Customer Experience

What Every Entrepreneur Must Understand About Their First 10 Customers

What Every Entrepreneur Must Understand About Their First 10 Customers
Image credit: Geri Lavrov | Getty Images
This story appears in the June 2016 issue of Startups. Subscribe »

Let’s face it, your business’s first 10 customers are the most influential ones you’ll ever serve. Failure, at least in those early customers’ eyes, can unravel your life-changing product or buttoned-up business plan. Conversely, success can turn those 10 into lifelong evangelists for your brand. Here are three ways entrepreneurs turned their experiences into innovation, growth -- and profits -- as a result. 

Sell Fast

It took John Rushworth three months to create BottlesTonight, a San Francisco-based mobile marketplace for booking bottle service and concierge reservations, and just one night to sell it. In January 2014, once the product was ready, he knocked on nightclub doors. Rushworth found that when he was able to get in front of managers, he could emphasize how his service would help the clubs improve efficiencies as well as control pricing and inventory. Employing this method, he scored two of Bottles­Tonight’s largest customers. 

“The clubs get bombarded with technology solutions that disappear after a few months,” he says. “My low cost of entry and overhead convinced them that I was going to stick around.” 

The Lesson: “A clear, concise message that solved a need was key to those first sales,” Rushworth says. “Once I had the trust of my customers, the rest was history.”

Prepare for Change

The relationship with your first 10 customers can be love and hate simultaneously. Just ask Daniel Gelernter, CEO of Dittach, a New York City-based startup with an application to help customers find attachments in a sea (or archive) of email. In early 2015, Gelernter turned to his first customers, who were using a prerelease product, for an honest quality analysis. They didn’t hold back, complaining about almost as many features and design vagaries as they praised. (They hated that Dittach’s app couldn’t scan the text of the attachments to better find what they were looking for.)

The Lesson: “Your first users are the first people who break things,” Gelernter says. “Some of those findings can be frustrating, but also invaluable; if you’re not prepared to evolve, you undoubtedly will fail.”

Find the Gatekeeper

Runa, a Brooklyn-based company, brews beverages from guayusa, produced from a leaf native to the Amazon rain forest. One of the company’s first customers was a regional buyer from Whole Foods Market who discovered the drink at a food show in 2013. She then recommended Runa to friends and colleagues in the industry. Ultimately, her references juiced sales with customers across the country, including Dean & DeLuca and Mollie Stone’s Markets.

The Lesson: “In the food and beverage world, there are specific gatekeepers,” notes Tyler Gage, Runa’s CEO. “And if they are willing to buy your brand as one of your first customers, they will have enormous ability to make or break you.” 

Edition: October 2016

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