I’ll tell you a secret. My team and I are building a SaaS start-up. It’s a tool that tracks the time spent on tasks and projects in small software development teams. Still in its early stages, the tool isn’t ready yet — there are some critical bugs that render it unusable — but it’s already proved to be useful at simplifying the time tracking process.
The reason I’m telling you this is because a funny thing happened to our project: Some time ago, we added log in and sign-up functionality to prepare for testing with early adopters. Even though we didn’t have an official launch or marketing campaign to acquire customers, we got our first customer just a few days after the ability to sign up was added.
How did this happen?
Well, I emailed a few to people in my network who I thought would be interested in taking a look at the service. It’s entirely possible that one of them shared the link with their network.
Build It and They Will Come
To be profitable, SaaS start-ups typically need a relatively large number of users. Thus, the way they acquire customers should scale. But in the early stages of a company, it’s important to do things that don’t scale but allow you to bring customers on board fast. This way, you’ll get feedback on your app and its features much sooner than you would by figuring out your whole marketing and sales funnel first.
What happened to my team is a situation that all SaaS founders dream about. Unfortunately, it’s rather uncommon. In most cases, even after an official launch, it’s a challenge to get customers for your service…unless you put in some work.
Don’t rely on serendipity. Try one or more of these six tactics for acquiring early customers, which have been tested either by me or by people that I work with.
- Leverage your network. Just as I did, you can email people in your network who might be interested to try out your service — but do it on a larger scale, emailing more than just a few people. You never know; one or several might share it with their friends. This is one of the greatest ways of finding early customers because you might get the added bonus of receiving honest feedback about your service from contacts that you already know and trust. Just don’t ask your closest friends and family to test your product. They’re biased because they love you.
- Tap into relevant online communities. If you’ve done the critical research of validating your idea before building your service, you likely already know where your customers hang out online. Join these online communities. Contribute to them. Most forums and groups have rules against self-promotion, so don’t promote yourself, but do be helpful. After some time, you will gain trust and respect within the community, enabling you to inject some information about your service into the conversation. This will work especially well if your service addresses a pain point that is often discussed in the community. Look for communities on Reddit, Facebook and Slack — these exist for almost any niche now.
- Send cold emails. Emailing people you don’t already know can seem intimidating, but it’s another great strategy for acquiring customers, especially if you offer a service that they need. You’ll have to find their emails first. Collect emails on platforms like LinkedIn, or look into purchasing a list of emails based on certain criteria. (For example, if you wanted to, you could the contacts of all cheese manufacturers in California.) Just don’t annoy people if they show you that they’re disinterested. Cold emails should never feel spammy.
- Advertise through newsletters, podcasts, blogs and other media. You can reach out to someone who already has an audience that might be interested in your service and ask them to promote it. Sponsorship is closer to traditional advertising, but much cheaper and more relevant if you choose the right form of media. Building your own media and your own audience is also a great way to acquire customers long-term, but it takes time. Partnering with someone from the outset will give you results more quickly.
- Partner with influencers. Influencer marketing isn’t a new strategy anymore, but it still works. Research influencers in your market and see what kind of services they’re promoting to their followers. Reach out and ask if they can promote your service too. Similar to the previous advertising approach, here, you borrow the credibility and trust of an influencer. The only difference is the channel — most influencers will use social media rather than newsletters, podcasts, and blogs to promote you. You can use that later on as a form of social proof.
- Run a traditional marketing campaign. Yes, this may surprise you, it’s still worthwhile to use traditional marketing and growth tactics to acquire your first customers. There are so many ways you can go about building a campaign. Create a landing page, launch an ad and run it on Facebook, Google Ads or Instagram. Create a lead magnet that people want, that is relevant to your service, and ask for an email in exchange. Send people a newsletter helping them with their problems that are also relevant to your product, and then offer them to try your product out. Or run ads directly to a landing page with an option to sign up, if you’re confident about your ad targeting and product-market fit.
There are other tactics I haven’t tried — for example, posting on Product Hunt or Hacker News, or manning a booth at an industry conference or event. (If you know some other interesting ways please let me know. I’d be happy to add them to the list.)
Getting your first customer will feel amazing. Just don’t get discouraged if they don’t stay with you. That customer who signed up for our time tracker? They deleted their account after a few days. Each customer in your early days will give you valuable feedback that you can use to improve your product. When they leave, you’ll need others to test your product and tell you what to do next. That’s why your method of acquiring customers must be repeatable; whether you use a tactic on this list or an alternative, be sure your way allows you to acquire a second and third and tenth customer.
Originally posted on Medium