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Finding First Customers

The topic of what sort of marketing a startup should do to land the first few customers has come up a few times lately so I decided it was worth a short, simple post.

Question: What sort of marketing should my startup do to secure our first couple of customers?
Answer: None.

Simple, huh?  The truth is that your first couple of customers aren’t customers at all, at least not in the regular sense of the word.  They’re believers.  They are going to be a crucial part of defining what your startup does and sells.  They are going to take an astonishing risk by being the first customer for a completely unproven solution in what is probably a nascent market delivered by a team that has likely never run a company before.  Even if they get the product for free, they’re investing time and energy getting users on the system, integrating it into their environment, and providing feedback to you.  They are going to have to be patient while you work out your bugs and deliver iterations and finish the darn thing.  And they’re going to have to do this while other people in the company (the ones that would prefer that they didn’t participate in your little startup experiment at all) complain and hope the project will fail so they can laugh like hyenas a scream, “I told you those guys didn’t know what they were doing!!”

I’m a big believer in the power of marketing but no marketing will deliver this kind of a risk-taking life saver.  Nope, these customers are going to do it because they believe in the whole package – in you, in the vision, in your team.  Finding the early folks is going to be about selling your idea and your company to folks you have a personal relationship with.  Ideally they are connections that have seen you deliver in the past and their knowledge of how you get things done mitigates the risk of using such an unproven solution.

Some folks I’ve worked with worry that they don’t have those kinds of connections simply because they’re young and haven’t had a lot of experience working directly with customers.  If that’s the case, you’ll need to figure out how you get some of that inside your company.  It might mean assembling an advisory board or hiring an independent board member or two that can help introduce you into accounts.  One company I know brought in a sales/marketing exec specifically for his connections.  If you have investors you can mine their networks too.  Also don’t forget the good ol’ friends and family when looking for first customers.

Marketing is not the key to getting a few lead customers, it’s more about selling.  Just remember that what you are selling is as much about you and your team as it is about the product.

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  1. Very sound advice here April. I think a lot of people are afraid to “start small” and build from the strong loyal relationships that develop with the “believers”, as few as they may be. Sure it would be great to get a load of buzz before you even launch, but while some companies have done that in the past, it’s not very realistic for most companies.

  2. Hi April,
    I agree with “not cranking up the marketing engine”. Many of us have seen too much VC money wasted on premature (and poorly planned) marketing.
    But some early marketing planning is needed, even as you’re looking for those first customers. The product plan needs to clearly articulate the answers to two key marketing questions: 1) What problem are we trying to solve, for whom, and 2) How is our solution different from and better than any alternatives.
    With those two questions clearly answered and understood by the team, you have an early foundation in place for the marketing tactical plans that will follow.
    Mara Krieps
    Pivotal Product Management – More PM tips in the “Pivot Point” newsletter archives


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