So you’ve got a great product that you believe solves a major issue in your chosen niche. That’s great -- but running a successful startup isn’t just about you. The real question is, how do you go about getting others to recognize this value and adopt your proposed solution?
Every young business faces the challenge of acquiring its first users, but before we dive into specific strategies for doing just that, it’s important to remember who these first customers are and what they mean for your company.
Very few startups hit the market fully-fleshed out with every feature working perfectly. As a result, your initial launch isn’t generally the best time to try to drive massive growth, whether through paid ad campaigns, referral programs or other common growth hacks.
Instead, look at these primary participants as your beta users. Actively solicit their feedback and use their suggestions to improve your product. Once they see your responsiveness and the quality of the product you’re offering, they’ll become the brand evangelists needed to power the next stage of growth.
Now, with that in mind, here are three ideas for finding your first 100 “beta test” customers:
1. Seek out your competitors’ press. If your startup takes an existing product concept and improves upon it, you should be able to find media sources in every industry that have covered your competitors’ solutions. One of the easiest ways to do this is to set up Google Alerts for your competitors’ brand names. Whenever you see their names pop up in the media, reach out to the same publications or reporters to pitch a story about your new solution.
Alternatively, if your product solves a completely new need that isn’t being addressed by the market, you may not be able to “piggyback” on existing stories in this way. Instead, you’ll need to take a broader approach and be more proactive about reaching out to the sources that might be interested in your solution. Consider using sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn to build relationships with the reporters you identify before pitching your story, instead of sending a cold inquiry.
2. Answer pain point questions. If you don’t know what pain points your startup’s product solves, you’ve got much bigger problems than acquiring your first 100 customers! Do not pass “Go” and do not collect $200 -- you’ve got to first figure out the specific problems you’re solving and how your product-market fit does this better than any of your competitors.
Once you know your product’s target pain points, look for places online where people are asking questions related to these needs. If, for example, your startup targets graphic designers, a niche site such as Designer News gives you the opportunity to respond directly to posted news stories and questions -- both demonstrating your authority and including mentions of your product where appropriate. Several YCombinator users also suggest Reddit as a powerful place to find these questions.
Just be careful not to spam. It’s far better to become a trusted member of your community than to wind up blacklisted for posting promotions at every opportunity.
3. Talk to people in your industry. Remember at the start of this article, when I mentioned how you should treat your first 100 users as more of a learning curve than a revenue engine? This particular growth strategy highlights exactly how doing so can lead to both product improvements and customer acquisition.
When you’re in the earliest stages of your startup’s growth, one of the best things you can do is to reach out to people in your industry who are both highly-regarded and who might be potential users of your product down the road. But when you reach out, don’t pitch your product. Instead, tell them that you’re developing a product in their industry and that you’d like to pick their brains about what their needs are and how they’re currently solving them.
You likely won’t get a 100 percent response rate (though, as Jason Cohen of WPEngine found out, you can improve your odds significantly by offering to pay these experts for their time). No matter how many interviews you get, use them for information gathering only and ask permission to follow up when your product will be able to meet their needs. If you’ve done your job and created the best possible solution to their pain points, you’ll have the opportunity to acquire these experts as early-stage users and to ultimately have them recommend your product to their followers and customers.
Once you’ve got your first 100 customers, responsiveness is key. Show them how important they are to your company and how much their feedback is valued and they’ll play a major part in driving future growth for you.