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How to Get Your First 1,000 Customers on the Cheap

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Your MVP is ready. Now you just need some customers to learn from. How can you get them without spending a bundle? 

By Jen Helms (Co-founder, Playmation Studios

Your MVP is ready, now what?

Initial traction is key to testing some of the assumptions you have made about your business. You need enough customers to have sufficient data to learn from but you aren’t ready for too big a push until you have validated your business model. However, you need to get those numbers up without spending much money and to do that you need to hustle. Keep in mind this post is assuming you have done all the initial work to really understand your value proposition by first actually speaking to customers, more on that in Tips for Mastering Customer Interviews.

Demo videos or other ways to allow a user to get an in-depth idea of your product are imperative but try to explore ways to go about it creatively and cheaply. When we launched FitCycle it was a really crowded marketplace and it was a product that was difficult to understand through an app store description. I made a demo video of our app — for $0. Shot the footage myself, had a friend be the star, used music my husband made, and used some basic video editing software to put it all together.

PR is a great tool but it is short lived and and not a long term strategy for driving growth. I reached out to every fitness publication I could think of including 45 independent health and fitness bloggers. The response was not great and while I don’t have a definitive reason why, my guess is twofold 1) we launched our MVP on android devices only; we heard back from a few individuals that they would be interested in an iOS version 2) spinning is a niche interest even within the health and fitness space. Of the three individual bloggers that got back to me, one interviewed me, one did a review of the app, and the other allowed me to do a guest post.

By making your outreach to journalists and media outlets as personal and relevant to them as possible, you can really increase your chances that you will actually get through to them. I reached out to about a dozen tech and traditional media outlets. When I reached out to Lifehacker, I framed the app as a hack to solve a personal problem that many others have as well; this resonates with what they are about so they took an interest and ran the story. The Lifehacker article in particular gave us a significant boost in downloads, but I think it would be a mistake just to target large publications for an MVP launch.

Be sure to test the channels your business will depend on long term. For us, a hypothesis was that exercise equipment retailers could act as channel partners.Their customers were asking for workout dvds and we were a new and local solution they could suggest. If you don’t have a clear idea of your channels, spend some more time brainstorming with the business model canvas to prepare for product launch.

Lastly, get creative with any other ideas that you have for initial traction even if they aren’t sustainable in the long run. The last thing I tried was fliers. I really have no clue how well this did for us. We didn’t set up the analytics to track it, but the cost was a mere $20 for a couple dozen good-looking, high-gloss flyers that I posted in community fitness centers and health food stores.

Between the media, partnerships, and flyers we were able to get 1,000 users within a few weeks and test some key assumptions we had made about our business model which turned out to be majorly flawed. I am sure that there are variations of this that will work differently for different startups. My main point is that with a little out of the box thinking you can get your first customers without spending money that your company doesn’t have. Wait and do that after you’ve validated your assumptions and are ready to push forward.

How did you get your first customers?

Jen Helms HeadshotAbout the guest blogger: Jen (@jenrhelmsis the co-founder of Playmation Studios, an adaptive game-based learning program revolutionizing how we learn language. Prior to Playmation she worked with her co-founder to rapidly prototype and release two other products into the marketplace. Jen has an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management. 

Photo credit: Matthew Burpee via Flickr