How we got our first 100 paying customers at Askable

Dre Zhou
Dre Zhou
Mar 23, 2018 · 7 min read

Getting our first 100 paying customers was our main focus in our first 3 months of operation. We had to prove that our idea was actually viable and had the potential to achieve product market fit.

We spent the first week hacking together a barely functional MVP, and now it was time to try and convince someone to sign up and give us their hard earned money to use our platform. We’d tried various tactics before on previous projects we’d worked on but never successfully managed to get all they way to paying customers.

Step one was to do some research around how other startups approached getting their first paying customers. How did other people do it? What kind of mistakes did they make that we could avoid making ourselves?

The general consensus was to start by directly approaching people in your own network. So that’s exactly what we did. We looked for other UX designers we were already connected with on LinkedIn and contacted them directly. We told them about the product and asked them to give it a try and give us some feedback. We also approached some local agencies and asked them if they were interested in giving our product a try. We got a couple of positive responses and eventually managed to get our first paying customer using this method.

Once we had a few paying customers from our local network, we were more confident to scale up our outbound sales efforts and go outside of our network. We had read that one of the most effective ways to do this was by using cold email. I researched and read nearly everything I could around cold email. How to write the best cold email? What subject line to use? When to send it? How to follow up people who don’t respond? How to go about putting together a prospective list of people?

The best part is if you do a Google search for this, there’s already a ton a great resources out there. This is the kind of stuff people have done a million times and they have the numbers to back up what works and what doesn’t. So there’s really no need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to cold email.

I’ll summarise the basic rules of thumb for you below, but I still definitely recommend anyone who’s keen on trying this method to go and spend a day doing your own research and reading the examples that people have published.

Basic rules of thumb for cold email

  1. Be unquestionably human

When it comes to cold email (especially in B2B land), most people probably get multiple cold emails a day. Most cold emails are really obvious and spammy. Written by some salesperson using sales-y language. There’s no human touch. You know what, let me just open a random one in my inbox to show you what I mean.

Here you go:

Good day,

I hope you are well.

We are reaching out because of the pressure our clients are under from their executive boards to identify new ways to manage marketing needs in more cost and quality effective ways. This has initiated a comprehensive process to benchmark and review new specialized agencies to assist them with a wide range of marketing/branding needs.

Given the diversity of our clients, there are a few key issues we are focused on in order to identify firms with such capabilities:

Digital Strategy / Branded Content / Content Marketing / SEO / Social Media Campaigns / Online Communities & Social Media Marketing / Data Analytics & Management / Targeted campaigns / Market Research & Analysis / Integrated Marketing / Brand Communications / Brand Loyalty

View the full list here or contact me at [email address] for more information.

Here is a brief list of some of our clients to give you some perspective:

Corporate Executive Officer, Shiseido
Group Chief Marketing Officer, CIMB Group
CMO, IHH Healthcare/Parkway Pantai
Head of Marketing, Cotton On Group
Chief Marketing Officer, KFC Asia Franchise, Yum! Brands
First Vice President Marketing, Yeo Hiap Seng (Malaysia) Berhad
Deputy General Manager of International Marketing, Nikon Singapore
Orange Digital as well as other firms within our network are being contacted to evaluate who has the best capabilities to work with specific Brand Owners in 2018.

As we are extremely selective on who we partner with, I would welcome the opportunity to have a brief call to explain our goals and objectives, benchmark our clients’ needs versus firm/agency expertise, and determine the potential fit.

Let me know if you wish to be included in this review.

Warm regards,

Marketing Manager
[Company name]

Here’s another one:


I’m one of the founders here at [boring ass company]— we make it easy to get more customers (contact data, custom outreach and meeting hand offs).

Our approach is different. We apply methods that most of the market is not aware of and we get better results.

Wanted have a quick conversation to see if this could be beneficial for Orange Digital.

If interested, let me know how early next week works to discuss.

- [name]
— -
Co-Founder | [boring ass company]

Are you kidding me? Who the *@&# is reply to this crap? Your number one goal should be to sound as different to these kinds of emails as possible as soon as possible (maybe even in the first sentence).Be unquestionably human. Say something dumb. Make a joke. Deliberately put in a typo. Use some local slang. Comment on the weather this week. It doesn’t matter how good your product or service is, if you can’t get someone to read your email you’re toast.

2. Subject line

This one is actually in hot contention for position 1 as the most important. Maybe it’s a tie I dunno. If rule #1 is the difference between someone reading your email or not, rule #2 is the difference between someone opening your email or not.

There’s lots of debate out there around what’s the most optimal subject lines but one thing that everyone agrees on is: Keep it short. Don’t write a whole sentence. Especially since people might be reading your email on their phone, a long subject line is going to get cut off. I recommend no more than 4–5 words, even less if you can.

I guess rule #1 applies to subject lines as well. Be obviously a person, not a spam bot.

3. Ask a question

We’ve found through trial and error that asking a question (rather than pushing for a sale) works really well. People generally are much happier to answer a simple question rather than agree to a sales call or sign up to whatever it is you’re peddling.

Step by step

Here’s how I went about setting up the email list. First step was to get on LinkedIn and do a search for the people we were targeting. We knew anyone who worked in a UX or Usability Design role would be perfect, because these are the people who are responsible for running usability tests and doing user interviews.

I then used the chrome plugin to save all the leads from LinkedIn. Hunter would then go and look up these leads and try to find if they had a public email address somewhere. Sadly Hunter’s LinkedIn integration got shut down a while ago, but at the time this was the best way to quickly look up someone’s email address.

Once I had a list of UX designers, I imported them all into Mailshake. Mailshake is a great product I came across on Producthunt one day which did exactly what I was looking for. Basically a simple straightforward way of sending cold emails and sending followups.

Here’s the cold email we used:

[Subject] Usability testing?

Hey {{first name}}, I noticed you guys do usability testing for your projects — I’m actually the founder of a local startup that helps companies get participants for user testing super fast. We sort out the painful stuff — recruitment, scheduling, incentive payments and reviews. Do you think that’s something you guys would find useful?



Followup 1 which would send after 3 days if they didn’t reply

[Subject] Re: Usability testing?

Hey {{first name}}, I just reread the last email I sent you — I probably didn’t make it clear that we can get usability testing participants to your door in 3 days (we’re actually building a platform to make it possible in 30 minutes, will keep you updated).

If you want me to give you a quick run through of how it works (over the phone), let me know!

Hope life is sweet.



Followup 2 which would send 3 days after followup 1 if there was still no reply:

Re: Usability testing?

Hi {{first name}}, one more thing. I’ve made a $100 Askable coupon available if you set up a free account with this email address of yours. Just a little welcome gift if you want to try it out .

Again, if you want me to run through Askable over the phone, I’m more than happy to.



And here are the results:

713 emails sent

309 emails bounced

32 unsubscribed

332 opened

86 replied (of 404 successful sends, so around a 21.2% reply rate)

Of the 86 replies we got, 12 of them went on to become paying customers

The important thing to note here is that our product was highly relevant to the target demographic, and also provided a much needed solution to a very painful problem. I’m certain your results will vary wildly depending on your own product or service but the fact remains that cold email can work really bloody well.

Once we got a positive reply, we tried to establish a relationship with them and talk to them over the phone if possible. In some cases we even flew to their city to meet with their team. (How to follow up and talk to prospective customers will be the topic of another article for the future).

We replicated basically the same strategy across slightly different verticals for the next few batches, tested different copy and tested different followups as well. Whilst the copy that we use today is a bit different, the basics are the same.

And that’s the strategy we used to get our first 100 paying customers.

Dre Zhou

Written by

Dre Zhou

Co-founder of - "Find User Testing Participants"