Seven Ways to Land Your First 100 Customers

The following article was written by Melissa Harris, entrepreneur-in-residence at the Polsky Center, and originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business on February 19, 2024. Read the original article.

You can’t start a startup if you can’t sell. But stepping out — and risking rejection — is terrifying for, well, most everyone.

Here are seven proven tactics to grab those first 100 customers that might ease your fears and start you off right.

1. Give your product away for free. Before Cards Against Humanity became a best-selling game, its creators gave it away online to download, print and play for free. In fact, they still do. This is called a “freemium” business model. The only sales-y (and smart) thing about Cards’ strategy: Downloaders could provide their email address if they wanted to be notified when a professionally printed deck became available. By the time Cards launched that deck on Kickstarter, the company had amassed thousands of interested customers and their email addresses.

2. Film a pitch video and post it. My 7-year-old daughter’s Girl Scout cookie pitch netted $774 in sales. A cute kid always helps, but this is exactly how the grooming product company Dollar Shave Club launched. The company’s hilarious 2012 launch video is still racking up views on YouTube today.

3. Are you BFFs with an influencer? Or can you afford to pay one? There are a lot of artful business decisions that made Stanley’s Adventure Quencher Travel Tumbler go viral, but the main reason has nothing to do with Stanley, a more than 100-year-old brand. Credit instead goes to the three influencers who run The Buy Guide, an e-commerce blog and Instagram account. (More on this below.)

4. Land prominent press coverage. But beware, you must have a truly novel idea for reporters to write about your startup. Warby Parker landed early coverage in Vogue and GQ because of their then-novel price ($99), their then-novel online sales strategy and their then-novel try-on-by-mail program. Listen to Warby Parker’s founders explain how they used public relations to jump-start sales on the podcast “How I Built This.”

5. Create an affiliate marketing and/or referral program. Back to the Stanley tumbler. The Buy Guide founders knew their audience — moms — loved the product. So they approached Stanley with a proposition: Let us buy these at wholesale prices; we’ll resell them and keep the profits. That strategy evolved into Stanley returning the cup to its online store and The Buy Guide getting a cut of sales that originated with its audience. This is called affiliate marketing. A similar strategy, which rewards customers instead of third-party promoters, is called a referral program. Every startup should have a referral program, and every startup should consider affiliate marketing.

6. Take pre-orders. This will help you figure out if you have a good idea before you even build your product. Here’s how:

Build a simple website describing your product or service, promote it on social media and ask people to place pre-orders or supply their email addresses. Just like Tesla or Kickstarter projects. Put less than $1,000 of digital ad spend behind your posts if you don’t already have a large audience.

This is called demand testing. It’s the quickest way to prove to a venture capital firm that people want what you’re selling, or to reach the opposite conclusion: Don’t quit your day job. Harry’s, a shaving products company, launched this way and ingeniously built a referral program into its pre-ordering process. Harry’s founders shared that computer code online so other startups could replicate their winning strategy.

7. Sell. Most startups, whether they’re selling something that costs $9.99 or $999, begin with the founder approaching people in his or her own network. Great entrepreneurs know the sale doesn’t end there; they continue to nurture their early customers and convert them into evangelists.

If you are uncomfortable with selling and want to start a company, you have two options: Find a co-founder who is comfortable, or get over it.

Melissa Harris is the CEO of M. Harris & Co., a Chicago-based marketing agency led by former journalists. She has been an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation since 2016, the year she graduated from Booth with her MBA.

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