Debunking theories about your first startup customers

Valeria Kholostenko
Sep 7, 2017 · 5 min read

While working with countless startups over the last ten years, I’ve found a few interesting theories early stage founders have about their potential customers: Who they are, where to find them and how to scale those relationships.

The founding team is often unaware and unrealistic about the type of customer that will allow the company to grow and scale.

Here are a few of the scenarios I’ve seen and debunked as first sales hire.

The first customer is in the founder’s immediate network.

However, this method no longer works when a salesperson is tasked with building a pipeline of potential clients. It is the salesperson’s job to interpret why “non-friend customers” should sign up and develop a steady stream of prospects — and typically using best practices, minimal investment, and maximum results.

When starting to build a pipeline of potential customers for a given product, it has been my experience that the original set of customers obtained through the founder’s network is not going be identical to the first 5, 10, or 50 customers. The first few are often outliers who can not be used to model a business building roadmap.

Let’s look at a case of an adtech solution I was in charge of developing the initial network of partners for. When I started helping this company, the founders were still finalizing their pitch (which I helped them refine.) After a few iterations, we were able to nail down a value proposition that resonated with our target base to begin to grow our network.

One of our first signed partners was a highly ranked website with excellent traffic, which was seemingly perfect for us. However, that traffic number was inflated. Given the founder’s relationship with this publisher, the assumption would be that this is a good type of customer to go after. However, that turned out not to be the case.

As I grasped the still pivoting value we offered our partners, I discovered that our ideal customer was, in fact, a small premium site, very different from the kind of initial customer the founders signed on.

I find that onboarding the first five customers is one of the most stressful jobs in sales because simultaneously you are disproving the founder’s idea of who, how and where their customers are, but you are paving the way with signing up the very first few early adopters of the product.
In my experience, the concierge experience founders are able to provide to the first handful of clients within their network is very different to what lies ahead for the person put in charge of multiplying the sales efforts.

Market research does not necessarily find your ideal customer.

Recently as a Portfolio Growth Director in London, I had the fun challenge of evaluating the product/market fit for a YouTube ad optimization solution we were looking to bring into our portfolio.

In my research, I interviewed an entire ecosystem of people who would potentially have an opinion on our given solution. My cohort included strategy executives at Fortune 500 companies, agencies and consultants who may be using similar tools, and CMOs.

While determining your customer segment, you end up talking to a large range of potential clients and people that would have an opinion on value proposition, structure, and best channels.

Many of the people interviewed to evaluate product/market fit helped me understand what type of value they would derive from our solution and what they would pay. We were also trying to understand the frequency with which they would use this product and if they consider it, whether it is a “nice” or “need” to have.

After the research, we determined that the ideal companies interested in our solution were a niche market. Unfortunately, this solution did not appeal to the broad range of marketers in my network who we initially interviewed.

Founders want their product to fit a certain customer.

In my experience, it is generally a good idea to go after the marquee customers in the early stage of a startup looking to raise capital. However, the big brands sales cycle maybe complicated and does not reflect the needs of your bread and butter customer that will have a real need for a solution and is eager to partner with you.

Going after a range of different types of customer has proven to be ideal for most of the sales scaling efforts.

I often help to identify who are the businesses out there that are:

  • Most engaged in the solution and are willing to share their perspective
  • Have been building an in-house solution to address a similar need
  • Are ready to provide extensive feedback on features and roadmap

Given my experience and understanding of the current market for new start-up companies, it is best to identify those customers who need the solution the most and proceed with development efforts in that direction.

Going after a range of different types of a similar type of customer has proven to be ideal in most of the sales scaling efforts.

I often help to identify who are the businesses out there that are:

  • most engaged in the solution and are willing to share their perspective
  • have been building an in-house solution to address a similar need
  • ready to provide extensive feedback on features and roadmap

Given my experience and understanding of the current market for new startup companies, it is best to identify those customers who need the solution the most and proceed with development efforts in that direction.

So what are the key takeaways?

Thorough understanding the problem customers face and their willingness to buy a solution, you will save countless time and money.

Understanding the early customer and figuring out if this the same client that will help you grow is the key to scaling your efforts.

Applying your sales best practices and looking at what you learned objectively instead of emotionally will serve you in the long run.


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I mentor at Travelport Labs and have been responsible for growth at close to a dozen venture backed companies in SaaS, Marketplaces and B2C Applications. Problem solving and figuring out ways around a challenge is in my DNA. If you have an interesting B2B or B2C product and are looking to test your theories and gather feedback to gauge interest in your product, let’s talk.

For more info check out brandexperience.design or contact me at

hello at brand experience dot design

Thanks to philip horváth and Gregarious Narain.

Valeria Kholostenko

Written by

Ecosystem Development