If the difference between a hobby and a business is making sales to customers, then how do you make the transition? It’s one thing to have a theory around who you’d like to sell to but how do you actually find those initial customers to sell to?

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You might be afraid that you’ll say something wrong and scare away a big prospect. Or you could get frustrated after a few weeks of trying every idea that came to mind. It doesn’t have to be this way.

There’s a simple framework you can use to find customers. It starts with having a theory around your ideal customer, then finding some creative ways to connect, and ultimately not being afraid to make the ask. We’re going to go through the four ways to find your first customer and put them to work.

Before you find your first customer you need to have a theory on who that customer is, and what their pain points are. This Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) is something that your first 100 conversations and dozen customers will test. Do you think a certain demographic, geography, or job title is more likely to be your customer? What problem do they have that you solve for them today? How are they solving that problem today? Is that the biggest problem that they face?

For example, if I sell a SaaS bookkeeping product for startups, I would start crafting what qualities my ICP should have. In this scenario, small companies with less than 10 team members, who have an individual who is inexperienced in accounting managing finances are the ideal customers I’m looking for.

Next, I would do some research to determine what the companies who fit this description are looking for. I find the top questions about bookkeeping on Quora, Reddit, and Quickbooks are about the experience running payroll and filing payroll taxes correctly. These folks are currently solving this by paying a third-party accountant or using Quickbooks automatic payroll. These options are costly. My company could potentially help these businesses save money and extend their runway.

This exercise provides valuable insight into what kind of customer you’re looking for. With the findings from that exercise in mind, use the following tactics to get in touch with your first customers.

How to Get Your First Customer

1. Start with your own network.

With your ideal customer profile in hand look through your social profiles (LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook) for connections you have who might fit the description. In this exercise, you’re not looking at how well you know the person or if you’ve chatted with them in the last year, only if they could meet your criteria.

For example, if you are selling a new product for prospective homeowners, see who in your network is likely a homeowner. Once you have your list, reach out to these folks using a sequence to explain what you’re building and how you’d like their feedback. These are warm connections you’ve likely already interacted with, meaning it may be easier to get meetings, interest, and early sales.

But as you might have guessed selling to your uncle doesn’t automatically mean you have a lucrative business idea. While reaching out to your network is a great place to start, that’s not the only place you should look for customers.

2. Work with your marketing team to reach your ideal customers.

If your company has marketing support who handles your paid advertising, consider working with them to ensure their ads are reaching those who fit your ICP.

With tools like Ship by Producthunt, it has never been easier to set up an experiment. Start by creating a landing page for your product or service to promote using Facebook Ads or Google Adwords. With these platforms, you can control where you’d like your ads to appear and exactly what you want to bid on.

Target the demographics from your ICP (include factors such as age, location, job title, interests) and see how many early sign-ups you can get. On your experiment page, you can ask a series of questions to learn about the prospect. How much time and money are they losing today with their status quo? What would they be willing to spend on your service to solve that?

With most early ad experiments I wouldn’t recommend spending more than $100. That should be enough to see if you are getting interest in the demographics of your ICP. You can also test the ICP by targeting different groups and seeing if you get better results.

3. Make the ask during customer development.

When you are first creating a product or service, consider doing some customer development. This is the process of finding people with the problem you’re trying to solve. You can find relevant threads on websites such as Reddit, or in social media groups, and ask to connect. If you’re having a hard time getting participants, offering some sort of monetary or product incentive for people may help.

The goal of this meeting is to learn about the prospect, how they are solving the problem today, and if they have started looking into a potential solution. When you are learning about the prospect and their pain, look for opportunities to share your solution.

Go over how it works and how it could help that person. You can incorporate a question such as, "Is that something you would pay for?" If the answer is no you can ask why and learn more about your ICP. If yes, ask when they would like to start and have a lightweight pilot form handy to convert that prospect.

4. Use outbound tactics to build your pipeline.

If you are a bit later stage and have already leveraged your existing network, run an experiment to build your signup list, and have done customer development you might be ready to start outbound prospecting. You can do this by creating an outbound campaign targeting prospects who fit your ICP.

For example, if you are looking to connect with Operations Managers in the Food and Agriculture industry, start by creating a list of people you’d like to chat with on LinkedIn. Once you find those titles use an email tool like ZapInfo to get relevant contact information. From here you can create a custom outreach campaign about the different pains your product can solve.

In your outreach, you’ll want to use the appropriate platforms (email, phone, LinkedIn) to share content, and connect with the prospect. Remember in these outreaches you aren’t trying to sell the product, you’re selling the 15-minute meeting to learn more.

Securing your first customer can be a challenge. If done poorly it can let you think you know the market when you don’t have a clue, taking you down a winding road of poor product development and sales. But when done well it will inform your product, and your business.

It doesn’t matter how much sense the idea makes up the whiteboard. The customer decides what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s our job to talk to them.

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Originally published Aug 3, 2020 8:30:00 AM, updated August 03 2020