First employee at a startup? Here are 3 ways to find your first customers

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Trade show panelists are a gold mine of potential customers for your startup (Photo credit: molotalk)

If you are the first employee at a startup one of your most important jobs will be to find and secure new customers. This is also a topic that is near and dear to my heart, since I spent a huge amount of time on Customer Development and outreach as the first employee at a startup myself (on the business side). Below I’ve included some advice I shared on a lean startup focused list in response to this question:

So I’m at the point that I’d love to bounce ideas off of people who’ve been down this road before; I’ve been doing  just cold emails & calls to higher-profile developers asking for them to betatest, and it’s not going all that great – is there a better way to gather the attention of some early adopters?

Trade show panelists and conference speakers represent a gold mine of potential prospects for the first employee at a startup.

For example, when I was working at VMTurbo, I ran an email campaign targeting speakers at an industry conference. In the email, I asked them if they’d be willing to see a demo of our product.

This technique had a very high hit rate in terms of number of initial responses and of calls scheduled. Why was this technique effective? Simply put, these are people who:

  • likely work at companies who would be good target customers for your product
  • like to talk about technology, companies, and products that are relevant to your company
  • like to keep up with industry trends and new developments (like, your startup and its products!)

Find leads by scouring industry and competitor press releases.

Customers are often quoted in competitor press releases, so it becomes fairly easy to find a way to contact them with a little bit of online detective work and research (see this post about using Google searches to find email addresses). Again, one could argue that these people might be in bed with one of your potential competitors. However, if you’re working in an early stage company the feedback you will get will far outweigh the risk of your idea or ‘secret sauce’ being exposed.

Put more bluntly: If you’re the first employee at a startup, you’ve everything to gain and nothing to lose, so don’t be afraid to call on the competition’s customers!

Use LinkedIn to find user groups that would be interested in your product.

People self-identify on LinkedIn by indicating in their profiles that they are a member of various user groups that are relevant to your company and products. Why not approach these folks in a personal way (doing some homework on their background, reading their blog, etc) and see if they’d be willing to chat to provide feedback? Also, user group leaders are always interested in bringing in new vendors to demo products at meetings, so they are generally receptive to speaking to startups and providing feedback.

Have you been the first employee at a startup or an early hire? It would be great to hear your perspective in the Comments.

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