How to find the first 100 customers for your startup

Written by Vinay Koshy // Also shared on

What makes getting a startup off the ground challenging is the fact that no one knows if the offering has value until it has generated revenue. Every startup faces the challenge of acquiring its first few customers.

Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all step by step guide to finding your first 100 customers because there are so many variables to contend with.

So how do you get from “no one knows you” to “your first 100 customers paying you for your product or service”?

To help you get your first customers we also set out to investigate how startups have gone through the process. We found that they don’t really rely on a single channel to bring in lots of users. Rather they explore different channels and sources. By doing so they build up their user base.

What I found to be interesting is that the startups that were successful used a laser-like approach to focus in on their ideal client profile. This approach to gain better odds would be similar to the example below.

Let’s say you have a high-end PR service for businesses.

Advice you would most often get on acquiring business would include “mass marketing” techniques like: blogging, SEO, social media, and even paid advertising.

Doing that is like going fishing with a huge net. Sure, you will catch a LOT of fish.

Trouble is, you’re going to get a lot of little fish for every 1 big fish that you land.

The problem with that is all those small fish will keep you so busy and eat up your attention. So much so that you won’t notice the big whopper flopping around on the deck until it manages to flip itself over the side.

A better way to do things would be to follow what clever aboriginal fishermen used to do.

They’d quietly paddle their canoe to where they knew the big fish hung out.

They’d then wait poised on the prow of the canoe with their preferred tool of choice. It wasn’t a fishing net but a well-balanced fishing spear.

There they’d wait poised until a big fish swam past and ….


With one deft motion — Lunch is served.

Very efficient.

For a startup, the equivalent of this is finding small inlets or lakes that have much a bigger concentration of “big fish”. These groups will likely have a smaller overall audience size.

Businesses on Facebook alone for example are a very large market. Anyone who sells a necklace or prints on Etsy will probably get tagged by Facebook as a “business.”

In reality probably about 1 in a 10,000 would be a real business. Of those perhaps 1 in 200 would make the kind of money that would be a fit for your services.

So to reach your target audience I’d recommend hanging up the Facebook dragnet. Instead go on a spearfishing expedition.

Look for where professional businesses hangout. Perhaps its trade magazines, professional associations, unions or trade conferences. If it costs money for them to read, belong, or attend then they are likely to be a good fit for your services.

What you do next depends on the types of organizations you’ve discovered.

You might be able to get access to a list of members that you can contact personally. Perhaps you could pay for an advertising spot on the organization’s emails to its members.

At the very least, they’d probably be delighted to have you write content for their newsletter, blog, magazine etc.

Yes, you’ll only get access to a much smaller readership. In other words the pool of prospective clients you’ll be able to reach will be much smaller.

But you might find that 1 in 6 fit your ideal client profile.

MUCH better odds.


Now that you know how to improve the odds of reaching your target market, you need a process and methods to get your first 100 customers.

The methods described below do not scale but are great for tinkering, testing and validating. Also having a process that allows you to validate the offer and the customer group you wish to target is essential.

The process you follow should run along these lines –

  • Solve your customer’s problem — to solve their problem you first need to clearly define their problem.
  • Listen to what they say and get feedback — Find people who have the problem, listen to how they describe the problem and get feedback on your point of view and proposed solution
  • Find where they hang out — Find out where people who have such a problem tend to congregate and how they deal with the problem currently.
  • Test the waters — Propose solving the problem for a few people to see if the solution is viable and what price point would work best.
  • Get feedback — Solicit and listen to feedback on the process and experience for the customer
  • Get validated — Get validation in terms of people willing to pay for the solution and also in the delivery of the solution
  • Cover them before expanding into other groups — Ensure you are able to market to your target group and get them on board as customers before moving on to another group.

The techniques listed below offer quite a few options to get you started. Start with steps 1 and 2 as they are fundamental to building out the process outlined above.

Once you have completed step 2, you can try any of the other techniques that you feel comfortable using. Add more as you master the initial techniques.

For now, let’s dive into the methods.


Start by solving a problem that you have or you notice others have.

Take Emma for example.

Emma was already sweating as she blustered into the gym’s changing rooms on Monday morning. She sat down heavily on the bench and unzipped her gym bag. All the things she had hastily stuffed into it tumbled out.

Emma stopped for a second, realizing she hadn’t replaced the three-day-old sweat towel that had been in the bag over the weekend. She gingerly picked it up and sniffed it. With a deep sigh, she returned to spraying deodorant on her feet.

Emma’s story is a galaxy away from the perfect fictional narratives used to sell the latest fitness course, product or gym membership. She will likely never become the woman represented by their avatar. And yet here she is, large as life with unmet wants, needs, hopes and dreams.

We can find opportunities for business growth when we meet our customers where they are in the real world, instead of where we think they should be. So define your customer and their problem.

To help with this the Lean canvas provides a framework on how to approach your marketing

Tips to help apply the lean canvas:

  • Split broad customer segments into smaller ones
  • Chances are you already have an idea of possible customers that your product addresses in your head so put them down on the canvas. Then split broad customer segments into small verticals.
  • Each of these verticals represents a different business model canvas
  • Distinguish between those on a free trial and customers. Focus on customers as they will pay because they want it. Free trial users may switch to alternatives if asked to pay.

How to apply this:

  • Survey your audience using the checklist available as a free download below.
  • Pick one customer segment. These are people who are also in your strongest customer segment. They want your service or product.
  • They know the most about the issue you are trying to address and they exist on your strongest channel.
  • Narrow down your early adopters to those who need your product/service the most.
  • When in doubt always build a product that is a painkiller rather than a vitamin. To do this get to the root of your customer’s problems, not just the symptoms.
  • Describe your customer’s current reality and the job your customer is hiring you to do.


Avoid marketing promises instead keep it simple, clear and relevant to your audience by being specific about the benefits.

To get started use a formula like –

End result customer wants + Specific/Time/Money + Address Objection/pain = Clarity

Examples of this would be:

Hot pizza delivered to your door in 30 minutes or its free
Not more numbers but actionable metrics

How to apply this:

  • Use the customer persona worksheet to help craft your message (see download below)
  • Keep the focus on your customers
  • Be specific and create clarity
  • Test, learn, tweak and iterate


When starting out it is generally easier for people to reach out to family and friends. But also consider expanding out to previous customers and investors. Ask for introductions to people in their network who would be interested in your venture.

For example Chargify CEO Lance Walley says in his blog post that what started as a Twitter connection with another motorcycle rider led to an introduction to Mark Cuban. That introduction then led to Mark investing in Chargify.

How to apply this:

Over the next day (24 hours), reach out to 10 people and ask them to be your customer. The point of this is to get into the habit of building action. So it doesn’t matter who they are or what they say.


Typically, when people talk about reaching out to influencers, it involves emailing or meeting up with them during a conference, attempting to build relationships and then asking them to spread the word about what you are doing.

Another approach would be to start a blog.

There is a lot of competition in the blogosphere so to make your product stand out you need to do something different.

What made the Buffer blog stand out from others was the fact that they were very transparent in how they operated and forged ahead. Buffer cofounder Leo Widrich took to blogging when starting out. He published 150 guest posts in the company’s first 9 months. This resulted in 100,000 users.

So use your blog as a means to engage with influencers by inviting feedback or even guest posting.

How to apply this:

  • Write a blog about what you’re solving. If you know about key problems in the marketplace, then write about it and how they can be solved. If it resonates with the marketplace then they will share, link and even sign up if you have a clear call to action.
  • Leverage the content you write about on other sites like Reddit where groups of people with similar interests hang out.
  • Update your about page: Like we have said before it doesn’t hurt to state what you are looking for. Engaged readers of your blog almost invariably click through to your about page and if they see this may be inclined to help.
  • Start a blog to talk about your industry: Talk about your industry and why you address the issues you do. Offer a perspective that is unique to your brand and rally people around your cause. Most importantly provide an opt-in form for people to sign up for updates.


At some stage in growing your business, you will probably need to approach potential customers and pitch them your services or products. That’s where cold calls or cold emails come in.

Cold emailing is the practice of organizing email outreach to potential customers that fit your target customer profile, but don’t know you yet. The aim is to offer your product/service directly to your prospects.

When sending a cold email it helps to have a mutual connection you can refer to. If not you will need to take the time to research them.

Check out the “cold email” Zapier co-founder and CEO Wade Foster sent Andrew Warner after doing a bit of research and finding a question Warner had posted on a forum. Foster’s new product could provide a potential solution to Warner’s question, so he decided to email Warner. Notice the tone is light and conversational:

In a reply email, Warner says he found a solution to the problem Foster emailed him about. He then asks if Foster has an integration for Wufoo and Aweber. Foster didn’t have one but they built one within a few days. He then emailed Warner back, and Warner became Zapier’s first paying customer:

I just paid $100 for a product it didn’t even launch because @WadeFoster nailed what I was DESPERATE for.
 — 🏃🏽Andrew Warner (@AndrewWarner) 2 December 2011

Having said that, the conversion rates of cold emails is low. In fact lead conversion rates on average tend to be at 3–10% but could be increased with re-targeting.

So to increase your conversion rates try to connect with your prospects on a more personal level.

How to do this:

  • Getting the attention of the recipient is all about being specific in your subject line. In other words provide value up front without being too sales-y. So use a tight and directed subject line.
  • Once you have an approach and a tight subject line, make an impression. How? Provide value in the first one-to-three lines of the email.
  • Provide the “ Crux” in the email. This is where you leverage the good will you’ve created to get something in return.
  • Include the ask. Include an ask which goes something like: “I’d like to follow up on this with a quick phone call. Can we schedule a 20 minutes call for next Thursday at 10am EST?”


If you know your target audience is likely to attend an event, then consider being a sponsor for it should your budget allow. It is a proven way to not just reach your target audience but also to increase brand awareness.

Sponsoring an event entitles your business to exclusive face to face time with attendees as well as other branding opportunities. However, you need to pick events to sponsor wisely. Why?

To have any sort of return on investment to your business — it needs to be relevant to your target market and allow you to be on message. You want to learn from and avoid PR disasters like Nestlé’s sponsorship of a health conference in 2014, which led to the event being cancelled after senior NHS figures urged a boycott over the company’s promotion of infant formula in the developing world.

PAX Prime, a video gaming conference, for example, pays special attention to the way it promotes its sponsors. They provide value for its sponsors using innovative event technologies.

In order to promote its sponsors the organizers created a QR code scavenger hunt through their event app. Every attendee that came across a QR code throughout the event space received points that led to prizes. With over 6000 participants the game generated over 2000 tweets and social media impressions for sponsors alone.

If sponsoring an event or group is not really in your budget then consider doing piggybacking on the event. Use a tool like Socedo or Mention to find people talking about a major conference, and that fit your customer profile. Follow them and send them a direct message to let them know that you have a solution to help with their problem along with a link to a landing page.

How to apply this:

  • Define your target-audience aka who your clients are
  • Define what kind of events your target audience attends
  • Select the right sponsorship opportunities aka the events
  • Make sure you like how the event is run
  • Define your strategy and key message. Ensure it adds something meaningful to the event.
  • Secure your sponsorship spot and get involved with the organizers
  • Don’t just cut a check; make sure you can (and plan to) engage.
  • Follow-up: there’s always the day before and after the event. Don’t overlook these opportunities to get clients.


You need an online presence when starting out, but you don’t need to invest time, money and energy into building a complex high-end website.

Instead keep your initial website simple. It could be as simple as a landing page with essential elements on it.

How to apply this:

Ensure you have these 3 key elements to your initial landing page when starting out.

  • An opt-in form: The goal of your page should be to turn visitors into leads. You can accomplish this with a simple web form that allows visitors to submit their name, email address, and any other relevant information that you require to onboard them.
  • Social media links: Your visitor’s almost certainly will hang out on social media platforms. So make your business available to them by including relevant social profiles. Don’t go overboard. Just use the 2 or 3 ones your audience prefers.
  • Start a blog: A blog allows you to gain credibility and presence within your market for the long term. You don’t have to be a great writer. People are more interested in what value you provide than in how you provide it.


Research shows that salespeople spend about 41% of their time selling. The rest of their time gets eaten up doing other tasks. So, creating sales documentation to make the job of your salespeople easier can only help increase productivity and their conversion rates.

The more you sell, the more you’ll notice patterns and trends.

For example, you’ll notice that the vast majority of customers have the same objections and questions or that they react in a similar manner to the words you use, your replies and sales tactics.

So, document these proven pitches and responses. They’ll help you and others on your team with future sales opportunities.

How to apply this:

Remember sales documentation should be a constantly updated. As you experiment and evolve be sure to update your scripts and templates. That way you always have a relevant, effective response to any situation. Here are 3 critical pieces of sales documentation that every startup needs:

  • Call scripts and email templates: Instead of using ad-hoc conversations every time you make a sales call or send a cold email, use proven ones. Test a few pitches to see what works well and then stick to them. You can create scripts and templates for situations like cold emails, follow-up emails and calls, and closing calls.
  • Frequently asked questions: Most of your prospects are likely to have the same questions, issues, and concerns. Compile these in an easily found area along with responses that effectively answer them.
  • Create an objection management document: An objection management document is a collection of the most common sales objections in your market. To create one start by writing down 15–20 common objections. Then provide a 1–5 sentence response for each.


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