Launching your own business sounds fun and exciting. Right up until the moment when you have to find your first paying customer. Because a business without customers is like a kite without wind. It just won’t fly.
A friend of mine wrote to me yesterday about a major challenge his startup is facing. He said that like Carmen Miranda, he has had several fruitful conversations with prospective clients. And he was excited about next steps. However, at some point in each conversation it came out that the prospect would be his organization’s first customer. After hearing that, all of them ghosted like Patrick Swayze.
Which comes first, the business or the customer?
I expect my friend isn’t the only person to ever deal with this issue. In fact, every business ever created has had to transition from fantasy-business to reality-business by acquiring their first customer. If you have had this challenge, or are concerned about it as you begin your entrepreneurial journey, here are some tips for getting over the humpty hump.
9 Ways To Land Your Startup’s First Customer
- Give Away Your Product Or Service For Free. This approach doesn’t technically give you your first customer, because customers are those who pay for your offering. But what it does do is give you proof of trial. You can point to someone you have worked with. You can refer to a user who has enjoyed your product or service. It can give you a testimonial to leverage. It can offer an example of where and how you delivered. All of those things help make your prospective customer feel like you have the experience they want.
2. Start With Friends and Family Start by turning to those who are most likely to want to help you succeed. If you are making a relatively low cost consumer good or service, approach your friends and family first. They will want to help. Unless you are one of the Menendez Brothers.
3. Site Examples Of Your Personal Experience. Maybe you haven’t offered this service or product under your own banner, but you have done this sort of thing in the past through a business you worked for.
For instance, if you are a barista, a financial planner or a home cleaner who has worked for someone else, and now want to start offering the same type of service on your own, point to the examples of how you have done this extensively in the past. Now, you are excited to offer your customers what you have spent years perfecting.
Even better, you have fixed all the problems your past employer had when offering such goods or services. In fact, the reason you were inspired to go out on your own was to offer an even better product than you could have when your hands were tied by your prior employer. Then show them the rope burns around your wrist to make the whole hands-tied-thing more believable.
4. Offer A Money Back Guarantee. The reason people avoid working with new businesses is because there is an inherent risk involved with working with a new entity before they get the kinks out.
The key is making yourself a safe choice. You can do that by offering a money back satisfaction guarantee. If wasting money is the customer’s concern, and it often will be, a guarantee helps a great deal. However, losing valuable time is also often a concern. And that you simply won’t be able to give back to them unless you have a Delorean and a flux capacitor. So understand when a prospect’s concern can be alleviated by offering to return their money if they aren’t fully satisfied, and when it can’t.
5. Seek Out Other Entrepreneurs. The people most likely to want to see you succeed, after your friends and family, are other entrepreneurs. They have been where you have been and just needed someone to take a chance on them, like ABBA. Someone who was willing to forgive a little early-in-the-game wonkiness. Entrepreneurs love startups. Startups are nostalgic and inspiring to those of us who have been there before. Use that against us.
6. Partner With Another Company That Already Has Credibility. There are lots of ways to sneak in the backdoor. One great way is to tuck yourself into an already proven entity. It’s how The Cowardly Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow snuck into the Wicked Witch’s castle. In the beginning, my startup partnered with many respected organizations. Those businesses vouched for us. And that was all we needed for client approval. Everyone wins. And it opens up even more possibilities down the road.
7. Sell Your Prospect’s Role In Your Founding Story Every company magically transforms from dream to reality when they acquire their first customer. And that founding story will be told for eternity. This is your customer’s chance to be part of your history and the story you will tell for years to come. The opportunity will be appealing for many. It’s appealing to me. Practice your pitch until it becomes an irresistible Disney-esque story.
8. Offer Steep Early Bird Discounts There are plenty of services that provide sticker shock to new shoppers. Take weddings for example. The photographer, venue, catering, flowers and dress all cost way more than you would have imagined. If you want to break into the wedding game, offer a cure for the sticker shock by offering a soothing, doable price. This is how you get your foot in the door. You will be solving 2 problems for the happy couple. First, you will be offering the service they need. Second, you will provide room in their budget for the other things they really want. A discount on your first gig is no loss to you. In fact, lowering the barrier to entry to get your first clients can unlock the path to millions of dollars in revenues in the future. And with a little luck, your business will outlast most marriages.
9. Work With Former Clients Or Customers. If you already have a proven track record of success with happy former customers they should be the first clients you approach for your new venture. Customers know that people, not businesses are the key to delivering a great product, service or experience. And if you have delivered for your customers in the past, they will expect that you will do the same for them in the future.
This is how I launched my business. After nearly 20 years of working for other companies I started my own advertising and idea agency called The Weaponry. I talked to 5 former clients about my plans in order to get input, feedback, and hopefully interest in my new business. All 5 of them told me that if I did what I was planning to do they had work for me.
In fact, my Original 5 became my biggest cheerleaders. They wanted to see me succeed, and wanted to be part of that success. I think they felt as if they helped discover The Weaponry, in the same way Clive Davis discovered Whitney Houston. Let those former clients in on the experience. Let them help mold your offering to meet their needs.
Because your former clients have history and trust with you, and they know you are starting something new, they will likely be more forgiving of you as you navigate the process for the first time.
Like so many others, I started The Weaponry as a side hustle. Not because I thought of it as a side hustle, but because I wanted to breathe life into it and gain momentum before I quit my day job. And I knew that my trusted former clients would understand why I needed to meet early, late or over a lunch hour. They wouldn’t expect me to be responsive throughout the day, and they would be forgiving of the various other quirks that came along with a startup side gig. And sometimes an understanding first customer is all you need.
A business is not really a business until you have your first paying customer. But there are multiple ways to find that legitimizing customer. Don’t worry about making a profit on your first client. Simply get the deal done. And you’ll have proof that someone else has trusted you with their hard earned money. That’s often all a prospect needs to hear. Then keep looking for that next customer as if your business depends on it. Because it does. Good luck. And get going!
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