4 Ways to Find Your First Customer

Build your web page, button hole strangers, offer deep discounts, whatever it takes to make that first sale is worth doing.

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By John Rampton • Feb 2, 2015 Originally published Feb 2, 2015

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Every small business faces an undeniable challenge in the early days. No matter how innovative the product or service is, customers can't buy it unless they know about it. For a new business with limited resources, shouting from the rooftops may be the only affordable way to reach the mass consumer market. Businesses can use social media or send out press releases, but with so many brands clamoring for attention, those messages can get lost in all the chaos.

Most successful companies struggled with that challenge in the early days. From designing a page that ranks well in search engines to niche networking, the top brands in business today all had to work hard at one point to gain traction. In the process, they learned some valuable lessons that could help other small businesses get started.

Related: 5 Ways to Get Your First Customer

1. Grassroots efforts.

Homejoy may be to cleaning what Uber is to transportation, but the company wasn't always a Google-backed company. CEO Adora Cheung describes a time when she and her team handed out flyers in Mountain View, California. Initially the flyers didn't connect with many people, so they began handing out bottled waters to draw people over.

"We just guilt-tripped people into essentially signing up for cleaning services," Cheung says. "That was how we got our first bulk of customers and after that, it was lots of friends and families."

2. Free services.

Prior to his current position with Google Ventures, Bill Maris oversaw one of the world's first web hosting companies, Burlee.com. At the time, web hosting was unfamiliar to many businesses, so Maris went directly to businesses and offered to set up a free website. The only catch? Those businesses had to let Burlee.com list them as customers. He only had to provide free sites for 10-15 people. From that point on, he was able to attract businesses willing to pay.

Freemium business models have brought much debate in recent years, as experts weigh in on whether this option is a good way to build a company. App developers often provide their apps for free or at a discount to generate buzz. Restaurants and retailers offer big discounts to draw community members in. For a new business, like myself building a free hosting company and others interested in building a portfolio, Maris's method is a promising way to build your portfolio and increase the credibility of your brand.

Related: 3 Reasons Why That 'Free Consultation' Is a Losing Strategy for Entrepreneurs

3. Optimize it.

While building Rotten Tomatoes, founder Patrick Lee faced a big challenge. His film review site had to find a way to reach customers in the competitive environment of the worldwide web. He tackled the challenge by researching search engine optimization (SEO) and putting what he learned to work. Soon, searchers were finding his content. Lee learned the best steps he could take to increase his site's rankings and reach more customers.

As Lee was mastering SEO, however, he realized that he needed to create quality pages that would rank well in search results. His team began creating movie packages that included filmographies, cast and crew, movie synopses and forums to go along with the reviews. He found that because the information was so useful, other sites began linking to it.

4. Know your audience.

Archive.ly is built to help professionals learn more information about each other. Founder Perri Gorman put that same concept to use in building a customer base, conducting thorough research into her target market. Her goal was to network within a very specific group of people. She headed out to conferences geared toward her target market and, through that experience, met influencers who helped her grow.

"I didn't actually need to go out and find this huge market," Gorman explains. "I actually just start with what I call "pre-seeding' of my customer base. Because they are my ideal customer, they are a great user to help me refine the product because they actually get what I'm trying to do."

In the early growth stage of business, an entrepreneur can grow their customer base using a variety of tactics. Some may even choose to use a blend of several different methods. Whether you opt to do grass-roots campaigning or put technology to use, fully understanding your target market is key to maximizing your success.

Related: 10 Questions to Ask Before Determining Your Target Market

John Rampton

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John Rampton is an entrepreneur, investor and startup enthusiast. He is the founder of the calendar productivity tool Calendar.

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