How We Got Our First 100 Customers (It Ain't Pretty...)

When you hear about the "successful" businesses in the media, it probably sounds pretty glamorous.Whether it's a company that raised $5M for their business (that has only been around for two months), or one that just sold for millions of dollars to Facebook.It's hard not to wonder how these companies got their start when they began with nothing but an idea. Most businesses would rather talk about the major milestones they've achieved than the struggles and journey they went through. While I'm all for celebrating milestones, it doesn't actually create any value for the reader on the other end.One of our early commitments at Rype was to share as much as we can about the journey of building our business, and hopefully bring others along for the ride -- the good, the great, and even the ugly times. We want to share our lessons and mistakes as we're learning them, and while it's still fresh in our memory.

The First 100 Customers

Almost any entrepreneur reading this can probably relate to how difficult getting your first 100 customers is (for aspiring entrepreneurs, you'll soon find out!).The 100 mark is a big milestone for any business, because it shows that you have real customers willing to pay you their hard-earned cash in exchange for your product/service.For us, getting to 100 was an even bigger deal than most businesses because we have a subscription model where customers pay us every month. These customers are much harder to get than selling a one-off product, but they're also the most loyal. It allows us to easily predict how much revenue we'll be generating next month, next quarter, and even next year, and it also means that we can spend more resources and energy to provide more value to each customer, creating more loyalty and referrals.To get to our first 100, we tried everything you can possibly imagine, from cold calling, creating joint venture partnerships, reaching out to forums like Quora, and even sending hand-written notes with a discount coupon (this put a bright smile to many customers :) )

I know what you're probably thinking... "But Sean, this isn't scalable!"You're right, it isnt'! But that's how it should be when you're first starting your business. You've got to grind, claw, and sell your way to make it to the other end.There is a post written by Paul Graham, who's the founder of YCombinator (where AirBnB, Reddit, and Dropbox got their start), called Do Things That Don't Scale. Every aspiring and current entrepreneur should read this in the beginning stages of running their businesses.Even the most successful businesses today struggled to get their first 100 customers, and they fought their way to reach their milestone, including AirBnB when they first launched in 2008.

In this post, we're going to share the main strategies & tactics that helped get us our first 100 customers.

Very Scalable & Very Unscalable

When we first launched Rype, we knew that one of our strengths was content marketing and that it was a very scalable way to grow a business. But we also realized that content marketing and SEO takes time to accumulate, and we couldn't afford to just focus on the scalable channels.In Nassim Taleb's book, The Black Swan, he talks about the theory behind Barbell Strategy.To summarize, it demonstrates that we should be spending our energies and resources on taking high-risks with the potential for great rewards, and playing very conservative where the risks are low and rewards are also low. This analogy was originally applied in the stock market, but you can apply it in pretty much anything you do in your life.I highly recommend The Black Swan to any entrepreneur or investor.

To apply this into our business, we decided to focus our efforts on the highly scalable methods (high potential) like SEO, blogging, and building a great product, and the highly unscalable methods (low potential) like direct sales and customer happiness.We avoided everything in the middle, and even use this analogy to run our business today, although more and more efforts are going towards scalable channels.

Direct Sales

I can't think of a better way to learn about your customers, their needs, and your business than getting on a call with them or even better, meeting them in-person.Whether your customer is paying you $10/month or $250/month, it's crucial to be interacting with your customers from day one, and trying to absorb everything you can about them.You'll discover answers to questions like:

  • Why did they buy your product/service?
  • What were they using before?
  • What did they think about your pricing?
  • How did they first hear about you?
  • What do they want to see in the product?

The list goes on, and you'll quickly discover a pattern of answers that reveals an abundance of information about your target market, your messaging, and how your product should be built.

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When you're starting out, it's less about the dollar amount you'll be making from one customer, and more about the direction your business will go, that will have an impact on acquiring the next thousand customers in the future.

Guest Blogging

Guest blogging is an incredibly powerful tool, if you have the right platforms to reach.We've personally written for Entrepreneur, TIME, Huffington Post, Fast Company, Lifehack, and many major media outlets. What's surprising was that the major media outlets that we thought would drive growth, like TIME or Fast Company, performed the worst. And the outlets that were smaller and more niche, performed the best.In hindsight, this made sense because you're targeting a wide group of people in the major media outlets, and unless you're building a product that everyone can use, it won't resonate with them.At Rype, we noticed a pattern of individuals (through direct sales) who were busy professionals, that seemed the most excited to join us and were the most loyal as well. Many of them are constantly seeking personal development, knowledge, and improving their education (which we foster in our company culture), so we stopped writing for major outlets and focused on personal development blogs instead. We could immediately see the results when we made this switch.The point I'm making here is that not every visitor is equal. You could have 100,000 people visit your site without buying anything, or you could have 1,000 visitors, where 1% of them become customers.Guest blogging can be an extremely powerful tool if you have a way to reach the right audience.But you want to make sure you know who your best customers are first, and what type of information they're consuming online.Once you know this information, here are a few tips to start finding guest posting opportunities:a. Niche blogsFinding niche blogs is probably your best bet when you're first getting started. As I mentioned before, they have a much more targeted audience, and there's a higher chance that you'll be able to write for them.The easiest way to find guest posting opportunities in niche blogs is to type in the following keywords:i. [Your Industry/Niche] + Guest postingii. [Your Industry/Niche] + Write for usii. [Your Industry/Niche] + Contribute for us

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You may even find many major outlets that use these specific keywords to bring in contributors, so feel free to apply to all of them.b. Major outletsWhen it comes to some of the major outlets, there are gatekeepers that you need to be wary of. While you can have direct access to editors or even the founders of niche blogs, the bigger outlets have a dedicated position called a Contributing Editor, who manages all the contributors.You could go through the traditional channels of applying through their Contribute for us page, or you could take a shortcut, which is what we did.The first thing you should do is download a tool called Connectifier (recently acquired by Linkedin). This tool allows you to find the emails of the profile you're viewing on Twitter and Linkedin. While it's not 100% required, it will increase the number of emails you can find and contact.Let's say we wanted to write for Forbes. To find their contributing editors on Linkedin:

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You can check out their individual profiles and see their Contact Information, or if it doesn't show, you can use Connectifier to search for the emails.

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Bullets & Cannons

Last but not least, we embraced what Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and Great By Choice, calls the "Bullets & Cannons" approach. It turns out that many of the most successful businesses that Jim profiled in his book used this approach to grow their businesses.The bullets represent small and low-risk experiments that you run in your business. These are reversible experiments, where you can run several simultaneously (3-5 at a time). Once you start to notice that some bullets are working, that's when you take out the cannons.Cannons is a representation of doubling down on what's already working, and cutting out everything else that doesn't work. We've applied this strategy for allocating our dollars for paid advertising, guest blogging websites, and our product strategy, and it's still one of our core strategies at Rype.At Rype, we use a tool called Optimizely (there's another tool called Visual Website Optimizer, but Optimizely is free). This tool has literally made us tens of thousands of dollars, by A/B testing what's working and what's not working -- from our landing page message to our pricing page.Here's how it looks in the backend:

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If we can improve our visitor to paid conversion rate from 2% to 3% with a few simple adjustments, this will lead to a 33% increase in sales. For entrepreneurs just starting out, your pricing is probably the most valuable thing you can be testing first, and what will generate the biggest return for you.The Bullets & Cannons approach is no different than how Steve Jobs cut over 70% of the products (350 to 10) when he returned to Apple in 1997. The result was that the company eventually became the most valuable company in the world.This philosophy doesn't have to be applied to just marketing your business, but how you approach life in general. We should constantly be experimenting with our daily habits, schedule, relationship building, and anything you can think of, and doubling down on what's already working.

Over to you

I'd love to hear your stories on how you got to your first 100 customers, and what you learned from the journey.

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