December 3, 2020 · 11 min read

How cold-calling every print shop in the city actually lead me to design work

An old payphone that is spray-painted pink with grafitti and stickers all over it.

This is not the phone I used. Photo by Cameron Rainey

I’ve never worked in sales, so I’ve never had to cold-call anyone before. Being on the other side of a telemarketer phone call, I had a perception of how terrible those people are and questioned how that strategy ever worked - except for scamming old people. I was never going to fall for a cold call and wondered why they ever bothered trying. I just assumed everyone handled cold calls the same way I did - by slamming down the phone while yelling “stop calling me!”

But, one day it dawned on me. I was a tad desperate after one of my largest clients was putting their business on hold — which meant I needed to land some new clients real fast, or I might not be able to eat after a few weeks - not to mention rent.

I thought to myself, “Everyone needs a designer, how do I get in front of them before someone else does?”" I thought back to the time I was working as an on-site graphic designer at a print shop in Philadelphia and how all kinds of random people would show up looking for small projects that they “needed yesterday” and how we sometimes had to turn away people because they expected us to be able to turn around ridiculous projects while they waited. I didn’t particularly like working in a print shop, but I didn’t mind working on small rush jobs. I wondered how other companies handled those situations and that’s when it hit me. I should just start calling people.

Writing down the goals

So I wrote down a small script (a habit and skill that now comes in handy when doing facilitation and research). My goal was to:

  1. Validate that other small print shops had the same outlandish requests with little turn-around time from clients.
  2. Empathize with their situation. (Having to turn away clients)
  3. See if they already had on-site graphic designers.
  4. Let them know that I could help accommodate those situations after-hours in extreme cases.
  5. Offer a rate that was a balance between them being able to make a profit and me being able to eat.
  6. Arrange a meeting.

Mentally preparing

A man sitting at a kitchen table with his hand over his face looking riddled with anxiety.

This guy looks as stressed as I was. Photo by Andrew Neel

I probably wouldn’t recommend this approach to everyone, but if you have a unique experience and an understanding of where you can add value, you just need a clear pitch and some persistence. I didn’t think I would be particularly comfortable in this type of situation, but I felt pretty good about what I was bringing to the table:

  1. I knew the situation that they often found themselves in.
  2. I had a quick and easy pitch - I wasn’t looking for a job. I just wanted to help out in certain situations.
  3. I was mentally prepared for rejection.

The first cold-call

So after feeling a bit more comfortable about what I was about to put myself through, I googled every print shop in the city and came up with about 20 places that were within a short subway ride. After a few deep breaths and maybe an hour or two of pacing around my apartment, I started calling those numbers.

I stumbled through my first call. I should have practiced my pitch before jumping right in, but the person on the other end was quite pleasant. They told me about a client that had come in that day and was asking for 12 posters for an event that next day and they had to throw all their resources at it - probably needing to work an extra hour after close to pull it off. They were used to that kind of work. I offered to “stop by when I was in the neighborhood to check out the place” and I was welcomed with the caveat that they probably didn’t need my help.

I was able to say that this first cold-call was successful and I did stop in the next day to talk about what unique services they offered and shoot-the-shit over their new Canon IR printer. But I didn’t even get a callback.

It wasn’t as dreadful as I made it out to be in my head

Sure, most of my calls were flat-out rejections but all of them were surprisingly receptive, open, and willing to talk about their business - something I wasn’t expecting. Not one of them said not to bother stopping in to say hi - I was hoping once they met me in person and I laid on my awkward charm, they’d have a hard time saying no. That proved to be a little tougher than I anticipated - I guess I’m not as charming or as irresistible as I believed I was.

The one that worked out

While I was mentally prepared for rejection, I wasn’t prepared for a 12-year-old kid answering the phone at one particular shop. He said, “My Dad is kind of busy, did you just want to come in and talk to him - he’s here all week every morning until about lunch.” I didn’t get a chance to even make my pitch. I’m not even sure the kid knew what a graphic designer was, but I added it to my list of places to stop into.

A half-dozen brochures sitting on the floor.

Some strewn printouts on a floor seems apropos. Photo by Henry & Co.

I spent the next couple of days visiting all the shops that I had on my list - believing that I could build a nice rapport and eventually land some business.

On the third day of hustling my services, I went to the shop where the kid answered the phone. It was a little far out of my way but like most of the places I went to in the city, I walked to save money. I thought it was a good idea - 30 blocks seemed alright. I’d done it before, except this time I did it in a suit. In the dead of summer. 90-degree heat, but I was prepared and made sure to pack some paper towels to wipe the sweat. I was very determined not to spend the $2 sub fare.

I went in, did some quick introductions, had a pleasant conversation about how they got into the business and how they were still figuring it all out. I made my pitch and unsurprisingly, the response was “Yeah, we get crazy people in ever so often coming in 10 min before close hoping to have some miracle done by next morning.” I said how aware I was and that because I was a night owl, it wasn’t a big deal for me to pull together something." Like all the other shops, I had a pleasant visit and I gave them my card and was clear to call me if they needed me.

It only took two days for the first call back from them. I got a call at 4:15 and the owner asked if I was still available. He joked that he was charging the client 3x his usual rate for the rush so that he could afford to pay me. We chatted briefly about the project but I can’t even recall what it was. I played it cool, but I was starving and agreed. He sent me an email and I was off.

At midnight I had already sent him my designs and by 9 am that next morning I had was on the phone to discuss. He was overly thrilled. Why?

  1. I lived up to the promise I made. I could pull off a miracle overnight.
  2. I gave him them a little extra - at no charge - to demonstrate my abilities and entice them to call me again.

I told him how glad I was to help out and reiterated that it was no big deal for me and that I was around at the drop-of-a-hat if they needed me.

Recurring work

The next day, the owner called me again with another request. He was right about having a lot of unreasonable clients. The jobs continued to pour in nearly every evening for another couple of weeks until he asked if I would be interested, at all, in coming into the offices and being available for a few hours a day.

Two people working at a table. One has a sharpie in their hand ready to write down ideas. The other is cutting up a printout.

Sharpies and scissors. What else would you need in a print shop? Photo by

I didn’t mind. I went in when I felt like it and they were all so welcoming. The operation consisted of a husband and wife who had only opened up the shop a year earlier - both of them worked there almost every day and often had their 2 kids helping out. There was another guy who knew how to operate the 4-color press, but it was very much a family business.

I tried to instill as much knowledge as I could on them about my process and my experience with printing. While I kept coming back because of the consistent, varying work, I made sure to take the subway.

Moving on

After about 6 months I had to give up the work. I started working nearly full time for a startup and just couldn’t commit any longer. I offered to help find a potential replacement and helped to onboard them.

That was a tough place to move on from. I’ve never been great at “breaking-up” with jobs and this one was particularly tricky. I got to know the owners and their kids over that summer and it felt like family there. For several years following, anytime I was in South Philly, I would stop in to say hi and was always greeted with a “Hey it’s Brad, tell us what cool work you’re up to.” I hope I made an impression on them because I’m still thinking about them many years later.

Make your calls but establish relationships

Cold-calling isn’t about trying to find a job or getting someone to buy your product - it’s about taking the first step to creating a mutually beneficial relationship. Some people won’t find that it benefits them and that’s okay, it probably wouldn’t have been beneficial for you either.

Four peoples hands stacked on top of each other like they're about to shout 'Go Team'. One of them has a cool tattoo.

What followed was a hearty "Go Team!" Also, that's not a bad tattoo. Photo by fauxels

Just like asking someone out, the first steps are a little shaky - but don’t let that stop you.

  1. Don’t fear being rejected. Plenty of people and opportunities won’t connect with you or what you’re offering at that exact moment. There will be other people and valuable connections to be made.
  2. Have a rough script and practice what you’ll say. To this day I write scripts even if I only follow them roughly. Be natural, and use it as an outline for every talking point that you have.
  3. Keep good notes of their responses. Use a CRM like Salesforce or Zoho - you’re going to want to follow up with people, be it in a couple of days or a few months. Make note of their responses (did they validate your goals), their sentiment toward your pitch (cold, neutral, warm), and make sure to set a date for a follow-up. If something isn’t going to happen right away, make sure that it has the chance to happen soon.
  4. Learn something from each call. Could you change the pitch to be shorter and to the point? Did you feel like you need to connect a little more before asking right away? Always iterate.
  5. Don’t waste anyone’s time. They’re busy trying to make money and you’re trying to get them to spend it. Some people don’t want to make time to chit-chat, but others won’t mind giving you some insight into their business, motivations, and needs. Feel them out and see what information you can get from them, but don’t be pushy. If they’re short with you, move on - there will be someone else that’s willing to converse. If they’re long-winded with little interest, go ahead and cut the conversation short.
  6. Keep your pitch short and try not to make compromises - establish what you’re bringing and don’t sell yourself short.
  7. Be clear on the next steps, even if you’re rejected. If they’re interested, great job - make sure you’re available and can make your promises. If you’re rejected, give them an easy way to get in touch and tell them you’ll follow up with them later to see if their situation changed.
  8. Talk to the decision-maker - but be friendly to the person you speak with - they are your in.
  9. Over-deliver on your promise. You want to make sure they know that they made the right decision.

Why you might consider cold-calling

Why cold call instead of launching a website or creating an email list? Personal connections go a long way. I chose cold-calling because I believed it was going to give me the quickest results. Had I needed to take my salesmanship up a notch, I could have sent them emails regularly to make sure I was top of their mind when they needed someone like me. At the time, that one connection was all I needed.

Additional Resources

Motivated to make that first call? If I didn’t convince you, check out some of these:

The Only Cold-Calling Script You’ll Ever Need by Kent Holland

7 Steps To Cold Call Like a Champion by Stian Pedersen

If those don’t help, maybe you should just start calling people.

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