, and I wanted to just show you something that I've been working on, and I think would be really helpful for your business. You don't have to use it, but I just wanted to offer it to you, because I love what you're doing for the community that I'm also trying to serve. Here's my plan for you. Here's how I streamline things. This is how you can save thirty percent efficiencies in your business. This is where you can cut costs. You may be doing these things already, maybe not, but this is my love and I just wanted to share it with you. By the way, happy to talk more about this to your audience of other people building these businesses too. Let me know if you want me to come on the show.”
So you've given them a lot of value already by showing your superpower and how it reflects and helps them. Most people want to reciprocate when you help them out in that way, and people have done that to me, too. People have gone, “Hey, Pat. Here's what I've noticed about your website. It's not converting very well, probably, and here are five things you can do to better convert it.” Now we're like best friends, because they've helped me out, and I've helped them out in return, and we've just built and grown a great relationship there. So, use that superpower of yours. You've had a ton of experience and I think that, not that you're devaluing that, but you should take advantage of that, and these connections with influencers that could be used very wisely there.
Ross: Okay. That's a great idea. The next thing that immediately popped into my mind as we were talking about that was, okay, let's say I'm only going to have five clients. I'm still trading time for dollars, right?
Pat: At the start.
Ross: I know we need to get some traction first, I need to get down the road and I'm thinking about step four hundred and fifty-seven instead of step two or three, but what does that look like if I want to start not trading time for dollars, once I get to that point? Does that make sense?
Pat: Makes complete sense. It's definitely something that . . . A lot of people come to me because they're like, “Pat, how can I get passive income?” And I go, “Okay, you have to get active income first, because passive is the last step in the whole process.” How do you get passive? You get passive by streamlining your systems, becoming more efficient in the work that you do. You can do that in several different ways that would take your time away from those processes. Number one would be to use software or other services to help fill in those gaps for people. It sounds like you're already working with a company called PinPoint Local, I think, that can help with that. You're not building the websites, you're not doing those things, that company's doing it for them. That's great. You've already started thinking about this.
What else in the client-to-expert relationship, where there might be some places where you can go? Maybe it is, for example, “Hey, Google Analytics. Normally I would report with you how things are going, but from this point forward I'm going to give you a login so you can go in and see all your stats for you. Here's the link,” and what have you. The other part of passive is, well, even if it does require a human, that human doesn't always have to be you. You can hire people. You can have virtual assistants and executive assistants to help with a lot of those other things to, again, remove yourself from the process as much as possible. The other part about this is upkeep. There may be some instances where you are keeping track of things for them, but it doesn't necessarily require a day-to-day interaction with those people. This is where you can start to fall into the holy grail of income, which is that recurring income. So, hey, I will do this for you for thirty-five hundred dollars to set everything up, and then for five hundred dollars a month—
Pat: . . . we're going to have a look-over fee, or something like that, so that I can just send you a report every month to make sure everything's good. That's something you, and/or somebody else, or a software, can create for them, but they're going to have that knowledge of, “Oh, I'm paying a maintenance fee,” or you might want to come up with a better name. But that's where ongoing income can come from after a one-time setup fee. It sounds like that sparked something in you.
Ross: Yeah, it did. The immediate go-to I went to, when you started talking about that was like, okay, so I can do a little bit of discovery work. Spend a little bit of time with you, add some value right up front. Say, “Here are the things that I see we can do to get you off the ground. Here are the specific offerings,” one or two things. Widgets, if you want to call them that, that will help fix those problems. Then, as an ongoing basis, “Since we've built this roadmap for you, Mr. Insurance Person, let's map this out. Then you can take this off in bite-sized chunks, and then on a small, reasonable, if you want to call it a subscription, or a retainer, or whatever word you want to use, we'll come in and occasionally help you out with this problem or that problem, or this report, and do an assessment.” Am I reading you right?
Pat: Yeah. That's great. I love that. And you know the space better than I do, so you'd be able to understand what to say and how to better position it. It might take some work, and this is why you try it once with one person and one client, even before setting up a website, because they may not even be interested in that. The most important thing when you pitch and you share these things, whether they get involved or not, you try to understand their objections. “Oh, well, why wouldn't you want to do that?” “I would imagine that after this thing is set up, that it would just run on its own.” You would probably internally go, “Haha. Here's why that's incorrect . . .” You wouldn't laugh like that, but you would have an answer for that.
Ross: Right, right.
Pat: Then, with client number two you'd go, “Now, I know what you're probably thinking. That you could set this up one time and it's all automated, but I'm going to tell you why that's not true. Because, X, Y, and Z.” Client number one, essentially, helped you with client number two. Then you just continue to learn as you add on more clients, and then maybe, over time, you have an assistant that helps a person onboard, and they get a little chat with you, but then after that somebody else you've hired to train does all these things for you. So, literally, you can just work on the marketing and building relationships to bring more people in your system, and then you're off and running.
Ross: Perfect. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, and I think that gives folks the ability to have some value up front, to see specifically what I offer, what I can help them with, and then gives me an opportunity to put the systems in place to eat my own cooking, right?
Pat: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Ross: Put the systems in place to grow and scale so that I'm not necessarily the constraint in my business that I'm trying to fix for others. That makes perfect sense to me.
Pat: Cool. This is great. I think I hear a different tone of voice, and I feel like you're excited. Hopefully, being a little more iterative, this is even relieving a little pressure off your shoulders to go big, go website, go all in on that, and really start focusing on the clients and having them guide the next steps for you.
Ross: Yeah, absolutely. This has been a huge help. Just the conversation has really sparked quite a few ideas of what I need to do to proceed.
Pat: Awesome. Ross, that's fantastic. I'm so happy to have helped. I think everybody listening, perhaps, has learned sometimes we need to slow down and go baby steps first, to really help us accelerate in the future. I think that's the theme here. Do you have a website now, or where can people keep track of what you're doing, or see what you have to offer, if anything.
Ross: Yeah, I'll just give you quickly two websites. My personal website, what I call System Sherpa. I'm the Digital System Sherpa, is ross-sivertsen.com. You'll probably need to . . . R-O-S-S dash S-I-V like Victor, E-R-T like Tom, S-E-N like Nancy dot com. I have a complicated last name. Then, dallasdigitalsolutions.com, all one word, is my lead in for PinPoint Local. Then, of course, pinpointlocal.com.
Pat: Awesome. Thank you so much, I appreciate you, Ross. I'm glad to have helped out, and maybe we can check in with you in the future and catch up and see how things went. Is that okay?
Ross: Yeah, you bet, Pat. Thank you so much, I really appreciate the time to chat with you today. It really's made a difference.
Pat: Absolutely. Appreciate you.
Ross: Thanks, have a great day.
Pat: All right, I hope you enjoyed that coaching call. Ross, good luck to you. I want to wish you all the best, and I look forward to catching up with you again in the future so we can see how you've implemented these things. And remember, people have an ant problem, they want the ant solution. I live in San Diego and there's a huge ant problem here, because we're basically on a giant ant hill. But, anyway, that's another problem. But if any of you have a problem, see that segue there? If any of you have a problem in your business and would love to get coached by me, just like I coached Ross today, all you have to do is go to askpat.com, and I appreciate you because, guess what? You can apply there, and you can even see the other episodes in the backlog as well for the show. I just want to say thank you, because you guys . . . this show wouldn't exist without you, obviously. Here's what you do. You got to askpat.com, you subscribe to the show, and then you just sit back, relax and listen to all the great stuff. I look forward to serving you there. The application button is right there on that page, too. Thank you so much. Team Flynn, you're amazing. Team Flynn for the win. See you in the next episode.
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