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If you build it, they will do absolutely nothing. Recruiting your first few customers is essential when getting your startup off the ground. They’ll help you refine your product and market positioning, and provide social proof for your company. The bad news: customers are highly unlikely to passively stumble upon your offerings. The good news: founders have sales superpowers, like authenticity, ability to change the product quickly, and a deep understanding of their problem domain.
Guest blog by Patrick McKenzie
You don’t need to have a perfectly polished product or superior sales skills to count to ten customers. Stripe Atlas has documented the basics of hardscrabble sales in a business-to-business context: finding prospective customers, winnowing down to those worth selling, and making the crucial first conversations happen.
These steps you’ll need to take to find the first 10 customers for your startup:
How do you find prospects for your company?
Start scrappily with a spreadsheet organized by name of company, the name of the person, and email address. Don’t be shy to comb your network for potential connections too; warm introductions are almost always more effective than cold emails. Find where customers congregate online, like industry associations, conferences, and forums. You will find good prospects but, more importantly, learn about them. What are their pain points? What else do they use? Knowing these answers will help your development, marketing, and sales efforts.
How do you determine if prospects are good or not?
Good customers for early startups share a few attributes:
Early adopters: Start by selling to someone who adopts new things frequently. They’re more inclined to take a bet on an unknown service, and able to make the adoption happen. Search for customer references on the websites of firms laterally positioned to you and frequent hangouts for early adopters, like Product Hunt.
On the internet: Sell to people who are aligned with the internet. This is convenient for developing leads (since their online presence probably includes contact information) and from a sales perspective: they typically won’t need reference customers or other indicia of Serious Sales Efforts (TM) because they’re comfortable transacting online. Firms without a meaningful footprint on the internet are unlikely to be excellent first customers.
Light sales cycles: Prioritize prospects where you only need one person saying Yes to close a deal. Small business owners are good first customers since they can independently adopt anything. Large bureaucratic organizations probably shouldn’t be your first priority if you can avoid them. Once in conversations with a prospect, ask point blank: can they independently decide to buy your product? This question might test your comfort level, but you’re not the first person to ask and you won’t be the last. If they demur, move to the next prospect; you can always circle back later.
How to communicate with customers?
The most common option is cold email to get a phone call, with the main sales effort either happening on the call or after it. Keep your cold emails concise and action-oriented. Generally, your first outreach will be three to four sentences long with a single ask.
Prove you put in some work: Spambots don’t make great first impressions. Open with a genuine (human!) connection. Identify a problem they’re experiencing, propose a sensible solution and offer a call if they’d like to discuss matters in more detail. Simply reiterating what they consider to be unique about their company makes you better than the vast majority of pitches they get.
Start providing value: Demonstrate that talking to you will be time well spent. If possible, give the prospect a couple useful takeaways from your email, such as suggesting an idea that could greatly improve one of their existing initiatives or more effectively connect them with their audiences.
Close your email with a small, specific “ask”: a short phone conversation. If they agree to take the call, they’re clearly not opposed to hearing what you have to offer. Make it easy for them to say “Yes”. Rather than burdening them with scheduling, for example, suggest an appropriate date and amount of time. If they’re busy on the day you’ve proposed, offer to accommodate their schedule.
How long to follow up?
We’re conditioned to interpret non-response as disinterest. When it comes to selling, however, treat non-response as only non-response. Your prospects are busy people; dusting off their inbox with a one-sentence follow-up email might catch them at a better time or cause them to prioritize you more highly. Keep pinging, once or twice a week, until your customer engages, then play the conversation naturally from there. Write your follow-up emails by hand and send them manually. You can do twenty in 10 minutes if you’re organized.
What should you ask for on the call?
From a startup perspective, the cost of your software generally dictates whether a low or high-touch sales approach is required. For low-touch deals, where a single decision maker can make a snap purchasing decision, ask for the sale by the end of the call and be prepared to move immediately into taking their order. Try to secure commitments. Free trials often present an easy way out of adopting your software long-term. You can give the same reduction of risk without sacrificing efficacy by offering a 30-day money-back guarantee.
For products that require the customer to see evidence that the product will fit their purpose before making a commitment, spend your time on the call establishing rapport with the customer, learning about their problems and motivations, and if appropriate ask for an opportunity to do a longer demo or present a “formal proposal”.
How can you get better at this over time?
Feed what you learn from sales directly into the product itself: using the words customers do to describe things in the interface and documentation, for example. This synergistic interplay of product development, marketing, and sales is one of the joys of running a business. The scrappy sales approach you start with is effectively a prototype for a future sales process you’ll be capable of performing repeatedly, at scale. As an early stage company, you can change your process as quickly as you can change your mind, so experiment boldly with what customers you go after, how you pitch them, and what the structure of your offering is.
Patrick McKenzie has built and run four software companies that did business internationally. He now works at Stripe on Atlas, helping founders demystify the mechanics of starting and scaling an ambitious internet business.
Customer for startup image by Shutterstock