I was speaking with a startup CEO recently about her strategy for acquiring her first customer. She felt it would take her six months to line up 30 qualified prospects willing to speak with her about her novel new product. After that, it would take her a while to close her first sale. That’s when she would manufacture what her first customer ordered.
Her company was still refining that product and learning from the marketplace. There was a good chance that her first customer might receive a product, 6 months after the close of the sale, that wasn’t exactly what they ordered. It would be better, she insisted.
With no product currently available, her sales cycle was at least 18 months long. In addition, her startup’s order-to-delivery cycle would be holding up her first customer’s own production cycle. She hadn’t really considered that aspect.
What first customer is willing to amend their own manufacturing and sales cycles to wait for your startup to deliver what they ordered?
When startups expect their first customers to participate in their own product development cycle, there’s a cost associated with that expectation. If you have an IT product, service or platform your deliverable is lean and agile. With no durable to deliver, you are constantly delivering. Your customers expect, and look forward to, refinements and upgrades in coding and algorithms.
In this scenario, your first customers are willing to be part of your IT development process. Your startup’s ability to refine and upgrade your App or platform creates greater agility and responsiveness for your customers’ companies as well.
When your product is a manufactured device or durable good, being in a rush to acquire your first customer is a different story. I explained to the CEO that I would be able to have 30 interested prospects within the month. That’s a matter of finding qualified prospects within an industry vertical that I’m familiar with. That’s what a VP of Business Development can deliver, due to their network, credibility in the marketplace, and your having a potential gangbuster offering.
With a streamlined first customer acquisition process, however, just what exactly would this CEO be selling to these potential first customers? Now her conceptual selling cycle is 30 days instead of 6 months. What happens if those first customers (note: more than one) place an order? They are ordering a tangible item or component that they expect will be delivered along the same timeline – or better – than your competition.
If you are hiring your first VP of Business Development or Sales to acquire your first customers, and you are not an IT company, there must be more than an idea to sell. If you are talking with your first customers, your operations and manufacturing infrastructure should be in a position to manufacture more than a prototype. If your first customers become first customers more quickly than you anticipate, your device or durable becomes part of their own order-to-cash equation.
What if several first customers order at the same time? Can your production capacity meet market demand? Something to consider as you develop your first customer acquisition scenario.
First customer acquisition is not a continuation of an academic exercise. It is a compelling and rewarding means of transitioning your startup company into real-world selling. You do, however, need something to deliver: on time, according to specifications, that performs at least as expected. And that’s only for starters.
Babette N. Ten Haken, President of Sales Aerobics for Engineers®, LLC, catalyzes business transition, startup growth, and professional development. She works with non-traditional sellers, engineers, manufacturers, and technical startups.