If you’re building a startup in 2024, one of the big things on your mind will be how and when you’re going to get your first customers.
And if you’re like many first-time founders, you might be in a hurry to build a product – so that you can get those first customers on board.
This would be where your downward spiral toward failure begins.
It’s one of the many seemingly counter-intuitive aspects of building a startup, but it’s vital to find your first customers before you build a product.
The typical startup founder failure path goes like this:
- Founder has a great idea.
- Founder looks for a software developer to create software to bring their idea to life (or builds it themselves if they’re a software engineer).
- When they’re near finishing what they believe to be a workable version of the product, they set a launch date and look for a marketing agency that can run ads for them in the lead-up to the launch.
- In the meantime, they’ve let some friends and family (or some folks they found in a Reddit or Facebook group) try the product for free. Everyone says, “Well done, it’s great!” Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the founder, no one actually intends to pay for it.
- When the founder tries to execute the marketing, they might launch with one social media campaign (e.g. Facebook ads) and perhaps use Google ads to try and attract customers on an ongoing basis.
- No one buys. Or if they do, they’re the wrong kind of customer and they default early on their subscription.
- Founder feels stuck and doesn’t know what to do to get the product off the ground. They might try to raise capital because they need it for “better marketing,” but don’t have any luck.
- Founder fails and either realises they took the wrong product to market – or doesn’t realise – and blames their failure on other factors like “market conditions” or “wrong timing.”
They’ve wasted tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, and months or years of their time.
- If they’re extra unlucky, their competition with more resources and know-how notices their idea and takes it and runs with it – ultimately being the one to profit from it because they know what to do to get to Product-Market Fit.
There are many reasons why the path looks like this when you race to build a product first and then try and market it as your method for getting your startup off the ground.
The biggest one is that – when you’re building a brand-new solution that no one has seen before – people aren’t necessarily looking to buy it.
If they don’t know it exists, of course, it’s unlikely that they’re looking for it. They’re not typing in keywords to Google and other search engines that are going to trigger them to find the type of solution you’ve built.
There’s also a high chance they won’t understand it when they see an ad about it.
This is why you need to include problem discovery and market education via organic marketing into your building process – so that you have a waitlist of eager customers ready to buy once your software is ready to use – rather than waiting until that very moment to start looking for customers.
So, if you shouldn’t build a product first and then try to find your first customers, how do you find your first customers before building a product?
You embark on a clear, calculated, step-by-step process to reverse-engineer your path to Product-Market Fit.
It must be an intentional goal of any founder to reach Product-Market Fit.
If you try to build a startup without this goal, the risk of failure is too high.
Here are the initial steps you must follow in the pre-revenue market validation phase on the path to Product-Market Fit.
Once you’ve done your desk-based market research, have a clear vision for the impact that you want to have on the world – and you’re clear that there’s a gap in the market and the trends are heading in the right direction – your first step is to make a hypothesis about exactly who you think your beachhead market segment is.
Your beachhead is the niche segment of the market containing people who are likely to be your early customers.
Your early customers are people who have the problem you’re solving, know they have the problem, and are already investing in what they can to solve it for their situation.
There are many ways you can locate these people, but if you don’t already have immediate access to a definite group of people who qualify as potential early customers, a good first port of call is to turn to LinkedIn.
LinkedIn has a whole series of handy filters you can use to find lists of thousands of people who could fit the right parameters.
Your second step is to develop a messaging process for reaching out to those prospective early customers to invite them to have a user research conversation with you.
It’s important to do this outreach in a relationship-building way, not a spammy cold-messaging way.
You’ll need to write a short User Research Request Message that clearly explains the type of problem you’re looking at solving but not the way you want to solve it – do not give away any of your plans about the specifics of the solution (otherwise you risk influencing the information your user research candidates give to you in your user research conversations).
This message will ask the user research candidate for 30 minutes of their time so you can learn more details about the nuances of the problems they have in the space you’re looking at building a solution in.
Conduct a series of user research conversations with a minimum of 10 people from your beachhead market segment.
Structure the conversations in such a way that you can have an open, honest, productive chat with prospective early customers about the nuances of the problems you know they have (and that you’re building a solution for).
The user research framework is designed to help you uncover patterns of “pants-on-fire problems” among multiple members of your beachhead customer segment.
Once you’ve completed a series of user research conversations, you should have a really clear understanding of exactly who your target market is, whether they have a clear pants-on-fire problem, and whether they would pay for a better solution to that problem than anything that currently exists.
Indicators that people would be eager to pay for your solution are:
a) Showing frustration, worry, or exasperation about a problem
b) Asking when you might have a solution available
Structured and executed correctly, these User Research Conversations are the perfect vehicle for lining up a series of subsequent User Feedback Conversations where you’ll show your potential early customers a solution concept you’ve created and prepare them to put their hand up to be a beta user.
After your User Research Conversations, you’ll put together a report outlining your findings and what you’re planning to do to create a solution to solve the problems uncovered – and send that report to your user research candidates.
If you were successful in uncovering one or more really painful problems in these user research conversations, you will have had no trouble booking in a series of follow-up meetings off the back of these conversations.
We call these follow-up meetings User Feedback Conversations, because the purpose of these follow-up conversations is to present the first draft of a solution concept to your user research candidates to get their feedback – and set them up for becoming beta testers of the product.
In that follow-up meeting, you’ll do a couple of important things.
You’ll thank the person for their time and remind them of exactly what your vision is and why you’re eager to have this conversation with them.
You’ll then recap the last conversation you had with them and go through the problems that you found from the research.
At each point, it’s important to get their engagement and validation and allow them to add in any extra detail as they confirm that those problems you uncovered really resonate with them.
Once you’ve reminded them of those problems or challenges, the next stage is to ask permission to introduce your solution.
Important reminder: this is not a sales pitch. It’s an invitation to collaborate on the solution to the problems discussed.
It’s important that you are bringing just a solution concept to them at this point, not a polished product.
This might look like:
a) Wireframing done in Figma or Adobe XD
b) Static UI mockups done in Canva
c) Some no-code concept development done in Bubble
d) Visual storytelling done using Vyond
e) A video on a landing page
The important point is that it’s a “sticky-tape and glue” first draft of the solution concept that’s an obvious rough draft – so that they feel comfortable giving feedback.
If you bring them anything that looks too polished, there’s a risk they’ll feel reluctant to give you honest, direct feedback on something that looks like it’s already been built and completed.
What you want to find out, without fully building a product, is if the user research candidate believes they would use the solution as described. It’s important to elicit as much rich feedback from them as you can.
- They’ve agreed they have the problems you’ve been talking about.
- They’ve seen your solution concept and given you solid feedback about it.
- They’re now positioned perfectly to become the beta testers of the first version of your solution once you do build it.
What you’ll then explain to them is the next stage of the project which is to have a working solution ready in X amount of time.
You’ll reaffirm that they agreed with the problems discussed, you’ll thank them for the great detailed feedback they gave on the solution concept, and you’ll let them know you’ve got limited space for beta customers – then you’ll ask them if they’d be eager to beta test the first version of the solution.
Typically, this is a great way to get people to become paying pilot customers and ask for the price.
Since you’ve framed it as an exclusive opportunity to be one of the first to experience a solution that they’ve agreed they need, and you’ve positioned it in such a way that they have the opportunity to shape a solution that’s designed for them – you can expect a high rate of uptake on this offer.
Structured and executed correctly, these User Feedback Conversations are the perfect vehicle for funnelling your first group of early-adopter customers onto a waitlist for your new offering.
If you’re a founder and you’re unsure how to reach your first pilot customers, we can help. Fill out this short questionnaire to tell us about your situation, and we’ll get in touch with your next steps.
Whenever you’re ready, here’s how we can help you.
If you’ve got a startup idea, or you’ve already embarked on your journey – you might be facing one or both of these situations.
1. You’re struggling while going it alone, unsure of who to turn to for advice.
2. You’re wading in the muddy waters of some not-so-great advice, wondering how to move out of that situation and into better guidance.
If you’re ready to get the help you need growing your startup, our Startup Builder™ solution was created especially for you.
The Startup Builder™ process is specifically designed to take you from idea to global success – in a way that’s simple, sustainable, and scalable.
If you’re ready to grow your revenue, profit, and social impact faster without wasting time and money on the wrong things at the wrong time, share your situation with us by filling out this short questionnaire and we’ll get in touch with your next steps.
Did you find this valuable?
Go here sign up to receive future editions in your inbox.
On LinkedIn? Click here and press “follow” to get notified of the startup insights I share.