Discover the strategies and tactics to get your startup’s first 100 customers and then to your first 500. Your startup needs to ace these stages first if you want it to achieve massive growth, and we’re going to help you do that with this guide. The initial phase is crucial, as it sets the foundation for long-term growth. While acquiring the first 500 customers can be challenging, with the right strategies, processes, and dedication, it becomes an achievable goal. In this guide, we’ll explore the best practices that can lead your tech startup to its first 100, then 500 loyal customers, and the differences between the two phases.
Acquiring your first 100 customers
First understand that the process of acquiring the first 100 customers for a tech startup is distinct from acquiring the first 500 customers, with each phase presenting its own challenges and opportunities. So don’t jump the gun on this phase, as it’s said, and skip to the next.
Let’s explore the key differences between these two milestones and what you need to do to get there.
1. Market Penetration and Customer Adoption by Doing Things that Don’t Scale
Acquiring your first 100 customers involves reaching early adopters, innovators, and enthusiastic users who are willing to try your new product or service. You’ll also be reaching out to people who are innovators that love to be the first people on to sign up to an innovative new product or technology.
These initial customers are often early adopters and may have a higher tolerance for potential issues or imperfections in the product.
And the jargon to describe each type of user, and the graphic below, comes from the book, Crossing the Chasm (affiliate link).
Understanding what type of user you’re targeting (buyer persona) is central to being able to make the sale and bring them on board.
Additionally, it’s of the utmost importance for you to reach out the most likely people who would use your service/product. You don’t want to reach out to people who are on the fringe of that buyer profile.
So, reach out to those exact people and you should be getting customers in no time!
And essential to this strategy, is doing things that don’t scale.
Paul Graham, the originator of the strategy (and co-founder of Y Combinator), states:
“There are two reasons founders resist going out and recruiting users individually. One is a combination of shyness and laziness. They’d rather sit at home writing code than go out and talk to a bunch of strangers and probably be rejected by most of them. But for a startup to succeed, at least one founder (usually the CEO) will have to spend a lot of time on sales and marketing. 
The other reason founders ignore this path is that the absolute numbers seem so small at first. This can’t be how the big, famous startups got started, they think. The mistake they make is to underestimate the power of compound growth. We encourage every startup to measure their progress by weekly growth rate. If you have 100 users, you need to get 10 more next week to grow 10% a week. And while 110 may not seem much better than 100, if you keep growing at 10% a week you’ll be surprised how big the numbers get. After a year you’ll have 14,000 users, and after 2 years you’ll have 2 million.
You’ll be doing different things when you’re acquiring users a thousand at a time, and growth has to slow down eventually. But if the market exists you can usually start by recruiting users manually and then gradually switch to less manual methods.”
Do things that don’t scale by individually contacting people in your audience wherever they gather.
You can acquire your first 100 users through activities and mediums such as:
- Events like startup conferences or meetup groups. Don’t forget business cards!
- Communities on: Slack, Discord, Facebook Groups, LinkedIn Groups, or Twitter (X) communities
- Messaging people on social media platforms and especially LinkedIn if B2B is your space
- Cold emailing people you’ve researched to be likely early adopters
- Finding people on forums and message boards
- Networking with very specific circles or types of people
Find those contacts’ email addresses & phone numbers using services like:
Add those contacts into an Excel or Google spreadsheet or you can use HubSpot’s free CRM (affiliate link) that’s capable of holding up to 1 million contacts in it FOR FREE.
Using a CRM or spreadsheet will make it easier for following up with all of the people you reach out to.
Take a look at the image that I shared to the right, which provides tactics for doing things that don’t scale.
What to Say When You Contact Potential Customers
When you’re reaching out to prospects, make sure that you’re genuine, persuasive, and are value-focused.
Personalize Your Message
You should be personalizing your messages and avoiding generic mass messages. This is crucial to show that you’ve researched them and genuinely believe your product/service will be of benefit to them.
Clearly Communicate Value
Explain how your product/service solves a specific problem, gap, or pain point that the individual experiences.
Be Brief and Engaging
Make sure that your message is engaging, concise, and to the point. Everyone is busy, and your message was unexpected, so doing this will increase the likelihood that they respond to you.
Offer an Incentive
Providing a special promotion, discount, or extended trial is a great way to incentivize somebody to purchase your product/service.
The three stages of the buyers journey are: 1) awareness, 2) consideration, and 3) decision.
Given these three stages, you shouldn’t expect prospects to purchase immediately and may need some time to come around.
Showcase Social Proof (if any)
If you had any positive feedback, then share it with the prospect you’re reaching out to! Almost nobody wants to be the first user. People usually like to join after others already have joined. You know?
What’s more, other examples of social proof can be:
- When you get a high profile company to partner with you or popular executive to vouch for you or your company
- We have “x” happy customers in ____ days (and no, we’re not talking about the company formally known as Twitter)
- Being featured in the press
- Ratings on review sites like TrustPilot or G2Crowd
Explain Your Mission
Sharing your mission and providing your emotional appeal can be very helpful in eliciting a response and getting them to join. And if you have a meaningful mission, prospects may be more inclined to join.
Provide a Call to Action
End your message with a clear CTA. You don’t need a button, but just a short and sweet CTA that drives them to click on a link or respond to you. Buttons won’t show in plain-text emails or when reaching out via social media.
Be Transparent and Honest
Avoid any misleading claims or exaggerations about your product/service. Be transparent about what your startup can deliver, setting realistic expectations.
Follow up Persistently and Politely
If you don’t hear from them immediately, don’t get mad. Just be nice and politely follow up. A lot of people get a boatload of spam. You can also benefit from switching up subject lines if you’re reaching out over email.
Leverage Your Network
Any warm introduction to people will make an enormous difference and it’s a form of social proof. If your network can help
Here are some alternative subject lines:
- Discover a Game-Changing Solution for [Their Company Name]
- [Their Company Name]: Boost Efficiency with Our Innovative Platform
- Achieve [Specific Goal] Faster with [Your Startup Name]
- Personalized Invitation: Transform [Their Company Name] Results
- Join Top Companies Using [Your Startup Name] for [Specific Task]
- Exclusive Offer: Optimize [Their Company Name] Performance
- Revolutionize [Their Industry] with [Your Startup Name]
- Enhance [Their Company Name] Operations with Our Tech
- Special Trial for [Their Company Name]: See the Difference
- Hello [Their Company Name]: Your Path to [Specific Outcome]
Watch this video from Raw Startups about acquiring your first 100 customers
Remember, every interaction is an opportunity to create a positive impression of your startup. Stay persistent, focus on building relationships, and provide genuine value to potential users. As you gather feedback and iterate your product/service, the early users will play a crucial role in shaping the future success of your startup.
2. Product Validation
In the early phase of acquiring your first 100 customers, the primary focus is often on validating the product’s core value proposition in the real market. Your startup should be seeking feedback from early customers to refine and improve the offering based on real-world usage. This will only help you and make your new customers happier.
If you participated our idea validation course from our Incubator program, you’ll have gathered and analyzed feedback based on either your theoretical product or on a product mockup. While that’s super helpful, people weren’t actually using your product/service then. Reach out to those
As your startup moves towards acquiring your first 500 customers, the product should have undergone several iterations and improvements based on customer feedback. The goal now is to demonstrate a validated and refined product that meets the needs of a more diverse customer base.
3. Marketing Strategies
Acquiring the first 100 customers for your startup often relies on personal networks, word-of-mouth, and targeted outreach, as aforementioned. Your startup will often focus on building relationships with a small group of potential users who share their enthusiasm for the product.
The Math: Reverse Engineering Your Goal to the 100 Paying Customers Milestone
To reach your goal of 100 paying customers, it will be helpful to reverse engineer how you’ll reach that goal so you can see the steps and outreach numbers to get there.
Let’s say 2/10 people (20% or 1/5 people) you reach out to sign up for a free trial and 1/10 trial signups converts to paid (10%).
100 paying customers = 1000 trial accounts (100 x 10) = 5000 (1000 x 5) initial outbound messages.
However, if you’re targeting the right people and saying the right things, your conversions will likely be a lot higher. But you have to put in the work to find the right people (early adopters).
As you onboard potential customers with free trials or freemium plans, reach out to them personally and continue to follow up with them to see if they need help. This will ensure they’re being taken care of, it make them feel special, and not feel ignored.
Automated Email Marketing
Another tactic that helps is building an email nurture campaign to increase the likelihood that they’ll convert. And, create a campaign series that keeps your customers activated and using your solution frequently.
Difference between strategies for 100 and 500 customer milestones
Additionally, to reach the first 500 customers, more comprehensive marketing strategies are required. Content marketing, social media, SEO, partnerships, and paid advertising may come into play to expand your startup’s visibility and attract a larger customer base.
This will require you to be more organized and focused in your strategies to maintain your efficiency and build on the synergies of the existing strategy.
However, if you don’t find yourself making any more headway in the channels you first used, then you’re going to need to expand to other distribution channels. But if it’s a social network, the chances are that you’re not doing enough, because they’re usually excellent channels if utilized fully.
Be cognizant of the customer lifecycle and understand conversion behavior. Take a look at the image that I share below.
4. Customer Support
The customer support needs from the first 100 customers may be manageable with limited resources. Startups can often handle direct interactions and provide personalized attention to each customer.
However, as the customer base expands to 500, the demands on customer support increase. Scaling customer support operations becomes necessary to maintain the same level of personalized attention and ensure a positive customer experience.
5. Competitive Landscape
In the early stages, your startup may be operating in a relatively uncharted territory, with fewer direct competitors. Acquiring the first 100 customers might involve capturing a niche market with less competition. But whether your startup is niche or not, you shouldn’t focus on what the competition is doing. You should share what the differentiators are between your solution and any competitors, though. Share your unique advantage and unique value proposition on your website and in discussions with potential customers.
By the time your startup aims for its first 500 customers, the competitive landscape may have evolved. The market moves very quickly, especially after there’s company that makes something new, because people follow suit and make their own product to compete. Your startup needs to stay ahead of the curve, differentiate itself, and continually demonstrate a competitive advantage to attract customers in a more crowded marketplace.
6. Budget and Resources
The resources allocated for acquiring the first 100 customers might be more limited, and your startup may operate in a lean mode to prove its concept.
As your startup progresses towards its first 500 customers, it may have secured additional funding, allowing for more substantial marketing budgets and the ability to invest in scaling operations and infrastructure.
Acquiring your startup’s first 100 customers is a crucial step towards validating a startup’s product and gaining initial traction. Reaching the first 500 customers requires scaling marketing efforts, refining the product based on customer feedback, and navigating a more competitive landscape. Each stage of customer acquisition comes with its unique set of challenges, but success in both stages lays the groundwork for further growth and success in the future.
The Road to Your First 500 Customers (After reaching 100)
Scaling Customer Support – Delivering Excellence at Scale
As your customer base grows beyond the first 100 users, scaling customer support becomes vital to maintain a positive customer experience. Consistent and reliable support is crucial for retaining customers, generating positive word-of-mouth, and driving long-term success.
Automating Support Processes
Implement automation tools and technologies to streamline support processes, such as ticketing systems, chatbots, and self-help resources. Automation can expedite response times, address common inquiries efficiently, and free up human resources for more complex support cases.
Building a Knowledge Base
Create a comprehensive knowledge base that provides answers to frequently asked questions, step-by-step guides, and troubleshooting resources. A well-organized knowledge base empowers customers to find solutions independently, reducing the need for direct support interactions.
Investing in Customer Success Teams
As your customer base expands, invest in a dedicated customer success team to proactively engage with users, ensure their success with your product, and anticipate their evolving needs. Personalized and proactive customer success efforts build strong customer relationships and drive retention.
Implementing SLAs (Service Level Agreements)
Define clear service level agreements to set expectations for response times and issue resolution. SLAs provide a benchmark for measuring customer support performance and demonstrate your commitment to delivering excellent service.
Data-Driven Decision Making – Navigating the Path to Growth
As your startup progresses towards acquiring the first 500 customers, data-driven decision-making becomes indispensable for effective growth strategies. By leveraging data and analytics, founders can make informed choices and optimize their marketing efforts for maximum impact.
Tracking and Analyzing Customer Behavior
Utilize analytics tools to track customer behavior, such as website interactions, feature usage, and conversion funnels. Analyzing this data helps identify areas for improvement and informs optimization strategies.
Segmentation and Personalization
Segment your customer base based on behavior, preferences, and demographics. Tailor your marketing messages and offerings to specific segments, providing a more personalized experience that resonates with individual users.
A/B Testing and Iteration
Conduct A/B tests to compare different marketing approaches, website layouts, or product features. A/B testing is a cornerstone tactic in growth hacking.
You should iteratively test and refine these elements based on performance data to continuously improve customer engagement and conversion rates. And when you do, you can make better business decisions based on data instead of hunches.
Utilizing Customer Feedback for Growth Opportunities
Leverage customer feedback not only for product improvements but also for identifying potential growth opportunities. And it’s important to listen to customer pain points, feature requests, and suggestions for expansion to uncover new avenues for business growth.
Competitive Differentiation – Standing Out in a Crowded Market
As your startup targets the first 500 customers, the competitive landscape may have evolved. However, to attract and retain customers in a more crowded market, it’s crucial to differentiate your offering and communicate your unique value proposition effectively.
Identifying Your Unique Selling Points
Conduct a thorough analysis of your competitors to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Identify the areas where your product excels and communicate these unique selling points clearly in your marketing messaging.
Focusing on Customer Experience
A superior customer experience can be a powerful differentiator. Therefore, you should (ideally) provide exceptional support, seamless onboarding, and personalized interactions to create a positive and memorable experience that sets your startup apart.
Showcasing Social Proof and Success Stories
Leverage testimonials, case studies, and success stories from satisfied customers to showcase social proof. By demonstrating real-world results and positive experiences, you can instill confidence in you from potential customers and build trust in your brand.
Innovating and Staying Ahead:
Continuously innovate your product or service to stay ahead of the competition. Anticipate market trends, emerging technologies, and customer needs to position your startup as a market leader and an innovator in your industry.
Marketing Strategies and Tactics – Acquiring Your Next 400 Customers to Reach 500
To acquire your next 400 customers and reach the milestone of 500, your startup needs a comprehensive marketing strategy that expands your reach, increases brand visibility, and drives customer acquisition.
And you’re going to have to expand what you do to get to 500 customers compared to what you had to do to get your first 100.
These two videos will help to supplement your knowledge so you can add what you learn into your strategy:
Broader Market Penetration
Reaching the first 500 customers requires broader market penetration. By this stage, your startup needs to appeal to a wider audience, including early adopters and the early majority, and gain traction beyond your immediate network of early supporters.
That being said, before diving into larger customer acquisition efforts, it’s essential to clearly define this target audience.
How are they different than your earliest users?
Or are there enough of the same types of early adopters as your first 100 customers where you can continue to adopt those customers?
Create valuable and relevant content that addresses your target audience’s pain points, educates them about industry trends, and showcases your expertise. Utilize blog posts, videos, infographics, and eBooks to engage and attract potential customers.
Writing a highly relevant blog post that will help your audience is a great way to engage them.
And it’s even better when you have a valuable e-book or checklist that someone can download from the same blog post, in the form of a lead magnet because you’ll get their email address and they’ll turn into a lead.
What’s more, you can even create a PDF of the post and make it a lead magnet, assuming the content is valuable enough to your target customer.
Social Media Engagement
Leverage social media platforms to engage with your audience, share content, and participate in conversations relevant to your industry. Build a community around your brand and foster meaningful connections with potential customers.
Nearly every single social media platform has the same features built in. And because of that, they like it when you use all of their features. Makes sense, right? Furthermore, using all of those features will increase your visibility and the algorithm will start to rank you higher in feeds.
Directions to Optimize your Time and Algorithm on Social Media
1) Define the number of people/profiles you will interact with. Between 30-60 people is a good range per two hour session of social media activity. However, if you’re just starting out or have less time to put in, then start with easily attainable goals like 10 – 30 actions per item and then continually work your way up to doing more.
2) Search for a topic or keywords and find however many new profiles of people, companies, and target customers that you wanna interact with in one session. Then open each profile in a new browser tab so you can do a social media engagement sprint. Close each tab/profile when done engaging.
3) Engage with the following tactics through the CLMMPFS formula that our founder, Carl, developed.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Optimize your website and content for search engines to improve organic visibility and attract qualified leads. Focus on relevant keywords and create valuable content that aligns with user search intent.
Once you have done that, build up your domain authority by getting other sites to backlink to yours, which will increase your traffic.
Consider targeted online advertising, such as Google Ads and social media ads, to reach a broader audience and generate leads. Use data-driven approaches to optimize ad campaigns for better ROI.
Referral Programs and Influencer Marketing
Encourage your existing customers to refer new users through referral programs. Additionally, collaborate with influencers and industry experts to reach their audiences and build credibility for your startup.
Email Marketing and Lead Nurturing
Build and segment your email list to deliver personalized and targeted messages. Use email marketing to nurture leads, onboard new customers, and engage with your audience on an ongoing basis. Find some of The Best Email Marketing Software For SMBs & Startups.
Strategic Partnerships and Collaborations
Identify strategic partnerships and collaborations that can extend your reach and introduce your startup to new audiences. Try partnering with complementary businesses or industry leaders to leverage mutual strengths because the more people in your active network, the better.
Events and Webinars
Participate in industry events, trade shows, and webinars to showcase your expertise and connect with potential customers.
Additionally, hosting webinars educates your audience and demonstrates the value of your product or service. When doing webinars, pre-record them, when possible.
Acquiring the first 500 customers for your tech startup requires a combination of strategic planning, persistent efforts, and a customer-centric approach.
Define your target audience, build an online presence, offer compelling free trials, and leverage the power of word-of-mouth and content marketing.
And, seek partnerships, attend industry events, and most importantly, prioritize exceptional customer support.
By following these processes, analyzing your results, and adjusting based on your data, you’ll be well on your way to establishing a solid customer base.