Our guide to building your marketing database from 0 to 5000 leads

This post is part of our series Marketing Now, about marketing activities that will always serve you well, regardless of market conditions and external factors. We believe that “right now” is always the time to invest in marketing initiatives that will serve you in the short and long term.

Sign up below to receive an email update whenever we publish a new post in the series, and read all other posts in the series here.

Imagine that you’ve written the world’s best case study (if you ask us, our latest one is pretty good 😉). It’s well-written, shows off the power of your product, and includes a glowing quote from a well-known CEO. This is the kind of content that could double your sales opportunities in a single day. All you have to do is email it to your database. You go to HubSpot (or Mailchimp or Salesforce) to send, but then you realize… you have exactly zero leads to email it to. Does it even matter that you wrote the somehow-scientifically-proven world’s best case study?

No. It doesn’t matter at all.

Even if you’ve written a perfect case study or flawless blog post, if it doesn’t reach anyone, it might as well not exist. The marketing database is what brings your marketing content to life by putting it in front of the right eyes. Your database is not merely a tool for reaching your audience; your database is your audience.

Here is our guide to actually building that database — from 0 to your first 5000 leads.

We’ve broken down the process into three levels:
1. Basic: your first 500 leads, from your own network
2. Pro: your first 1000 leads, with some basic LinkedIn searches
3. Master: 1000+ leads, buying or building lead lists

A note on the numbers: these are just rough benchmarks. The size of your database will vary depending on your and your team’s network. Something to consider, though, is that a database won’t really start to be useful until you have at least a few hundred leads. The reason is the math behind email responses. For example: a typical email response rate is around 1%. If you’re sending an email to only 100 people, that means you might only get one response (or zero!). And that’s simply not enough traction to justify a marketing investment of time or money, and not enough data to be able to learn and improve.

❗ As of February 2024, new Gmail protections around email authentication make this math a little more challenging; it’s more important than ever to build a rich, engaged marketing database. More on that further down in this blog post.

Now, here are the steps for building a robust marketing database that helps you achieve your revenue and growth goals:

Basic: Your First 500 Leads

This is the process for obtaining your first 500 leads. These are the nonnegotiable, fundamental steps that every founder should take to begin building a lead database:

1. Make a master list of all of your personal contacts, and encourage (read: force) your co-founders and other early team members to do so, too. This means exporting all your contacts from Gmail and LinkedIn, filtering them and combining them into a unified list.
2. Fill in any gaps with email finding tools. LinkedIn won’t always give you email addresses, so make sure to cross-reference with your Gmail contacts, or use email finding tools like FindThatEmail or Finder Expert. (This blog post has a great rundown of ways to find emails.)
3. Collect names and emails from any and all marketing activities — think conferences, events, anyone who signed up on your website, etc.
4. Make sure to include investors, friends of your startup, analysts, and any industry contacts you know. You can note the people in your database that match your Ideal Customer Persona (ICP) exactly, but it’s good to cast a wide net.

The direct cost of these initial steps will be low (if not zero), and the time investment will be variable based on the size of your network. But even an investment of 10-ish hours will be a great foundation for building your initial list.

Pro: Your First 1000 Leads

Now you’re ready to acquire your next 500 leads and step up your investment of time and money. The goal here is to expand beyond your personal network and begin to use some third-party tools to supplement your efforts. Here are the steps we recommend to make your database Pro-level:

1. Build a list of companies you’d like to target as customers — using your LinkedIn network, or resources like Crunchbase, BuiltWith, or SimilarWeb. This is a great time to ramp up your industry research (which you should be doing already) in order to expand your knowledge of your potential customers.
2. Research the people within those companies that match your Ideal Customer Persona (ICP) and then find their email addresses with the tools we mentioned above (LinkedIn, FindThatEmail, or FinderExpert.) More tips for defining your ICP in this worksheet.

Master: 1000+ Leads

Once you’re ready to expand your database beyond the first 500 or so leads, you’ll want to bring in the big guns — i.e. partnering with experts, vendors, and 3rd-party services on list-building or list-buying – in order to build your database into the thousands. In this stage, you’ll also need to invest actual $$ (as opposed to just your time) to acquire the new leads. Here are a few ways to do it:

1. Build lists with dedicated tools (discover.org, zoominfo).
2. Build lists by managing a team of freelancers (Upwork, Fiverr).
3. Buy lists from lead vendors (Cloudlead, Uplead, Leadiro).

A word of caution: outsourcing your list-building has the potential to be incredibly useful, but quality and coverage of the leads will vary wildly based on which tools you use and who you work with. In our experience, there can be a lot of nuances and “gotchas” at this stage in the process, with some risk of long-term damage to the efficacy of your database. We recommend consulting experts at this stage and being extra hands-on with any vendors you bring in to make sure you’re aligned on expectations and goals. For more thoughts on the pros and cons of these methods, check out our guide to email prospecting.

Hold on. Is this legal?

Tl;dr – yes.

At this point, you may have realized that, by following these steps, your database will include lots of people who have not opted into being contacted. Is it still legal to contact them?

Well, first of all, we’re not lawyers, so this is not legal advice. But in the US, it is legal to email anyone, even if they haven’t explicitly opted-into your mailing list, as long as your email includes an unsubscribe link and your business’ physical mailing address. The relevant law is called CAN-SPAM (summary, full text.)

If you’ve ever received an email from Blue Seedling, you may have noticed that we always include this at the bottom of our emails:

We include this in every mass email, even if all the recipients have opted in, just to cover our bases.

However, once you have that list of 1000+ marketing leads, it’s important to understand the additional regulations on how and when you contact them. As of February 2024, Google has instituted new policies to limit mass marketing emails. The tl;dr:

  • All email senders must have SPF, DMARK, and DKIM on. For more info on what these acronyms mean, check this blog post. And for a quick guide to setting up these validation measures, check here.
  • If you send more than 5,000 emails a day, the new regulations encourage keeping unsubscribe rates below 0.3%. We’ll be honest – this can seem like a tall order. 0.3% is incredibly low, even for lists that users have fully opted-in to (which as we discussed above, they may not have). We recommend breaking up emails across multiple days to stay within these guidelines. Most email marketing tools have built-in functionality to “break-up” your email recipient list across multiple sends.
  • Have a dedicated domain for sending bulk emails. More on this here.

The situation in Europe is more complicated since GDPR went into effect in May 2018. If you want to play it safe, avoid emailing European recipients who didn’t explicitly opt into your email lists.

Still feel iffy about reaching out to people you don’t know? Check out our post on why cold emailing can work, and how to do it well.

The Bottom Line

So there you have it: the process for getting your lead database off the ground. Ultimately, this post has been a short overview of what can end up being a long, iterative process with lots of stops and starts. But we promise that taking the time to thoughtfully build and maintain your lead database is one of the best things you can do for your marketing operation — and for your startup in general.

Further reading

Lauren is Blue Seedling's Managing Director. She is obsessed with all things content: from blog posts and podcasts to 15-second dance videos.

Sign up to be notified when we publish new posts:

More from the Blog

Want to explore working together?

Get in touch arrow_forward