Business planning

Nine marketing strategies to get your first customers on a bootstrapper’s budget

Mark McDonald /

“Build it and they will come” – this dot-com boom mantra can’t be further from the truth today. The internet is saturated with ads and customers are distracted by marketing at every corner.

As a result, an early-stage startup may find it difficult to not only get noticed, but with high customer acquisition costs, selling at a profit becomes increasingly difficult.

Luckily there are a number of strategies that can help overcome these problems:

1. Target a niche market

Most startups have a hard time winning a mainstream customer right away. That’s because they typically trust recognised brands and fear novelty.

On the other hand, small communities of early adopters are easier to win because they share many needs and problems you can appeal to. Because of their density, they are fantastic for spreading the word.

In fact, many successful startups initially targeted small customer groups. Facebook started at Harvard, Uber in San Francisco, PayPal focused on eBay users, Airbnb on conference travellers – the list goes on.

2. Piggybacking

Why walk if you can take a ride? Airbnb famously reverse-engineered Craigslist to let its users automatically post their listings on the most popular classified site. This was the moment when Airbnb took off.

Other examples: The ‘Sent from my iPhone’ signature helped Apple grow on the back of the email and Instagram’s cross-posting feature allows users to share images with their Facebook or Twitter friends.

3. Referral marketing

If you can make each user bring another user, you will not only bring down your acquisition cost, but also develop a self-fuelling marketing engine. Startups like Uber, Dropbox, Airbnb and even many brick-and-mortar retailers have been successfully utilising this tactic.

4. Partnerships

In the early days of the web, Yahoo managed to become a top search engine by signing a deal with Netscape (the first commercial web browser) to power its search.

Real estate search startup Trulia signed a deal to power the real estate section of CNN Money and Spotify recently signed a deal with Uber to allow riders to play their music in the car. These are just a few examples of powerful partnerships.

5. Create controversy

Richard Branson has built an empire on the back of this free marketing tactic. However, crossing an ocean in a hot air balloon might not be your cup of tea. A more viable option is to follow controversial and hot topics in your industry and follow up with a controversial opinion.

Back up your points with data, post them on your site then dive into all those forums, use hashtags and engage with comments. Be controversial but not so much as to make you look like a troll.

6. Focus on super-influencers

A celebrity or a top blogger endorsement can get you massive traction. There are many startups that got their initial traction on the back of a celebrity investor or an endorsement from someone like Gary Vaynerchuk or Robert Scoble.

Pitching your product to super-influencers may not be outright easy, but in most cases you only need to convert one or two to get that boost.

7. Business development 2.0

This tactic works best for online businesses. APIs, widgets, embedding and crawling technologies make it easier to spread your product. YouTube gained significant traction when they allowed website owners to embed its videos onto their sites.

8. Meetups and pitch events

Meetups are the least scalable tactic of all. However, attending such events, such as our monthly Disruptive Startups, or Startup Victoria’s Lean Startup Melbourne, is a great way to meet journalists, bloggers, investors and your potential customers.

A good hack is to get double-sided business cards with a free $20 voucher and a link to your website on the back. We got our first customers this way.

9. Manually reach out

In your early days, this is probably the best tactic to get your first 100 customers. Not only is it easier to convince someone if you do it in a personal way, but you’ll also get a chance to gather valuable feedback.

Send cold emails; use Twitter search and Google alerts to find people who are looking for a solution to the problem you’re solving. Engage them, offer a free trial.

Understandably, not all of these tactics are scalable, but they’re a good way to gain initial traction. And once you build your momentum, everything gets much easier.

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