5 Ways to Get Your First Customer

The initial adopters of your product play a pivotal role for your company. They bring in revenue and can open doors to other purchasers.

learn more about Diana Kander

By Diana Kander

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Do you know the difference between a startup idea and a startup company?

Paying customers.

I'm not talking about the .1 percent of big-name startups that raise millions of dollars in venture capital and build up a user base of millions before they need to make any money. I'm talking about the 99 percent of company founders who rely in part on bootstrapping, raise $500,000 or less in investment dollars and have to figure out how to generate revenue to stay in business.

Early adopters are a very special breed of customers and they mean everything to a business. These customers don't need testimonials to make a purchase. They understand that errors will happen. They are patient, interested in your company's success and willing to pay for your product or service.

The number of early adopters you need may vary. If you sell a $100,000 product or service, you may need onlly one or two. If you sell something for $1, you may need hundreds or thousands to truly prove that the marketplace is interested in your product.

Early adopters are more commonly known as your first customers. Here are the five things you can do to find them:

Related: Closing My First Big Deal

1. Use every relationship you have.

It's hard enough to make cold calls, but it's extremely difficult to sell new, innovative products and services using that method.

You need to meet with people who have some connection to you, no matter how slight.

When I started my first company, my clients were supposed to companies. I sat down and made a list of everyone I knew who owned a business and came up with only five names. This was very discouraging.

But I decided to grow my list by tapping my existing relationships, so I met with almost every person I knew who might have ties to the business community and asked people to introduce me to five business owners. I was surprised by how willing people were to help. I quickly grew my list of prospects and even snagged a few early customers.

2. Stalk and awe.

Some potential customers will always be totally out of your reach but might make incredible early adopters. I like to employ my signature "Stalk and Awe" campaign. First, I stalk these people -- not the kind of stalking that's an unwanted, obsessive intrusion on someone's personal space that can lead to arrest.

Find anyone who might have a connection to the person you want to meet and ask for an introductory email or a warmup call. The harder this person is to reach, the more recommendations you'll need. Next, send a letter of introduction and follow up with a call. Locate opportunities to attend events where the person will be so you can "run" into them (networking and business events only). I'm not suggesting crashing a wedding or joining the person's gym.

If you're able to arrange a meeting, now awe this person. Do research on potential problems in his or her business. Spend the first half of the meeting asking questions to locate possible pain points for that person and try to offer something of value independent of your business. Then if you bring enough value to the table and awe this person, he or she will be a lot more interested in you and your company.

Related: 10 Tricks and Tips for Landing Your First Client

3. Accentuate the positive.

When you speak to potential customers, they might have all sorts of questions without great answers: "How many other customers do you have? How long have you been in business?"

Try to answer them by accentuating the positive: "How many other customers do I have? That number isn't as important as the fact that of those who have tried my product or service, 95 percent would recommend it to their friends."

Or "How long have I been in business? I have years of experience in this market segment but recently opted to bring the same quality service that I offered through such and such big company but at a much lower rate."

4. Create partnerships for credibility.

No one has heard of your startup and you have zero brand credibility. So why not use the credibility of an existing, trusted company to score your first customers? Find a group or a person that your target customers trust. This could be someone who already provides them services or just a person with renown. Offer this potential partner a percentage of certain kinds of revenue, a sponsorship agreement or the chance to be a customer for a discounted rate in exchange for a public endorsement.

5. Become an expert.

When you don't have a track record of happy customers, the next best thing is having expertise in your chosen domain. If you can get your early customers to trust you as a knowledgeable resource in your subject area, they will buy from you. The key here is not to fake it. Before you start to prove your expertise, you have to develop it.

Once you've developed your expertise, express it through any media resource. Tweet, post on Facebook or your blog or write a guest blog to spread the message. Write a white paper and email it to target clients. Put together a "lunch and learn" seminar and invite customer prospects to learn about your subject area.

Fight the urge to spend all your communications trying to sell your company. Use your platforms to try to help people and your first customers will follow. The first customers will breathe life into your startup.

What creative things have you done to get your first customers?

Related: 3 Memorable Ways to Launch a Product to Wow Customers

Diana Kander

Senior Fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation

Diana Kander is an entrepreneur who has founded and sold a number of ventures and a senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. She is the author of All in Startup and an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Missouri.


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