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Ask HN: How did you get your first paying customer?
68 points by mailarchis on Sept 16, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 24 comments
We are building a web application targeted towards educational institutions. We have recently started the sales process and have begun with making cold calls/visits to potential customers. Will appreciate it if you can share your experience and learnings as you went out to get the first paying customer

I think you're doing the right thing by speaking with potential customers IRL. I ran some campaigns for ForeverList.com on Facebook and Adwords without much luck, though I'm admittedly not a pro at online marketing. My target market is people with high ticket items that typically take a long time to sell like classic cars, boats, real estate, etc... I happened to hear about a local boat show and I scrambled to put together a booth in one night, signed up the next morning and was working the show the next day.

The experience was awesome. Selling to people face to face is was so rewarding, I can hardly describe it. It made me despise adwords and the like. I know I still need to embrace online marketing, especially since my business is entirely dependent upon traffic, but right now I'm pretending like online ad networks don't exist.

I only picked up 3 customers from the boat show, but last weekend I went to an auto swap meet 3 hours away that had hundreds of cars for sale and picked up another 62 customers. We had a much better booth this time around with custom T-shirts and excellent fliers etc... I hit the ground running and was selling HARD all day. It was so awesome. There were people who would have spit in my face if no one was around and other people who were falling over themselves to buy a listing. I had one guy chasing me down because he lost my card and wanted another one so he could send me a check.

My advice is sell in the real world if you can, don't let the haters bother you (because you WILL have haters) and go far beyond your customers expectations.

Thanks for your advice. We are trying to figure out what kind of conference/places our target customers get together.

I own an outsourcing company with a team of 10 in the Philippines. I started in August 2008 out of necessity when the company I was working for needed more work done than we could handle with the few employees we had. Since the company was based in Malibu, CA, it was difficult to find qualified employees who were either nearby or willing to commute for the salary they were offering.

I had been working with a web designer/developer in Cebu for over a year at that point, so I mentioned that to my boss. After a few small paid projects, they were impressed enough to sign a contract for ongoing projects. I asked my guy in Cebu if he knew any more developers, and he found 3 more. I formed an LLC and with one customer, we were in business.

2 months later, I got an email from a former classmate of my boss who heard about our service, and he needed a website updated, and the original web design company was too busy to get it done right away. In the course of doing that project, we had to contact them to get the server login info, and when we told them what our company did, they hired us to do web design for them.

It's been like that for the last few years, just getting more clients through word of mouth. We now have 8 clients, mostly web design companies who outsource projects to us, or clients they refer to us for content creation, data mining, etc. The team is up to 10 now. We still have that first client, though.

EDIT: Forgot to mention that in all this time, we never got around to building our own website or placing ads. We really don't need to since we get as much work as we can handle through word-of-mouth, and it will be difficult to scale while maintaining high quality.

Hello, I am looking for the same thing in Phillipines, could you give me some advice as to where to find good programmers? We are not in web, but in mobile rather.

I posted an ad on www.philweavers.net

aaaaaaand, I think if you want work on WordPress you've found another client.

message me: info-at-orioneweb-dot-it

We're going through this right now, too, and we've finally found our first paying* customer.

What I found helpful was introductions, and in this case, even introductions made through a cold call.

I'd been pounding away for weeks, signing up free accounts and begging people to actually use the service, or tell us why they weren't when they said it was something they'd like. I was also sending a lot of e-mails and making a lot of calls to hand-researched groups I thought would make good customers (like your product, it's fairly niche).

I'd get blown off, blown off again, and then when I finally made the call, they though the idea was dumb and we were doomed to failure (gulp). But they'd make an introduction to somebody who was on our side of the country, and with their name, good will and bad predictions, we ventured forward. That introduction has proved invaluable, as that connection, which itself took 3 calls, 4 e-mails and showing up at their office, has been a relentless cheerleader for us, going so far as to give us a shout out at an upcoming panel they're moderating in front of our target customers.

So, personal introductions ... by any means necessary. Hope that's helpful.

* We are, indeed, getting paid, but there's an asterisk for another day

With educational institutions, you might want to consider giving away your application for free to a few clients first. These sales cycle can be so bureaucratic it is often of more (unrealized) value to be able to say "we have 5 other very similar clients using this already" than trying to charge right off the bat. Taking the factor of "I don't want to be first" out of the equation could be a viable way to ultimately find paying customers.

Although, if you are solving a true, acknowledged pain point they will likely offer to pay right then and there (these situations are very difficult to come by!) so be mindful if / when you make an offer to let them use it gratis.

If you aren't solving a true, acknowledged pain then you probably won't even get people to use it for free. They may sign up - but they probably won't use it.

Yeah - my point with that was that sometimes your solution can be to a problem they do not realize they have or do not understand the value of what you are providing, so adding additional barriers to adoption in the form of payments should be avoided early on. If you think they need to get behind the wheel to take it for a test drive in order to realize what you are selling, make it easy for them to do just that.

At CollegeJobConnect, we help companies connect with undergraduates for internships / full time jobs. When speaking with some HR departments that "just didn't get it", we'd say: "ok, but why don't you try it for free for the time being then" - after they jumped on and saw how they could tap into job-seeking undegrads, it clicked.

Thanks for your advice. This is something we have also realized. We have divided the app into two packages with the basic package as free.

I wrote this page http://www.bingocardcreator.com/dolch-sight-words-bingo.htm and Google started sending me people looking for [dolch sight words bingo]. It was, at the time, the most obvious hole in the Internet which my product filled, and was my single best source of sales for probably a year or so.

I eventually got savvier about the strategy than "target one SERP at a time using pages handwritten in notepad."

I notice that that page has a lot of text on it. Did you start it out this way, or did you start with minimal text and A/B it up to this?

Naively, I'd have thought that more text = less conversions.

Or is the text there to make it more SEOed?

Naively, I'd have thought that more text = less conversions.

You are correct. If you ever get time travel, please tell 2006 me the news!

i have a startup that can send emails back in time to any year of your choice (well, SMTP/POP has to exist in that particular era, but otherwise...)

patrick, check your inbox back in 2006, you have a message waiting

If you're doing something enterprise-y (which it sounds like you are) then you should take a look at the article, "Sean Murphy on the first dozen enterprise customers" that was recently posted to HN here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1671852

It goes through the process of getting your first customers in detail. It jives with my personnel experience and some others I see on this thread.

Key point: Go through your network and find a way to get introductions to folks in your target market. Be creative on this. Once you've got an introduction leverage it to get more e.g. "Do know other folks that you think would be interested in a solution like this? Could you provide their contact info?" etc. Repeat.

Unless this is a $20 a month cheapie app, the Customer acquisition process should begin before you've even started building. Otherwise, how do you know if anyone even wants your product? By now you should've already talked to potential clients about what it actually is that your product hopes to achieve, and already have their indication that they'd be interested in buying it.

How can you be building to a target that you haven't spoken to yet?

Cold calling is going to be a hit and miss affair at the best of times, it's even harder when you're trying to pitch a product that no one's ever heard of.

The best thing I think you can do is pound the pavement. There'd be dozens of schools in your immediate area; organise a meeting and see them personally for a demo. It'll be time consuming, but at least you will have their undivided attention.

Cold calling. Lots of cold calling business. That and personalized emails. And trade shows and conventions.

That first real customer, that first real transaction, was a beautiful thing.

We got our first paying customer by giving a presentation (using mockups) of the product and how it would fit their needs, and why it was better than the solution they were planning on implementing. We convinced them to try our product by offering a discounted rate, compared to what we planned on charging companies later. This first sale basically funded development and we used them as a 'beta' client. Now they are our biggest cheerleader!

We used barter to get our first clients last year, which worked pretty well:


This may or may not be a great fit for you, but it's worth checking out.

Our first sell was a giveaway, but we absolutely made sure we could use their name as a credential in exchange for it being free. They agreed and all we talked about for 2 months was the fact we were working with these guys. Every email, every call, we mentioned their name.

It lent us some credibility and gave us something to talk about. It always makes businesses/institutions feel much better if they know someone else has already taken the risk.

Our first PAYING client came a few weeks later. During the process, we were pretty open about being early stage and surely got paid less than what we probably should have, but the openness plus the credential made them comfortable enough to pay a two person bootstrapped company and we were off and running.

How did I get my first paying customer?

One of many stories...

I had an application I had written for my own personal use. I was talking to a guy who asked how I did something. I told him I had written this program. He said "I'll pay you $200 for a copy of that." So I took a weekend to add copy protection, and accepted his check. Pleased that I actually had a commercial product, I then spent the next couple weeks putting together a web site advertising it as a product and things went from there.

We setup a presentation that included 8 different individual businesses (total headcount in the meeting/presentation was about 20); My business partner knew some of these folks and invited them to hear our offer. The others, we emailed - not framed as a sale but to check out our technology and provide feedback.

After the presentation, we had 2 businesses ready to cut us a check and 3 that later signed and the others provided us valuable feedback and references.

A web application targeted toward educational institutions is not enough information. Potential customers for one service or products are completely different for another product. Think about books and sports. If you really want some good advice then provide more information about your application. That is a weak input is not a fountain for a great output.

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