One of the most daunting challenges facing any founder or small business owner is attracting your first 100 customers.
Often, you’ve got no capital to work with, but you know you’ve got a great product.
The conundrum… how to get your product to the customers who really need it.
This post has 20 tips from multi-million dollar companies like Lyft, Snapchat, Uber, Morning Brew, and Superhuman. I’ve mixed those strategies with lessons I’ve learned on my own entrepreneurial journey.
Let’s jump into it.
Starting with the most important step first up.
Ask yourself this: Who am I trying to attract?
The wrong answer looks like this (hypothetical example):
A tech business employee.
The correct answer (wrt. to detail) looks like this:
A 20 to 35 year old man who works as a software engineer in a < 3 year old tech company in San Francisco. He earns less than $1 million USD a year, rents an apartment and works on his own Saas projects on the side.
The problem almost all first-time founders have is not narrowing down far enough. Go vertical and deep into a niche, not wide and broad-ranging.
By going deep, you can build a loyal base of customers — the ideal launch-pad for any product.
It’s much easier to expand into other verticals when you have got traction versus trying to refine your product to one vertical because you have no traction.
// Also see #4: Scarcity (for a perfect example of how Superhuman are doing this)
When you started a Facebook business page a while ago, it was worthwhile spending money to attract followers to that page.
That meant you could essentially target them for free.
What happened? Facebook changed its policy which meant page owners had to start paying to target their own audience.
Owning your audience means you own your distribution.
If you aren’t already, make sure you’re building a database of clients, customers and potentials for your business.
One of the best ways to do this is through an email list. Once you’ve got a list of emails and names, no one can take that from you. You own your audience.
Here are some good options for email list providers (each has their nuances which make them more suitable than others for certain things):
// Also see #3: Nurture Your Audience
Owning your audience is the first step to owning your distribution.
Making sure that the audience is engaged is the next step in making that audience valuable for your business.
It’s not enough to ask for someone’s email address and expect them to remember who you are and why they gave it to you.
Build a relationship by maintaining constant (but not too frequent) contact with your database.
An email newsletter is a great way to keep your customers engaged. Make sure the content is relevant and interesting. Don’t pad it with extraneous non-industry fluff.
Add value to their lives so that when the need for something like your product pops up — you’re front of mind.
// Also see #20: Add Value
Superhuman has done this exceptionally well.
They soft-launched their app in 2017. Today, they have a waitlist of over 180 000 subscribers long.
The only way to get access to the $30/month email client app is by referral from someone who is already a user.
Their founder, Rahul Vohra, believes in finding the perfect product-market fit before launching to the public.
Through doing this, they have found and on-boarded the exact users they’re targeting — no fringe customers that might or might not get the full benefit from the product. They are actually vetting their customers.
Because of that, they’ve had mostly rave reviews.
And rave reviews mean other people have FOMO. I want in.
Another lesson we can learn from Superhuman.
When you are signed up as a user to Superhuman, the only way to get access to the app is by going through a video-call onboarding process with a consultant from Superhuman.
That might seem excessive, but it’s proven to be extremely effective.
The onboarding process has turned every single one of their customers into “Pro” users. By doing that, every customer uses the majority of Superhuman’s features. When they’re doing that, they’re getting their $30 worth of value.
Churn rates at Superhuman are incredibly low for a Saas app.
Paul Graham has a lesson for us here: Do things that don’t scale.
Treat every customer like they’re your first, and reap the rewards.
One of the biggest issues facing founders is getting their product in front of potential users.
Often there is no capital available to pay for attention, so you have to hack your way there.
Use other channels that already have a solid user base to “advertise” your product.
Let’s say you’re building a Saas B2B product. Go to a community where there are lots of potential customers, sign up, and start engaging with that community.
Reddit, Quora and general forums are great tools for this.
Netflix had an employee who did this. He signed up to all the forums about home video/DVD movies and started engaging in the community over a few months. He then started slowly dropping the “Netflix” name as an alternative, after having built up some rapport.
Also see: #20: Add Value
Building your own community of users is a sure way of building a valuable product that people don’t want to leave.
People have a desire to belong.
When someone is an esteemed member of a useful community, they contribute to making that community better.
Think about what I’m doing right now for the Medium community.
Create an engaged community that makes leaving very difficult.
The Hustle’s Trends has done this exceptionally well. Their main offering is a weekly email with “Trends you can pounce on”. The most valuable part of the subscription fee is the community you become a part of. It’s a collection of engaged, intelligent business people who have experience.
Build a valuable community.
Before we get started, here’s something from Andy Johns, on paid ads which I wholly agree with:
Bare that in mind before going the paid ads route. They should be a way of growing once you have product-market fit.
As platforms like Facebook, Google and Instagram have become more popular, the price of paid ads on them has increased too.
It is now an estimated 50% more expensive to advertise on Facebook than it was 5 years ago.
Another way to approach ads is by finding highly-targeted niche options.
One option is native ads on newsletters which go out to an audience you’d like to target.
Or you can look at more niche advertising sites like Carbon Ads (ads for designers and developers).
Important: Don’t try and compete with companies who have massive marketing budgets. You’ll burn through your capital and the ROI will be very poor compared to the more niche alternatives.
Also important: Understand the unit economics. It might be nice to see your numbers growing, but if the economics don’t work out, you’ll soon have no business left.
Know your limit — stay within it.
Also see: #6: Leverage Established Distribution Channels
Organic traffic is a great ‘always-on’ source of leads — if you get it right.
As you’re starting out, be realistic with what you can achieve. Don’t try and take on the big guns like CNN and Forbes. You’re going to lose and get despondent.
Start small. Start with long-tail keywords that have an intent directly linked to your product.
Let’s say you’re building a new Saas form builder. Go after long-tail keywords like:
“No code form builder comparisons” or,
“No code alternatives to Typeform”
Box smart and it will pay off. Build your SEO from the ground up.
Getting good press is one of the traditional ways founders have launched their startups.
By creating a media storm you can quickly attract the attention of customers and investors.
Levels.io (I don’t actually know his real name), has a great post here on how he did it with his tool — Go F*#$ing Do It — gained press attention. He started with Y-Com’s Hacker News.
The gist of it is this: If you manage to get into a few high-ranking outlets, the rest fall like dominoes. Press outlets suffer from massive FOMO. When one starts covering a story — they all need to have it. Leverage that.
The trick here is to be persistent and offer the publication something of value. You want them to feel like you’re offering them a scoop. Don’t pitch with a generic, “Here’s my startup, this is what it does.”
Be unique. Be outstanding. Offer their readers something.
Also, make sure you’re ready for the storm that’s going to hit. You don’t want 100k people flooding to your site and you have a half-baked landing page. Be prepared!
// Also see #2: Own Your Audience
Get in their faces.
There are multiple ways to do this, one we’ve already discussed — paid ads.
Another is actually going to the place where your customers are. People value real-world things.
The founders of Etsy did this to great effect. They actually traveled to trade shows and markets around the country where vendors were showing off their products.
These were their ideal customers. The best part was, once they had sellers, the sellers would recruit their own buyers.
Other startups to have successfully used this strategy include Uber, Lyft, Snapchat and Pinterest.
A common mistake new founders make is trying to keep too much of the pie for themselves.
Businesses rely on distribution and distribution comes from connections. Connections are often mutual: You give me something, I’ll give you something.
Profit share partnerships are a perfect way of leveraging another businesses’ network combined with your resources/expertise to create value for a customer where there wasn’t any before.
Don’t be scared to enter into agreements with other companies, even if they are taking a piece of the pie.
It’s revenue you otherwise wouldn’t have had.
#Also see: Affiliate Program
Alex Lieberman created the MB off the back of a ‘daily business round up’ email which he sent to friends and family initially.
Word got around and soon he had people asking to join his list.
Do something valuable for people, and they will want to share it.
Don’t be scared to ask your friends and family for help. If you’re unsure, ask yourself this: Would I do it in return if this person asked me?
If the earnest answer is yes — do it.
One caveat: Don’t rely on friends and family for honest feedback. They won’t give it to you. For that, you need genuine first users.
Unless you have an extremely viral-type product, people are unlikely to tell their friends about it.
You have to prompt them to do it.
In my newsletter I have a line that I include in the “End Notes” at the end of every newsletter:
“If this was entertaining, valuable or insightful for you, a few of your friends might like it too? Consider sharing it with them — I’ll send you a extra special thank you (and they will too).”
It was just a throwaway line I included in my first edition, which has really worked. It always surprises me how just by asking, people do share it with their friends.
// Also see: #17: Affiliate Programs
Another mistake new founders make is being secretive about what they’re doing.
Understand this: It is extremely unlikely that someone else is going to steal and execute your idea.
The reality is, starting a company takes a lot of commitment and resources. People have a fair amount of inertia. It takes a lot to get us moving.
The value you will get out of building your company in public far outweighs the potential risk of someone stealing your idea.
Some founders have taken this to an extreme where they share everything about their company — including revenue — from day 0.
The Open Startup List is a place where you can see companies building in the public space.
Another of The Morning Brew’s successes, over 25% of their 1 million + subscribers have come from their affiliate program.
Built with their users in mind, TMB gives access to different ‘perks’ including Facebook groups, TMB merch and more as you refer more friends.
The trick with affiliate programs is making the reward valuable enough to encourage sharing.
A good affiliate program can use the compound effect to your advantage. It’s something that can initiate exponential growth. Highly recommended!
I say this repeatedly in lots of other writing.
Humans want to connect with real, genuine people. Be one of them.
Don’t speak like a robot. Give yourself/your company a personality. It sets you apart from the generic corporations and companies who drone on and send you emails that start with “I hope this email finds you well”.
No! You’re not a big fancy company, stop trying to be!
You would definitely have been lured in by one of these in your time surfing the web.
“Get the 10 top tips used by every email marketing guru in the USA”.
“All you have to do is put in your email address and get access to this free eBook”.
Truth is, they work.
It’s a form of giving value to your customer (for free) in exchange for being able to contact them on an ongoing basis. (Make sure when they sign up they know they’re agreeing to receive information from you)
Create a lead magnet that will appeal directly to your target audience. Preferably, make it something that doesn’t cost you money — like an eBook. That’s why they’re so popular.
Make sure it aligns with your product so there isn’t a mismatch between people who want the lead magnet but don’t want to be nurtured into a customer.
// Also see: #20 Add Value
Off the back of the above tip, adding value to people before asking for it, is one sure way of building up an audience.
When you are constantly giving away valuable information, advice, and resources, people are more likely to trust you with their contact information.
Hubspot are masters of this. They have perhaps one of the best organic marketing departments of any digital company.
If you Google “how to [do anything related to digital marketing]” Hubspot will almost always be one of the top-ranking pages.
Why’s that? Well, they provide extremely useful information.
They’re giving value away first.
More important than any of these tips combined is this one piece of advice: Be persistent.
In this article there have been mentions of multiple successful startups who have used different techniques to their success.
What is common across all of these is the willingness to persist.
The number one thing required to get your company in front of the users is to do the work, day after day. Don’t waiver!