Marketing to Your First 100 Customers

The beauty of SaaS is that it scales. When you have thousands of customers, you have hundreds of thousands of data points that you can use to test, measure, and optimize your marketing strategy. You can A/B test 41 different shades of blue for your landing page call-to-actions and then dive deep into your analytics to optimize and tweak your conversion funnel.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that analytics and thousands of users to A/B test against are the only things that can help you make informed decisions. But even when you’re in the process of getting your first 100 customers, you have a lot to work with.

There are a ton of things you can do to smartly market to your first 100 customers by getting out the door and interacting with real people. Founders generally don’t think about building software in this way, but the ones that do develop a stronger understanding of their products, customers, and businesses.

Getting to your first 100 customers is a dynamic process—and it’s also going to look and feel different than any other stage of your business. Use the three steps below to build a foundation for marketing that won’t just help you win over your first 100 customers, but also the next ten thousand.

  1. Practice $0 marketing to start building a customer base without going all in on expensive paid acquisition.
  2. Talk to each of your customers to understand their actual problems and needs.
  3. Identify your most successful customers—and learn to let go of the customers who might not ultimately be the best fit for your product.

Let’s dive into real examples of how companies got to 100 customers by hitting on low-cost forms of marketing, talking directly to their customers, and really listening to their early customers’ problems and successes.

Practice $0 Marketing

A lot of companies make the mistake of trying to jump from zero to 100 customers as quickly as possible. They end up pouring a ton of money into paid acquisition with very little understanding of who their potential customers are and what they want.

Early on, you want to avoid throwing money at the customer acquisition challenge. Spending a lot of cash on Google or Facebook ads might net your business a bunch of new customers early on, but they won’t always be the kind of customers that will stick around. Instead, focus on low-cost forms of marketing, like building a word-of-mouth campaign or giving potential users free resources and tools. Figure out what works. Then do more of it.

Here are some scrappy examples of how companies got to 100 users by practicing $0 marketing:

  • Go straight to the source: FounderKit got their first 100 members by emailing the Y Combinator founders email list. With their prototype of reliable product reviews, FounderKit reached out directly to everyone on the YC founders email list. Their outreach was so effective, FounderKit actually heard back from Jessica Livingston, asking if they had somehow scraped reviews from the email archives.
  • Word-of-mouth can take some patience: Airbnb began by leasing out spare air mattresses in the CEO’s apartment. It still took about eight or nine months on a basic HTML website to reach 100 users. But by individually messaging people who had listed their homes on Craigslist, Airbnb was able to coax a critical mass of hosts to come and join them on their new site.
  • Find where your potential users are already hanging out: Creative Tim makes web design tools. They’ve focused on content marketing, submitting these important subreddits in the web design community: /r/web_design, /r/html5, /r/frontend, and /r/webdev. They’ve also found new users where they hang out offline: at hackathons.

In each of these cases, someone hit upon a low-cost marketing idea, saw that it was working, and then did more. Airbnb saw that it worked to reach out to people who listed their apartments on Craigslist. It took considerable effort, but pretty soon they had enough hosts to reach out once more and talk to every single one of them about what they wanted from Airbnb.

Talk to Every Single Customer

Let’s say you’ve had some success with $0 marketing. Marketing is still an uphill battle when you’re staring at an empty Google Analytics Dashboard day in and day out. Early on, you might only get a couple website visits a day, and when the sample size is that small, you can’t rely on analytics for marketing insights.

The advice I like to give founders at this stage is to reach deep, not wide. If you only have ten customers, that’s great. Call them up and learn everything you can. Shadow people in their offices, and turn your sales calls into customer development calls. Even with ten customers, your depth of understanding will help you get to 100 and beyond.

Here’s how several successful companies talked to their early customers, and how it paid off:

  • Do customer research to create a customer-centric marketing: Slack first began by beta-testing their product on a very small group of 6-10 customers, shadowing them and conducting interviews to see how they used the new product. They then applied those learnings to onboarding the next group of users—and then the next after that. Talking to their customers allowed Slack to iterate on its messaging and marketing around real customer behavior.
  • Double up customer research and development: Before Belly even built the first iteration of their product, they went out and pounded the pavement in Chicago, speaking to hundreds of small business owners in person and on the phone. It wasn’t easy, but these customer interviews helped Belly hone in on real customer problems. In the process, they were able to sign up 500 local businesses to their customer loyalty platform.
  • Build your marketing around real human behaviors: Tinder tapped into the existing ecosystems of college sororities. One of their co-founders went out across the country to pitch chapters of her own sorority and have them download Tinder on the spot. Then she’d walk over to the fraternities and show them how many girls from their college were already on the app, giving Tinder a deeper understanding into how actual people were using their product.

As you’re out making customer visits and calls, you’re showing that you care about the problems customers encounter. By getting real live feedback around what people actually care about, you’ll be able to reach more people more effectively going forward. You’re setting yourself up for future success.

Identify Your Most Successful Customers

Figure out who your best customers are early on, and build around them. Don’t waste too much time on non-ideal customers that end up sucking too much time and resources from your team.

The most important thing is reaching customers that can be successful with your product. Identifying high value, high-LTV customers early on will help you focus your marketing efforts around those customers as you grow. To get there, focus on these questions:

  • How many customers are in your space or vertical?
  • How many of those customers can you reach? Can they adopt your product on their own with a free trial, or do they need help from engineering?
  • Do they have money and a budget?

Here are three companies who identified and learned from early customer success:

  • Don’t be afraid to switch focus: ConvertKit, an email marketing company for professional bloggers, got their first 50 customers via their content marketing efforts, writing about The Web App Challenge. They quickly switched focus to the specific niche of bloggers, rather than just anyone who happened to need email marketing, after realizing that bloggers all had the same issue with other newsletter services. MailChimp was too complicated for many bloggers; they needed something simpler.
  • Throw away your assumptions: When KISSmetrics first started, we assumed all of our customers knew exactly what they wanted to measure and how. So we provided the ability to customize. But we ended up with a lot of initial users who didn’t really have a need for our product, and therefore, didn’t want to pay for it. We started to focus instead on our most successful customers: internet marketers.
  • Reward your successful customers: Early on, Yelp’s big problem was getting people to write thoughtful reviews on the site over and over.The more reviews, the more value for everyone using Yelp, and the stronger the social component. Yelp launched “Yelp Elite,” an incentive-based program that encourages their best users to post more often. These successful users drove even more engagement among the rest of the user base.

Marketing to your first 100 customers isn’t just an exercise in acquisition. You want to do it to find the best users for the product that you’ve built. The best users are the ones who really have a need for your product and understand its value. Finding and retaining them early on will help you scale.

Putting in the Effort Up Front

Winning over your first 100 customers this way isn’t easy. It takes time, which is a startup’s most precious resource. But, an early investment in your customers always pays off down the road. You gain an understanding of who your core customer is and what they most want our of your product. This three-step process will also show them how much you care.

Anything you can do to reduce the distance between you and your customers—visiting offices, making calls, taking on support, asking tough questions—puts you on the path to really understanding customer needs and problems. This gives you the insights necessary to scale your business—not just on the marketing side of things, but on the product side, too.

The path from zero to 100 can be enormously instructive if you:

  • Start with low-cost marketing and see where it takes you. Where are your ideal customers already spending time online? Can you use existing communities and online forums to generate new leads?
  • Pick up the phone and ask customers questions. What are they getting out of your product? What common problems are they running into?
  • Hone in on your most successful customers, even if it means losing a few less successful customers. Who is able to articulate the value you’re providing?

At the early stage of any company, there’s plenty of data at your disposal. It absolutely takes some legwork on your part to collect it and then learn from it. But once you’ve done the legwork, you’ll see how strong a foundation you’ve built—one that actually enables you to scale.

Want to find out how to scale your marketing beyond your first 100 customers? I’ve written about this here, here, and here.