Chapter 4

The first 100 customers

Don't skip this chance for discovery. The sooner you start using no as an opportunity to learn, the faster you'll get to yes.

Now that you have your MVP, it’s time to turn your attention to your first customers. If you wait too long, if you endlessly iterate without showing your work to the world, you may feel productive even though you are slowly (or quickly) running out of runway.

illustration of pizza restaurant with customers lined up in front.

That’s why it’s so important to start. Once you have enough repeat customers, you have product-market fit, which is a milestone worth celebrating. Until then, focus on the slow and steady journey of selling to your first hundred customers. Remember, you already have a relationship with the community, and you’re selling a product that adds value to the life of a customer who is happy to pay for it.

Eventually you will be profitable, you will have customers paying for your product, and they will be telling other customers about it. Then you can launch—or rather, you can celebrate by saying thank you to the community and the customers who have helped you build from nothing to something.

Until then, treat the sales process as an opportunity for discovery. You think your product is market-ready. It’s probably not. You think you’ve figured out the correct pricing tiers. You probably haven’t.

Turn every failed conversion into an insight. Either you’re talking to the wrong person and you need to shift your focus, or they’re the right person but your product still has work to do to solve their problem. Both are good learnings, learnings you want to have before you start marketing to a broader audience.

For now, sales is an education process. Your customers will get to know you, and you’ll get to know what’s working, what’s not, and how to fix it. Selling might not always go smoothly at the beginning, but I guarantee waiting won’t make it any easier. Once you’ve figured out how to get started, the next challenge is pricing.

In the early days, you may be tempted to give your product away for free or to charge less than the value of your time or the raw materials you used. Don’t. In order to stay alive, you need to make money. The only way to do that is not only to charge something, but to charge something that allows you to stay afloat. If you’ve productized, then you’ve already figured out an initial pricing structure for your first customers, and pricing, just like every other part of a business, is subject to iteration. 

Pricing decisions are not permanent. A price is just a part of a product, like everything else, and it can and will change over time. Similar to product development, your goal is to start the discovery process, not get to the perfect end result right away.

Illustration with two booths selling brownies. Left "Free Brownies" with people in front, right "1¢ brownies" with no one infront.

Once you’ve picked a price, you need to shop your offering around. I recommend starting with those closest to you: your friends and family. Eventually, when you’re ready, you’ll expand your sales conversations to the wider community. You’re going to be sending a lot of emails, you’re going to be making a lot of calls, and you’re going to be knocking on a lot of doors. It’s your job to reach out to friends, family, and members of your community whom you may not have seen for a while. Your calls are a chance to tell them what you’re up to and ask them if they’re interested in becoming customers. Some will say yes, but many will say no. Once you’re okay with the nos, you’re ready to sell to strangers.

In the early days (read: years) of Gumroad, we scoured the web for people who could benefit from a product like Gumroad and then told them about it. Literally thousands of times. That’s the only way, really, when no one cares or knows who you are, to get folks to use your product.

I get it. It’s awkward and uncomfortable to reach out to people you don’t necessarily know personally, many of whom will ignore or reject you. My sense is that people who wish to reach customers some other way, like search engine optimization (SEO) or content marketing, are looking for an out. If that’s you: Stop! It doesn’t exist! Just hunker down and dedicate some time to finding people, reaching out to them personally via email, phone, whatever, and being okay with it sucking for a while. But you may find that talking about your process and your product and the path you’ve taken to get there is far less difficult than you think. After all, this is your work, and if you’re bringing it out to the world, you should be excited and proud, so don’t skip this chance at discovery.

Manual “sales” will be 99 percent of your growth in the early days, and word of mouth will be 99 percent of your growth in the latter days. It’s not a glamorous answer, but it’s true. Things like paid marketing, SEO, and content marketing can come later, once you have a hundred customers, once you’re profitable, and once your customers are referring more customers to you. Only then!

The best news of all is that once you have a hundred customers, you can use the same playbook to get to a thousand. Once you have a thousand, you can use a similar playbook to get to ten thousand.

Key Takeaways

  1. Launches are alluring, but they are one-off events I wouldn’t bet your business on. Instead, wait until you have a product with repeat, paying customers. Then launch by thanking them!
  2. Selling your product (or process) directly to customers may seem slow, but it is worthwhile. It will lead to a much better product, as you treat the sales process as less about convincing and more about discovery.
  3. Start by selling to your family and friends before moving on to your communities and, finally, if at all, to total strangers. (The farther away from you, the harder they will be to convince.)

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Chapter 4