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March - 2012 - issue > Entrepreneur's Corner
Getting-Your--First-Customer-For--Your-Startup-4KTA-
Sunday, March 4, 2012
Naveen Bisht is a serial entrepreneur and Board Member, Chair – Programs, The Indus Entrepreneur (TiE ) and member of TiE Angels Steering Committee, based in Silicon Valley, California.

Now, you have embarked upon starting your company and are really excited about it. Fortunately, these days, you can get your company going for little money. Thanks to many free tools available for office productivity such as Google Apps, email etc. Your team is already underway developing the product or service that you are going to sell. Now, the key question is how to get your first customer for your product. It all looked so easy while planning but now you have to get out there and secure your first customer. This is now real and may seem challenging. Here are my four key take away (4KTA) points on this topic based on my experiences.

1. Planning – The first and most important element is to put a plan in place. If you have not written a business plan, take the first step to write it. It will help you crystallize your thoughts and ideas carefully on what you want to achieve and what you are trying to do. It will act as a white board for creative ideas and tracking as you review progress. A key element of this plan is to spell out specifically who your Perfect Customer is. A perfect customer is someone who currently experiences every pain point you are proposing to solve. He has the money to spend to remove this pain. Another way to look at it is to imagine a “day in the life” of your customer. What keeps him up at night? What are his biggest concerns? Try to put yourself in his shoes honestly and critically to really try to see what he sees, thinks, and feels. So, once you have defined who your perfect customer is, chasing the customer and getting a sale will become easier.

2. Delivering Compelling Value – Before you start chasing customers, a compelling value proposition needs to be developed and tested with your prospective customer. This customer needs to become your first paid customer. According to Anand Babu Periasamy, Co-founder and CTO of Gluster, a division of Red Hat Software, in order to deliver compelling value to your customer, solve one customer pain point and do it really well. As you talk to more customers showing them benefits, you may receive feedback that your solution solves some other pain points too. Continue to refine your value proposition with this feedback. You now have a really compelling value proposition for your customers.

3. Finding Customers – There is no magic bullet to find customers. Call anyone who will have a need for your product. It may sound challenging to not have a clear next step. Remember this is why you are doing a startup. You are trying to find the best step without much information. Here are some ways. You may discover a customer pain point while working for your prior employer. Your employer did not want to develop it due to a non-strategic fit. You are then lucky. Pick up your phone and call on those customers. Ask difficult and critical questions, such as if they would become your beta customer, and if they would buy your product. Ask what other features and functionalities they would like to see. Call on your professional contacts explaining what you are doing. If you are still in early stages, it may be prudent to do selective emailing to folks you know well who could help you in referring you to someone or circle of friends. In my first software services company NeoGlobal Inc., I happened to call my professor and told him about my new company. He suggested that I talk to his brother, a software developer with one large bank in Information Technology (IT) Group and he could be of help. His brother introduced me to his manager, who became my first customer within a few weeks. The point is that you never know where and how you may get your first customer. Go to trade shows for your industry and network with other professionals. Some of them could turn out to be your customers. While you were road-testing your idea before going full time, call those prospects and ask if they can refer you to some people or businesses that may need your offering. A positive recommendation is a powerful way to give your business a kick start.

4. Building Relationships and Delivering Even More Value – Once you have identified your first customer and have validated your compelling value proposition, stay in touch with them and keep them abreast about your progress. In my second product company, Nayna Networks, Inc., from the beginning, my team worked with telecom service providers. We visited them quarterly to give updates on our progress and to receive invaluable feedback in order to fine tune our product to their real needs. As the old saying goes, people do business with people. Companies are essentially teams of people. So continue to build your relationships. Make sure that you provide more value in the first release of the product itself than they expected. Always go the extra mile. It never hurts and will pay off big time in the long run. Also, don’t fall into the fallacy that by providing deep discounts, you may close the sale quickly. If the product really solves the pain, the customer will be happy to pay full price. Shower them with recognition at trade shows for being a forward thinking and progressive customer. Continue to think of various ways to deliver more value than they expect and continue to do so.

In summary, my four 4KTA points for getting your first customer for your startup are Planning, Delivering Compelling Value, Finding Customers, Building Relationships and Delivering Even More Value.

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