Q: I'm still in the early stages of starting my business, but I don't know how to begin getting the word out to potential customers. Should I take out an ad in the local paper? Do I need to send out a press release? Help!

A: When I raised money for a dotcom start-up a few years ago, potential angel investors would say things to me like, "Your business concept seems sound and your marketing and PR plans all look well and good, but tell me: Where are you going to get the first five customers who will actually pay for your product? Because until you have them, I don't see how you really have a business here."

Strong words, but how true! We can talk about writing press releases, taking out ads and sending out mailers. Yet, think about it. In tangible terms, how are you going to get those first few customers? Your first customers are so critical to your success because they:

  • Legitimize your offering, demonstrating that yes, there is indeed a market for your products and services.
  • Provide valuable feedback to help you improve your business operations.
  • Give you real testimonials, which you can leverage in subsequent marketing campaigns.

Tapping Your Warm Market
Where do you find your first customers? Well, ask yourself this question: Who are the people most likely either to buy from you or send you good referrals? Yep, those are the people you know-your "warm market." How do you approach them and get the word out? The first step is to build your initial list of warm contacts. Here are 10 questions to stimulate your thinking:

  1. Who are your personal friends-and their friends?
  2. What about your school connections? Brainstorm a list of classmates, teachers, fraternity brothers, club members and so forth.
  3. Who are your business connections? These include former employers, employees and customers.
  4. Who are contacts within your civic activities? Are you a member of any civic clubs like Optimist International, Rotary or Kiwanis? What about fellow church or synagogue members? Think of all the organizations you belong to.
  5. Who are your contacts in trade associations you've been a part of over the years?
  6. Who are the tradespeople you know? Include folks like your lawyer, pharmacist, doctor, dentist, plumber, insurance agent, hairstylist, mechanic and even your babysitter or nanny.
  7. Who are your neighbors-both past and present?
  8. Who do you know through your sports and hobbies, such as hunting, fishing, running and golf?
  9. Who are the people you know because of your home? These contacts include your mortgage lender, real estate agent, builder and so forth.
  10. Who are the contacts you have through you and your spouse's families?

You know quite a few people, don't you! Now, how do you leverage this list to land your first customers? Here are a few cost-effective ideas to get you started:

  • Send a personal letter and follow up with a phone call a week to 10 days later. In this letter, announce your new business. Offer a free consultation or a special discount, something to create interest and excitement in what you're doing. Perhaps you could offer to pay a "bird-dog" fee to those contacts who send you referrals who buy from you.
  • Use the telephone. Call some folks to "catch up." Find out what they're doing and then share about your business.
  • Set up breakfast, lunch or coffee meetings. Set it up as a "feedback session" where you present your product or service in a low-key manner as a way to solicit feedback from the person. At the end of the meeting, ask the person for referrals to people who might benefit from your offering.