Why you shouldn’t charge your first 100 customers (yes, seriously)

If you build it, they will come.

…except they didn’t.

I’d worked my heart out over 12 months’ worth of evenings and weekends, all to bootstrap my first premium Wordpress plugin.

The result? A whopping $100 in sales.

Good thing I had a day job.

The most frustrating part was that I knew my plugin would generate tons of sales if only marketers knew how valuable it was for their blogs.

Unfortunately, I’d made a classic “newbie” entrepreneur mistake: I foolishly assumed that sales would snowball after announcing the launch of my product to the tiny audience of my personal blog.

Sure, I was proud of myself for turning a small idea into a viable product — I’d even managed to put it up for sale without any technical skills whatsoever.

But I was facing my biggest problem yet:

How would I get my first 100 customers?

If you’ve been following my writing here at Medium, you probably already know that I’m a huge advocate of using search engine optimization to acquire customers (this means that people find your website through Google searches.)

With my first ever plugin, I made the huge mistake of failing to build up my traffic from Google while concurrently building my product.

Once the ready-to-sell product was in my hands, I desperately needed to get my first 100 customers…but I couldn’t afford to wait another year to build up search traffic to reach potential customers.

Notice I said customers, not sales? While cash is always good for business, newly shipped products prioritize getting customers over sales.

Even if those customers don’t pay you a dime.

You might even want to pay them to use your product…

3 reasons why you need your first 100 customers ASAP

I realize what I’m proposing requires a substantial mindset shift for many entrepreneurs. After all, you start your business to make money, not to give it away.

But here’s some food for thought: you need your first customers much more than they need you.

Let’s allow that to sink in for a moment.

Think about it from the perspective of your potential clients. Hard as it may be to admit, they’re doing just fine without you. They either:

  • Don’t know they have a problem;
  • Are aware of the problem, but don’t care to solve it;
  • Are already solving it, but not with your product.

Conversely, your first customers are absolutely instrumental to your success.

1. They provide invaluable product feedback.

Achieving product-market fit is a crucial task for any young company. In fact, it’s often cited as the no. 1 reason startups fail.

You can avoid falling into this trap by getting your product into the hands of industry leaders and listening to their feedback.

Chances are good that top people within your field can provide amazing suggestions for improving your offering.

Since they already know your target audience, they can identify unseen opportunities to make your product more appealing. Of course, the opposite can also happen: they might also say that your idea needs some work.

What if you don’t have these industry relationships? Well, the next best thing you can do is get this feedback from your customers.

Next year, the SaaS company I work at, Ahrefs (I’m the CMO here), will celebrate our 10th anniversary. Our product development team still heavily relies on customer feedback — you might even say it’s the cornerstone of our success.

Case in point: We recently polled our 9,000 strong Facebook community on which email format they prefer to receive from us.

2. You’ll get testimonials and success stories.

Let’s say that one of your first customers gets unprecedented value from your product. In most cases, they will gladly provide a glowing testimonial or agree to be featured as a success story.

This type of social proof can be used on your website, landing pages and in numerous marketing materials for years to come.

Another benefit? Digging into the success stories of your early customers and listening to how they describe your product can greatly improve your sales copy.

Classic advertising advice recommends doing this because there can be a huge misalignment between how business owners and their actual customers view products.

Luckily for me, I joined Ahrefs when many industry leaders were already happy users of our product. Featuring their feedback on our homepage further boosted our credibility in the SEO industry.

3. You’ll find your first “brand advocates”

If you listen carefully to your first customers and implement their feedback, many of them will become loyal brand advocates.

Imagine knowing you shaped a product as a customer. Wouldn’t you feel a special affinity for that company — especially if the feature you requested for was implemented?

At the same time, don’t make the mistake of listening to “authorities” at the expense of “the little guys”.

While it’s certainly tempting to please people with authority in your niche and act on their feedback in the hopes that they’ll later promote you to their followings, let’s be real. You’re very unlikely to get Gary Vee to promote your product or service just because he once gave you a piece of advice.

I know what I’m talking about, because I tried it.

On the contrary, it’s incredibly easy to connect with other people in your niche who aren’t “as big” yet.

Sure, making just one of these connections won’t have a noticeable effect on your business. But befriend a few dozen people and you’ll start to sense how they’re promoting your business to their friends and social circles.

Why you should pay your first 100 customers

As you can see, getting the first 100 customers is crucial to the success of your business.

One thing to clear up, though — 100 customers doesn’t mean “100 registrations in your app”. It means 100 people who are regularly using your product.

Entrepreneurs who are just starting out are often surprised to learn how challenging this actually is.

Sometimes, your potential customer may not have time to try out your product. In such instances, I recommend offering to get results for their business by using the product on their behalf (if possible).

If the prospect still isn’t interested, you might change tracks and offer to pay them for a consultation session instead. During this conversation, you can mention the benefits of your product and ask for feedback.

In my opinion, one of the reasons why Ahrefs took off some 9 years ago is because our CEO and founder Dmitry understood the power of getting those first 100 customers as soon as possible.

Upon releasing the very first version of Ahrefs back in 2011, Dmitry opened up free — but limited — access to the tool. He also made prices relatively cheap compared to existing solutions in order to make his product appealing, price-wise.

Combine that with an incredibly powerful product and a focus on increasing organic search traffic, and there you have it: the exact formula that kickstarted Ahrefs’ success.

Ahrefs got several write-ups, social media mentions and other types of free publicity from SEOs who were delighted by the tool’s capabilities.

As the product continued to advance, Dmitry revised our pricing accordingly.

Word to the wise: Never give out or sell lifetime accounts. Don’t do this to reach customer milestones, and most definitely don’t do this for publicity’s sake. Many startups sell lifetime accounts to make a quick buck and get a PR boost, but find themselves stuck with these “dead weight” customers years later.

How to find your first 100 customers

Much has been said on finding your first 100 customers.

Some marketing professionals recommend hanging out on industry forums, answering questions on platforms like Quora and running PPC campaigns. None of these are bad ideas.

However, they don’t even compare to the momentum you can build by reaching out to bloggers and journalists in your industry.

Obviously, the more famous the person, the less likely they are to respond. Which is why you should begin cultivating relationships during the beginning stages of product development.

Reach out to influencers to discuss the problem you are wanting to solve. Find out if they consider it to be significant and how they deal with it.

Below is an example of a cold email I sent to a prominent blogger in my niche four years ago. I offered him a free copy of my product — no strings attached. Unfortunately, I never received a response from him =)

Compare that to the reply I received from a blogger I befriended long before asking to take a look at my newly shipped product:

Not only did he take my product for a spin, but he also gave me tons of feedback that went into future product iterations. He even published a great article on his blog reviewing the product.

At this point, you may be wondering: How do I find bloggers and journalists to pitch within my industry?

Here’s an easy “hack” you can try using Ahrefs’ Content Explorer tool:

Let’s say that you’ve developed a productivity app, and you’re looking for people who blog about productivity. Using Ahrefs’ Content Explorer, you can search for the most popular articles on the Internet that feature the term “morning routine” in their titles.

Next, click on the “one article per domain” option. This search parameter is important because a single blogger could have covered “morning routine” in several different articles.

That gives you a list of 5,437 blogs to pitch.

From here, you can aim to persuade 100 out of 5,000 bloggers to try your productivity app and let the chips fall where they may.

Now, over to you…

I hope you’re beginning to see the value in giving your early-stage product away for free.

Crazy as it may sound, sharing your offering with the right individuals can reward you with invaluable feedback, free publicity and the social proof you need to generate traction.

Does this sound like a strategy that could work for your business? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments below.


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