Looking for your first customer…

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Woman Looking Through Binoculars

For any new business owner, the first customer is the most thrilling.  I can recall from years back the nervous excitement that accompanied closing my first sale.  It was true of every business I’ve ever had — and in each case I learned from the event.

So, what is a customer…really?

Let’s begin with the basics.  A customer is the only reason a business exists.  Without a customer, a business becomes a hobby; and while hobbies can be fulfilling, they tend to leave our wallets emptier at the end of the month rather than fuller.

So, who is your first customer?  Please note that this question can apply to any business, no matter how many years it has been in existence, because — unless it is stagnating — there will always be new products and services to offer and each of those new offers will have its first customer.

In order to define who will be our first customer, we must first get a better handle on what we mean by our customers in the first place.

A simple survey.

Here’s a challenge for you.  Conduct a simple survey.  Take an evening or a day and visit a dozen small businesses.  Ask to speak with the owner, and tell them you are doing some research for a school or other such inoffensive project.  Ask them, “who is your customer?”

I would not be surprised if the most common answer you received was “well, anyone” or perhaps with a nod to demographics something like “any woman between the ages of 18 and 80”.  You will be pressed to find, however, any business owner who can give you down to the age and hair color their “prototype customer”, the proxy for all the decisions they make.  Although this may sound outlandish, it’s just what Trader Joe’s did, as reported in the book “Made To Stick”.  Here’s the excerpt from a posting on Erica Douglass’ blog.

The good folks at Trader Joe’s decided their market was an “unemployed college professor who drives a very, very used Volvo.” They gave the guy a name (let’s call him Don for this blog post), a location, an age, named what kind of car he drove, wrote out his career path, and filled in as many details as they possibly could about him. Then they passed this guy’s profile around to all their decision makers.

So, back to basics. A customer is simply a human being with a problem that…

  1. …you are eager to solve and
  2. …they are willing to pay to eliminate.

The more clearly you can experience in your mind’s eye that prototypical customer, the easier it is to make decisions about what their needs are and how  your business can help them.

Why you don’t want WalMart as your first customer.

So what are the ideal characteristics of the first customer? Should it be a big company? A huge money-winner? After all, who wouldn’t like to name WalMart as their “first customer”?

You, that’s who, because if WalMart is your “first customer” you don’t own a business, you own an outsourced job working for WalMart purchasing and you can kiss your future goodbye. You’ll have freedom again after you sell out in a few years. If you survive that long.

Years ago, I had several very large customers.  The positive side was, of course, nice income.  The downside, however, was that I was at their mercy.   When you are dealing with an organization significantly bigger than yours, you simply don’t have enough leverage.  They become “the boss”.

The criteria of the ideal first customer.

In my experience, the first customer should meet the following criteria:

  1. They should be someone either you know or somebody you know knows
  2. They should be someone you enjoy spending time with and vice-versa (you’ll be doing a lot of that in the beginning)
  3. They should have a general problem you can solve
  4. They should be willing to entrust you to help them solve it
  5. They should be tolerant of the innumerable mistakes you will make in the beginning while solving it
  6. They should be willing to work with you to come up with other problems which you can solve for them
  7. They should be willing to recommend you to their friends with similar problems once you’ve solved theirs
  8. They should be respected enough by their friends that the friends will accept the recommendation

Notice I didn’t even mention “able or willing to pay you” because, for the first customer that’s irrelevant. Look at what you are getting for a little bit of your time and effort:

  1. A product development focus group
  2. Beta testers for your products/services
  3. Referral advertising to focused prospective buyers
  4. Public Relations
  5. The first entry in your company’s portfolio

What are the above worth? A little secret to share with you…businesses have been known to burn through millions of start up dollars and not have any of those five items to show for it. If you have all five in place, you are all but guaranteed to succeed.

If they are willing to pay, all the better, but what you charge the first customer doesn’t matter. It will be more than enough compensation to receive enthusiastic referrals to the second tier. I wouldn’t go beyond that without having a full pricing structure in place, but you will have happy customers quite eager to share their opinions about the value of your product/service by that time.

Where can you find him/her/it? Hint: try the mirror.

So where do you find this first customer? Often times you can simply look in the mirror and find someone who meets the above criteria. Quite a few products had their inventor as their first customer. And to those who would argue “I mean ‘paying’ customer”, remember you will be eating your own dog food. That should be payment enough — as long as the dog food is good.

If not, then stretch your brain. Make a list of who you know. Make a list of their problems. Ask. Ask if they know people with problems they are having trouble solving – especially in your area of strengths. Approach those people. Make them an offer. Ask for their help in getting started – not by investing their money, but by entrusting you to solve a problem for them.

And when you finally find that first customer, invest as much time, effort, and energy as possible until they are ready to recommend you to their friends. Once they are ready to recommend, you have a product/service worth selling.

Now that your first customer is ecstatic.

Now, work with that second tier. Treat them the same way only you are now looking to identify common problems that you can solve with a cookie cutter approach. That’s the path to hands off mass production. Once they are ready to recommend you to their friends, you’re ready to move to prime time.

You’ll still have a lot of work involved in creating successful advertising and marketing campaigns, but the hard part will be done before you spend your first advertising dime.  Looking for your first customer will be the most important step you taking to launching any new product or service.  Give it the attention and consideration it really deserves.

Until next time…

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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