Before your startup can see exponential growth, before you can hire a huge team to start scaling everything for the future, before you even know you have a real business, there's a hugely important milestone you need to hit.

Your first 100 customers.

The first 100 people that use your product are validation, yes. They prove that you've made something that other people actually want. But they're also an invaluable source of information about the kinds of people that want to use it, not to mention a great source of feedback.

Before you hit your first 100, after all, you don't really even know what people are going to use your product for. You have only your idea of what it's for, an idea that likely won't survive your first users.

Here are the four invaluable techniques and tools that will get you past launch and well into acquiring those customers.

1. Pick Up The Phone And Call Them

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and the shortest distance between you and your customers is a phone call. So stop wasting time and pick up the phone.

Cold calling is itself a kind of sales hack. It's personal, you can get immediate feedback, and you can also close a deal within minutes of starting.

Once you have an idea of the kinds of people who would love your product, start sending emails and setting up appointments. This isn't telemarketing: you don't want to be shooting totally blind. Here are the fundamentals:

With a CRM like Close.io, you can natively make these calls from your laptop. This way, all of your conversations will be recorded and organized according to customer so that when you put the phone down, you don't lose your connection.

Combining Close.io with an app that lets you find anyone in a specific organization's email address, like Norbert, will let you narrowly target your initial efforts. You probably have some idea of the kind of person that would gain value from your product, after all. The early days of your startup are when you should spend an unscalable amount of time reaching out to those people.

Call your Churning Customers

The other side of picking up the phone is not getting too obsessed with filling the top of your funnel. That's important, for sure, but so is making sure those warm leads continue down the funnel and become real users who stick around.

It's one of the most discouraging things you can see: you attract users, they try out your product, then leave without a peep or a whisper. There is one fundamental reality behind these kinds of cancellations: you are not providing value. This comes in two varieties:

The majority of these conversations are going to give you valuable, actionable advice about where your product needs to go. You need to pick up the phone to call up your churning customers. You'll learn 1) people have been using your product, and 2) what you need to do to make them keep using it.

One of the mistakes that new entrepreneurs make is focusing excessively on growth. Bringing users to the top of your funnel is one thing, but getting them to see the value and stick with your product is a totally separate thing, and you'll never get to 100 users without that.

2. Target And Hack Your Facebook Ads

Facebook advertising has been responsible for the birth of countless million dollar businesses. It makes sense: where else can you get your product in front of more than 70% of online adults with just a couple clicks?

If you're able to leverage the incredible opportunities for targeting (and retargeting) available in Facebook, you can run a quick, cheap campaign that can tell you a lot about marketing your product. So don't let your idea just be an idea: make a Facebook ad, make a landing page, and start testing it rather than just sitting around theorizing it.

With an email list, you can target your ad to a particular group of people. With Lookalike Audiences, you can expand that list with people that have similar interests. With Audience Insights, you can get even deeper information about these demographics and keep expanding.

These are incredibly powerful tools for reach, but then you also have to think about optimizing your ads for maximum effect.

Keep Learning to Improve Campaign Performance

Something like AdEspresso can take care of most campaign optimization tasks automatically, saving you time. But probably the most important tool inside AdEspresso is A/B testing, or split testing.

If you want to make more money and get the most out of your Facebook ads, A/B testing is an absolutely essential technique. It's quick, provides instant feedback (and gratification) and gives you with concrete instructions for how to move forward.

Say you test out two different ads for an eBook that you're putting out there. Both campaigns cost you $150. One of them produces 187 clicks and 16 sales, costing you $9.37 per sale. The other produces 237 clicks and 28 sales, costing you $5.35 per sale. With one simple A/B test, you now have the information you need to go further and make this a bigger campaign. If you'd gone with the inferior ad and spent $2,000 on a campaign, you would've wasted $858!

It's the simplest way to succeed with Facebook ads, and it takes no time to get started.

3. Get Your Name Out There

Getting a feature written about your company on TechCrunch, or getting on the front page of Hacker News, can be huge for your startup. To do it right, you need to have your public relations on lock.

This doesn't necessarily mean hiring a PR firm. For a young company, the expenses involved in that can be really prohibitive.

Fortunately, there are other ways. JustReachOut is a web service that will find journalists that might be interested in your product (based on what they've written about in the past) and they'll also help you write your pitch. The basics, according to Mike Butcher at TechCrunch, are simplicity, speed and clarity:

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Tell your Own Story

There's another strategy, too: telling your own story. By crafting an intriguing narrative around your company and publishing it on your own blog, you cut through the noise of online publishing and drive readers to your site. Once there, you have a great opportunity to turn them into customers or subscribers.

To drive people to your blog, you need to find and start owning a distribution channel like Hacker News or Reddit. When you start connecting with the users on a platform like that, you gain a grassroots following that's connected to you--not a journalist or a publication.

Don't Get Obsessed With the Press

Sometimes, founder take a little bit too much of a liking to public relations.

It can be great seeing your name in print (or on the web). Especially when it's attached to the name of your company, it can be a huge ego boost. But that's largely what it is, really: ego. Getting on the front page of Hacker News doesn't mean anything if 17,000 people go to your site and immediately leave.

It's absolutely essential to make sure you're building a product people actually want before you start trying to get the whole world to try it out. Building up buzz for a bummer of a product is not a good strategy, even if you have plans to make the product better later on: you'll be like the boy who cried wolf.

In the same vein, you shouldn't wait until your product is at some arbitrary state of readiness before you start promoting it. Once you have a minimum viable product that people want, you should be getting it in front of users. That's what will get you to your first 100 quickly enough that you don't lose steam.

4. Create Great Content and Capitalize On It

Reaching out to customers and influencers is an important part of growing a young business. But equally important to those outbound kinds of communication is inbound marketing--specifically, content marketing.

Making good content that brings value to those who read it is a simple idea, but it's only recently that it's been understood as a way to bring customers in. But it makes a lot of sense: if you produce something of value, people are more likely to take an interest in the product or service you have an offer.

It's not just about making great content, of course. Alongside creation, you need to implement tools that will let you capitalize on the response you get, and the best way to do that is to build yourself an email list.

Crafting Value to Create a Subscriber Base

Email courses are a great way to start content marketing. One commonly stated rule of thumb is that customers need to interact with you seven times before they really invest their time or money in using your product.

So seven emails--what to say? There are two basic approaches for any content marketing campaign. You either need to help someone achieve a goal, or you need to help them make a decision.

Remember that when it comes to your product, no one knows more than you. You need to break things down into bits and pieces that can be understood by people who know nothing about it, and more importantly, you need to always be conveying the core value of your product.

Customer.io is a service that makes it easy to send out these kinds of drip emails and turn the people signing up for your course into customers. You can write out each part of your course in advance, and then set it up so one of them will go out each week, or whenever you want.

By crafting a really great course, that simultaneously helps people and demonstrates what's great about your product, you can find yourself with a big subscriber base.

No More Excuses

You haven't really gotten anywhere until you reach 100 customers. Before that point, you're mostly theorizing the kind of product you're going to have.

What you need to do is stop talking about your product and get started building a company.

These four tactics are things that you can start doing right now--so no more excuses. With a bit of effort, you can (today!) get going on building your customer base.

Once you have 100 customers, it's like setting a snowball at the top of the hill. Those initial users are the proof that you have something valuable on your hands, and from then on it's just a matter of maintaining momentum.

You'll be on the road to a billion dollar business in no time.

Published on: Nov 13, 2015