I’ve started a product before because I wanted to play with new technologies. It’s a superlative way to learn a new technology. It is a terrible way to start a business. Don’t rationalize or theorize about who will buy your new product before you build it. Find those people.
Again, before you build anything: find people who will buy your product. You can use a mini-sales site or take a check from customers in person. In either case, you should try that before you build something. Look for customers that are willing to pay real money for your idea. Cash money is the only evidence that you are building a business and not engaged in a hobby.
There are lots of ways to connect to potential customers. These techniques will help you find evidence that your company isn’t bullshit. Many of these tactics are best combined with a fine persistence. In no particular order:
1. Sales Websites
Create a sales and marketing site devoted to your product. Make it as realistic and compelling as the vision you have for your product. Use the language and jargon you have learned talking to prospects. You can use a fake checkout process, fake ‘buy now’ button, or simply capture contact information. Rob Walling’s book is an excellent place to learn more about these types of sites.
I have built several using VPS servers and also Unbounce. I would recommend Unbounce to start. It will do what you need with less time investment. Maintaining a VPS with a WordPress installation is more overhead than you need at the outset. It may help to run the site by people as close to your niche as you can.
2. Forums or Community Sites
Do research on where people in your market hang out online. You may be able to inject yourself into the conversation. Search Google, Blog Search, and Google News. Use the AdWords Keyword Tools to discover how others are searching. Setup Google Alerts for your keywords to find topical and active sites for content.
I have tried this tactic myself. I think it can succeed when there are very high quality communities that you spend significant time contributing to without self promotion. The real win here is to get a feel for what the community talks about. What words do they use? If they talk specifically about the pain you are trying to solve…engage them on the subject.
3. Friends and Family
Ask a few favors from friends and family to give you a warm introduction to someone in your target market. If you have friends and contacts in the industry, use them. End each such conversation with a request for additional contacts. Ask for an introduction.
You don’t want your ten people to be family and close friends, but it is okay to start there. I met a nearly a dozen entrepreneurs at MicroConf who built some software for their brothers-in-law or someone similar before turning it into a successful business. You don’t want the business to be based on what your mom thinks, but if she is in your target market, you’d be silly not to start there.
Find a local event that your prospect will attend. A chamber of commerce meeting. A lean startup weekend. A beauty pageant. People attending these events are already invested in your market. Find a few that also like to chat. Going it alone at an event can be a struggle, but it will force you to start conversations. Go to the event with a goal in mind such as, ‘I will speak to 12 people.’ Don’t talk to one guy and go home feeling good about all you accomplished unless he handed you a check.
5. Colds Calls
Pull numbers off the web, buy a phone list online, or track down key prospects on social networks. Try to find a way to warm up the call. Have something they want to offer them. You can make talking to you a win-win.
I have made a lot of cold calls compared to most software engineers. I still don’t relish the idea. It was a serious fear of mine before I tried doing it. I put it off for days. Sometimes I still put it off for days. I’d say this is good practice to build up your resilience and persistence in the face of rejection. It will come in handy. Another bonus is just creating more contacts that might think of you if they develop the problem you are trying to solve. I’ve had people that I cold emailed or cold called get in touch with me 9-12 months later and ask if I had solved the problem yet.
6. Cold Visits
Stroll up to their place of business with a smile and a lot of patience. Have a name in mind for who you are there to see. Don’t expect a warm reception and be open to returning another time. Use any site visit as a way to learn more about your prospects. Having a positive, confident, but unassuming attitude can earn you a lot of goodwill.
Research their back links for customers and promoters. Search Twitter and Google for places where the competitors are mentioned. Reach out to the afflicted.
8. Free Seminars or Webinars
Put on a free seminar that interests people in your market. Education-based marketing is effective. Read Chet Holmes’s Ultimate Sales Machine for more on education in marketing. This type of marketing establishes credibility, adds value for people, and costs only your time.
9. White Papers, Reports, and Ebooks
Write a 10-page report that can help prospects solve a problem. Give away value…for an email address.
People are a lot more likely to listen to you if you establish that they stand to gain something from talking to you and you have some basic credibility. Writing can do both. Learning enough about your niche to write a meaningful report will also make you a lot more likely to engage people when you start conversations.
10. Trade Shows
You can attend, buy a booth, or sponsor a clever piece to get people talking.
I have both attended and run a booth at conferences. At an early stage, you should attend and not run a booth. Keep metrics on who responds to which pitches you use. Be active in starting conversation. Focus on the social events. Get a feel for the problems and concerns of the people before you attend. Plan a specific number of people you will speak with at the show.
Find the most focused magazines and learn what you can from reading them. If you don’t have enough insight to pursue another avenue such as an article or op-ed, consider a classified.
Pull the rate cards for the magazines to understand more about the demographics for your market. People who make magazines are in the business of providing access and content to your niche. Learn from them.
Post an ad looking for a particular type of person. Someone at MicroConf recommended this and has had success with it. I have not seen success in any niches I have pursued. I expect you would have the best chance of success in a technical or especially web-savvy niche.
13. Professional Organizations
Join up and attend some events. Or crash an event where possible. Many professional organizations have directories that you can use to call or email others.
I have had mixed experiences with this option. I joined an organization with a directory that mailed it about three months after I had moved on from the idea and more than six months after it was promised. They were the most popular and credible organization in the market. Be careful that your expectations of membership are in line with the reality.
14. Direct Mail
Direct mail is most successful as a tool used consistently. It also helps to use an education-based approach. Bring something to the table and make the experience a win-win. This can also be a tactic that gets you a warmer phone call or a bridge past a gatekeeper. Tell them you’d like to talk to Bob (the CEO) and that you had a question about a letter you sent him.
Most people quit too soon. Many won’t try at all. If you try a lot of these tactics and you still can’t find anyone interested in your product: consider a new idea. It’s a lot easier to sell something to excited people that want you to remove their pain.
Choosing tactics depends on your contacts, skills, market, and more. Combining certain techniques increases their power. That said, my top five looks like:
- Friends and Family
- Writing a Report
- Calling People
- Mini Sales Site
Finding people who will purchase your product before you build anything is the only real way to gather evidence that your idea is worth pursuit. It’s depressing to start with no contacts in a target market with a goal of finding 10 people who will hand you money. People tend to wilt when faced with a challenge like that. Change the internal conversation. Set goals to use these techniques for a specific period of time or on a specific number of contacts. Look at action items like ‘Call Bob at XYZ Inc. with script #4′ or ‘Write a 5 page report on X Ways You Can Improve Your Business in Y Industry.’ It isn’t always fun to hear about why your idea won’t work. Think of it as someone saving you time spent on an idea that you can’t make work. Thank people for positive or negative input.