How to Land Your First Customers When You’re Unknown

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of making your first sale on your first product. I often say that the very first sale feels even better than the hundredth.

The first time that purchase notification hits your inbox, you feel validated. You’ve done it. You built something that has the potential to earn money while you sleep.

Of course, even products businesses aren’t “set it and forget it”. There’s a lot of ongoing work required to keep those sales coming in and building a viable revenue stream that can replace your freelancing income or a 9 to 5.

But still. The idea that a sale can be made anytime, while you are physically anywhere and doing anything gives you such a liberating feeling.

Sidenote: I recently started using the iOS app, Pay Pad, which not only gives me all the data I need from my Stripe account, but it also makes a rediculously gratifying “Cha-Ching!” sound every time we get a new paying customer. I love it when I hear that sound vibrate from my pocket while I’m out on a hike with my dog or playing peek-a-boo with my 4-month old daughter.

Launching to an audience

We love to read the blogs and listen to the podcasts of successful founders who’ve built a sizable audience, and watch in awe as they launch product after product to paying customers on day one.

I don’t think anyone would deny that once you’ve grown a large, loyal audience and then launch a product designed for that audience, it’s a lot easier to land those very first paying customers and gain traction quickly.

That’s not to say those guys have it easy. They work just as hard (if not harder) than the next one of us to build something that people want to pay money for. But when it comes to getting customer number one, they have a (hard-earned) advantage.

Launching when you’re unknown

But what if you’re not there yet? What if you’re relatively (or completely) unknown? How do you get your first paying customers without the advantage of having built an audience first?

Yes it’s possible. And it’s hard. And just about every successful founder has met this challenge head on when they were starting out. So stop making excuses for why you “can’t” get over that hump. Just get to work.

Now, I’d love to tell you that there’s a tried and true formula that works every time. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Every product is different. Every market is different. And most importantly, every founder is different.

That means you must put a clear plan in place that plays to your strengths.

There are lots of strategies and tactics to read about, which you can incorporate into your “first customers” plan. And it’s important that you do a fair bit of research and self-education around customer acquisition.

I prefer to learn by example, and then fill in the gaps by learning as I do it myself.

So today, I’m going to share 3 quick case studies from three people (myself included) I how we launched a product before we had any type of audience or name recognition.

Jordan Gal: The “Analytical” Approach

Last week, my friend Jordan Gal launched his very first info-product called Sales Funnel Roadmap, an online course all about implementing an effective sales funnel for small business owners.

Jordan-Overlay-300-150x150Jordan literally launched his domain name, one week prior to launching his premium course.  No mailing list.  No name recognition.

So how did he earn four figure sales on day one of his experiment (as he would call it) in launching a product as an unknown?

Well, he did what he does best: He made a plan. He analyzed what works elsewhere in the market, and he methodically plotted every step of how he would execute a similar strategy.

But he didn’t just take action and ask questions later. He took a measured approach, knowing exactly which metrics he would track, and exactly what numbers he needed to hit in order to make the experiment profitable. And it was.

Here’s what he did:

  1. Planned a course around a concept (sales funnels) that A) comes natural to a guy like Jordan, making him an excellent person to teach it and B) brings real ROI value to those who are hungry to learn it.
  2. Put up a landing page, offering a free webinar on the same topic (see it here)
  3. Drove targeted traffic to that page using Facebook Ads, which landed a couple hundred registrations.
  4. Hosted the educational webinar (Jordan’s first ever!).  About a third of the registrants attended (typical for any webinar).
  5. The end of the webinar is when Jordan presented his offer to buy his premium course, which dives deeper into this topic.
  6. Some of the attendees took him up on his offer and are going through the course as we speak.

Now Jordan has a proven model that he can repeat and optimize.  And a new business is born 🙂

Why this worked:

  • Jordan excels at making a clear plan and executing that plan to a T.
  • But he doesn’t “over plan” (like I tend to do). He’s just as quick to pull the trigger as he is plot it out on a white board.
  • He knows his numbers. Even if he didn’t meet his targets, at least he knows what those targets are! That’s the golden data you need to learn and iterate.

Clint Warren: The “Hustle” Approach

My friend Clint Warren runs the successful in-person workshop business, IlluminateWP.  It launched with it’s first workshop in September of 2013.

Screen Shot 2014-07-18 at 6.19.02 PMClint had a blog, but rarely posted to it at the time.  He didn’t have a personal email list, nor did he have one for his newly launched Illuminate brand.  And to this day, he’s not one to Tweet.

So how did Clint sell out that first workshop, selling 25 tickets at over $300 a seat?

He hustled.  But in a way that plays perfectly into his strengths.  His sales came through a combination of (strategic) word-of-mouth and speaking engagements.

For years prior to launching Illuminate, Clint spoke at local WordPress meetup groups, and eventually become the organizers of several local meetups.  So his first move was to send an email through the meetup system to those who attended the last meetup — a perfectly targeted audience of people who have shown an interest in WordPress, a willingness to attend a local event, and who lived in the local area.  That email blast resulted in his very first ticket sale.

But he couldn’t stop there.  He had 24 more tickets to sell.  So he did what he does best: He picked up the phone and started making calls.

Not cold calls. He rang people he knew. Not friends and family, but current and past web design clients, just to catch up.  He mentioned he’s launching this new workshop and if they happen to know anyone who might be interested, he asked if they’d pass along the info.  Clint offered an affiliate commission to anyone who referred a ticket sale, but many of his contacts declined that offer.  They were more than happy to make the introduction anyway.  This word-of-mouth campaign sold a large chunk of the remaining tickets.

Now, granted, you might say that Clint did in fact leverage his existing audience to get his first customers, albeit a local in-person network and not an online audience.  That’s true.  But the last set of tickets were sold to an audience who never met Clint before.  He booked a one-time speaking engagement at a different meetup group, speaking to an unfamiliar audience who had never met or seen him before.  The final tickets were sold to a couple of those attendees.

Why did this work?

  • Clint leveraged his strength: His people skills
  • He leveraged personal connections (which he had lots) to spur word-of-mouth sales.
  • He not only created a workshop on a topic people were hungry for, but he found exposure to exactly the right people who wanted it.

My “Value” Approach

Now I’ll share how I landed my first customers — my first 6 customers to be exact — for my SaaS product, a web design service in a highly targeted niche (Restaurants).

SaaS (Software as a Service) is very popular and attractive to entrepreneurs. But it’s incredibly more difficult to make a sale (and keep them subscribed) than one-off products. That’s something I learned the hard way.

Add on top of that, the fact that I was a completely unknown name and brand in the restaurant industry. Sometimes I find myself saying, “what was I thinking?” But here I am, 3-years later and this little niche SaaS business is now my full-time job.

So here’s how I landed those very first paying customers:

First, I put up a quick and dirty landing page.  This was before we had a product, a logo, or even a name!  I used a different domain name than the one we have now, the default WordPress theme, a couple of stock images of nice looking websites and mobile devices, and the copy.

Not just a vague one-liner. It was long page of copy, describing in detail all of the benefits and the features.  I don’t believe I had the exact pricing, but I did make a point of mentioning this would be a premium product.  At the bottom was an email opt-in form to get in on the launch and secure a spot in the free beta.

I spent about $150 on Google Adwords pointing to this page.  That resulted in about 100 email signups.  I personally emailed all of them (one by one) and scheduled several phone calls to dig into what they needed from a solution like this.

From there, I felt ready to build the product.  In retrospect, I invested too much time and money building out that version one.  I could have done with much less.  But that’s a topic for another day.

During the 3 months of building our registration system and designing the first two themes, I did my best to keep in touch with the list.  I sent about 3-4 emails during that time, simply updating them on our progress and sharing screenshots of the designs we were working on.

With the registration system built, and two professionally designed themes ready to use, we opened up the service in beta.  By that point, our email list was up to 200 people or so. I sent them an email announcing that our free beta was now open. I announced that by joining the free beta now, they can lock in a lifetime 20% discount later when we launch publicly with paid plans.

60 people signed up during the beta period.  This lasted another 3 months.  I received tons of helpful feedback and bug reports during this time, which we ironed out.

After 3 months of beta users in the product, 6 months after I launched that first landing page, I flipped the switch on our payment processor and opened it up for business.

I sent an email to my 60 beta users, and gave them a 30 day window to log in and upgrade to a paid plan, with a 20% discount locked in for life.  Six of those people became our first paying customers.

Why this worked:

  • I was open and up-front about where we were at every step of the way. No BS. Not every customer is willing to risk working with such a new company, but some valued the openness of our process.
  • I offered immense value up-front: 3 months of a fully functional website, with hosting, for free.  This offered a lengthy time to fully evaluate the product, my customer support, and the rest.
  • I offered personalized service and over-delivered every step of the way.
  • A lifetime discount, with a defined window of opportunity to take advantage of it, was the right incentive to make those first signups happen.

How will you do it?

I bet it won’t be the same way I did.  Or Jordan did or Clint did.

I hope you can learn a thing or two from our stories.  And learn more from the stories of others.  Learn the models and strategies that have worked.  But at the end of the day, those case studies and courses can only take you so far.

The rest is up to you.  Figure out how those lessons apply in your own situation, given your personal strengths and how you can leverage them.

Learn from others. Make a plan. Execute. Learn as you go.

  • ShawnArnwine

    Brian, thanks for sharing great actionable information. It’s good to see that I don’t need to constantly struggle to keep coming up with blog posts in order to build an audience and subsequently drive sales.

    • Yup – Of course, I’ll always advocate for publishing great content and building an audience (and newsletter!). But everyone has to start somewhere, and it’s not realistic to say you “can’t” land customers until you build an audience.

      *Brian Casel*

  • Thanks Brian! This is fantastic advice. I’ve been struggling to find my audience, and this gives me a ton of great ideas.

  • Thanks for this article, very useful!

  • Great article and thanks for the ideas! After the initial customers, did you continue your value approach, or did more income mean better ways for you to invest in a wider audience?

    • Good question. I think the answer is yes, we always strive to deliver amazing value… We put out lots of free educational stuff like courses and ebooks. And in our customer support, we do much more than answer questions. It’s really more like “done for you” support (without charging hourly rates).

      • I appreciate the time and tips Brian! Wonderful ideas to bring to the table. Getting those first customers seems like getting over the mountain, in the dark, with booby-traps all over the ground. And you just ate your last quesadilla. Cheers!

        • Well put, Russ 🙂

          Brian Casel

  • Really good post, well written with a great call to action at the end (I subscribed!). Definitely inspired a few ideas of my own. Thanks!

    • Good to hear Rosanna! Thanks

  • Rahul Goel

    Thanks, great article! Will definitely come in handy for my two startup projects.

  • Wow, really nice blogpost. I really think allt three ways to start are awesome. In some sense, all three have one thing in common: they’re personal:
    1. in a seminar, hearing the speakers voice and maybe seeing him speak on screen are personal
    2. calling people you know, and word of mouth are personal
    3. e-mailing everyone personally is – of course – personal.
    That creates trust. Thanks for this insight, Brian!

    • Good connection there. Glad you liked it

      *Brian Casel*

  • Nice post Brian. What do you think about the pre-selling approach?

    As I understand it, the process is based in:

    1. Identifying a market that is already paying for similar products.
    2. Finding a common and painful problem that the market is suffering
    3. Co-designing the solution with potential customers.
    4. Charging customers before developing the product.

    This is an in-depth interview of Sam Ovens by Andrew Warne. Sam followed exactly the pre-sell strategy to launch his SAAS business:

    The idea sounds extremely appealing, since you don’t have to invest in development until you have various thousands of dollars in pre-sells.

    Also, in theory you don’t need access to an audience either, since you will be cold calling your prospects initially and only after validating (with money), you will focus on paid or content marketing strategies.

    This is the main idea of customer discovery, and also the process behind programs like The Foundation.

    What do you think about this process? How realistic/viable do you think it is?

    • Hi Cesc,

      Thanks for the question. That is an excellent Mixergy interview.

      First, I’d say that pre-selling is absolutely possible and a viable option. All of the benefits you pointed out are true.
      But I think it’s significantly more difficult to pre-sell a product if it’s your first and you’re relatively unknown. Not impossible, but much harder because you haven’t established much credibility yet. So even if the product/problem/solution is right on, your lack of a proven track record will add extra friction to the sale.
      At least that’s my take on it and the reason I chose not to pre-sell my first book last year, and I probably still won’t on my next one.
      But one twist that might help in a pre-selling scenario would be to use scarcity. Announce that you’re only going to sell X number of copies/spots so get them before they sell out. Works well for a limited-time course or selling conference tickets, or perhaps a limited (paid) beta period for a new app.

      • Totally agree. Credibility (or trust) is the ingredient that’s always left out of the equation when people talk about pre-selling.

        I guess that in the case of people like Sam Ovens, enough trust has to be gained during the process of co-designing the product.

  • Great post Brian. As an unknown myself starting out in the content marketing industry, these three different approaches are very helpful!

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  • Hi Brian,

    Thanks for the post – I am wanting to start up my own company soon – just a few questions, when you were working on your product, did you have a team of people, or did you provide all support yourself? How did you manage with your living costs while you were starting up?

    • Hey Peter –

      I talked about this on our podcast episode here (among others):

      And this post on managing time during the transition:

      When I started up RE, I did work with a couple of contract developers and designers on building our registration system and some of our theme designs. But I also handled a lot of the dev/design myself too.

      As for support, I did all of it during the first 6-12 months. I hired my first customer support person about 1 year into the business.

      I still balanced client work and other projects during the first ~2 years of the business. So it was long, slow, and very challenging transition. In some ways, I’m still in transition today (does it ever really end?).

      *Brian Casel*

  • Sandy Allain

    I have a question. Do you advise on putting a phone number on your site ? I am not always availabe and i cannot pay a sale team to answer my phone yet… i need to do it myself first…

    • Good question. I think it depends. We show our phone number on certain areas of our site and in our email signatures but not “front and center” on every page. We don’t answer at all hours and let a lot of calls go to voicemail. But my thinking is, better to get a voicemail and call them back (and hopefully land that customer) than have someone not even call and maybe not ever get in touch.
      Another thing we do, and recommend is have a consultation request form they can fill out and then you call them when you’re available.

      • We advise AnswerFirst. $20 a month + $1 a minute. In exchange you get 24/7 live operators that can call you and ask if you want to connect or talk etc. Of course, if no one calls, $20 is still cheaper than what Grasshopper and other places charge WITHOUT live operators. 🙂 Hope this helps.

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  • Maggie May’s Gifts

    Great post! It shows there are many different ways to reach the same goal. It was also encouraging to see that sponsored FB ads and Google adwords brought quite a few customers. It’s always scary to spend money on the unknown. Thanks for sharing.

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  • I remember the time I sold my first product! I took the Clint Warren “Hustle” Approach. I actually sold my first product in a batch of 12 units! I was ELATED – on top of the world. Great article! Very inspiring!!

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  • I always remembered the Claude Hopkins principle that a business that has a great product or service will gladly provide a sample free. So that is how I did it. I reached out to a prospect, offered to do everything at no charge in exchange for allowing our business to use his story as our Case Study back in 2015. Wow did they take off and so did we! 🙂 Give a free sample!