Once again, a question posed at Quora, “How can a straight out of college entrepreneur find clients for IT service based start up?” triggered these thoughts. As I have been recently looking at college startups, the entire issue of finding that first customer has been hovering in the background. When I cast my mind back to what worked for me at Impulsesoft, SiRF, Synopsys and Zebu, here’s what I came up with.
Referrals If you have [a] customer[s], start with them and ask for references. Any time an existing customer refers you, either to someone else within their company or others outside, it makes closing that deal a whole lot easier. Even when someone declines your services, you should ask them if they can refer you to others who may be able to use your services
Leads If you are a raw startup without a single client, then I’d start by making a list of every working adult you know – and reach out to them – with a one pager (if in print) or a single email, briefly explaining your offering in plain English, and asking them to introduce you to potential customers. As Esther Dyson, angel investor & writer suggests, ideally in your email, you’d write a brief email, that your recipient can forward after only having to add the name to the Dear [...] at the beginning and put their name at the bottom. Don’t forget to add every person you went to school, college or rock show with to this list.
Cold calling Despite claims that the world has changed and sales (& marketing) are not what they were, for a raw startup cold calling is a good way to both get a sense of what’s out there, what issues you will face when you try to sell (even with referrals) and refine your own pitching – of what problem you address and how what you offer is the right thing for folks. Best thing to do with cold calling is to have a fixed time each day (or n days a week), when you’d send emails or make phone calls to reach prospects. Cold calling is one of the hardest things to do and has low conversion rates, yet will serve you well in the years ahead. Check out The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cold Calling by Keith Rosen
Networking/speaking/free services Offering advice, giving talks and a free hand out, such as a tip sheet at industry forums, to business groups or other networking forums is a great way to build leads. For instance if you offer services in network security, you’d talk about “Top 5 Security Risks to your Business” and provide a free checklist that people could use to audit their network security. This can of course be done on online forums as well such as LinkedIn answers or your own blog.
In bound marketing In many ways this is like networking & free advice but done with content on your own website as a means to deliver value that would drive traffic to your website. In other words bring customers to your site, particularly self-selected prospects, ones looking for a solution. Companies such as http://hubspot.com/ do a great job of both educating you about inbound marketing and providing tools to make it happen.