Not selling? Check your positioning strategy

Can’t get your first customers? You’re not alone

Whether you’re starting a product company, freelancing business, or writing a book the challenge is the same: getting initial customers. It’s easier than ever to start a business but harder than ever to get noticed. So frustrating!

Most entrepreneurs try to break through the noise with better marketing: SEO, SEM, “content marketing”, direct email … and so on. Unfortunately traditional marketing tactics don’t work very well when we’re starting a business. Customers won’t respond to our direct emails because we don’t have a reputation, a mature product, or even know what sales copy to write.

Before sending another blind intro on LinkedIn take a look at how your company is positioned in the minds of customers. The right positioning strategy can get your those early customers faster than anything else.

Here’s how you do it

How is your company positioned?

How do customers think about your company in the context of their life? Are you the “guys building the tool” that solves their problems? The “freelancer who writes copy” that sells my products?

“Good at what we do” is weak positioning

That’s how most of us think we need to position our companies – as being good at doing what we do. Unfortunately this strategy makes selling really hard because we sound like everyone else. Every product company makes claims about being great at solving common problems like “get more sales” or “save money”. Every digital marketing consultant is an expert in SEO.

Whether our product is truly unique or we are “the best” service provider doesn’t matter – our customers are so bombarded with noise and we can’t get through it. Screaming the same message louder and more often just costs you more time and money.

Positioning your company higher in the value chain

What if you were positioned higher on your customers’ value chain? For instance, instead of being “the company that builds tools to help me send emails” you were seen as the “the company I trust to help me grow my business with email marketing”. “The person who knows how to get my product discovered on Google” instead of “the copywriting freelancer”.

“Trust us to help you achieve your goals” is strong positioning

Suddenly customers want to hear from you … learn from you … talk to you. They’ll find you on Twitter and Follow. Subscribe to your newsletter and open the emails. And ultimately buy from you even when there are cheaper or established alternatives.

How to reposition your company to get early customers

  1. Create a Persona of your customer – document her demographics, behaviors, problems, and goals. You can use our free Helpful Canvas or just write it on paper.
  2. Consider everything your customer needs to achieve her goals with your solution. What skills does she need? What purchasing decisions does she have to make? (hint: ask them)
  3. Give your customers things to help her achieve these goals. They can be educational content (workshops, books, courses), organizations (conferences, Meetups), or even products (apps, spreadsheets). Here are 27 ideas and examples you can copy.

Start slow and be patient

This isn’t a plan for overnight success – give yourself at least 6 months because earning trust takes time. You’ll need to see what actually resonates with customers, learn how what you’re doing for them impacts their work.

Engage them

Don’t just hand them solutions – talk to them, help them out and figure out what is and isn’t working. For instance, if you create a drip email course don’t just blindly send the emails – ask them to reply tell you about their business. You’ll learn a ton about them and instantly reposition yourself just by doing so.

How I repositioned myself and SoHelpful

I spent most of 2013 doing Customer Development on SoHelpful, building the MVP and getting it into the hands of early customers. My goal was to provide other entrepreneurs with a marketing tool to help them build closer relationships with early customers.

Doing “Lean Startup right” wasn’t enough

I soon discovered that just having a good solution wasn’t enough to get sales. Most customers needed marketing advice and training to get any value out of SoHelpful. Unfortunately they didn’t see SoHelpful (or frankly, me) as the place to get it. I was just another guy “building a scheduling tool” – pretty low on the value chain.

Frustrating? You bet. I had …

… done my Customer Development,

…… identified a need,

……… spent 6 months building an MVP solved it,

………… got happy paying customers …

AND STILL didn’t have a strategy for selling it. AGGGH!

Should I just try sell or first reposition myself?

At the beginning of 2014 I was faced with a choice:

Option 1: Slug my way through the noise by doing “content marketing”, direct emailing, SEM, etc. and try to sell anyway.

Option 2: First reposition me and SoHelpful higher on the customers’ value chain before trying to sell.

As a single founder of a bootstrapped startup I couldn’t do both, so I chose Option 2. I spent all of 2014:

The right decision for me? I think so

This was an insane amount of work for us – at least 50% of our team’s time in 2014 went into this effort. And it came at an opportunity cost of not doing something else. SoHelpful only grew by 10–15% every month in 2014, far below our goal of 30% monthly growth. Ouch.

But I still think I made the right decision. We created a large email list from people who have taken our courses, workshops. More and more companies are approaching me to learn about the Helpful Marketing strategy. We understand our customers’ problems much better and have very specific steps to give them. Our customers see us as trusted advisors for building their business and not just (yet another) startup building a workflow app.

It took a year but we’ve successfully repositioned ourselves near the top of our customers’ value chain. In 2015 will find out if it leads to the sales growth we want.

Want to learn more? Get 1 of the 99 copies of my new book

Positioning is hard but it can make the difference between struggling for years and getting traction. I’d like to share with you what we see working.

We’re almost finished with the 1st edition of “Get Your First 100 Customers by Being Helpful”. It is the best educational content I’ve ever created, the culmination of 2 years of helping thousands of entrepreneurs get early customers by investing in relationships.


We’re only releasing 99 copies of the first edition, so if you want one you can pre-order and reserve yours today.

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