Sadly, the ‘ole “If you build it, they will come” method doesn’t typically work with startups, especially since startups aim to offer truly innovative technologies or services that require a giant leap of faith (and possibly a total change in perspective!) from their customers.
So, while your prospective customers may not run towards change, or race to pound down your door, there are some strategies you can employ to gather those coveted first customers. The first few customers are critical to proving your product’s value to the world and boosting your team’s morale (those long hours were for something, right?). They also serve as an invaluable testing ground for things like user experience and customer service.
Here’s a few ways to go about locking in customers in your startup’s earliest days. Fair warning: like most aspects of startup life, these approaches aren’t necessarily easy, nor efficient.
Talk to them. Nope, we’re not being sarcastic. You have a basic idea of who your customer is and what they care about. So, strike up a conversation! You can do it through content, like blogging and eBooks, or you can physically go and find them. Find them at networking events, at conferences. Reach out through mutual contacts for coffee meetings. Get in front of them. It’s not efficient, it’s not scalable. But getting facetime, virtual or real, is invaluable to closing a deal.
Leverage PR. The challenging thing about asking customers to fork over money for your product is that they don’t know you. At all. There’s a certain promise that passes between a customer and a business when money is exchanged, and customers will expect you to deliver. Put your PR efforts on turbo—anything you can do to get noticed, especially through the press versus paid advertising, gives you insta-credibility.
Build alongside them. Listen to your prospective clients and build what they need. Don’t tell them what they need—build it, based on their direct feedback. If you’re a SaaS startup, pull clients into a beta pilot program and give them the opportunity to provide feedback as you build. Not only will you create some brand champions in the process, but you’ll earn huge loyalty points by building something they truly need.
Friends and referrals. Connections are everything, you know that by now. Count on your network more than ever to try you, refer you, connect you. You may wish to consider a bonus or discount program for referrals, if your margins allow you to swing it.
Hyper-communicate. Have you ever called a business and left a message…and never received a call back? Or sent an email that goes into a black hole of no response? If you’re going to announce yourselves as a business, you can’t be shoddy with your communication and customer service. People expect a timely response. This is your opportunity to make a sparkly, feel-good first impression. Don’t screw it up.
Get chummy with industry influencers. Who are the people in your industry that your clients are bound to respect and listen to? Who are the thought leaders making recommendations, doing speaking gigs, shaking the right hands? You’ve got to sell them, too, even if they are not your direct customer. If you can get their ear (and their endorsement), it could do volumes for you in terms of boosting your reputation.
Test, test, test. Like anything, what works for one startup won’t work for another. But one theme that will probably be true across all is that obtaining those first few customers is a roll-up-your-sleeves, non-stop grind. You’re going to have to work harder for them than you will anyone else.
Start earlier than you think. And be prepared to pound some pavement.
What’s worked for you in finding your first customers? Share your tips with the Girls in Tech community here.