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Startup founders employ multiple practices for finding their first customers. If you ask mentors and other entrepreneurship experts how to gain traction, each will pull the rug in their direction - a sales guru will swear in outbound emails, a product manager will prioritize the product and its features, and a marketing specialist will naturally suggest a marketing plan. 

The question is, what is right for you? We’re here to help you evaluate all the options lying ahead, discriminate, and decide where to focus your efforts and resources. 

Instead of providing countless steps to follow, in this article, we will describe 5 basic approaches for acquiring early adopters of your product and then, examine their advantages and drawbacks. Eventually, you can decide which one to apply and whether you want to mix and match them. 


In order to succeed in any of the following approaches, you’ll have to return again and again to these three major goals - solve a problem, adapt, and know your ideal customer.

Goal 1: Solve a problem - maybe you have already finalized that part, but if you haven’t, pay special attention to the Customer Discovery approach.

Goal 2: Adapt and be flexible - in the process of reaching out to leads, you might occasionally need to pivot or adjust your strategy.

Goal 3: Portrait your ideal customer - the more definition you give to your target audience, the easier it will be to understand and target it effectively.

After you commit to covering all three goals, you can now pick a route for closing your first paying customers, whether they be 10 or 10,000.

1. Customer Discovery

It might sound weird to secure a customer that you are currently discovering, but it’s, in fact, fairly logical. During the initial stage of your startup development, you are interviewing potential customers, and maybe building your Business Model Canvas. At this moment, you might not even have an MVP, and it’s the only situation when it’s acceptable to NOT solve a problem. Not yet. But after you gain all the insights and feedback, you will better understand what pains a certain type of people have. 

Luckily, you’ll be there to add new features and invent a new or improved product to fill the gap. Then, guess what, you can return to your respondents and offer them the exact solution they’ve been needing all this time.

The road from here is straightforward - you have hit all the abovementioned three goals, and you only have to find more customers with the same profile.

2. Sales  

Here is the most obvious, time-consuming, but effective way to turn prospects into customers. It includes market research, building a contacts database, cold calling, cold emailing, utilizing social media channels, initiating meetings, and loads of networking. 

Outreach campaigns are not only tangible opportunities to acquire your first customers; they are а fantastic data source, too. As long as you are persistent and document all activities and conversions, you’ll benefit from your sales efforts regardless of individual campaigns' outcomes. You’re collecting valuable information that will help you learn more about your customers and predict the results of your future attempts. For this purpose, make sure to use a CRM or at least a well-organized spreadsheet.

Startup experts preach to remain empathetic and authentic even in cold contact. Another tactic experienced founders practice, is to sign up emails with their names and communicate personally and honestly, especially if they have made a mistake.

There are various places where you can find leads. However, you don’t have to reach for the stars from day one, quite the opposite. Since you are also generating useful data, pick easy targets first and provide discounts to get the engine going. Lastly, if you pay attention to the preferences of your prospects, you can save a significant amount of time by preparing qualifying questions. 

For your sales roadmap, Goal 2 to be flexible is paramount, and yet, don’t forget the other two goals as well because you still might have to tweak your product and audience sometimes.

3. Community-led Growth

Community connections are often not a priority. Meanwhile, more than half of the founders we have asked, confirm that family members, friends, and people from their professional network have become their first clients. The tendency to attract customers from your close surroundings demonstrates how your previous actions, dedication, experience, and integrity pay off. 

Founders who go one step further, invest in community-led growth, which means actively involving people around a cause. As a business model, this strategy can begin even before you have an actual solution to a problem and entirely virtually via platforms like Reddit, LinkedIn, Discord, telegram, etc. It has the advantage of positioning you as an authority, a helping hand, and someone others will go to for support. Within a community, people feel helpful, seen, heard, and inspired to share their opinions. Therefore, nurturing a space where you can ignite instant authentic reactions and always reach out to potential customers is a tremendous benefit.

Community interactions and insights can help you refine all three goals.

4. Product-led Growth

Maybe community values and relationships are not your strongest suit, but you have an exceptionally good product. Apparently, you might decide to lead with it. Today, more than ever, startups, especially SaaS, rely on product-led growth - they let the product speak for itself. For example, if a business owner is looking for a person to do a job that software can do, there’s a high chance that they would test that technology. 

A common practice with this method for building a customer base, is to offer a free trial or a freemium plan. As a consequence, it might be challenging to convince non-paying users to switch to paid plans. Once this obstacle is overcome, the next milestone is to retain paying customers because the biggest privilege of the product-centered approach is that it drives real revenue. Existing paying customers generate a consistent financial flow.

Goal 1 (solve a problem) is dominant here, but Goal 3 (define your customer) also shouldn’t be neglected, and the two should go together.

5. Marketing Strategy 

This article will not be complete if we don’t mention marketing as a way to attract customers. Although it works, there are a couple of pitfalls related to it. First, it can be expensive, and first-time startup founders might be unable to afford it. Next, it requires a series of tests, knowledge, and analytics which equals dedication. Possible marketing activities that startups can focus on are email marketing, advertising, SEO, social media management, and PR. 

With that in mind, they all have to be part of a marketing funnel, having a purpose and not just performed for the sake of following a marketing plan.

An issue that can arise for bussinesses that are just getting started is that they might not be clear about their brand identity and Unique Value Proposition, hence, confuse their audience or sound vague.

A marketing strategy won’t be optimal if you don’t pinpoint all three goals. Choosing this path, you should master them, no excuse. 

What Is the Best Direction

Most probably, as a fresh startup founder, it would be difficult to engage in all 5 approaches at once; for that, you need team, finances, and time. 

  • Depending on your product and audience, you can decide which one suits you best - if your product is unique and in demand, you should go with a product centric plan.

  • Depending on the stage of your startup and your resources, you might focus on what you can do in-house - if it’s very early and your finances are limited, you will be doing most things on your own.

  • Depending on your community size and involvement, your best bet might be community-led growth - if you’re operating within a niche with a loyal community, work with it.

  • Depending on your success rate, you might want to change direction - it’s good to test different approaches; just don’t give up too fast!

Finally, don’t be afraid to combine customer acquisition approaches and invent your own delicious recipes. Besides following proven frameworks, you can score high by being creative, provided that you always keep an eye on your three goals.

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The Founder Institute is the world’s most proven network to turn ideas into fundable startups, and startups into global businesses. Since 2009, our highly-structured accelerator programs have helped entrepreneurs raised over $1.75BN in funding across over 200 cities worldwide.

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