Hearing about startups raising or selling for millions of dollars, it’s natural to wonder how they started and got early customers.
The first 100 is a big step for any business. It’s not easy. There are no shortcuts or quick fixes. Countless startups die early in their quest to obtain traction.
Prospects find it hard to trust a new product or a service provider, whether a lawyer, accountant, developer or writer. They don’t want to end up hiring someone who may not know what he’s doing.
But when a business reaches the first 100 milestone, it proves that there are customers who are actually willing to pay for the product or service. It doesn’t matter how great your business idea is. Without customers, there is no sustainable business.
There are countless articles about startups which act as great clickbaits by claiming to get traction in mere hours or days, but their stories are far from truth.
For any startup that claims something like getting its first 100 users in a day, the actual work to make that happen started several months ago.
Example: The founder of Groove, Alex Turnbull, started prospecting potential customers long before launching the product.
Even after launch, Groove didn’t start signing up paid users. Anyone could use the software for free.
Several months later when Groove had a 1000+ free users, they activated paid accounts, converting about a 100 free users into paying customers. There is no magic pill, and it takes time and effort.
Ready For Your First 100?
An old saying goes that you start attracting something you want automatically when you’re ready for it. There is some truth to that.
To get clients, your product or service actually needs to be good. It needs to do what it promises and deliver the desirable outcome.
You’ll find it hard to convince someone to have faith in your product or service when you yourself know inside that you’re not really there yet.
I had the same challenge when I first started. And on top of that, I was doing this all alone. There was no partner or mentor to help me. And no connections to rely on.
So getting the first clients for me was even harder. But I kept learning and hustling.
Before you even think about getting your first clients or customers, make sure you are skilled in handling the matters they might entrust you with.
Do whatever you can to learn, experience and improve as much as you can to become an expert in your field, or to make your product the best among the competition. This means:
- Making use of any relevant classes in your area, online courses, good books that can take you to the next level
- Keeping a tab on current and future trends that matter to your field of work through blogs, news sites, journals and magazines
- Early prospecting of potential clients before you offer them a service package.
- Building a portfolio through creating your own sample work and case studies, or working free or at a lower cost for local businesses or non-profits.
- Find others who are in the same line of work and learn from them – both directly and indirectly.
Directly means build a relationship with them to a level that they’ll be comfortable sharing advice. Be humble enough to be able to reveal your ignorance and ask important questions.
And indirectly means to stalk them online and learn from what they’re doing. 😉 What does their website look like, where are they advertising, what do they post on social media, do they have a blog etc.
The more you know and the more prepared you are, you’ll exude a genuine confidence that comes only with that kind of competence.
Getting Early Traction
Getting early traction is more of an art than science. You don’t have concrete data to rely on, or clearly defined personas. It’s not even certain who’ll buy. You’re just testing different things to see what works.
The various ways through which successful startups got early traction, plus my own journey to first 100 clients, show that you don’t have to be an aggressive salesman to promote your business.
Customers will surely come, but one at a time. Don’t expect a miracle of being flooded with clients overnight.
One could come from a friend’s recommendation and another from a networking event you attended. And yet another from someone you met accidentally in some random queue.
New, high paying clients don’t come that easy, unless you’re willing to settle for the ones with crappy work and limited budget.
I know that’s not what most of you want to hear. It’s not expected. Most of the advice shared online is crap and revolves around buying a product or service to quickly build a thriving business.
It may work. But when that happens, it’s more of an exception than a norm. Rype, for instance, is a startup that did everything it could do to get to their first 100 paying customers:
- Cold calling? Check.
- Contributing to forums like Quora? Check.
- Joint ventures? Check.
- Distributing hand-written discount coupons? Check
- Content marketing & SEO
Note how many of these things aren’t scalable. When you’ve just started or about to start, hustling is name of the game.
Even the most successful startups making headlines today started from the very bottom of the ladder. They did one-to-one interviews, send personalized emails and worked hard to early traction.
So when crafting their marketing strategy, Rype decided to focus equally on
- inbound, scalable methods like blogging, SEO, continually improving the product
- outbound, unscalable methods like direct sales, customer interactions and more
And they still have the same focus till date. So you’ve got to hustle. As you start and keep doing the below things, the struggle will start paying off.
One On One In Person
In order to get your first hundred customers, you must understand your strengths and weaknesses as a business owner.
Matt Lombardi, founder of Slate Wood Club, had little exposure to digital marketing for instance. But he was really good at talking to people in person.
So he found the places where his target audience and influencers were hanging out. He found conferences focused on his niche.
You need to keep growing your network. Get out more and show yourself to the world. Meet new people, spread positivity, have fun and ask good questions along the way.
The key to be successful with networking is to not just pitch your product but also listen to what others are looking for. The idea is to immerse yourself in relevant communities, both online and offline.
- Join the local chamber of commerce. Attend local events, seminars, and meetups in which your target audience hangs out.
- In fact, host some on your own to teach people something they’ll find valuable and help them network with each other.
- Join relevant LinkedIn groups, Facebook groups and Quora topics to help others with their questions and problems.
- Launch and host free online webinars which your target audience can attend to learn about solution to a common problem.
You need to be able to come out of your shell, tell your story and talk about what you do. That doesn’t mean you should keep talking about yourself and not take an interest in others. But when someone asks what you do, unleash the passion you have for your work.
In addition to early traction, the insights Matt got as a result of networking with prospects may have taken weeks of A/B testing otherwise.
Alex (founder of Groove) also went to a lot of meetups and business events to meet and talk to small business owners. He’d try to get to know them better, help them however he could, and have the same customer development drill that he did with people mentioned above.
He also tried to connect with a couple startups in every local incubator, and gradually asked for introductions to others in the same incubator. And later on many of these startups were among the first paying customers of Groove.
Buying Leads (Emails, Phone Numbers etc)
Some founders try to buy their way into clients’ businesses.
Although success with this method depends a lot on how those leads were captured and who is selling them, but in most cases those leads are people with more issues and less money.
In addition, you’re not the only one buying those leads from the seller. So are your competitors. So acquiring those clients usually becomes a game of who can quote the lowest price, eating into your profits.
Paying someone $50 so I can talk to a clueless business owner who wants “10 SEO articles for his site” or to make it “#1 on Google” with a budget of $50 is ridiculous. And the first thing he wants to know is if I’ll give a discount.
I have tried several lead-selling services over the years. To be fair, some are doing good work, but most suck big time.
A blog has the power to grow your startup. A great example of the fact is Buffer. In the early days of Buffer, the founders tried to get it featured on high-profile outlets such as Techcrunch and Mashable. But they didn’t get a bite from them.
In fact, even niche blogs with small audiences turned down the pitch to write about the company.
So one of the co-founders, Leo Widrich started a blog and began producing great content. As a result, Buffer gained around 100,000 users in the company’s first 9 months.
Buffer did a lot of things right with their blog, but the biggest point that separated them from competition is transparency.
From the early days till now, Buffer has been sharing every detail of launching, marketing and running their company. In fact, they even share how their revenue is spent, salaries are determined and pricing is established.
Such content has been very valuable for their target audience, which is startups and small businesses. The blog allowed them to connect with audiences and influencers, and become influencers themselves.
Buffer has grown entirely with the power of content marketing, and so has HubSpot, KissMetrics and many other companies.
At the basic level, guest posting is about leveraging other’s audiences in order to build your own, and it’s a proven method that many startups have found to work.
When Buffer started producing great content, it didn’t just post it on its own blog, but also guest posted on other sites, getting over 100,000 customers in just 9 months. The co-founder of Buffer, Leo Widrich wrote over 150 guest posts over that time span.
It’s vital to identify websites read by your target audience and contribute content. Buffer also used sites like BloggerLinkUp and MyBlogGuest to find opportunities.
Here’s a sample of e-mail that Widrich used to pitch guest posts:
Sean, the founder of Rype, also guest posted his way to success. He managed to write for big media outlets like Entrepreneur, Time, Lifehack, Huffington Post, Fast Company and many more.
Such outlets usually have contributing editors. And these are the people to get a hold of in order to pitch your guest post. While each major outlet has a standard write for us page, it’s usually swamped with so many pitches that it’s hard for yours to see the light of the day.
So Sean took a shortcut. He used a tool called Connectifier which helped them find the emails of any profile they came across on LinkedIn or Twitter.
But what’s surprising was that these outlets didn’t bring in as many customers as expected. In fact, publications that were smaller and had a narrow niche performed better.
These were blogs targeting people interested in personal development, career and improving their education. And the results were remarkable.
The takeaway is that what you need is not just any traffic, but targeted traffic. It’s better to have a 100 people visit your site who are more inclined to buy that the 1000 people who are not.
Guest posting can work to a great extent, but only when you figure out what your target audience read and target those publications.
In addition, traffic or lead generation isn’t the only benefit of guest blogging. The other is the relationships you get to build with influencers. This relationships can later turn into other opportunities like affiliate deals, joint venture, or something else mutually profitable.
Once you have a good relationship with an influencer, you can ask them to promote your content or any other favor.
Give Something For Free
Giving away your product or service for free (as a limited trial or sample) is a great way to get your first 100 customers. Not only does this strategy help creating a large user-base, but also breeds brand virality.
For instance, you use a free trial or a freemium package to get users initially and then convert some of them into paying customers in exchange for an upgrade. Here’s how Buzzsumo does it:
Buzzsumo’s onboarding experience helps each user early on to realize the value of the product. If your product is really easy to use and has great support like Buzzsumo, it won’t be hard to get early traction.
Groove, another startup, had more than 2000 free users before they were ready to activate their pricing plans.
The day they turned on paid accounts, more than 100 of those free users became paying customers. And those 100 users also played a huge role in improving Groove even more to where it is today.
Another example is Josef, the guy behind the letters. He started by giving away free logos and names via Instagram, building a huge following in the process. And brands started approaching him for work.
Buying Traffic, Clicks Or Links
There has never been a single day when I didn’t get a call or email from someone claiming to make me #1 on Google.
They spew out buzzwords like “SEO” and “Inbound Marketing” when I can clearly see through that even they don’t understand what that actually means.
Buying links will most likely not work, and it can even make your situation worse. Google has updated its ranking algorithm and penalized sites caught with bad links on many occasions.
Online Forums & Communities
The idea is to identify forums where your target audience hangs out, and where people are looking for solutions to problems that your product can help with. For instance, iDoneThis got its first 100 customers mainly from Reddit & Hacker News.
The date was Jan 3, 2011. The founder of iDoneThis submitted a “Show HN” post to Hacker News. The value proposition they used was a tool to keep new year’s resolutions.
Someone from The Next Web saw that post and wrote a story on them the same day. As a result of this exposure, they got 150+ signups. A month later, they cross-posted the same thing on Reddit and got 400 more signups, after which they got featured in Life Hacker.
Another great site is Quora, a community to ask and answer questions on a variety of topics. As per Adweek, most of the people visiting Quora are college educated professionals.
Search for your niche, competitors and other terms to see what questions people are asking, and what answers are getting the most upvotes.
If a question has a lot of followers or an answer has a lot of upvotes, you can assume that issue is important for a lot of prospects. You can also message someone and set up a phone call to uncover more details.
You can also become a part of Facebook groups relevant to your niche and add value to the discussions.
Prospecting Current Network
This means talking to people you know (friends, family, colleagues, investors) and then the people they know. But talking doesn’t just mean pitching your startup.
It means asking questions, trying to understand their pain points and hear their experiences in solving the same issues that your product solves.
Alex (founder of Groove), for instance, didn’t have any special connections or an influential network, except a few small business owners he knew from his previous work.
His idea was not to pitch these people, but just to validate that others also felt the same pain as he did with the existing customer service software. And to learn about their experiences. So he reached out to them asking for the same, and many were willing to help.
(Image Source: Groove Blog)
While on the call, he’ll ask questions like how are they handling support, what do they like about it, what could be better, did they try anything else that didn’t work and why.
Notice how none of these questions are selling Groove. In early prospecting, you’re not selling. You don’t have the product ready anyway. You’re just learning.
However as the call is about to end, he’ll let the person know that he’s working on a product which will be launched in a couple of months. And ask if he can reach out them for feedback when the product is live.
“Feel free to say no,” he’ll tell them. “This has already been really helpful.” Hardly anyone said no.
But here’s the real kicker: Every time Alex talked to someone about Groove, he’d end with a plain request:
“Is there anyone else you know who can share feedback on their customer support experience? Even one introduction will be hugely appreciated!”
Many people were generous enough to provide good referrals. And the prospecting list kept on increasing.
The whole process provided a lot of great insight and helped Alex improve Groove’s positioning and messaging fast.
When you’re talking to people you know, in the end always ask for introductions to other people who also might have the same problem that your product or service solves.
Turning these early leads into users is not easy. And probably more of a numbers game. Majority of people Alex talked to as part of these calls didn’t end up being customers. Only a handful did.
It’s not easy to switch quickly to a new product. What you’re asking them to do isn’t a small thing. The point is that as many people you can reach in this early prospecting phase, the better.
So even if your conversion rate from these people is low, you’ll have enough early users to start growing the business from there.
Continue to part 2 …