How I got my first customer: 5 entrepreneurs share their stories

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5 min read

You have a company and a product. Maybe it’s been released, maybe it hasn’t (but will be, eventually). You know who you are selling to, and what problems your product solves. You have asked for referrals and built a list of ideal customers. It’s now time to reach out to the list of ideal customers, following a set cadence,  get them on the hook, and do whatever it takes to win your first customer(s)!

But we all know that landing customers, especially your first set of customers is a daunting task. So how did the successful entrepreneurs did it? How did they get started?

Now, there is no set formula on how you can bag clients, but there are certain values and permutation - combination of certain practices that have worked well for entrepreneurs, in the past, you can take inspiration from those, but in the end, it’s all about your conviction and power of influence that will finally bear the results.

If you are preparing yourself to get into the business of finding customers, we’d suggest that you pause for a bit and dig a little deeper. Learn about your product, keep in focus what problem it’s solving for your potential customers. Consult business veterans on what has worked for them, and what hasn’t, and then go on to prepare your final pitch. Remember, the task doesn’t get over with the first draft of your final pitch. As you enter the field and start taking up conversations, with every dialogue you will realize where you are headed towards success, and where you hit the dead end. But first, it’s important to get started.

We curated stories of some of the thriving entrepreneurs on how they landed their first clients. Take inspiration from their accounts, and get your dice rolling.

“When we finally got some of the prospects on the phone, let me tell you it was ugly. We didn’t know what to say. We didn’t really know how to talk about what we were selling. We didn’t have anything to show them, except for the end result of what our admin interface could produce. We didn’t have any marketing materials. We didn’t have a sales deck. We had nothing. It was uncomfortable. But the second call was better than the first. And the third was better than that. We got better with each call and got a few pieces of content and a deck together along the way. We landed our first customer about 12 weeks later. I will never forget that moment. I couldn’t believe someone would actually buy this thing that we hadn’t really brought to market yet. But they did, and then the ball started rolling.”

- Anna Talerico, Beacon9

“Use every relationship you have. It’s hard enough to make cold calls, but it’s extremely difficult to sell new, innovative products and services using that method. You need to meet with people who have some connection to you, no matter how slight. When I started my first company, my clients were supposed to companies. I sat down and made a list of everyone I knew who owned a business and came up with only five names. This was very discouraging. But I decided to grow my list by tapping my existing relationships, so I met with almost every person I knew who might have ties to the business community and asked people to introduce me to five business owners. I was surprised by how willing people were to help. I quickly grew my list of prospects and that’s how I snagged a few early customers.” - Diana Kander, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation

“I was open and up-front about where we were at every step of the way. No BS. Not every customer is willing to risk working with such a new company, but some valued the openness of our process. I offered immense value up-front: 3 months of a fully functional website, with hosting, for free. This offered a long time to fully evaluate the product, my customer support, and the rest. Also, I offered personalized service and over-delivered every step of the way. A lifetime discount, with a defined window of opportunity to take advantage of it, was the right incentive to make those first signups happen.”

- Brian Casel, Ops Calendar

“I found my first customer the old fashioned way: dialing for dollars. Ten years ago, the public relations agency I worked for lost several major accounts and as a result, I lost my job. I vowed never again to place my future in the hands of another company and set out to make it on my own. I quickly drew up a business plan—in my head. That plan included hiring a virtual office to answer my calls and provide me a corporate mailing address, going door to door in business parks, and working the phone. It was the latter that landed my first client. I estimate I made nearly 100 contacts before I finally reached someone who was interested in what I had to offer. I probably could have cut that list in half if I had known up front what I learned months into the process: I learned to refine my message, target industries in which I had enough experience to “speak their language”—and most importantly, I learned to research through the Internet and news articles businesses with indicators of having an actual need for positive publicity.”  

– Ken Kilpatrick, Sylvia Marketing & Public Relation

“Having watched many programs and read reports about how plastic is damaging the environment, I was inspired to launch a company that aims to reduce plastic by using biodegradable materials. I gave samples to close friends and family, and they helped spread the word. I also spoke to small retailers who were happy to stock a product that was similar to what they already stocked but with the added bonus of being less harmful to the environment.”

– Matt Vincent, Ecolunchware

“Working for a corporation for 30 years with layoffs looming, I had been thinking about my new career for a long time. In early 2012, it struck me. Marketing was the perfect blend of analysis, creativity, and planning…all the things I love. So while exploring this idea, I was unexpectedly laid off that summer. Grateful for my incubating plan, I quickly built and optimized my website and arranged personnel for skills I did not want to possess. I knew from sales support experience and education (MBA) that I needed a huge pipeline to net a few clients. I quickly exhausted my first line of attack on my family, close friends, and email database of past and recently past colleagues. I then made a list of people who had impressed me, but perhaps were not considered a close friend. I considered my husband’s friends, businesses I frequented, and people I had met since moving to a new area in 2009. The last person I contacted on my list was someone I had met about a year before while serving on the school PTO. She was last on my list because she did not work outside the home, so I had not really put her in the business building category (shame on me!). But she had tons of family and friends. A couple of weeks after I reached out to her, she brought me my first client, her aunt, who was starting a new business based on an invention. My next client came from someone I worked with 25 years ago without much contact since. And that client now has 2 businesses that I help market. Two very unlikely sources of help were my saving grace.”

- Wanda Anglin, SEO Buzz Internet Marketing

Lessons learned: Make your list of potential contacts for business long and exhaustive. Think beyond business contacts. Never assume someone can’t recommend you. Make each request for help personal.

Himanshu Bhalla