Friday, February 27, 2009

Tell them, and then tell them again

After graduating from college, I worked as a television reporter in Kentucky. Being a TV reporter was the biggest deal in my life to that point. I was on television. I was covering big news stories every day. Thousands of people turned on their TVs nightly, anxiously awaiting my balanced and comprehensive take on the noteworthy events of the day. At least, that was the warped perspective of a self-important 22-year-old. I assumed my exciting life was a big deal to those who knew me best back home in Missouri. But when I spoke to folks back home, the question always seemed to be the same. “So, how do you like working for that radio station in Tennessee?” And later, “you still a radio reporter?” It was a bit of a disappointment to learn most people weren’t sitting around the fireplace, wondering aloud what story I was reporting on the TV that night. I eventually realized that the things that consume my thoughts don't consume the thoughts of anyone else.

Admittedly, when I tell a lot of people that my company sells online registration software, their first reaction is something like, “Computers, huh? Maybe you can take a look at mine. Can’t figure out how to turn the thing on.” They may not understand the nuances of web-based registration immediately. But if I’m patient…

When you start a company, no matter how many times you’ve explained to Uncle Harris or cousin Diane what you do, explain it again. They won’t mind if you repeat yourself because they may not remember anyway. They have a lot of things on their minds and therefore don’t fully understand your business, but they may understand it enough to send a potential customer or two your way. They want you to succeed.

You can relate an anecdote that illustrates what you do. For example: “Boy, you won’t believe the size of opossum we extracted from the sewer the other day using the patented PossumGrabber® I invented in my garage.” When they have a passing understanding of your business, your friends and relatives might even know THE potential customer—the one that will make all the difference in your success. Unless you’re selling something that nobody in the world wants (in which case you have a larger problem than identifying prospects), you know somebody who knows somebody who could use your service. And unless all your friends and colleagues are doing hard time in maximum security, their word probably carries some weight with their friends and acquaintances, which just might be your future customers.

One of the best ways of getting your first customers is to be a blabbermouth. This may not be your style unless you are a born self-promoter, but it is exactly what you have to be. Nobody is going to be more excited about your company than you. If you can’t promote it, nobody else will. It is quite possible, depending on how narrow is the niche for your creation, that you do not know anybody who would want or need your service. But I'll bet you know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Enjoy being the underdog

If you think the deck is stacked impossibly against you, you are going to find it harder to land your first customer. In fact, you have lots of avenues rich with potential that you should explore before you even think of contacting someone whom you’ve never heard of and who hasn’t heard of you.

In America, we root for the underdog. That's you. Truth is, you will never be a greater underdog than when you start a company from scratch. You may not even realize it, but a lot of people are rooting for you to succeed just because you’re trying to do something most of us are too afraid to do. Some of the folks in your cheering section are people you know well. Others are people you don’t know yet. But you'll have the chance to know them because of your connections. Either way, you can leverage those new and existing relationships to find your first customer.

If you have investors, they want to see you succeed for obvious reasons. Also, they may have been in your shoes at one point and can empathize more than anybody with what it takes to get your first customers. They became successful enough to invest in your company in part because they know a lot of people. Their contacts may need exactly what you’re selling. Don’t assume your investors are automatically thinking of such relationships, however. Just because they’re smart and they’ve read your business plan does not guarantee they fully understand what you do. Millions of dollars are invested all the time by people who don’t completely understand the business they’re investing in. It’s possible that your investors are committing as much to the potential of you as they are to the promise of your company.

Therefore, your company will benefit if you give your investors, during regular meetings or investor updates, your vision of who your ideal customer is. And then ask your investors if your description fits anyone they know. If they don’t suggest anyone the first time you ask, ask again a few months later. As your notion of your ideal customer changes, share that with your supporters, too. Sooner, if not later, they will provide important names. Those may be some of the best leads you receive.

If you borrowed money to start your company, your loan officer also has a vested interest in seeing you succeed. She wants to improve the chances of getting her bank’s money back—along with all that interest you’re fretting over. She comes into contact with other business owners every day. The same type of regular email or phone call updates that trigger an investor's thoughts can also work for a loan officer. It’s like being the squeaky wheel, except you’re informing rather than complaining. If an investor, loan officer or other money person hears from you once in a while, your situation—and need for prospects—will be top of mind. And remember, you’re not asking these people for anything material. You’re only helping them protect their investment and their reputation by providing a connection to prospects.