Ain’t no machine: Why your first 10 customers are going to come from YOU

Recently I talked to a startup about working together. I asked what their 2021 goals were, and they said “15 new customers, $1.5M ARR.” When I asked where they ended 2020, they said “No customers or ARR yet. We’re launching in Q1 2021.

OK, I thought. Ambitious, but not unheard of. Then they continued…

We already built our 2021 marketing plan with the number of SQLs, SALs, MQLs, and Leads the marketing machine needs to drive to hit our goals, and our target CAC by channel.

Aha. Towards the end of the conversation, I said I wanted to give them a piece of advice.

No marketing machine is going to get your first 10 customers. You’re going to get it through the sheer hustle of your CEO.

This is something we see time and again with our clients. I have yet to see a “marketing machine” or a “demand generation engine” before having 10 customers on board, sold to by the CEO, typically through her network (of investors, other startup founders, former colleagues, family, neighborhood parents – whatever works) and her hustle (cold emails, LinkedIn messages, speaking appearances).

Why is that? Why isn’t marketing going to bring in your first deals?

  1. No product-market-fit → no understanding of ICP (Ideal Customer Profile). By definition, you don’t have product-market-fit until you have customers. You may think you understand your ICP before you have customers, but early on you will find yourself tweaking the definition pretty much every time you start working with a new customer. It’s very hard to build a marketing engine without a solid ICP, since the channels and tactics you’ll employ will differ according to your ICP.
  2. No brand or social proof – the oil for your machine. Marketing that’s not based on the CEO’s connections or “founder aura” works because prospects have something else to believe in – also known as “social proof”: customers you work with who are similar to them, case studies, a mini-brand, press coverage… all of these things rarely exist before your first customers are on board.
  3. The CEO superpower. The CEO is almost the only person who can sell in these conditions. She knows the product better than anyone, and believes in it as if her life depends on it (because, well, it kinda does). Your marketing campaigns, no matter how compelling, aren’t going to carry the same kind of evangelical zeal.
  4. Experiments before machine. Even if you do run some marketing campaigns in parallel to the CEO selling (which is a good idea, more on that below), you’ll need to experiment a ton until you find something that works. Building an elaborate demand generation model before understanding channel behavior is simply GIGO (garbage in, garbage out).

OK, I’m the CEO and I’m convinced I need to sell these first customers myself. How do I do it?

This isn’t a sales blog, but here are a few tips based on what we’ve seen working for founders and CEOs making their company’s first sales.

  1. Look to your investors. They can and should help, but you should make it easy for them. Instead of saying “please connect me to people in your network who may be interested in what we do,” give every investor a wishlist of 5-15 companies you’d like them to connect you to. Ideally, the list is based on research you did on each investor’s network.
  2. Get the most out of your corporate incubator / accelerator. If you’re a part of one, great. At the very minimum, you should get a proof of concept with the corporate. Many programs offer conferences, webinars (for you to speak on), and other ways to network further within the corporate – and beyond. You should take advantage of all of these opportunities.
  3. Pick 1-2 industry conferences (ideally, in-person) and KILL THEM.
  4. Network network network. Virtual LinkedIn networking counts as well.
  5. Cold emails, cold LinkedIn, hot results. And no, it’s not spam.

So, is there no place for marketing and demand generation at this time?

On the contrary. We strongly believe there’s no such thing as starting marketing too early. Here are a few things the marketing team (or person) should be doing while you’re working to get your first customers.

  1. Air coverage and sales enablement. Producing great sales collateral that helps you sell, and makes your startup seem bigger than it is.
  2. Making everything you do better. Getting you meetings at conferences, helping you with cold outreach copy, sending gifts to connections who refer prospects.
  3. Starting to build the foundations of the machine. Creating a marketing database populated with networking and conference leads, starting to experiment with marketing channels and campaigns, and documenting the results.

Bonus question: Is 10 really the magic number?

Not really. It can be 5 or 20 or whatever. The key is to start noticing repeatability and emerging patterns.

The bottom line

Good marketing will always help you, no matter which stage you’re at. Just don’t expect your first customers to be acquired through marketing campaigns — as the CEO, you’ll most likely need to find, open, and close these deals yourself. And don’t expect to have a demand generation engine – or a model for it – before you have these first customers under your belt. Closing your company’s first customers is one of your CEO superpowers, and an exciting milestone for you and your startup.

Further reading

Netta is the founder and CEO of Blue Seedling. She loves third wave coffee, thin crust pizza, and B2B marketing.

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