Where are all the customers hiding?
Almost all startup and business ideas eventually come down to one question: “how do I find potential customers?” After all, it doesn’t matter how great your idea is or how established your product is if nobody knows about it, right?
What strikes me the most is how the digital age makes us more connected, more informed, and faster networkers than ever before. Well, in theory. In reality? People are still asking the same question that has been plaguing hopeful business starters since the “before time” when we still had to rely on landline phones and fax machines.
We discussed this question in more depth in last year’s November Ideas-into-Action meetup, so it was a good opportunity to write down what we learned.
A timeless question
A minor caveat: the question is a big one, and we can’t answer life’s problems in a single 700-word blog post. We can, however, provide some key guidelines based on shared knowledge and experiences.
One of the most common pieces of advice, and consequently probably the first you’ll hear, is “use your network.” Makes sense. If your network is already so vast that it leads to lasting commercial prospects, great! For the rest of us mere mortals, though, at some point, we will need to extend outside of our existing networks.
Reaching out to people outside your comfort zone is the big difference between testing an idea via research and feedback, and beginning the search for real prospects. Whether it’s partners, early adopters or even the elusive customer.
We can split this into two categories: outbound and inbound.
Outbound refers to going out and finding people, commonly associated with cold calling. Inbound relates to getting people to come to you, these days typically associated with landing pages. Both methods can be effective but who really likes cold calling? Not the caller, and not the receiver. But I accept that it is a necessary evil. Landing pages, on the other hand, are so obscenely popular that I feel I shouldn’t dare to question their ancient wisdom, but I can’t help but feel they are so ubiquitous and so easily generated they start to become noise in the cloud. Yes — you should have one, but you already know that. It’s easily done in minutes with products like Strikingly.
With these things in mind, we tried to get a bit more creative.
In the early stage, when you are still getting input via your own network, there’s a way to do “cold calling without cold calling.” This is asking your own network for help to find potentially valuable prospects. People generally like to be helpful, but don’t want to feel like they are simply being used. Instead of asking “help me find a sale,” it’s advisable to ask something like “who do you think could help?” Getting a lead this way has the name-dropping benefit too — you aren’t a complete stranger, and somehow being able to say “Nina told me you were the expert” helps to break the ice.
If you have existing customers that operate in a similar field, you can conduct a “mutually beneficial interview.” Talk to the person about their own developments in the field, tied into your own research and development, with the view to producing an article. It’s important to keep the article informative, and not just a fluff advertising piece. Talk about the research, the state of the market, problems people are facing, etc. (you don’t have to give away your whole idea — just general points).
The article can be published via personal or commercial blogs, startup blogs, industry journals, local innovation hubs’ websites, and so on. Naturally, the better your networks the easier it is to get exposure. Still, while it can be tricky to find publishers, you might be surprised how many websites are open to pitches and submissions.
The dream for most people is the day that customers come to them. The popular approach to this front is to attend larger trade fairs and events in a relevant industry, such as at the Düsseldorf Messe. Even as a visitor you can talk to lots of people in the industry, some of who might become interested prospects. I had a friend who had been looking for work for almost six months, then finally landed a lead after attending a Messe in Hannover. If you already have a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or other industry connections, and the money to do so, you can of course also set up a booth.
The drawback to this approach that it’s generally expensive to attend, and even more expensive to rent a booth. You are also “competing” with many, many others having similar agendas, trying to sell their products rather than buy yours. It can be a bit of a hustle.
A more moderate alternative is attending Startup and similar-themed events, like Startup Woche in Düsseldorf or international events like Slush in Helsinki. These events provide opportunities to mingle with investors, advisers and other potential stakeholders. A lower-key but nevertheless useful option is also to attend local events and check out local associations. In Düsseldorf there are many — just check out our ongoing “wiki” for a quick listing. The people here can help connect you to people, events or other associations that may be able to help you further.
Finally, networking on the web is always an option to search for prospects or help online.
LinkedIn (or Xing in Germany) is often the first online stop. This can net mixed results. Some people are flooded with responses, others get nothing at all, so your mileage may vary on these sites. Moving on from there, more specific startup and industry websites may be a better move. AngelList is one such website that specifically lists investors by location, including Düsseldorf.
The most important thing of all: start. The early stage process of building a network and finding leads can be a mentally and physically draining process, but unfortunately, there is no real way around it. There is no “philosopher’s stone” that turns prospects into gold — but these points will certainly get you started.
If you want to discuss your ideas and how to put them into action into more detail, join one of our regular free meetups.