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How I’ve Built a Million-Dollar Business in 3 Years Using the Power of Referrals

Learn the simple strategies this founder has used to encourage clients to recommend his work to others, leading to 70 percent of his agency’s business coming from inbound referrals.

May 29, 2023 5 min readFlow
Photo of Jacob Burt
Jacob Burt

Founder of BURT. Media Company

Landing my very first client was surprisingly easy thanks to the power of referrals. The startup I had been working for had just folded, and I turned to the network of marketing leaders I had built from that job and let them know the types of client work I was looking for: digital brand management, content creation, and paid media strategy. In no time, someone recommended me to a woman who was just starting to build her digital brand—and she’s been a client ever since.

Fast forward three years, and my freelancing business has changed a lot: Now I operate as an agency, BURT., which employs 13 people and has helped more than 100 clients with their digital strategy, representing over $1 million in work. What hasn’t changed is that the bulk of that work—about 70 percent—has come from inbound referrals.

I’ve found that referrals are the most powerful way to build a sustainable and thriving business (and it’s not just because I absolutely hate sales). It’s so much easier for a potential client to say yes to a multi-thousand dollar investment when it’s been pre-vetted and validated by a trusted source. Having a warm introduction can also reduce friction and make the initial sales conversation friendlier and more collaborative, rather than it feeling like I’m forcing our services down someone’s throat.

So, the question I had to answer as I scaled from individual freelancer to business owner was: How can I fuel the referral fire? Here are three ways I’ve found to stay top of mind for folks and ensure they’re more than happy to recommend our team to others.

1. Do 90 percent of the work to get yourself in front of their network

Referrals 101 tells you that the best way to get more referrals is to ask for them. While that’s how I started my business, I’ve since found that it’s better to find even more seamless ways to get clients and connections to share your work with their networks.

For instance, one common piece of advice is to ask your clients to share the work you’ve created together on social media and tag your business. But I’ve found that the second you start putting work on someone else—even a small ask like this—the execution falls off.

Instead, we make it a no-brainer for clients to share by creating a cool graphic or highlight reel about our work together, posting it on our channels, and tagging them. Nine times out of ten, they’re happy to re-share it to their audience because it’s just so easy for them to do.

No matter what, do 90 percent of the work for your referrer, so they only have to do the final 10 percent of distribution. If I’m sending an email asking for referrals, I draft a message that they can simply copy and paste to people who might be looking for our services. I also share an open Calendly link that anyone can use to grab 30 minutes of my time to talk shop. That way, if clients know someone who needs help with their digital strategy, they can send along this free offering rather than feeling like they have to make a sale. It feels more like a win-win where they get to help people, rather than feel burdened by making a referral.

It comes down to this: Even if your clients absolutely loved working together, they don’t want to be your sales pipeline. They’ve got their own stuff to do! You’ve got to make it super easy to make it more likely that they’ll happily pass you along.

2. Over-deliver on your work to give them more to talk about

Want more people to ask your clients, “Who did that amazing work for you?” Give them more amazing work to talk about! We love going above and beyond for our clients, both because it usually results in extra content they can share, but also because it leaves a really good taste in their mouth.

For instance, if we’re hired for a video project, we might create a fun blooper mashup that a client can share on social media, or pull together an extra Instagram Reel using the footage we already have. These add-ons are a relatively low lift for my team, but they’ve had an outsized impact in making the client feel great about their investment—and making it even more likely they’ll talk us up to others.

Sometimes, this has meant rolling with the punches of scope creep from our clients, too. Once, we were hired as a retreat videographer, and the client asked us to create daily recap videos instead of just the one recap video we had agreed on. We didn’t complain about it—we figured that we were already there filming, so we just did it. At the end of that retreat, one of their followers reached out asking who did the daily recap videos. Suddenly, we had inbound interest from an established travel influencer brand wanting to hire us to do daily recap videos for their international retreats. We landed a dream client that took us to the Maldives, Greece, and Mexico, all because we hustled a little extra to go above and beyond.

Often, the best way to get new clients through referrals is to focus on your current client base, looking for ways to over-deliver so that you stay top of mind when it comes to recommending you to others.

3. Build real relationships to foster real referrals

A big part of my approach to encouraging referrals comes down to my belief that friends support friends, so building real relationships with my clients will help foster more referrals.

One of my mottos is “people first,” so I always make time to engage with the people we work with beyond the project we’re working on. If they recently launched a new product or posted about something exciting going on in their business, I’ll ask about it. I’ll stay in touch even after a project has ended to show I’m invested in their success as a whole, not just the success of our work together.

Engaging with clients outside of the scope of your work doesn’t have to take a ton of time, either. For me, it’s often as simple as responding to peoples’ Instagram Stories or commenting on their posts. Two of our former clients just decided to be nomads full-time, and the team and I have been commenting on their YouTube announcement and DMing them quick notes to show we’re still supporters and friends, even though we aren’t working together right now.

I never have an expectation with these types of interactions, but they have led to referrals. For one, simply being present in other peoples’ comments has helped us gain visibility to potential new clients. But it also keeps our company top of mind for the next time our clients hear about someone looking for the type of work we offer.

I see so many agency influencers and business experts talk about growing through leads and systems and services, but they rarely talk about people. I think that misses something really important. It sounds so basic, but I think being good people and deeply caring for our clients has set us apart. The second that we show that the relationship is about more than us trying to make money, it becomes a relationship they want to recommend to others. Even if it wasn’t so measurably helping my company succeed, that’s just how I want to do business.

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