How do I get my first few customers?

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.

Here’s an email I got last week:

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?

Code review search

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.

76 responses to “How do I get my first few customers?”

  1. As usual, great stuff.  Especially the part about first-customer-non-repeatability.

    One thing I might add is that it is tempting to build to the first customer and as long as they can and will really pay something substantial for the product, that’s fine.  (Or the product is cheap enough that a throw-away is fine.)  But that way lies the crack of the product world: consulting.  

    I think you know what I mean.

    Keep it up!


    • I see a lot of my competitors with lower price points than me on AdWords, and I KNOW they’re losing money on this effort, yet they keep doing it.  Perhaps the point is not necessarily to get direct sales from AdWords.  Maybe they’re doing it to make sure potential customers keep noticing them and to gain exposure.  Perhaps they see it as more of a long-term investment.  Still, I’m not sure it’s the best way to go.

      • Perhaps they don’t even realize that they are losing money. Many companies don’t even have basic Adwords conversion tracking set up and have no idea what sort of ROI they are getting from Adwords, even whether it is positive.

      • A lot of people believe they “have” to be on Adwords. People used to say the same about magazine ads. Some magazines worked for us, others not, all declined over time.
        “invest” implies a return. I’m not convinced Adwords does that.

        Jason Cohen

  2. This was a great post.  Informative, but also energizing, which is key because entrepreneurship requires so much emotional energy.
    My best customer acquisition experience has been cold calling.  I agree that this may be personal – your results may vary – but cold calling yielded some great unintentional benefits for my company.
    First, the intentional benefit: we got customers.  It was difficult, but you really should be able to convince some people to try your product if you are talking with them live.

    Second, I learned a lot about the market and the product.  There is no analytics package or outsourced sales feedback loop that can replace having the ultimate decision-maker learn first-hand what is going on between the market needs and the product offering.  Our first market was food trucks – I had no idea there was so much to learn and how different they are from traditional restaurants.  Once I began to understand the market, we changed our product in such obvious ways that I felt silly for not having seen it before.

    Third, I learned who, within any target company, our buyer is.  For us, it isn’t the person with the budget.  It is actually the person with the company Twitter password.  They feel the pain and the benefits and are willing to convince someone to pay.  Plus, without them using our product actively and correctly, it really isn’t nearly as good of a product.

    Fourth, I gained confidence.  I am not a great self-promoter.  It doesn’t come natural to me to say “we have the best product, I know you’ll love it!”  In building a pitch that I had to give to customers, I had to first convince myself; and I’m no easy audience.  When the pitch and the product were both good enough to keep me from hyperventilating at the thought of making my next cold call, I knew I had it AND customers knew it, too.  They’re like dogs – they somehow sense fear.

    There are probably fifth and sixth reasons, but I’ll stop here and just say that cold calling was invaluable to me and if anyone wants to talk more about my experience and lessons-learned, I am willing to share, just get in touch.

    David Rostan

    • Fantastic insight. I agree 100%. Engineers tend to automate instead of learn from personal interactions. Premature automation is like premature optimization.

  3. Great post. It certainly resonated with my experience, both starting my own software product company and later consulting to others doing the same.

    The only people who might have a chance of knowing what methods work best for acquiring customers in your market is your competitors, and they are unlikely to tell you. So just try lots of different approaches and try to measure what works. Most things won’t. I’ve lost count of the number of different approaches I have tried. As Mr Honda said “Success is 99% failure”.

    Also, in my experience of looking at other people’s Adwords campaigns, most people’s adwords campaigns are somewhere between highly sub-optimal and completely disasterous. So if you aren’t able to get a return on Adwords, it might be because you don’t understand Adwords well enough. Or it might be that the market is too competitive. I’m sure it is the latter in Jason’s case. ;0)

      • hi my name is elitah and I live in South Africa. I will like to have you as  my man please reply if you wish to know me. Lov

      • hi my name is elitah and I live in South Africa. I will like to have you as  my man please reply if you wish to know me. Lov

    • hi my name is elitah and I live in South Africa. I will like to have you as  my man please reply if you wish to know me. Lov

  4. This is a great post and certainly encouraging for people like me who seem to continually get little to no results from marketing efforts. Often I feel that in principle the method was good but my execution must have been poor and so I try to think of how I could do it better. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as each time I refine the process and feel more proud of what I’m putting out there, but it’s good to know that sometimes things just don’t work and that’s ok.

    Case in point; a national computer magazine with a print distribution of 300,000 (which is good for the UK) recently reviewed our software giving it a respectable 4/5 and saying that they thought it was good value for money. They had devoted a full page to the review and it was relatively prominent compared to the rest of the content. You would have thought at least some of the readers would take interest and go to our website right? Wrong. Traffic to our website this month has actually decreased compared to last. For me this is utterly counter-intuitive and unexplainable. Our tool is not particularly niche in function (although initially we marketed it as a niche product), so I would have thought that the mass-market would take at least some interest. Apparently not.

    I’ll just have to try something else…

    • This is an interesting problem. It may be that traditional marketing isn’t the right way to sell this at all. You might need another channel like consultants, resellers, bundled, OEM’ed, etc.. Hard to know without more details.
      Email me at asmartbear -at- shortmail -dot- com and let’s think. If the answer is interesting it could be a blog post for others to benefit.

      • It’s very kind of you to offer to help, thank you.

        The trouble with reseller channels is that, unless you offer them exclusivity, often they expect the software vendor themselves to create the consumer demand for the product. Resellers are important to have in terms of managing the sales channel (especially when selling physical goods), but they aren’t always the answer to the problem of getting customers interested in the first place.

        I’ll shoot you an email one evening this week. There’s quite a lot of backstory to fill you in on so it will take a little while to compose.

  5. Anyone who calls themself a product guy and hasn’t talked to customers/prospects is not a product guy.

    • Depends on the size of a company though, maybe the product development person(s) is quite detached from the customer development person(s) if they exist.

  6. I think the big take away is to try and know you audiance,be creative and be a persistent.

    • hi my name is elitah and I live in South Africa. I will like to have you as  my man please reply if you wish to know me. Lov

  7. Hey, if that “ideal customer” you described is true to his product, we might actually be his perfect customer.  how about a link?

    • I didn’t want to identify him without permission.  I’ll send him your email and hopefully he’ll want to connect.  Thanks for the offer!

  8. Im happy that you point out that there is no guaranteed way to do something, basically try different things and see what happens, i get so tired of people writing articles about how something worked for them and how it can work for you too.

    There can be a lot of naivety at times, which is almost funny when considering that business and especially startups involves so much uncertainty and clearly requires some courage but some people dont show signs of that and want their hand held the whole way.

    Regarding adwords, maybe it could still be less expensive for some startups with extremely low competition, theres always something out there that isn’t being done by many others, i mean im not sure, i dont have much adwords experience but im guessing it could be made to work in the right hands in certain situations.

    • Yes of course! Also there’s other benefits to AdWords. For example we’re doing them at WP Engine not because they convert well (they don’t), but because it’s easier than anything else to test messages and landing pages which can then be cross-applied to other types of campaigns. Learning counts too.

  9. I think your focus on the customer is absolutely spot on. Ideally, (and probably should be required) you would want your own product/service so you are your own customer, and then just need to figure out how to reach yourself.

    ex. Figure out the relevant decision maker at WP Engine and put yourself in their shoes. Would you want your service? Why/why not?

    That’s been an incredibly helpful exercise for me so far.

    One question I had for you is how do you think an entrepreneur should divide their marketing time? Should I pick one avenue (cold calls, PR, print ads, Adwords, some sort of viral campaign, free samples, etc.) and put all my resources there, or try to hit them all in some sort of marketing cocktail?

    • I’ve found that using “yourself” as the target isn’t good. Almost none of your actual potential customers are like yourself. You’re the spark of inspiration, but not the perfect customer.
      For example, you decided to build your own solution. The perfect customer doesn’t decide that, they decide to buy it.
      RE: Marketing time, that’s an interesting question… let me noodle on it more, maybe a future post…

    • hi my name is elitah and I live in South Africa. I will like to have you as  my man please reply if you wish to know me. Lov

  10. “Here’s an example of how he might answer “Who’s your perfect customer:”

    (Can we see more examples?)

    Are some characteristics better than others?  Gender, sophistication level, car they drive, income level, charitable, politics, years in business, evidence they’ve bought other products with similar means or price-points?  Can I surmise ego level by the words they use to describe their LinkedIn profile?  Is there a way to speak wth ex-employees?  Where can I see the various ways a perfect customer might be profiled? 

    Here’s on article I just found on that which looks promising?  (I’ve posted it without reading it because I see the ability to comment other articles has closed.)

    • These are good questions.  I’ve never found value in things like “what car do they drive.”  This stuff about trying to form a “backstory” like you would in fiction I’ve not found helpful in this sense: It’s never made a difference in what I build or how I describe it.

      But the stuff about the job, yes. The “what keeps them up at night” is on the right path, although few things really are that critical. 

      I think it’s more like the stuff in the example above: How do they buy, can they buy, how does the problem manifest itself today, how do they attempt to fix it today, and other business and behavioral things rather than trying to build a “character.”

    • I think the reason people look at the car someone drives or the magazines they read is to figure out their income category and purchasing mindset.  If your target customer drives a Mercedes or a Ferrari they probably won’t be won over by marketing messages like “Save money!” but would rather have messages like “Live the good life!”

      If they read “Good Housekeeping” that says something different than if they read “Stuff” … in one case an underwear model is more likely to make sales than the other.

      Of course these extrapolations just give some educated guesses about what to try … and the choice of product is usually a symbolic one – i.e. you’re designing your ideal customer and you say he drives a Ferrari as a way to illustrate he has high disposable income and isn’t afraid to spend it on luxury/sports.

      • Some people live beyond their means though and are up to their eyeballs in debt, that can indicate that they dont hesitate much in spending money, but harder to know if the person has money of their own (not credit) to spend.

        • Right, this is why I prefer to define the customer as e.g. “lots of disposable income and likes to show it off” rather than inventing some manifestation of that which may have other implications.

      • hi my name is elitah and I live in South Africa. I will like to have you as  my man please reply if you wish to know me. Lov

  11. Great post, Jason. as a pre-launch founder I am faced with many of the same questions.

    Paying for a service (like SaaS) is also quite different from generating revenue via traffic (advertising), but I think many of the same rules apply. Figure out the ideal user and target for that. 

  12. This may sound like a back-handed compliment, but it’s not intended that way — and I have not figured out another way to say it yet. 

    Jason, I love the way you write your headlines — frequently implying that you have the answer to some incredibly difficult challenge many start-ups face, only to tell us that there is no answer; you have to find your own way.

  13. Always like your direct and concrete blog, Jason. It is also great timing since I’m working on building the product myself. “Get out of the building”, as Steve Blank has said, is the key here to understand customer.

    As a software developer, it’s really hard for me to get started on just talking to potential customers. I might know where to go, but the first step is mine to take.

    • I hear you. It’s still one of the hardest things for me as well. This is why we all have to keep repeating it — even though you know it intellectually, it’s so difficult to put yourself out there. But it’s the only way.

  14. Well said. Janice Fraser’s simple method for detailing a customer persona does wonders to avoid this problem. I’ve talked quite a few Startup Weekend teams through it and having a specific customer persona seems to not only solidify the marketing plan, but also eliminates hours of product arguments.

  15. Hi John.  I really enjoyed your article, because it speaks to the importance of putting yourself out there creatively (there’s always a market for art & innovation), and more importantly, you’re unafraid to ask potential customers to translate their “value” for your innovation, with a hard cost.

    Let me know if you’re interested in discussing an opportunity for you to participate in a private Innovation event in the fall of 2012 here in Toronto, ON Canada.  The goal of the event is to introduce 6-8 vetted Young Emerging Businesses to a select group of VC/Investors in a private setting.  

    If you’re interested we can talk about it further offline.

    Giselle – [email protected] 

  16. Sorry Jason … I just realized that I called you John (John is my favorite Uncle’s name)

  17. I loved your article. I think the greatest point was your last… and be as honest with yourself as possible. Most of our ‘startups’ originate as a dream. Making a dream a reality requires a great deal of honesty.

  18. What worked for me is getting the product in front on potential users on forums and User Groups, like LinkedIn. Offering a free trial seems to be a hit and while the conversion is not great (probably industry average), it is free, targeted and a great source of direct feedback.

    Good article, makes you feel better about own efforts in the end. …at least I can tell myself now that I did not waste time going down the wrong path. In fact, I might’ve been doing something right.


  19. Great Post ! But if we consider the totally different approach i.e. talk to the perfect customer and figure out and build the product that he would buy. Is that a better strategy ?

    The reason I ask is because there is this constant struggle (in my mind maybe) of whether to build a product to do something 5x better with a hunch that there are people who would want it that way. Or build the perfect product for a clearly defined user. Would that strategy be different for a start-up vs big company ?

    Do you think there is something there ?

    • There’s no such things as “5x better” if there’s no customer in mind. Because “better” is in the eye of the beholder.
      Also there’s many examples of products which are “better” in some objective sense that people just don’t care about, at least not enough to spend money over.

  20. Jason,
     I have a consulting group and we specialize in taking international companies products and services into the U.S. government federal market by finding those international companies distributors that meet certain set aside advantages. Our problem is getting the word out to international firms? We have had great success but still need to get the word out in a wider assimilation. Any thoughts?

    • International is always tricky, and in my experience there isn’t One Solution, but rather different things will work or fail with different countries, languages, and cultures.  It’s of course easiest in the UK because of language and next-easiest in AUS/NZ (but there’s the time delay).

  21. Hey Jason, nice article. I liked your story about the guy who spent a year building before checking if there was demand. We’re  testing a new idea at the moment rinku – Business Analytics for SMEs

    Its a simple one page site with an email capture designed to prove demand for our idea. My question would be, what is sufficient demand to warrant moving to the next stage…

    •  “designed to prove demand for our idea” i dont think that this proves demand for an idea, it can though show interest, maybe competitors might want to know a little more so they provide an email, but there is definately a flaw with this and that is that so many are taking so long to email people back with something that by the time that they do (if they ever do) that many people have forgotten why they gave their email in the first place, its happening to me, months later i get an email and i can barely remember submitting mine and why i wanted to know more to start with.

      • Hi John, thanks for your comment. I certainly take your point. All we’re trying to do is make sure there is sufficient interest in our idea before committing serious resource to development. What other strategies have you seen/tried that we might look into?

        • Ben, if I may, if you have confidence that your idea has potential for success and that you can change it toward customer interests after getting their feedback, then you should try launching a short version of your product. This way you will have a better sense of the customer’s feedback.

          • Ops. I just found this thread and really like it, but just now I noticed your question was posted one year ago. :)

  22. This is a fantastic post. My favorite part is “You can mis-step constantly without it being fatal, if your eyes are open and you’re being honest about what’s happening. ” I know I HAVE mis-stepped constantly and things are still just fine so I’m keeping it in mind for the next time I am afraid to try something new. Thanks for this.

  23. Have a look at Helping you get you your First 100 paying customers

  24. This is a great post! Very thoughtful and great insights in discussions too. Such a fantastic post I have found during my initial months of new web development start up. Thank you Jason!

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