As a new business owner, the question that keeps you up at night is: How will I get my first customers? The specific answer varies depending on the type of business you have. However, the basic steps are the same: identify your target customers, find out where they spend their time, get on their radar so they’re aware of your business, and once they buy from you, be sure you deliver on your promises.
How to Get Customers
Here are some more specific ideas for ways to get your first customers for your startup business:
For a Freelancer Providing Graphic Design, Software Development, or Marketing Copy
- Create a profile at online forums that match freelancers and independent contractors with clients, such as Guru, Upwork or freelancer.com. Check out our list of 35 freelancing sites, too.
- Be sure not to poach clients from your former employer. This can poison the water for you and even lead to legal action if you signed a noncompete agreement at your former job.
- Offer a free trial, new customer discount or work on spec to get in the door. Sometimes, you have to prove yourself by offering a prospect a reduced rate or even doing work on spec (that is, for free).
- Ask your former coworkers, family and friends for referrals. You never know who might need your services.
- Join online and offline networking groups for your industry to make connections that could lead to customers.
- Partner up. Instead of (or in addition to) working directly for clients, see if you can work with a business that offers complementary services. For instance, if you’re a website copywriter, see if you can find a website designer who can refer you to their clients and vice versa.
For a Business-to-Business (B2B) Product or Service Provider
- If you came from the corporate world, one of the most tried-and-true ways to find your first client is to become an independent contractor for your former employer. They know your skills and work ethic. You can also see if they will refer you to possible clients. (Just be sure you aren’t poaching their customers!)
- Maximize the value of LinkedIn. Create a personal profile on LinkedIn as well as a profile for your business. Join groups that are relevant to your industry and the industries that your target customers belong to. Don’t be pushy or promotional of your business. Instead, start by sharing useful information and answering questions to establish yourself as a trusted source. LinkedIn’s paid Sales Navigator tool can make it much easier to connect with prospects on LinkedIn by offering advanced recommendations and lead management features.
- Network off-line. Real-world networking can be just as important as your online connections. Attend industry trade shows and conferences that you know your target customers attend. Join industry networking organizations and make yourself a valuable member of the group. By organizing events or chairing committees, you can raise your profile within the group.
- Offer a free trial, new customer discount or work on spec to get in the door.
For a Business with Local Customers, Such as a Restaurant, a Retail Store or Beauty Salon
- Promote your business to the local media. Contact local newspapers, TV and radio stations, websites and event listings. Get to know the reporters who cover business in your city. Let them know about your new business and invite them to your upcoming grand opening. You may get featured in an event calendar or even get a write-up or feature story about your new business.
- Partner with local businesses. If you’re opening a new dog grooming business, the pet store down the street could be the perfect place to promote your new business (as long as they don’t do grooming, too). Ask if you can put your business cards or flyers in their store or do a cross promotion where people who visit their store or website get a discount on grooming at your shop, and vice versa.
- Create a strong local online presence. Optimize your website for local search by using keywords that relate to your community, such as “Pizza in Secaucus New Jersey” or “Best Secaucus Pizza.” Claim your listings in local search directories, particularly Google My Business, so that when people in your area search for what you sell, your business will show up. (Get local SEO tips for Google My Business and find out about Google My Business’s features for service businesses.
- Get listed up on industry-specific directory sites. For example, if you do home remodeling our lawn care, you’d want to get a listing at Home Advisor and Angie’s List. Here are some other top free business listing sites to consider.
- Claim your listing on online review sites. Google is the most important with Yelp not far behind. As soon as you get your first customers, encourage them to write reviews to help build your ratings.
- Create a community on social media. Choose the social networks where your target customers spend the most time and start posting in advance of your grand opening to generate excitement about your business. You can use social media advertising to target your posts so that people who fit your target customer definition will see your ads. Once you have a few customers, you can focus your ads even more narrowly: For example, Facebook’s Lookalike Audiences displays your ads to prospects who are just like your customers.
- Cultivate social media influencers. Influencers don’t have to have a huge following—they just have to have a passionate one. For example, if you sell cosmetics, a YouTuber who does beauty videos could be an influencer to target. If you’re opening a restaurant, a local food blogger could be the one to reach. Offer influencers a free sample of your product or invite them to visit your business and share their opinion.
Need more ideas? Check out 50 Marketing Channels to Use to Reach Customers and (for retailers) 50 Tips on How to Get More Customers to Your Store.
Build on your First Customers
Once you get those precious first customers, be sure to deliver on what you promised. B2B businesses can ask customers to sign up to receive emails from you, follow you on social media, join your customer loyalty program, and otherwise stay engaged with your business. B2B businesses can ask customers for referrals and testimonials to help attract other customers.
Build on your first customers’ satisfaction to create lasting relationships with them. Getting your first customers will have a snowball effect that leads to more customers — and to lasting success for your business.