Quitting your corporate job and launching your dream startup is only half the battle. Finding people to actually use your product or service is the real fight.
Like many entrepreneurs when I started my business in 1999, I was wildly optimistic about my company's potential. I assumed that if I had a great product or service, then clients would somehow magically appear. Let's just say this didn't happen. Having no clue about sales and marketing, I hired a full-time staff – many I ended up laying off.
Since then I’ve had multiple opportunities to “start over” again with my most recent venture taking me to Hong Kong. During my journey, I have learned many lessons about landing that all important first client. Here are a few tips on nabbing your first customer and the next few as well.
1. Give yourself some runway. Many promising companies fail because they don’t have the resources to last long enough to get things going. How long can you last without any clients or income? The more cash you have in the bank, the lower your risk will be and the higher your chances of success. I recommend starting with 6 to 12 months of operating expenses on hand.
2. Talk to everyone you know. Sending an email out to everyone you know announcing your new business is all fine and good but talking one on one to the few individuals who can truly help you is better. When you approach people don’t ask them for their business. Instead ask them for advice on how to get their business or the business of those they can refer you to.
3. Get involved in your community. People generally do business with people they like and trust. Deals get done at kids soccer games, through religious affiliations or via relationships formed in volunteer organizations. Of course you don’t want to be the guy everyone knows as being involved in the community for his own self-serving ends. Focus on being a good member of the community first, and business opportunities will naturally come to you without needing to be forced.
4. Get involved in the business community. When I first arrived in Hong Kong I went to every business event I could find. I identified those who were doing the most to help Hong Kong’s entrepreneurial scene grow and then I offered to help wherever I could. I have received quite a bit in return.
5. Collaborate with competitors. If you view every competitor as an enemy or a rival to be defeated, you’ll miss out on some of your greatest opportunities. One of the first things I did upon moving to Hong Kong was to identify competitors and reach out to them. More than half of them told me upon our first meeting that they frequently had projects they were too busy to handle and asked if I’d be interesting in taking their surplus business. Last week I met with a competitor. As a result we are organizing a series of training and education events for executives to learn more about online marketing. Together we will be able to have greater reach than either of us could get working separately.
6. Get social online. Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn offer excellent opportunities to connect with the various communities that may be interested in your services. But social media can also suck up a lot of your time, so use it wisely. I start online conversations by posting on my blog about entrepreneurship and marketing, quoting experts who will share the content and then sharing the content via social media.
7. Optimize your website. I tell my firm’s clients all the time that it’s going to take months of SEO before they start getting sales or leads from their website. That’s generally the way it works, but sometimes it can happen quite a bit faster. We started getting leads from our the Hong Kong version of our website within a few weeks of launching it.
8. Speak. Many organizations, such as chambers of commerce, like to bring in speakers who can share something new with their members. Often these organizations are desperate to find someone to present and all it takes is making contact and offering to share what you know.
9. Write. In addition to blogging, I’ve been doing a lot of writing for various publications. Writing isn’t for everyone, but if it’s something you enjoy, try submitting some articles to the publications your clients read.
10. Get PR. Sign up for Help A Reporter Out (HARO), a free service that connects sources with journalists. You’ll get emails each day telling you what kind of sources journalists are looking for. If you see something you can respond to, you might get yourself and your company featured in a publication. Or you can contact journalists directly and offer yourself as a source and pitch them ideas for articles they could write with your assistance.