3 Steps to Find Those First Customers

CustomersA question posted in the HeadStart Forum once again reminded me of how easy many of us find it to build the product first before figuring out how best to get customers. Having bootstrapped two startups and mentored several more, here are three tips on bagging the first (new) customer.

Your ex-employer if you’ve worked before you started up on your own, your ex-employer & ex-colleagues are the best place to start. They know you, hopefully don’t dislike you & you know how much money they have. They also likely can give you honest, even if not favorable, feedback on your product or service. Other than your mother, this is likely the most friendly reception you might get from a prospective customer.

Your ex-employer’s customers This is how I got my first break – when my employer turned down a customer who was deemed too small. I approached them with a request to be able to address their requirement and was given the go-ahead. This let me take the PO, a 30% advance and then start my first company, with a customer and cash in hand. Don’t hesitate to ask and don’t be surprised if your ex-employer and their customers are amenable to such an arrangement – as everyone prefers to deal with a known quantity.

Reference customer Visualize who’d be your ideal customer and more importantly the customer for whom your solution would be ideal. Strike a deal – such as a free trial or finite number of units or one [week | month | year] of free product or service – whichever make sense depending on what your offering is – in return for a strong endorsement or further references. So if Amazon India or Procter & Gamble or some other name brand or market/channel leader is prepared to endorse your product or service, it can open the flood gates to more customers. This requires you to be able to articulate your value clearly to your prospective customer and explicitly asking them for a reference.

Of course as with looking for a job or in the Indian context, looking to get married, it’s a good idea to let everyone you know, that you are looking for customers. So trade shows, your website, entrepreneur community forums, family weddings are all fair game to chase customers. While this is more likely to result in business cards and contacts, it will be ripe for the picking once you have that first customer. Happy hunting!

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