Acquire Your First 10 Customers and Use What You Learn to Acquire 100 More

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Photo Credit: Francesco Paoletti

Startup marketing is the most creative marketing genre. No one knows if the offering has value until it’s generated revenue. No one can give a one-glove-fits-all-step-by-step guide to startup marketing like they can for optimizing Google Adwords. Startups inherently possess so many variables to scaling product market fit: industry, timing, execution, allusions of grandeur, funding, talent level, location, lucky breaks, quality of offering, etc. However, I can share the key startup marketing learnings from founding a marketing agency that serves early stage San Francisco startups.

Here are my five priorities for acquiring a startup’s first ten customers, and the ensuing learning to acquire the next 100.

1. Define The Offering

What do you have to market? Start with the value you think you can create for your potential customers. What part of their business do you serve? Define it in one word, three one words, one sentence, and one paragraph. Your offering will change over time, but you should always know what it is today.

When you don’t have many customers, it can be easy to promise the world. Sell the vision of tomorrow while being clear about what you can deliver today.

Once you have a potential offering defined, here are some logistical next steps. Scour your network for all people who could provide relevant feedback. Scour your colleague’s networks too. Then talk to them about your offering. Gather all the feedback together like a product manager. And keep in the back of your mind, that each one could become a customer. In addition to giving feedback, they’ll end mentioning people they know who could gain value from your offering.

2. Maximize Referrals

The most important customer acquisition channel for a new business is referrals. Seven of the first eight customers of my marketing agency have been from referrals. The why is simple: past work drives interest in future ventures. The talent and experience of the founder and team play a huge part in the customer’s decision-making process because an early stage startup does not have much in the terms of a business record.

3. Keep Marketing Yourself and Your Team

In the service business, time is always a conflict between serving your clients and growing your own business.  In the product business, the people building the product too often think that the product will sell itself. In nearly any business, there is a face the customer is buying from. Don’t forget your identity.

When you are starting a new business, there is probably a reason. Beyond opportunity, there are personal reasons you started a business – could be a personal passion, evolution of past work, or an obscure desire I have never heard of. Market that reason. Market your team. Market your purpose. Don’t lose your underlying identity but at the same time you must have the empathy to put yourself in the customers shoes.

4. Value You Create vs, Marginal Value Added

It’s easy to say to a customer, ‘if you get everything I provide elsewhere, it would cost more.’ I’m not saying lowering your price can’t be a great way to get in the door, but IMHO only the quality of your offering (and not the price) can create a customer’s long term competitive advantage.

Bottomline, to maximize the likelihood of your offering becoming your customer’s competitive advantage, you need quantify the value add to their business. What job titles at what organizations could have the best quarters of their lives if they chose to become a customer of yours? You may think you are a CEO, but these are your new bosses.

5. Market Your Customer Success

Without customer success, what does it matter if you acquire a million customers? Testimonials are the purest form of marketing. It’s simply a customer saying this works. In the beginning, every successful customer should be a marketing asset. Think videos, guest blog posts, demand generation content, public relations stories, sales enablement content, and the best of all, organic, unsolicited endorsements. By creating an active social media presence, you’ll increase customer willingness to talk about you on Twitter and Facebook. Medium aside, the core question to answer is, how do you increase the audience of your customer’s stories?

Acquiring and serving each new customer is a milestone. To grow your own business, you must be a part of your customers achieving their business goals. It’s the aggregation of a thousand steps in the right direction, a hundred steps in the wrong direction, and the sheer will of your people. Forget all the buzzwords, creative ad spends, and new media platforms; all marketing remains word of mouth.


headshotDavid Smooke (@DavidSmooke) is the founder of ArtMap Inc., the tech marketing agency, and, the corporate social responsibility platform. Listen to his walking podcast with bay area experts,, and read his Medium Publication 60+ contributors about the art in marketing & the marketing of art, “ART + marketing.”



David Smooke

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