Doing a start-up can be exhilarating but it demands endless focus and effort. Each step of the way presents a new challenge and no sooner is one surmounted than the next one presents itself. First there’s the challenge of figuring out the core product features. Then there’s the challenge of building it. Intermingled with these challenges are others, like hiring the right people and making sure they are working efficiently and finding capital to fund development. And then there’s the next make-or-break: getting your first reference customers.
These early customers are life or death for any technology start-up. Without reference customers, no matter how good the product or how great the need for it, hitting sales targets becomes next to impossible. Not only do the first reference customers provide validation of the product but they also provide valuable feedback that can guide future development. And they create something that’s intangible but crucial for success:
momentum. So it’s essential to get early reference customers and this is probably the biggest challenge any start-up faces in its early days.
It’s human nature to be wary of new things and to resist change. Often this caution saves us from making errors, but sometimes it keeps us from seeing new and better ways to accomplish our objectives. And this caution makes it especially difficult for a start-up to secure its first customers. So how do we go about trying to get those valuable but elusive early adopters, on whom so much depends?
Well, it helps if there’s a pre-existing relationship. Most start-ups depend on early customers who already have enough trust and goodwill established with one or more of the team members that they’re willing to consider something new and interesting. And of course the longer the relationship stretches back, the more likely the customer is to go forward and give the new product a trial implementation. At this stage, therefore, trust is essential.
Making it easy for the first reference customers is equally essential – even a trusting customer who’s had good experiences with you in the past will still need plenty of encouragement. Standard offers like free use of the product, plenty of hand-holding along the way, and ideally some way to make solid measurements of the customer’s benefit are all important ingredients in the mix. Most important of all, however, is that the start-up is totally committed to its customer’s success with the product. This commitment must be much more than skin-deep. It’s understandable that we’re focused on our own goals, our own issues. But the best reference customers are made when we’re obviously dedicated to ensuring their success. Sometimes this means customizing aspects of our product to their exact needs. At other times it means going far more than “the extra mile” to ensure a smooth implementation, training, and subsequent use of our product in order to achieve measurable and important results. Most of all it means that at every step of the way, our first customers know we won’t let them down. After all, they’re taking a significant risk on our behalf. Our job is to make sure the risk pays off for everyone involved.
I’d love to hear how you went about this process or your thoughts on being an early adopter. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org