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How to get your first 10 customers

Preface: the assumption for this essay is that you’re building a B2B app, and you have something built but you’re having trouble getting people to pay for it

There are three problems with getting your first few customers:

  1. You (probably) don’t know how to sell things
  2. You don’t know who you’re selling to
  3. You don’t even really know what you’re selling

Nobody tells you how to answers these questions, and so most people go out to get initial traction in a haphazard way:

  1. They have a vague idea in mind for who wants their product
  2. They’ve already built the product, so they put together a landing page which which, like, totally speaks to the core value proposition
  3. They write some combination of any of the following:
    A few half-baked ads
    A few forum posts
    A few comments on relevant blogs
    A few blog posts
    A few cold emails to journalists (because, dude, we would BLOW UP if we could just get ‘Crunched)
  4. They send these out into the wild, and (no surprise!), get very few responses
  5. They conclude that the product must suck and that nobody wants it, because Mark Zuckerberg did exactly the same thing to launch Facebook at Harvard and look at how that worked out for him

If you try to get initial traction this way, it’s very difficult to untangle why it didn’t work:

Were the ads targeted to the wrong keyword?
Was the copy not compelling enough?
Was the sample size too small?
Or does no one want what I’m selling?

When they fail to get initial traction, most people conclude that the product is the problem. That no one wants what they’re selling.

They never consider that the way they’re selling might be COMPLETELY wrong (either in the way the product is being pitched, who it’s being pitched to, or some combination of the two.)

I think most of us have been lulled into this sense that the second you post your new product to a listserve you should automatically get sucked into a 4 minute montage scene featuring dark ominous 9 Inch Nails background music only to be spat out at the end with enough money to buy that estate on the Amalfi Coast.

And when that doesn’t happen, our first response is always to blame the product.

Formally this is called the actor observer bias which tells us that we tend to blame things that don’t go right in our lives to circumstances beyond our control:

“No one responded to my emails, so the product must suck. Nobody wants it, otherwise it would already be on TechCrunch.”

This is wrong. Here’s the truth:

You have learned nothing from spending $200 on Adwords, or writing a few comments, or sending cold emails to journalists.

Let me repeat: You have learned nothing. You get a big Zero. You have no actionable information.

Your product could suck. But it could still also be completely your fault. Or it could be completely random that you didn’t get any responses. Maybe the journalists were having a bad day, or the three people who clicked on your ads were just bots.

The point is: buying a few ads, or sending a few emails, or writing a few blog posts is not enough to conclude anything.

Untangling why you’re not making sales seems like an almost insurmountable problem, especially when you realize that at the beginning you don’t even really know what you’re selling.

The problem with startups is that you have to figure out WHAT you’re selling AS you’re selling it.

It’s like having a big black bag with a product inside it, and you have to run around selling it to people you see on the street. And worse, you’re not allowed to look into the bag to know what it is you’re selling. You can put your hands into it and feel around, but that’s the extent of it.

Ok, so how do you deal with this? How do you start to figure out what you’re selling, who you’re selling to, and how to sell? How do you get those first few customers?

Find the value
The most important question to answer when you’re starting out is this:

Where’s the value of my product? Who is it valuable for? And why is it valuable for them?

Everything else flows from that.

And it turns out that the best way to figure out these basic things out is BY selling your product.

Remember that Reid Hoffman quote about startups being like jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down? This is why:

You need to figure out what you’re doing as you’re doing it. You need to figure out how to sell and who you’re selling to and what you’re selling while you’re selling it. And if you took VC money you have to do that in a very, very short time period.

At the beginning most people do things the opposite way: they assume that the product provides real value, they assume they know what that value is, and they combine these assumptions into a sales pitch. Then they run around and talk to a few people, get lukewarm responses, and conclude that the product sucks.

Don’t lie to yourself
There are some times in life when you’re not going to get into trouble lying to yourself.

If your friend ditches you for dinner, you can always tell yourself: “Well I didn’t like him anyway.”

If you get a bad score on a math test, you can say: “The teacher sucks, it’s not my fault.”

We’re taught that this is an okay way to deal with the difficult situations that life throws at us. That these white lies are just harmless rationalizations that keep us sane.

There are at least two industries where you can’t do this:

Entrepreneurship and rocket science

If a SpaceX engineer lies to himself, the rocket blows up on the launch pad. If the entrepreneur lies to herself, her company will fail before it even gets started.

Telling yourself: I know what this product is, I know who wants this, and I know how to sell it, when you really don’t is only going to result in YOUR failure. Admitting to yourself that you need to find out what you don’t know is the first step in the right direction.

It’s important to recognize that if you’re just starting out you have no idea where the value of your product lies. And you should make it your goal, not to ram your vision down other people’s throats, but to honestly find out whether your product is valuable, and if it is, who it’s valuable for.

Start with people first, not “hits”
Most people start out by posting on forums or buying ads or writing blog posts because sitting behind a computer is a lot less scary than actually talking to people.

But in order to answer the questions that you need to answer at the beginning you’re going to need to talk to people, either on the phone or face to face. And you’re going to need to do that a lot.

This advice has been reiterated so many times that by now it’s pretty banal. But most blog posts say “talk to customers” and leave it at that.

Let’s talk more specifically about how to do it.

Identifying prospects
Before you can go out and talk to people, you have to develop an idea of who you’re going to be talking to. Here’s a quick process for doing this:

(Note this advice is primarily targeted at B2B companies, but I believe, can be successfully applied to B2C companies as well)

  1. Develop a hypothesis about the target customer
  2. Find companies that fit the bill
  3. Think about: who at the company is going to want this?
  4. Get their email and get in touch
  5. Rinse and repeat

As an example of step one, our first hypothesis about potential customers for Firefly was that people who would find it useful would probably have installed a live chat program like Olark or SnapEngage on their site. So we started contacting their customers.

How to find someone at a company
Once you have a company in mind that you think will be relevant, now it’s time to actually find someone to talk to.

The lowest hanging fruit is reaching out to their catchall email like sales@ or team@. I wouldn’t recommend doing this, most of that stuff gets ignored.

There are really three options for doing this:

  1. Look through LinkedIn
  2. Look at something like Hoovers (if it’s a big company)
  3. Look on their management team page

How to find anyone’s email with just their name
Once you find someone at a company, the next step is to actually get their email address. Most people don’t list their emails publicly so this requires some digging.

What I usually like to do is take their name e.g. Bob Smith and use an email address validator tool (like this one) and do a little guess and check.

So if I was trying to find Bob Smith who works at XYZ company I would go to the email validator and try different combinations:

bob.smith@xyzcompany.com
bsmith@xyzcompany.com
bob@xyzcompany.com

And very often you’ll be able to guess their email after a few tries. Be careful though, some companies have catchall accounts that make any combination valid – so you’ll have to test at least one or two to verify that you’re getting a real result.

There are also other ways to do this:

  1. Go to their Press page (many company list a press contact, and you can guess their company email format from the press contact’s email)
  2. Use something like Jigsaw.com
  3. Call their corporate number and ask to be transferred

If you’re a student take advantage of it
Being a student has certain advantages, and one of them is that fact that people will be more willing to talk to you, and more willing to help you out. Here’s an example cold email that you might send to someone that you want to talk to:

Subject: Hello from Philly!

Hi there,

I’m a student and I’m working on a project.

I know you work in Industry X and I’d love to get some advice. For reasons XYZ I feel like you would be really relevant for the problems I’m thinking about. Are you free to chat on X date next week?

By the way we both went to UPenn.

Go Quakers!

This is useful because it’s a low pressure way to start talking to people. You don’t even really have to be a student to do this – but in general, asking for advice in the beginning will be much lower stress than doing “cold sales emails.” It’s also more useful when you don’t know anything.

Be honest
If you use the tactic above, be VERY careful to be honest about it. If you ask someone for advice and then go in and try to sell them they’re going to be angry. And rightfully so.

If you ask someone for advice, mean it. They might buy from you eventually, but remember that you’re still in the process of learning about your product, learning about your market, and learning how to sell. The sales will come eventually if you do enough outreach. Don’t rush it.

Shut up and listen to them
When you’re on a sales call it’s very important to shut up and listen. Most people have a tendency to drone on and on about their product.

Don’t do this. If your call is successful, you’ll have talked way less than your prospect. (That’s advice Nat Turner gave me and it’s golden.)

Here are some questions you might want to ask:

  1. What’s your organizational focus in the near term? What are your priorities?
  2. How frequently do you have X problem?
  3. What’s your process like for buying software?
  4. Who would be involved in the process?
  5. How long does it normally take?
  6. What other software are you currently using?
  7. What do you do day-to-day?
  8. What kind of tasks do you do repeatedly?

Keep the chain going
The biggest mistake you can make is letting someone who’s interested get off the phone without clear next steps. You want to know where you’re going before they hang up because people are busy, and unless they’re committed to something they’re unlikely to remember to do anything.

Feel free to ask: “So what are the next steps?”

To be clear, you only have to do the outbound stuff at the beginning
I know that after I publish this article there’s going to be someone in the comments complaining about scale. “Doing this doesn’t scale,” they will say. “It doesn’t apply to a high growth business.”

To be clear, I’m not advocating doing this forever (unless your business model demands it). But I do think it’s vastly more effective than just spending a couple of hundred bucks on Adwords.

Nothing happens until the sale is made

If there’s one thing to take away from this post (practical tips aside) it’s this:

You should admit to yourself that you (probably) don’t know anything about your business. That you (likely) don’t know how to sell, who you’re selling to, or what you’re selling. That your product is inside of a black bag that you can’t look into. And that you should begin to deal with that uncertainty by selling your product anyway.

Something special happens every time you make a sale: a little piece of the product becomes visible. The product is still wrapped in its black bag, but when you make a sale you get to take a peak at it, only for a second.

And you have to pay attention to it, and write it down, and think about it, otherwise you’ll miss it completely.

The more sales you make, the more you’ll understand your product. And finally after about a year you’ll begin to know what it looks like. You’ll know every nook and cranny, every blemish and every beautiful curve. And you’ll know all of this even though you’ve never taken it out of its black bag.

And you won’t find out any of this by haphazardly sending emails to journalists, or posting on forums:

Nothing happens until the sale is made.

The sale is where you start to find the value, it’s where you start to learn how to sell, and it’s where you start to figure out what you’re selling.

___

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17 Jul 2013, 6:49pm | 51 comments

  • http://culttt.com/ Philip Brown

    Great post! It reminded me a lot of Gail Goodman’s “The Long, Slow, SaaS Ramp of Death” talk http://businessofsoftware.org/2013/02/gail-goodman-constant-contact-how-to-negotiate-the-long-slow-saas-ramp-of-death/

    • DanShipper

      Glad you liked it! Bookmarked that, will read it today. Thanks for sharing

  • http://www.spindows.com/ Clay Hebert

    Spot on once again, Dan. I wish I knew at your age what you know now. Hell, I wish I knew it five years ago.

    Keep leading and keep shipping, my friend. You’re doing important work.

    • DanShipper

      Thanks for that Clay, comments like that make it worth it. Let’s catch up soon

  • Ben Yudysky

    I know advice is valuable when I want to hurry up and get to work to implement it. Almost as good as the advice itself are the breaks in formatting. Also, be an active listener and TAKE NOTES: as Ben Casnocha explains (http://casnocha.com/2013/07/experts-take-notes.html) – and my poor memory has reinforced – getting ideas and feedback into CRM or simply down on paper leads to better questions in the future and better relationships with the first and next 10 customers.

    • DanShipper

      I agree, I put notes from every call I have into an Evernote. Have notes going back at least two years now – it’s really helpful.

  • Jaakko Piipponen

    Thanks for the great article Dan! It’s always good to find some actionable advice.

    For your comment about someone complaining about how this won’t scale, I immediately thought of Paul Graham’s essay “Do things that don’t scale.” I’m sure you have read it already, but in case you missed it you can find it from here http://paulgraham.com/ds.html. It’s a really good read!

    • DanShipper

      No problem! I read that post, it’s great.

  • Vincent van Leeuwen

    Great post Dan thanks! Really like the anology of the black bag :)

    As for e-mail validation you mentioned: We use Rapportive to see if an e-mail adress corresponds with any social media accounts (often LinkedIn). You’ll be surprised how often this works. And a pretty easy way to validate if an address exists.

    • DanShipper

      Yep Rapportive works really well too. Glad you liked it!

  • Daniel Burns

    Very helpful post, thank you!

    • DanShipper

      No problem, thanks for reading!

  • http://www.wpcurve.com/ Alex McClafferty

    Hey Dan.

    First time reader, but I’ll be following you from here on in.

    Everything you’ve said here really resonates with my week (!) of startup experience. I joined Dan Norris to kick off WP Curve and my focus is customer experience. It says customer dev in my About Me, so building real relationships is my #1 priority.

    Whether the person I speak to signs up on the spot, in two weeks or in 3 months – it’s OK. I think being the first app / provider / service to come to someone’s mind is crucial to longer term success. Search engine – Google. Shiny computer – Apple. Investor – Warren Buffett.

    Having said that, cold selling is fun. “Always Be Closing”. “Coffee is for Closers”. “Telling’s not Selling”. There’s a certain type of person who can pick themselves up rejection after rejection. My pro tip – have a script handy if you’re worried about losing track of your thoughts or getting caught up in the excitement of your pitch. Some of the best salespeople I’ve ever seen have a script they stick to, every single time. That’s because it’s tested, proven and gets results.

    PS – When you DO get Crunch’d, do riches rain down from the heavens while angels sing your name? Or does your site crash while you berate your hosting provider?

    – claff

    • DanShipper

      Hey Claff, thanks for the comment. I agree a script is really good – especially for cold emails. Ideally you’d like to be so practiced at your pitch that it’s basically muscle memory anyway, so you don’t need a script. But definitely a useful exercise to write one out.

      As for your PS: nothing happens when you get Crunch’d. You may get some temporary traffic, but the vast majority will have no interest in using your product. It’s really only good for two things: social proof and SEO. But you have to do the grunt work of actually building the customer base yourself. No single blog post will do it for you.

      • http://www.wpcurve.com/ Alex McClafferty

        Cheers Dan. There’s definitely some deep bias associated with the “Please Crunch Me” mentality. Dan (my co-founder) wrote an interesting post the subject called… “Is startup validation bullshit?” – you might get a kick out of it.

        One more question for you, related to psychology. Do you think having a tech / non-tech co-founder combo is more likely to increase or decrease the Dunning Kruger effect? Or would addressing DK be something an advisor could help with?

        I’m thinking of the scene in Titanic, where it’s “Iceberg, dead ahead Captain!” and the First Mate has been telling the Captain to stay on course throughout the journey.

        – claff

        • DanShipper

          Difficult to say from personal experience, I’ve never worked with a true non-technical co-founder.

  • Pieter Baecke

    Hee Dan, I’ve been following you for I while and really like your blog. Keep up the good work!

    • DanShipper

      Glad you liked it! I’ll do my best :)

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  • http://www.robrady.com Rob_Brady

    Enjoyed the post, Dan – thx. I’ve got a product design / development studio that does start-up as well (ROBRADY). Along my journey, i asked myself why just design products when designing companies can be so much more compelling. No push back on any of your points, just think that it’s also true for the product your selling as well – regarding the listening very carefully part. You discuss the value of listening to get better at sales. As a product designer, i suggest one listen very closely to the product comments too. Typically it’s NOT the literal point being made by the viewer, but rather the underlying “unmet need” that’s the clue to a smart refinement. Keep digging :) version 2.0 sells so much faster :)

  • LisaLaMagna

    Thanks Dan, great post. Walking the fine line between confidence and ramming a vision down someone’s throat is difficult for a lot of people — you get to where you are with confidence, but the value of the product comes from customers, not the vision. Getting to sales-readiness is more about listening than speaking.

  • cmorantz

    Dan, nice, this is a great recap. I am a veteran sales and marketing guy and even I need reminding. I appreciate you laying the way you did. I shared this with a number of young entrepreneurs that are in B2B.

  • collins

    join the club and decide what you want http://www.slamwin.com , Hey dan I would like to talk about writting an article for slamwin.com

  • Srikrishnan Ganesan

    Have been trying to do the cold mails and the in-person pitches in parallel to learn what works in each. I use rapportive as my email validator :). After reading your post, I get why my cold mails haven’t been working well.

  • Guest

    This is great advice. Thanks for this post Dan. Agree with Clay on I wish I knew at your age what you know now! :)

  • http://www.stylesage.co/ Jade Huang

    This is great advice. Thanks for this post, Dan. Agree with Clay on I wish I knew at your age what you know now! :)

  • Dan Benjamin

    Great article, awesome read for the weekend

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  • http://jackdempsey.me Jack Dempsey

    hey Dan,

    Nice writeup. You’ve captured many of these realities with great imagery. I’m chuckling as I think “and the reason you build small, focused products is so you can feel the sides of your black bag as you fumble around in it”.

    One aspect of the “figure it out while you sell it” that’s always troubled me: if you’re truly doing this, and you’re listening to feedback on the way, then you’re likely changing your product. What about the existing sales? Sure, some small features can be tweaked, but if you’re starting out from really not knowing your value and moving quickly towards it, are you happy to just disregard your existing customers?

    Curious if you’ve had to deal with that with Firefly.

    • http://jamescmartinez.com/ James Martinez

      Great question.

    • Simon Murtha Smith

      I believe this is what “vision” is really about. Vision doesn’t mean that you can come up with the perfect product sitting at you desk, it means you can synthesize everything you’ve heard from potential customers (because you were listening at first, not selling, right?), combine that with your intuition, and put a stake in ground that’s out ahead of what your customers can figure out for themselves.

      Regardless, it’s going to be messy for a while at the beginning.

  • http://www.ericgfriedman.com/ Eric Friedman

    Excellent post – thanks for sharing this.

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  • richard

    I liked the article. Its a simple version of the best selling book “Lean Startup” byby Eric Ries.
    It took less time.

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  • Nick Byrne

    Thanks for sharing this – brilliant work, and so timely for us in our startup process!

  • http://giacomoballi.com/ Giacomo Balli

    you should do your homework BEFORE building it.
    If you don’t know what you’re selling and you have to identify its benefit… Odds are you’ve just invested time that hopefully you have fun doing but will lead nowhere.

    • Kelton Manzanares

      I agree. But I still think you can determine where the real value is for the customer until you begin selling it.

      Related to this, I’ve heard from Dane Maxwell l that you should can just skip this altogether by selling your product before building it. Easier said that done though. Any thoughts on this Dan?

      And thanks for the great post!

      Kelton

  • nsoonhui

    Hi, I like what you are writing, but can you elaborate more on how to “listen to your customers on their problem description”, and how do you go from listening to actually selling a product?

  • Devin Pigera

    Exceptional Read.

  • Jürgen Brüder

    What a great post! I would have loved to have this information back when I started my first product. The sale is the single most important thing in the validation process.

  • mhsutton

    And I discover this just now?!!! Dude you are awesome. This is *exactly* the detail I was missing. It validates that what I was scrambling at doing was not totally inconceived at all. It does also prove that I didn’t do nearly enough.

  • cglode

    If you aren’t learning from the results of small scale adwords tests, you’re not doing it right. Great post overall though, very informative, thank you.

  • Ramkrishnan

    Thanks it is such a true fact that “Nothing happens until the sale is made”.Thanks for understand the fact.

  • Rajat Sahu

    very apt message – precise and concise :)

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  • http://www.cnicodeme.com Cyril Nicodème

    Hello !
    Very interesting article :)

    Regarding the email checking, there is some tools online that should be a better fit for your research, like http://www.voilanorbert.com : It search the main combinaisons possible for firstname & lastname, and check them against the mail server of the company.

    (note : I built it)

    Hope it helps! :)

    Cheers

  • Sergiu Calborean

    This article is pure gold. Thanks a lot!

 
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