Getting your first 10 customers
The first thing about early stage startups is that they are not certain businesses until they have proven their model. i.e. can be profitable and scale in a certain timeframe. In Forward Partners the timeframe from ideation to external funding rounds is around 12 months. These startups have 1 year to prove they can run and grow quickly. Marketing should be used to support the learning required from product development to find a product market fit.
So step zero here really means zero. Nada. Niente. Rien. You haven’t done anything, you have no idea where to start, who your customer is, how you should start or what you should to do.
Things need to happen fast and have to be lean.
Early stage startups have limited resources (people wise and moneywise), zero brand equity and little time to prove their assumptions and this limits marketing choices to only affordable channels (sorry boys and girls no TV ads for now).
In addition, feedback from customers development may lead to business model, product, marketing changes (new customers, types of device, locations, hours of day), new pricing strategies, promotions, channels/places, different communication creative (Message/Tone) etc..
This leads to ..
Point 2. We need frameworks and tools to quickly adapt/record/control businesses
Defining a 3 months marketing strategy when you are still figuring out the business is probably not the best of ideas. Therefore, as soon as you start having customer feedback from your interviews, you might want to evaluate how should you engage with your customers throughout the “awareness to purchase” funnel, identify the most important persona and storyboard, what is important for them (fears/dreams/hopes) and what are the main triggers that lead them to think about you.
Awareness to Decision (purchase) funnel
You should define clear goals for each iteration of your product and understand what KPI are you trying to move. At this point marketing and product decisions are very interconnected and it is of your best interested to record assumptions, tests and what drove you to make the decisions. Last, but not least…
Point 3. Stick to things that you can track, win fast and that you can turn on/off.
Right, you have your first assumptions you want to test with an audience so you want to drive traffic to your to test page/app. You shouldn’t start by creating a 600 word blog post everyday for 10 days to start getting organic traffic in.
It is hard to scale fast using SEO, Content and PR. Also, it is not something you can simply turn off if you have a problem or want to pivot on the product side. However, you should always be aware of best practices since these will affect the future of your organic rank and paid search quality.
It is also hard to build brand equity quickly, although you need to recognize its importance for trust and future sustainability. I.e. you don’t want to build a bad brand either by not caring. This is an important one. The more you engage with early customers the more you understand which messages are working and which elements of your product you should be promoting.
Finally it is hard to build on word of mouth or “member get member” schemes before you have a good enough product that people are proud of and would like to share with their friends. However, do understand that each business has its own customer dynamics; hence this might prove to be an important channel in the future, so you need to deliver a somewhat acceptable experience from start. The virality piece shouldn’t be discouraged; ideally we should build excitement here, especially of what the product could be.
So, unlike “normal businesses” where you could probably focus on a medium/long term strategy immediately and work on usual channels knowing they would sooner or later deliver results, with early stage startups you will have to pick and test a handful of channels in a small timeframe and evaluate results.
Although each business is different we have found that a good starting point can come from 3 types of channels:
Direct comms. — Engage with your target customers directly by focusing websites/newsletter/places that they tell you they normally hang around or use. This is where we can harvest this information. So rather than websites, it’s direct communications. If it is a (hyper) local business more offline means of gathering information, such as attending networking events and conferences might have faster cut through. Examples: emails, newsletters, display, forums, (local) communities, meet-ups, specialty blogs, etc..
Quick reaction paid channels — These are great for customers that you really know or that are actively searching for a solution that you provide, especially for small incremental innovations in commodity businesses that people understand. Don’t forget that the further away your proposition is from the keywords you are bidding on or the more innovative your business is the more expensive converting/educating a person will be. Highly targeted social, means cherry picking your customers from social platforms and targeting them directly. Examples: Search, display, targeted social
Referrers/Affiliates/Partnerships — These are great if what you are offering something people don’t need to be “educated about” and that you can issue promotions/vouchers associated with it (free delivery, X% discount, adding something extra to the basket for “premium brands”). This type of relation might cannibalise your direct sales and good “partners” will remind you of this. They will also only allow your “promotion” to be available for a limited time period and you should have a similar offer on your site. Bad deals where you commit to tens or hundreds of vouchers and customers don’t return can cost you your company. Be aware of the type of deal you are making. In an initial stage you want to have limited exposure and make sure you can pause your “promotions” at any given time.
As you move forward and get the first few reference customers in you start figuring which channel to use at which point of the awareness to decision funnel. This will also enable you to understand which way to take the brand, segmenting your customer base, etc..