How to Find and Talk to Your First Customers

author avatar Gareth Fuller wrote this on Dec 10, 2014 | Comments

On the introversion/extroversion spectrum I'd say I lean towards introversion. I'm generally quiet and tend to avoid conversations with people I don't know. However, I also love building software products online which is naturally a social endeavor. So you see, I have a problem.

In my perfect world, I would build it and they would come... but we all know this isn't how it works. Certainly not for consumer tech, unless you hit the nail on the head first time which is very rare.

For the purpose of this post I'm assuming you already have an MVP / early stage product to sell. If so you need a process for finding and effectively talking to your first customers. Here's how we've gone about finding our first customers; hopefully there is something here you can use to find yours:

Finding Potential Customers

If you haven't already you need to have a rough guess at who your ideal customer is. Here's a note from our own Leanlab idea canvas that we use to keep track of who we think our ideal customer is:

Once you have a rough idea of the type of person your ideal customer is, you can start to develop a list of keywords that they might use to describe themselves. This will come in handy later on. In our case, this list would be something like: entrepreneur, founder, startup, etc. It's also a good idea to make a list of industry leaders - people who your ideal customers are likely to look up to and follow.

Ok, so the first and easiest way to find your first customers is to use social media. We use Twitter to follow people we think might like our product. To find these people use the list of keywords you developed to describe your ideal customer and search for profiles using these keywords in their bios. Also go through the list of industry leaders you put together and follow their followers. The hope is that when you follow these people they'll at least have a look at your profile, if they do you get a few seconds of attention in which to peak their interest.

The aim is to encourage them to click through to your landing page, follow you back, or both. To do this effectively, it is so important that you have the following: an attractive logo, a clean, clear and meaningful background image, and a one sentence bio which immediately and concisely explains what you do and why they need you. These three things might get you a few more seconds of their time. Some might click through to your website, so then it's down to your landing page. Others will scroll through your latest tweets.

This is obvious, but it's worth saying: the majority of your tweets should provide some sort of value to your ideal customer. It doesn't matter if it's your own blog posts, good articles on relevant topics, or useful adjacent products, most tweets should aim to help the customer with something relevant to your niche.

Beyond following potential customers - interact with them, comment on their tweets, and retweet good content. Each interaction grabs a few more seconds of someone's attention which could result in your next customer.

This method of finding customers should be replicated on the forums and blogs applicable to your niche. For us that was r/startups, Quora, and bootstrappers. Try not to spread yourself thin, find the two or three most effective platforms for you and focus on them.

However, there is one major drawback to this technique - it requires significant and consistent time investment. Parts can be automated but engagement and communication with real people cannot. This is why blogging is so important. Whilst it also takes an upfront time investment (writing the post), it continues to work for you and can be reposted occasionally on social media.

Blogging consistently about relevant topics, if you do it right, keeps traffic coming in long after you've written the post. Focus on writing posts that include key phrases that your ideal customer is likely to type into Google. If you're anything like me, blogging can be difficult and awkward. All I can say is that you just have to get over it and write, and as with many things, practice will help you improve in both quality and speed.

Remember, at this point your ideal customer definition is still just an assumption. The purpose of blogging and social media activity is just to get enough people through to your product that a few will buy/signup and when they do, you have to talk to these people. Find out who they are, what they do, what they're interested in, the sites they use to get news relevant to your niche, blogs they follow, sites they use to communicate with peers, and any other information you can get. With a couple of these bios you can start to build a more concrete ideal customer definition.

Once you have a customer profile backed by data you can begin to more accurately find and communicate with potential customers, increasing the likelihood that they will convert.

Asking the Right Questions

So you've managed to convince a couple of customers to answer a few questions over the phone or email. What are you going to ask them? To start with you need to figure out who they are for your customer profile. But what about your product? How do you figure out if your product is going to solve a real problem for this person?

Customer interviews are hard and can be awkward. Asking the right questions about your idea in a way that actually helps you learn is a skill, and one that doesn't come naturally to me or, I'm guessing, to a lot of business founders. By far the best resource I have come across specifically about customer interviews and the questions to ask is the Mom Test book. If you read one more startup book it should be this one!

Here's a brief explanation of what's involved. Don't speak specifically about your idea, ask them about the problem your idea solves and how it has affected them in the past. Avoid asking about potential future usage of your product to solve their problem - they will lie to make you feel good.

In particular ask your customer how they have solved their problem in the past, what tools they've used and the pitfalls of that process. Avoid asking them how they think this problem should be solved, or if they think your solution is better. These are hypothetical questions which result in misleading answers. For every action or step they have taken in the past - ask 'why?', and try to unearth particular pain points.

This conversation might be awkward depending on the customer. They may even kill your idea. This isn't the end of the world but it will hurt. Idea killers are a good source for finding out where you're going wrong. They can result in changes in direction (pivots) for your startup but may also just be the opinions of someone who was never likely to be your customer.

When I interview people for Leanlab I ask questions like "Before you knew about Leanlab where had you and your team been sharing and discussing startup ideas?" and "When you have recorded startup ideas in the past what sort of information have you recorded and shared with your team?". Notice both questions are asking about what they have done in the past and not what they would do hypothetically.


Have a guess at who your ideal customer might be and where they hangout online. Get active in these places and provide some value to your potential customers. For those that take a particular interest in what you are doing - talk to them. Use the Mom Test methods to ask the right questions and learn as much as you can about the pain point you are trying to solve for them.

So, that's roughly how we've found and talked to our first customers so far. Hopefully you can take something away from this and use it for your own startup. If you have any effective methods of your own I'd love to see them in the comments.

P.S. we usually take the conversations we have with people about Leanlab and record them in the interactions section of of our idea canvas. This allows our team to discuss and learn from all our customer interactions.

Further Reading

photo credit: stavos via photopin cc