Finding early customers is hard. Finding early customers with clout is even harder. Finding early customer who will pay you is hardest - especially if you're three mid-twenties tech founders from a small/midsize college town in the midwest.
The bottom line is that sales in the earliest stages of a startup can be overwhelmingly difficult. Especially, since many times you won't even know where to start.
The odds of us landing one of the most influential individuals in the startup world as our first customer seem pretty crazy, but here's how we did it and some tips for how you can do it too.
Identifying a Need
We started Zapier with the idea that integrations between all web apps should exist. After our initial Startup Weekend beginnings we had a barely functioning prototype and no clue what people wanted. So step one is finding people who need integrations and figuring out which ones seemed most popular.
For us that meant trolling as many SaaS service forums as we could find and lots of Googling for different integration combinations.
We'd go to 37 Signals forums and find people begging for Google Contacts integration. We'd go to Salesforce and find people begging for Evernote integration. It was literally a gold mine.
That's when I Googled Highrise Paypal and found this gem.
Yep that's Andrew Warner himself asking for PayPal data to sync into Highrise. After my initial excitement I work up the courage to send Mr. Warner an email and find out if we can help. Unfortunately the article at the time was about 8 months stale. Odds are he's found a solution already, but I decide to take a gamble and fire off this email:
I just noticed a few months ago you were looking for a solution to auto-import Paypal addresses into Highrise.
Have you found a solution for this yet?
If you have, what did you do?
If you haven't, would you be interested in a service that let's you do exactly this for you without having to hire a developer or write a single line of code?
Keep kicking butt with Mixergy. I listen to at least one new interview every week.
I hate being cold emailed with a sales pitch so I intentionally try to avoid selling him on anything. I was just trying to find out if this is still a problem for him. After writing up the email I hit send and wait.
Three days later Andrew emails back saying he already found a solution, but was curious if we had built a PayPal Highrise bridge (which ironically at that point we had not).
I'm a little bummed he's found a solution, but he left a small door open so I give him the pitch and let him know what we're working on.
Making the Sale
As luck would have it Andrew is in need of a Wufoo AWeber integration.
Unfortunately we don't have Wufoo and AWeber integration built so I tell Bryan and Mike we need to build this.
In a few days the integration is done. And I email Andrew and let him know it's ready and here's his response:
This is freakin' fantastic.
Andrew asks how much he owes us and we quote him $100 gets him into the beta period. Andrew immediately says yes and asks where to send the money.
Closing the Deal
At this point we don't have a bank account or any way on the site to accept payments so we start to scramble. The last thing we want is to lose him because we can't take payments.
So at the last minute I tell Andrew to send it to my personal PayPal account and we decide it's time to open that bank account.
Before we head to the bank though I set up a quick PayPal to SMS Zap that would send me an SMS when I got paid. I did not want to miss Andrew's money coming through.
As luck would have it right as we walk into the bank I feel my phone buzz and sure enough there's a message from Zapier saying:
Check PayPal: Andrew Warner just paid you.
And with that text message Zapier became a revenue generating company and two hours later I see this Tweet go out and Zapier gets more traffic in an hour that we'd ever had before.
I just paid zapier.com $100 for a product it didn't even launch because @WadeFoster nailed what I was DESPERATE for.
— ✎ Andrew Warner (@AndrewWarner) December 2, 2011
Unfortunately just because you make a sale doesn't mean your done. Over the course of the next few weeks we worked with Andrew to make sure he got Wufoo to AWeber set up correctly and we even built the filters feature specifically for him.
We even did a walk through on Skype to help him get things working since our interface was absolutely atrocious at the time. I'm honestly a bit surprised he put up with it.
It just goes to show you what people are willing to go through if you solve a big problem for them.
With customer one in the bank it was time to find out if this was a fluke or not. So I started this process from the beginning all over again. I'd find someone in a forum who had a need, send out an email asking if it was a problem or not. And occasionally it would be and they'd choose to join our beta program.
And that's how we got traction with our earliest of customers.
(P.S. I'd love to hear from other folks how early sales went down at their startup. These always seem to be the most fascinating stories to me)
On Repeatable Sales: Clearly this is not a repeatable sales process - especially at the $100 price tag, but when you are first starting with an untested product it's essential to do everything in your power to get someone to like what you have and pay you for it.
On Getting Lucky: You might think we got lucky by happening to stumble across Andrew Warner and him having a need for our stuff. You might be right. But the thing is, there are lots of people with a soapbox like Mixergy who talk about problems and solutions all day long. In fact, I bet if you picked any random Mixergyinterview out of a hat you could find an idea for a piece of software or a business idea that could have helped that specific founder out.
How Can This Work For You?
If you're running an early stage startup the most important thing you can do is get the idea out in front of as many potential users as possible and find out if they would use what you are building and if they would pay for it.
So if that means trolling forums, cold calling businesses, emailing potential users then go for it. And once you have someone interested in what you're working on don't be afraid to do things that won't scale. Provide more support than is necessary. Build features only for that person (within reason). Write hand written thank you cards.
If you do all these things early on you'll learn way more about your customers and your business. Don't worry about scaling. Don't worry about being inefficient. After all if you don't make sure there is a today; you won't have a tomorrow.