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.

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