Get your first 100 customers by being helpful

Are you reading this hoping I have a magic, quick secret for getting your first customers? If so, stop. This isn’t for you because…

  • It’s different and requires you to THINK.
  • It is hard work.
  • It takes 3 months to start getting results. Possibly 6–12 months.

But it works. I’m writing for the 10% who (1) realize I’m telling the truth (that your marketing isn’t working), and (2) are willing to try something different. You have a shot at success.

What we learned from our first 160 students

We just finished launching our new course, How to Get Your First 100 Customers by Being Helpful. 160+ entrepreneurs – everyone from funded tech startups to people starting side, home businesses – have taken it. We responded to over 200 homework emails and learned a ton – mostly about how hard it is for new businesses to get going today.

Your startup’s #1 challenge is getting initial customers

We asked questions like:

  • What are you doing now to meet customers? Is it working?
  • What do you think is your biggest barrier to getting initial sales? Why?

Every one said getting customer attention is a massive problem (some poured their hearts out to us in multi-page emails). Most didn’t know why they were struggling. Or what to do about it. Some were simply lazy… But most were working quite hard and getting nowhere.

Why is it so hard? Customers are IGNORING you

What happens to your direct emails

Today 5 entrepreneurs I don’t know emailed me to tell me about their new product or service. Some wanted to do guest blog posts. Others offered free memberships. Some offered to work for free just to get experience. None of them were “spammy.” By that I mean they personalized the emails somehow. By mentioning me, a blog article I wrote, etc. These entrepreneurs spent money or time doing this and got nothing for it. This happens to me every single day – I don’t respond to any of them. How can I respond to 30 requests/week? My inbox is a representative of what your customers see.

Content is no longer king

Here is the reality in 2014. Everyone’s building and launching new things. As consumers, we feel overwhelmed by companies constantly pitching at us and fighting for our attention. Which is why it is harder than ever to get them to read our blogs. Or open our emails. Or actually engage on social media. A “content marketing” strategy is much, much more expensive than it was 3 years ago.

Trying to get THEM to pay attention to YOU is not working

Many of the students reported trying the usual techniques:

“We read Pulizzi’s Epic Content Marketing and wrote dozens of articles over 2 months. Didn’t get 1 customer from it”
“We got on TechCrunch and 250 users signed up. Only 1 turned into a paying customer”
“We sent 300 targeted, direct emails and got 10 responses. They just wanted something cheaper.”

It is hard for established businesses to get through the noise… But it is 1,000x harder for those of us just starting. Our products are crap. Our messaging isn’t targeted well. And we don’t have a reputation. Most marketing strategies involve trying to get THEM to pay attention to YOU. PR. Direct email marketing. Content Marketing. Direct sales. These techniques absolutely do work. But only for businesses that already have customers, a focus, and a clear message. Stuff you don’t yet have. So you’re screaming “PAY ATTENTION TO ME!!!!” But nobody hears you.

And even doing Customer Development creates a dilemma

It was shocking to hear the struggles of entrepreneurs following a Lean Startup strategy. (especially those who read my book or blog posts and quoted me)

“We’re having a real struggle FINDING customers to do Customer Development. When we do, it’s hard as hell to get them to engage.”
“Our trial customers don’t respond to our emails – they just leave without telling us why. We’re learning nothing.”
“We did EXACTLY what our mentors told us to do. We went looking for places where our customers organized. But we just couldn’t get them to pay attention.”

Starting a business, you don’t have data or analytics. So almost all learning and experiments come from detailed, 1-on–1 conversations with customers – yes, customers you don’t yet have. The usual advice is “go find them”. Unfortunately it isn’t that simple anymore – other businesses bombard the same people, asking for their time and insight. Just like you do. So again…you get ignored.

The solution is to focus on HELPING them

Bottom line? If you’re just starting, getting THEM to pay attention to YOU is a big waste of time. They just won’t do it. Instead, focus on helping them. Ideally 1-on–1.

Yes, I advise you to do the exact opposite of what most books and blogs tell you to. You need to prove you’re different. By being helpful, you can build relationships, trust, and a reputation. We call this a Helpful Marketing strategy.

How to get your first 100 customers by being helpful

Here is a detailed, step-by-step flowchart. The major points are summarized below.

Helpful Marketing Flowchart

Step 1 – Focus on a segment

Your definition of “customer” is probably way, way too broad. A big vision is wonderful. But to get started you need to focus on segments of your market and their problems. “Flower shop owners in San Francisco”, not “small businesses”. Customer personas are great for doing this. Make one for your customer and her problems.

Step 2 – Give them something helpful to begin building trust

Now that you’re focused, go find them and give something helpful. Answer questions on Quora or Twitter. Write a HOWTO blog post about how you’d solve their biggest problem and post it on a LinkedIn group. Organize a meetup. You have endless possibilities.

Step 3 – When they engage, offer to help them 1-on–1

Look for moments when customers take interest. Connect on LinkedIn. Follow you on Twitter. Comment on your blog. Respond to an email. Talk to you at a Meetup. Then hit them up with an offer to help them 1-on–1. Face-to-face is most effective but usually impractical. Phone calls are the best choice, ideally video calls over Skype or Hangout. Email & social media are just ok. You’ll need what we call a “Helpful Pitch” to get them to respond – something designed to catch their attention. That shows you’re uniquely qualified and deeply passionate about helping them.

Step 4 – Help them

This is shockingly easy to do. Just get on a call and ask someone, “how can I help you?” Ask them about their business or their situation. Listen. Take a genuine interest. Ask why.  You won’t have all the answers. Doesn’t matter. Most people just want to be heard.

How this Helpful Marketing strategy gets you 100 customers

We see entrepreneurs going through 3 stages – usually in parallel.

Helpful Marketing Flowchart


Just starting? You need to Build Your Reputation

Can you get 5 customers on the phone to discuss a problem in the next 48 hours? If not, you’re just starting – regardless of what you’ve built or how long you’ve been working at it. You need to start helping customers simply to build relationships and your reputation. After you help 10–15 you start seeing results. After you help 30 you’re well-known by your segment, have 10–15 killer testimonials, get random job and consulting offers, and plenty of people who want to help you in return. That’s the power of word of mouth.

Have a new product/service idea? You need to Get Insight.

Being helpful is like inbound Customer Development. You’ll know customer problems because they’ll tell you! But now that you have an idea, use your new relationships and 1-on–1 help sessions to test your hypothesis. I’m usually less direct, asking people indirectly “why” or delving deeper into problems. Others like Justin Wilcox hit people straight up: “Since we have a few minutes left in the call/meeting, would you mind if I asked you a few questions?” He then runs through his interview script.

Have a (validated) solution? You need to Close Sales.

As you business starts growing you’ll have less time to help just any customer. You’ll need to focus on helping people in your sales pipeline. When they sign up, take a trial, etc. hit them up with an immediate offer to help them. The key is (genuinely) offering to help them solve their problems, not help them use your product. If they smell a sales pitch they won’t want to talk to you. Mark Horoszowski is doing this effectively with

Let’s stomp your objections to smithereens

“This doesn’t scale.”

Helping people 1-on–1 doesn’t scale. If you’ve got a few hundred customers and you’ve cracked the sales funnel then you don’t want to do Helpful Marketing. But you have a I-don’t-really-know-what-they-want-and-they-don’t-give-a-shit-about-my-idea-anyway problem.

Worry about scale later.

“I don’t know enough to help people”

Yes, you do. Your customers only care about themselves – not how much you know. You’re not promising to write a PhD thesis – you’re just trying to help them! Beginners are often better at helping people anyway. I’m 44 and have been doing this for more than 20 years. Chiara is 23. We’re both teaching the course. She is often more helpful than I am because she knows what it’s like to learn this stuff for the first time – something I forgot long, long ago.

Customers don’t care what you KNOW – only how much you CARE.

“I don’t mind failing”

If your marketing isn’t working … and you’re not interested in trying something else … then you’re just not serious. I’m ok with that. Just please don’t sign up for our course, you’ll waste everyone’s time.

Perhaps you’d rather hear the same message from Gary Vaynerchuk

Two resources to learn more and get started

Enroll in our free course

Get your First 100 Customers by Being Helpful, our free, interactive email course. Chiara and I will make you do the homework and personally respond.

Course image

The Helpful Canvas

The Helpful Canvas. Designed to be used in conjunction with Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas, it helps organize the Helpful Marketing strategy we discuss above.



Photo Credit: Affiliate Summit

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