It’s one of the hardest steps in a startup, getting that first rube to part with their money over your barely-minimum barely-viable product.
Hello Jason, I am a big fan of your advice and wanted to see if you could offer any advice for marketing my start-up XYZ.
I was totally product focused for the last year and now it’s live, so I need to start thinking about finding some customers. Any advice will help.
Hmm, you’ve spent a year of your life on something before asking anyone else if they want it?
He told me in a later email that he knows it wasn’t the best way to go, but “I’m a product guy.” So instead finding out who and where those potential customers are, which is hard, he just made a product, which is easy (for him). But that’s how you build a hobby, not a company.
So what. What’s the answer?
Marketing, advertising, positioning — they’re all forms of persuasive writing, just like an op-ed in the New York Times. What are the initial questions your 7th-grade English teacher taught you to ask before crafting a persuasive piece?
1. Who are your persuading?
2. What are your persuading them of?
And then, if you’re trying to get attention,
3. Where do they look for persuasion?
So, to dig into #1, my response to the email above was:
Describe for me your perfect customer — a person who currently experiences every pain point you solve, who is in a position to spend money to solve it, etc..
His response was unintentionally evasive:
My background is in SaaS so I designed it with that customer persona in mind. So I think the ideal customer is: SaaS, ISV, Web Products.
The tool is really versatile and can be used by anyone that needs online documentation.
He wasn’t consciously giving a glib non-answer; he was understandably, desperately avoiding it.
He wanted me to say “What vast market potential you have!” But “Web Products” is neither a market nor a target customer. It’s like saying “My target customer has a computer.” It’s not someone you can reach or persuade. You don’t know what conferences they go to. You don’t know what keywords they’re searching for. You don’t know their budget or whether they have pain and what kind and on what scale.
He wanted me to say “How great that your tool is so versatile that it works for everyone!” But the truth is it isn’t. There are dozens of tools for “online documentation,” and I guarantee his is great for certain people and not for others. If printing and binding the documentation is important, is his the best tool? If you have only six FAQ entries, should you buy his tool? If you’re Oracle with 47 product lines in 100 countries and 20 languages with distributed teams of tech writers is this the best tool? If you’re running a restaurant should use use it?
If you can’t figure out who the perfect customer is, the person who would agree that you are without doubt their best choice, then you aren’t the best choice for anyone, and how do you market that?
And what’s the point anyway?
Here’s an example of how he might answer “Who’s your perfect customer:”
WP Engine would be a perfect customer because (a) they have an FAQ with too many items, so customers get discouraged trying to find information and (b) they’re actively trying to reduce support emails and (c) the support department has a budget of $1000/mo for tools and (d) there’s a dedicated support person who would champion this internally and (e) he’s allowed to spend up to $50/mo on the credit card without asking permission and (f) it’s a forward-thinking company who is accustomed to using tools a lot and (h) …
Remember, not a “typical” customer, a “perfect” customer.
At this point you’ll be tempted to argue that speaking to such a tiny sliver of the population is too narrow-minded, even for a small startup. But you can’t write with power unless you write with specificity, and anyway you’ll find that even though you’re targeting a niche, 100x more people will still be moved by your words and will join you.
Once you know who you’re talking to, you can decide what you’re trying to tell them. By this time it’s easy, because you’ve already constructed the perfect soulmate. Now all you have to do is to open their eyes using fewest words.
Not trivial, but imminently do-able.
For example, supposing the (totally invented) perfect customer above were true, it’s easy to imagine what a grabber might be. If you know the tech support guy is taking flack for a messy FAQ page, it’s “Organize your FAQ page in 15 minutes.” Or maybe “automation” and not “organization” is the problem? Or if the alternative product is expensive and your perfect customer has a little money but not a lot of money you could say “Enterprise knowledge base for just $49/mo.” Or if you suppose the support department has to reduce inbound email or heads will roll, you say “Cut support email in half.”
The title or grabber is the hardest part, because it’s shortest. You have breathing room everywhere else for feature lists and benefits and testimonials and all that. Traditionally this takes hours of hand-wringing and no one is particularly thrilled with the result. Then you “A/B test” random headlines hoping to come across something effective.
But as you can see, if you take the effort to nail down the perfect customer, the words come easily. That’s why it’s a good technique!
The final step is to get your message in front of these perfect customers. This is the hardest part, because everyone up to this point — defining yourself and crafting words — is a struggle but still under your control. Getting other people to notice, isn’t.
When it comes to attention-getting, I find people ask the wrong question. Here’s the most common one which I got just this week:
I’ve read somewhere in your blog about how you had a very large organisation as the first customer for your software. I’m putting myself in the same boat now with the solution I’m developing so could you tell me:
How did you reach out to your first customer?
The fallacy here is that you can copy what I did and get a customer. The truth is that even I cannot copy what I did to get my first customer.
At Smart Bear, for example, I got my first 50 customers through AdWords. But this was 2003 when AdWords was new. I bought ads for $0.05/click and competed with no other advertisers. I spent only hundreds of dollars a month and covered the entire spectrum of SEM.
Today it would be near-impossible to bootstrap Smart Bear on those keywords. Even if I restricted myself to things like “code review tool,” the cost is two orders of magnitude more per click, and there’s tough, entrenched competition. See?
The reason Smart Bear doesn’t show up at all in the ads (we’re there in the organic results) is that AdWords is now so expensive that there’s literally twenty other online marketing campaigns that perform better, so it’s not profitable to do it.
It doesn’t matter how I started Smart Bear — even I can’t copy it.
Same with my current company in the WordPress hosting business, started just last year. How did I get those initial fifty conversations with WordPress bloggers? Because I have an unfair advantage in my network, because I’ve invested in blogging for three years. Because I have another advantage in that I could both build the initial architecture and write the website copy. Because through speaking around the world and mentoring at Capital Factory I’ve earned an amazing network of advisors.
Can you just copy that? No, but you have other unfair advantages — you have insight into some market, you have an unlikely team that can both build and sell, you have a rolodex, you have a business model others can’t duplicate, or something else.
Or not! I had none of those things at Smart Bear, no unfair advantage at all, no network, no blog, no insights, no sales skills, no marketing skills, not even a particularly good product. So all that crap isn’t necessary anyway.
If you listen to a sampling of the 600 Mixergy interviews, you’ll find a common thread to how all those illustrious founders got their first few customers: There is no pattern.
There’s all the startup marketing ideas you’d expect: Adverts, split-tests, media splashes, networking, pitch-competitions, inside baseball, creative stunts, SxSW launches, you name it.
But for every one of those, another founder has the opposite experience. One gets 100 paying customers from a single TechCrunch announcement; the next says their TechCrunch announcement garnered 10,000 visits and zero sales. One says they split-tested everything from their logo to their subtitle to the name of the product; the next says they ran split-testing for a year and never improved. One says Twitter, the next says Facebook, the next says email newsletters, the next says you’ll never believe this but postcard mailers are the secret weapon.
There’s no easy answer for you here. You can’t input your industry, product, pricing, and positioning into an algorithm and churn out the answer to who you should sell to, what you should say, and how you’re going to find them.
It’s easy to get discouraged by the lack of a clear next step. But then, that’s what startups are — a never-ending series of steps where you have almost no information to suggest which step is best. This is a state of being you’ll have to get accustomed to if you’ve adopted this career path.
But look at the flip side. You can mis-step constantly without it being fatal, if your eyes are open and you’re being honest about what’s happening. You don’t have to pick the right step each time. That’s what “fail fast“ means.
Also there’s more than one “correct” next step. Lots of steps will do just fine. You’re not seeking the One True Path, but rather any path that isn’t so circuitous that your finances or resolve runs dry before you reach the end.
So here’s what you do: You should use stories from other founders for ideas and inspiration. Some techniques you might indeed be able to copy outright.
It’s time to act. Pick something you can do, that you can measure, and that won’t be fatal to the company if fails miserably (i.e. not too much money, getting a result in not too much time), and then just do it. And be as honest with yourself as possible about the outcome.
That’s all any of us do. Everything else is post-hoc rationalization.
Let’s add more advice and stories about finding your first dozen customers in the comments.