Startup Sales — How to get your First Potential Customers

After you’ve committed to an idea for your startup, get feedback from potential customers as soon as possible. Insights from your first potential customers help direct product strategy, increasing your likelihood of making a sale. Here’s the first part of the startup sales process — how to find, assess, and contact your first potential customers:

Find: Company Profile

Do: Limit the type of companies your product will target, as it’s almost impossible to be a game-changing product for every type of customer. Start with industries where you have domain expertise, ideally with companies similar to those you’ve worked with in the past. Then narrow further by looking at the potential customer’s location, revenue, total employees etc. For example, if you worked at Cisco, you can you may have an easier time selling to public tech companies than selling to local restaurants.

Don’t: Don’t assume your first ideas for target company profiles are correct, test your hypotheses and always dedicate some time to experiment, to ensure your ideas move forward. Don’t target companies you can’t help; e.g. if you’re selling farm equipment, you shouldn’t target clothing retailers.

Assess: End User Profile

Do: Ask people you already know at the target company for introductions to the right people. Look for people who directly experience the problem you’re solving. You’re more likely to keep the attention of people who immediately benefit from your product. For example, don’t target the CEO of a public pharmaceutical company, if your software will be used by lab technicians.

Don’t: Don’t focus solely on the target company’s executives, unless it’s a very small business. Executives have the most power but there’s usually a lot more people competing for their attention. Don’t get too focused on one title, a particular title at one company could mean something very different at another.

Contact: Initial Outreach

Do: Always use a warm introduction if possible; or find their direct email address and send a cold email if a warm intro is not available to you. The email should ask them to be an advisor to your company, example below. Reach out to at least 100 people, optimizing for up to a 30% response rate, aiming to get 10 people on your advisory board, and potentially two to three customers.

Hi Mary,

I’m Ash, the CEO of Acme. Based on your position at and your previous experience in this industry, I thought you’d be a great addition to the Acme Advisory Board.

We’re building the board to get feedback on the Acme product. Members of the board will receive equity in the company and help us build this much needed product by providing feedback on our latest solution.

If you’re interested, you can find more information on our website (link) and the one pager attached. The board is almost complete, with 3 spots remaining, so please let me know if you’d like to get a call scheduled soon.

Looking forward to chatting more!

Don’t: Send messages on LinkedIn or other social services, the response rate is usually under 3%. Don’t assume your first version of the email copy is correct, instead expect to test and iterate on each batch of outreach.

By building lists of companies, their relevant employees, and arming yourself with an appropriate email template; anyone can generate leads for their startup.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss how to convert advisors into pilot customers.

Thanks to Kaego Rust, Jay Zalowitz and David Smooke for their help on this article.

Photo by Abraham Wiebe

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