Note: Upon her indictment on federal money laundering charges and her arrest February 8, 2022, Inc. dismissed Heather Morgan as a contributing columnist. As is our practice, we do not unpublish editorial content, and rather have added this note for full transparency.
It's never easy to get your first 5 customers when you're starting a new company.
So how do you solve the "chicken and egg" problem, and manage to close deals when you don't have any customers yet?
Your first instinct might be to go ask your network for introductions, since it can be hard to start sales conversations and close deals when you don't have a proven track record and case studies.
While this might be a fast win for you, you have to be careful about taking shortcuts around sales and marketing.
So here's why you should think twice about leveraging your network to get your early customers:
Reason #1: You're Talking To Unqualified Leads
The problem with relying on introductions to potential customers is that your network and the people they introduce you to might not actually be qualified to buy your product.
It's hard to know who you should be selling to when you don't have any customers yet, and it's tempting to just ask your network for "the best people to talk to," but they don't necessarily know who the "best people" are either.
It's okay to have some conversations with people to do market research and ask initial questions to understand your audience, but you also have to be strategic about it.
You should do a certain amount of research on your audience before you start asking for introductions or reaching out to people directly, that way you know who you should actually be talking to.
Otherwise, you run the risk of starting conversations that just waste everyone's time.
Reason #2: You Falsely Believe You Have Product-Market Fit
Having a strong network with people that want to go above and beyond to help you is great, but don't mistake favors as a false positive for finding product market fit.
Having conversations with executives that your college buddies or old colleagues introduced you to does not mean that these people will buy your product.
And even if they do buy your product to do a favor to you or your mutual connection, it doesn't mean that they would have otherwise, or that other people like them will too. It's dangerous to assume that these potential clients you've been introduced to would still be interacting with you and buying from you if you had gone after them cold.
While introductions might bring you easy "quick wins," they are also not very scalable.
In other words, don't fool yourself into believing that you have product market fit and can get repeatable customers from a "VP of Sales," just because your buddy introduced you to their friend who's a VP of Sales of a large company, and you were able to close them.
Reason #3: You End Up Building The Wrong Things
The advice your network and the people they introduce to you can sometimes be valuable, but it can also be dangerous.
With my current company and the last company I worked with, dozens of "mentors" and "experts" gave well-intentioned advice that was actually useless, and sometimes even harmful.
While I believe you should take all information with a grain of salt and a pound of skepticism, it's important to be cautious about who you take advice from. Even brilliant investors or CEOs can sometimes give you bad advice if they're not currently familiar with your market, customers, and business model.
Although it's crucial to listen to your customers when thinking about what products, features, and services your company should build, not all customers are created equal.
You can't please everyone, and resources and time are extremely scarce precious commodities when you're starting a new company. That's why it's so important that you only focus on building things for your ideal customers.
While there are many different kinds of business models and audiences you can sell to, I highly suggest that early stage companies try to focus on targeting decision makers that will be able to benefit the most from your product/service, especially those that can close deals fast.
These are the people that you should focus on selling to, and these are the people that you need to build things for.
Everyone else's wishes and requests can wait until you have more money in the bank and more resources at your disposal.
How to Acquire Your First Customers Without Asking For Introductions
So if you're not going to rely on introductions from your network to find your first customers, what should you do instead?
I actually didn't have a strong network when I started my bootstrapped company 2 years ago, and so I got my first customers through sending cold emails and getting some inbound leads from the content I was creating.
Using content and good SEO to drive leads to your business can be a great strategy, but that takes time and money. It usually takes a company between 6 months to 2 years to ramp up their content marketing efforts and seize the full value from blogging and creating other content.
For fast wins that help you close deals, I really suggest you try cold emailing.
It's direct, affordable, and will show you results immediately.
Sending emails to strangers to try to get them to talk to you about your product or service might sound scary, but it's one of the most accurate tests to make sure you really have product market fit.
For more advice about cold email best practices, and how you can get your first customers using this strategy, you can read this article about how to use cold email to start conversations with even the busiest CEOs.