How to find your first customers as a startup

Startup customer
iStock/ Minerva Studio
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If you’re going to start your own business, there are bound to be a number of challenges that you’ll have to overcome in order to get it off the ground and keep it running. But there’s one challenge in particular that’s critical to the survival of any business and that many first-time business owners struggle with; finding and converting your first customers.

Most aspiring entrepreneurs I come across seriously underestimate the importance of the sales function of a business. They wrongly assume that customers will simply materialise once they open up shop, driven by the false sense of security that stems from having created a nice looking business plan and cashflow forecast. It’s easy to make money on a spreadsheet, you just type the numbers into the relevant cell, and voila, you’ve made a profit. Making money in real life is sadly not that simple (well for most people anyway).  

In this article, I’m going to talk about some ways in which you could potentially generate some early interest in your new business and hopefully attract your first paying customers.

Make sure your business has an online presence

The first step I would always recommend taking before you start reaching out to potential customers is to make sure you have a strong, high-quality presence online. In the vast majority of cases, the first thing people do after coming into contact with you or hearing about your business is to check out your website or social media pages. In fact, a recent study has shown that 94% of B2B buyers research online before making a buying decision. Having an online presence is no longer a luxury; it’s essential.

As a minimum, you should have a good quality website and have an active profile on the key social media networks for your industry (Facebook and Twitter are a good place to start for most businesses).

Get some samples of your work ready

Depending on what your business does, try to have something tangible that you can demonstrate to potential new customers like product samples or a brochure showing what you do.

This is obviously easiest if you are selling a physical product (as you can simply show customers the product itself), but it can still be done with many service businesses. For example, if you’re trying to start a photography business, go out and take some pictures that really show off your skills, and then put them into a nice portfolio that you can present to people.

If needs be, you could offer to do a free photoshoot for someone you know in order to build up your portfolio and get a nice testimonial for your website at the same time.

Do your research and create a hit list

Before you can actually start selling, you need to know who you are going to sell to. A good place to start is to create a list of potential people or businesses that might be interested in what you are selling, and then set a target of how many you aim to contact each day. Remember that sales are largely a numbers game; the more people you contact the more chances you have for someone to buy your product.

If you’re not already experienced in the field of sales, the idea of seeking out strangers and asking them to buy your product or service can seem daunting. As human beings, our fear of being rejected by others is naturally one of our deepest, darkest fears. It’s just the way we’re wired. And, the repeated rejections you will inevitably receive as part of the process of finding customers can quickly become soul destroying if you’re not properly prepared for it.

It’s important that you understand that statistically most people you approach won’t want to buy straight off the bat (if at all). In most industries a conversion rate of one in 10 is pretty good, so try not to get disheartened by being turned away or ignored by people. It’s completely normal and comes part and parcel with selling.

Ask for referrals from friends

A powerful tool that all of us have at our disposal, yet many of us neglect to harness, is our existing network of friends and family. Reaching out to people you know and asking for help, either with spreading the word about your business or connecting you with other people they know can be a great way to drum up some initial business.

You might be amazed at how many people you can reach through existing personal networks. In 1929 a Hungarian writer named Frigyes Karinthy first proposed the idea of “Six degrees of separation”, a theory which states that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world. There have been numerous studies around this theory over the years and, while there is still debate around its accuracy, it is nonetheless a very powerful idea that has been made more relevant by the social media age.

When you bear all this in mind, your chances of being able to find at least one paying customer through people you know are actually quite good.

Partner with complimentary businesses

Collaboration with other businesses working in complementary areas is a great way to expand your reach to potential new customers quickly and at no cost. A good partnership is a win-win for both parties if done right.

For example, if you are a starting an accounting practice, you could create a partnership with a local bookkeeper. This would work because you are both operating in a closely related field offering services which tie in well with each other while both are different enough that they don’t compete against the other. This means that you can both recommend the others services and receive a mutual benefit from it.

Go out and network at events

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a new business owner is thinking that you should be sat at your desk all day waiting for customers to come to you. Getting out and networking is absolutely crucial when starting out. Pretty much all the biggest breaks I’ve ever had have been a direct result of me actively going out and networking.

Make sure that you are actively seeking out relevant events that could provide good networking opportunities. And this doesn’t just mean going to your local breakfast club. Things like trade shows and industry specific events are often great place to meet people. Try to think outside the box; quite often you can make the best connections in the most unlikely of places!

Matt Gubba
CEO & Founder
BizBritain
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