Are you a founder of a startup with fewer than 10 customers?
Here's my advice as founder of a marketing agency: STOP talking to marketers and start talking to potential customers instead.
Now don’t stop until you’ve convinced at least 10 people to hand you money.
Your instinctual response might be, "How do I even get 10 customers without marketing?"
It's simple. You do anything you can to close 1 customer, and then you do that 9 more times.
Where to Find Them
I’m going to assume you have an idea of who might want your product. It's early in your startup's lifecycle, so naturally it's a question that you haven't figured out yet.
So where do your ideal customers hang out? Is it a physical location, or is there an online forum? Ask your friends if they know anyone. Reach out to your network for referrals. Once you get one person talking to you, make sure to ask them where you can find more people like them. Ask them to introduce you to others.
Now Start Closing
I don’t care if you have to offer a discount, promise amazing customer service, give a money back guarantee, modify parts of the product to their specifications…
Do it. 10 times over. Don't stop until you hit that number.
I know it’s not "scalable." It’s not supposed to be. At this stage in your business, you'll rarely be doing things that can scale efficiently.
Facebook ads, SEO, conversion optimization, drip email campaigns... for the time being, they’re all distractions. You’d be wasting your time building marketing infrastructure when you don’t even know if anyone wants your product yet.
You’ll get more invaluable information from a handful of conversations than you would from thousands of dollars and hours spent marketing your product.
Trust me, I’m not biased against marketing. I run a marketing agency, where I’ve worked with over 100 startups to help them grow. I firmly believe marketing will make or break your startup, but it has to be the right time.
The right time is not before you have 10 customers. It’s definitely not when you have 0 paying customers, which is often when people get in touch with me to talk about marketing.
I’m not just saying this because I don’t like working with small clients. I’m not saying don’t work with my agency.
I’m saying don’t work with any agency. Don’t hire that growth hacker. Don’t hire a marketing consultant. Don’t hire an intern or even do it yourself.
Do nothing else but talk to potential customers.
Look I get it, you’re excited about building your company. You look at big company org charts with sales, finance, HR, and marketing departments, and think you need key people in each.
But here's the thing... you aren’t a big company. Yet.
You’re not even really a company until you have multiple people paying you to solve their problem for them. Once you have that, you’re in with a chance.
Sure, some companies don’t need paying customers yet. Facebook didn’t make any serious money in its first 8 years. But Zuck had half the undergrad population at Harvard using his product in month 1; he never had to guess whether this was something people wanted.
Well you do. Otherwise you wouldn’t be worrying about who to hire to grow your company, would you?
Ok, so why 10?
It’s arbitrary, sure. But whether you charge $1 or $1,000,000 for your product, you can have 30 conversations with potential customers this month if you try. That’s one conversation per day. You just need to close 1/3rd of them.
I used this method to close our first 10 clients at Ladder without a website or even a pitch deck. I was already paying my salary before I spent a penny developing a product.
You can do the same.
Don’t be discouraged with the first few conversations; your pitch will get better, as will your strike rate. This is one of the benefits.
The other benefit is learning. How many conversations do you think your competitor had this month? Definitely not 100. I’d be surprised if it was more than 10. You're hearing and learning from your potential customers much more often than your competitors are.
Now you’re already at an advantage. Keep going. You’re guaranteed to learn something your competitor doesn’t know. Plus people will be more likely to buy from you, and you might even steal some of your competitor’s customers.
Think about it, would you rather buy from the founder you met, or one you’ve never heard from? I know I'd rather buy from the former, especially when I'm talking to a relatively unknown company.
As an added bonus, the customers you bring in personally won’t be shy about telling you if something goes wrong. This feedback loop is a gift, and it should inform your product roadmap as you grow.
I know this isn’t the easy route. It’s far easier to just run some Facebook ads or ‘growth hack’ your way to success. Then you won't have to talk to anyone at all.
Well sorry, but you’re going to have to get used to talking to other humans. You’re really going to have to get good at selling to them.
You probably don’t think you have to.
Maybe you’re the technical co-founder worried about building the product. That doesn’t matter. If your company does well, you won’t actually be doing much coding anymore.
If you’re a founder, you’re a salesperson. It's part of the job description, so you should get good at it. You’ll be pitching investors, writing blog posts, talking about your company on stage at events and on TV. Even when you’re doing your day job, you’ll mostly be recruiting and continually selling your vision to the team to keep everyone aligned. Yes, even as CTO.
Better get some practice.
Get to 10
So do it already. Close 10 customers.
Along the way you might find that the product isn’t quite right for your target audience. Great, now tweak or pivot to something that is based on what you learned.
Or maybe you'll find out that you can’t close 1 customer, and you lose motivation entirely. Congrats, you just won back 7 years of your life that you would otherwise have spent toiling away at a product that doesn't fit the market. You're welcome.
But if you do get there, let me know, because it's at that stage that you're ready to talk marketing. You’ll be able to tell me everything I need to get started -- who your ideal customer is, what they care about, where they spend their time, and how to sell to them.
So go put in the work.
I’ll be waiting on the other side to take you to the next level.
Already at 10 customers? Ladder can help you grow and scale your business alongside companies like Facebook, Booking.com, 8tracks, and more.