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How to Escape Zero Customers Startup Hell


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Your first customers are a godsend. They give you insight, immediate credibility and make landing new customers easier. But getting those first customers can feel like a Herculean task. There’s so much to track! Right away, you have to know where they hang out online,what their big problem is, how your product solves it and why they should care. Unless your business operates using a freemium model, you’ll need paying customers to scale up or pitch investors.

Finding customers, of course, means you’ve done preliminary research into a problem. It means you’ve identified a niche market with room for growth. It means you’ve selected an audience for targeting using empathy maps, surveys and market research. Learning is always the FIRST step. Don’t skimp on it… the IKEA effect lurks in the shadows, ready to pounce the minute you ASSume too much about your product-market match.

You’ll also need to build your MVP before you can start pitching potential customers. Now there are some legendary (and humble) cases where entrepreneurs have gotten customers without a prototype. They sold the product using only mockups and side-by-side analogies (“it’s like X, only better!”). Metricwire is one example. These are inspirational stories, yes, but also abnormal. The fact is, most people — no matter how brilliant they are — can’t envision your product in the dream stage. Seeing really IS believing…

If you’ve spent any time with us, you know that we’re big fans of the lean process. We say lean does not mean saving money at all costs (get it? money at all costs? ha, ha). It’s workin’ with what you got but executing with speed and efficiency. Getting your first few paid customers is a monumental step in the life of your startup. You gotta attack it like a cheetah on red bull.

Promiscuously Tap Your Network

That means reaching out to as many likely targets as possible… quickly. Start with your own contacts. No, I’m not talking about friends and family — charity cases for the most part — unless they truly fit your target profile. If you’ve written or blogged about your industry at any length, then you’ve probably built up a list of email subscribers and social followers. That’s where you want to begin the search for customers — with your fans. Fans buy from people they respect. They also respond to survey and interview requests more than non-fans. Fans are honest too; they’ll tell you what they like (or hate) about your product. They’ll also let you know how your product fits with the professional image you’ve cultivated.

What’s that you say? You don’t have an email list or 25K followers on Twitter? Relax Beavis! It’s not too late to position yourself as an expert and leader in your space. You do that by blogging, writing articles, podcasting, leaving strategic comments on other industry blogs and speaking at industry events. If the content you produce is good, your name will grow. As your name grows, you’ll see that customers come to you, ready to buy. Not only customers, other entrepreneurs will find you, happy to do business with a “leader” and “expert.” Anonymity sucks when you’re trying to launch a product!

Don’t Be Shy

If you have industry connections, hit em’ up. Ask for feedback. Study whether your product compliments their product. If it does, they might be willing to give you a platform for promoting your product to their network. Product endorsements from trusted sources still carry a lot of weight.

Sometimes You Gotta Pay For It

You can also use paid advertising to land your first customers. You could go the PPC route, advertise on individual websites or go full monty and sign up with a DSP (Demand Side Platform) service. However, until you’ve discovered a high volume traffic source, with the skillz to convert that traffic, this approach to customer acquisition is tough. It’s expensive (especially for SaaS companies) and doesn’t provide the nuanced feedback you need to learn about your market. It can definitely be done, but for a lot of startups the better option is…

Old School Sales Tactics

Closing your first customers the old school way is a numbers game — quantity, quantity, quantity. It doesn’t matter how you find your targets (lists, directories, websites, referrals), as long as they fit the basic profile of your audience. Your methods for contacting targets should be fast, easy, and replicable. That means direct marketing: email, cold calling, maybe even snail mail (Homejoy, a Google-backed venture, started by giving out flyers in parking lots). Pick a method and a number (e.g., 100 emails a day). Keep plugging away until you hit the number every day. Once you get used to calling/emailing in volume, you’ll be able to up your daily quota. Working faster means getting to those first customers faster.

To make it plain, you’re NOT pulling names out of the Yellow Pages or spamming people with a single (crappy) message. Although you’re using high-volume tactics, the more personal you can make your efforts — name and company position at minimum — the better.

It’s You… Really

The flipside to customer acquisition is customer disqualification, even repellency. Not everyone is a good fit for your product, some are downright horrible fits! Any prospect that blows you off is not qualified… at least for the present time. A qualified lead is one who says “maybe” or “tell me more.” You find out if they’re really qualified by listening closely during the conversation. Keep a notepad handy if you’re cold calling.

Obviously, skip anyone on your list whose job title or company makes it clear that they’d have no use for your product. It’s the right thing to do and you’ll save yourself time and headache. Your conversion rates will probably be low in the beginning. Don’t sweat it. It’s not a black mark on you. In this day and age, people scan their emails and rarely pick up the phone. One hundred phone calls might yield twenty live humans, four qualified prospects, and one sale.

Yeah… we’re talking that kind of optimism!

But really, we’re talking about dedicating yourself to the goal of landing your first customers and not getting discouraged during the hunt. You’ll be exercising your resilience, creativity and chutzpah muscles daily. It’s excellent training for the future when you’re juggling multiple products.

Talking to Strangers

What type of script works best on cold prospects?

Before we get to that, let me say, now is NOT the time to freestyle. Winging it in email will add hours to your work. Winging it on the phone is even worse; you’ll forget essential info that your prospect needs to hear before considering your offer. On top of that, all the “ums” and “uhs” in an unscripted pitch make you sound insecure and a lil’ stoopid.

So the script you use should lead with a benefit. Choose the most valuable one and get to it quickly. There’s no need to open with an extended explanation of who you are and what you do; you can always come back to that later. Instead start from their point of view, with the old “What’s in it for me?” question. Specificity is always good ( “Are you spending more than X on Y each month?”) as is empirical statements, “Our software can save you 57% more money than Brand X.”

Don’t worry if your script is kinda lame at first, you’ll be adjusting it throughout your campaign. Use split tests to determine which script is worth keeping. With every response, you’ll learn a little more about your audience’s pain points. The customer persona you build might end up radically different than the one you started with. That’s a GOOD thing. It means you dodged a bullet!

Selling Your Soul Not Required

Which brings me to this public service announcement: sales is not a dirty word. It’s not the enemy of purity, design or art. It’s the lifebloodof all real businesses. No sales = sickly startup. You need to understand the sales process in order to grow. In the future, when you’re scaling up, you’ll hire a sales team. If you aren’t intimately familiar with how to sell your product, you won’t be able to analyze your metrics. You also won’t be able to decipher the mysterious language of customers, putting you at a competitive disadvantage. Hear me you: a good salesperson never goes hungry for long.

“The hardest customer to get is the first one.” It’s an annoying cliché but true. Get one customer… then a second… then a third and by the time you get to 10, 20, 50 customers, your customer persona will feel like a living, breathing human. Adding new customers becomes easier — even automatic — once you’ve escaped “no customers” hell.

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