As small business owners we often spend a lot of time creating and refining our product or service, putting the finishing touches on our website, and then waiting for that first customer to magically appear.
But those who’ve already gone through this process know waiting is the wrong way to go about things. You’ve got to be active and go out there. You’ve got to put your business in front of the right people.
It’s often a testament of will.
To gain my first customer I had to put my product on Ebay. That was back in 2001 when there weren’t nearly as many options as there are now. And it was hard. I felt like giving up before I ever got started.
Since getting that first customer can be so hard, most people remember it. So I decided to ask small business owners how they found their first customer. The answers made great stories and I’ve shared the top 26 of those with you here. It’s my hope these stories inspire you whether you’re on your first or your 2000th customer.
The Story of Finding Your First Customer:
1. Luke Palder, Founder and CEO of ProofreadingServices.com
Getting our first customer was TOUGH.
It took us three months, and our first client was only worth $60, and we couldn't even fulfill the order when we started due to the client's request being outside of our scope. That was three years ago. Despite how much effort that took, it was beyond worth it because we weren't trying to get a client; we were trying to set up a method to acquire clients. Three years later, we've had over 2,000 clients from 47 countries.
When we started, we didn't have any money to spend on marketing. We decided SEO was the best way to start the flow of potential clients. Every day, we'd guest blog. I probably wrote 50-80 posts over the first three months, all offering useful information for free on other blogs and hoping people would share our content and site within their spheres of influence. As we guest blogged, our site rose in the ranks and, eventually, we ranked in the top 3 on Google for the phrase “proofreading services.” We started getting leads and started learning how to better fulfill our clients' orders. The rest is history. We're doing very well now, but only because we put in all that work to get the very first client.
– Luke Palder, Founder and CEO of ProofreadingServices.com
2. Mitch Goldstone, President & CEO of ScanMyPhotos.com
Back in August, 2008, ScanMyPhotos.com was launching a new way to provide large column photo scanning. To get our first customer, I worked the phones and contacted tech reporters. Among the first was NYT tech columnist, David Pogue. He was literally stubbed we could digitize so many photos so quickly and affordable. Our prepaid, fill the box service with free three-way shipping caught him off guard. It was a new idea and he sent in an order. On August 14, 2008 his column appeared and we got not just our first key customer, but a raving fan and 34,000 visits to the ScanMyPhotos.com site the first day. Orders still come in from scoring that first review.
– Mitch Goldstone, President & CEO of ScanMyPhotos.com
3. Zlatan Beca, Co-founder and VP of Sales at Repair Jungle
Our first customer literally originated in the midst of office water-cooler talk. We were new to the office we are currently in and were simply telling our neighbor what we did. His spouse was in need of some car repair and he sent her our way. She was the first of the 400+ customers we acquired to date and we are very grateful to her trusting a young startup!
– Zlatan Beca, Co-founder and VP of Sales at Repair Jungle
4. Jamie Prescott, Owner of Wag Tail Farms
The “Neck Hug” is an alternative to the hard plastic cone to protect the pet after surgery and overall protection from licking, biting or scratching. I found my first customer by bringing a prototype “Neck Hug” to work. I heard of a co-worker who spent her spare time at a pet rescue and thought she might like a donation of one of my little creations since it helped my own dog after a recent hip surgery. He came home with a big cone on his head and he was miserable so I set out to make something comfortable & safe. She was thrilled to see something so unique and found that they actually worked!
Over a few weeks, I brought in a few “Neck Hugs” to her and in carrying them from the car to her office, people would stop and ask about them (because they were so colorful) and the requests started coming in droves! So I not only had a first customer, I had several first customers. Soon the news of my creation spread all over campus and by then I had my website and Facebook page up and running. I was getting orders from all over the United States and Internationally. Eventually, I quit my job to start my business and I couldn't be happier. This is definitely an example of starting something with the thought of simply helping someone, only to be rewarded many times over.
– Jamie Prescott, Owner of Wag Tail Farms
5. Shari Myles, President of Polished Publicity
We specialize primarily in the beauty and lifestyle industries, so that helped me to specifically target potential new clients. I found my first client on Instagram while conducting a search using beauty-specific hashtags. From there, I reached out, scheduled a meeting, and was able to sign the client soon after.
– Shari Myles, President of Polished Publicity
6. Vickie Harvey, Founder of Home Staging Services of North Texas
In March of this year I started a Home Staging business. As part of building my business profile I spent a lot of time on the internet and different sites creating a website and getting listed as much as possible. When I asked my first client how she got my name and number and she said she looked for Home Stagers online and she found my information through Pinterest.
– Vickie Harvey, Founder of Home Staging Services of North Texas
7. Teana McDonald, Founder of 3EConnections.com
It took me 3 tries to figure out what I should be doing. At the time I had no idea where this road would lead. I'm a member of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and I was asked to present to the group about social media. At the time businesses were not diving right in because they were unsure how to do it and what the impact would be. I stood up in front of about 15 women and discussed ways to expand their businesses through social media (mainly because I had had so much success with it at the time).
After that meeting, I had several ladies approach me to ask me how to set up their Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter pages. I met with them for free and enjoyed helping them. A few weeks later I was on a plane talking with our chapter's President. She said to me, “You cannot continue to help people for free. At some point you have to consider your time and charge for it.”
Once I arrived back home, I told myself that the next person that asks for help will become my first paying client. And then I made it happen!
– Teana McDonald, Founder of 3EConnections.com
8. Bill Balderaz, President of Fathom Columbus
Never burn a bridge! My first three clients were my three most recent employers. I kept great relationships with them all and when I went out on my own, it was very natural to approach them first.
– Bill Balderaz, President of Fathom Columbus
9. Inna Kraner, Esq., Managing Editor of The Expert Institute
We focus on providing attorneys with highly qualified expert witnesses. When our CEO started the company, he approached his first clients through an interesting and surprising path. He called every attorney and law firm with a TV commercial campaign. And it worked!! The first attorney who took his call was excited and pleased that his advertising was working. The two discussed the benefits and value of TV advertising and our CEO utilized the opportunity to talk to the attorney about expert witnesses in litigation. The attorney had a trial coming up and decided to try our service. With his growing customer base, he utilized our service again and again. He is a great client to this day.
– Inna Kraner, Esq., Managing Editor of The Expert Institute
10. Emily Gimmel, Owner of TheGraceShip.com
GRACESHIP's first customer actually came from Facebook. I had been posting about the evolution of the company as it happened – I posted about the process of designing the bags, my travels to China to find a warehouse, and all of the interesting things that happened along the way. I think this created interest in more than the product – the customer could see the process and the passion behind the bags, and when the line was ready for sale, my followers were ready to buy! The process of finding and interacting with customers has evolved since then, but social media is still an important part of that process.
– Emily Gimmel, Owner of TheGraceShip.com
11. Ken Kilpatrick, President of Sylvia Marketing & Public Relations
I found my first customer the old fashioned way: dialing for dollars. Ten years ago, the public relations agency I worked for lost several major accounts and as a result, I lost my job. I vowed never again to place my future in the hands of another company, and set out to make it on my own. I quickly drew up a business plan—in my head. That plan included hiring a virtual office to answer my calls and provide me a corporate mailing address, going door to door in business parks, and working the phone. It was the latter that landed my first client.
I estimate I made nearly 100 contacts before I finally reached someone who was interested in what I had to offer. I probably could have cut that list in half if I had known up front what I learned months into the process: I learned to refine my message, target industries in which I had enough experience to “speak their language”—and most importantly, I learned to research through the Internet and news articles businesses with indicators of having an actual need for positive publicity.
– Ken Kilpatrick, President of Sylvia Marketing & Public Relations
12. Wanda Anglin, Owner of SEO Buzz Internet Marketing
Working for a corporation for 30 years with layoffs looming, I had been thinking about my new career for a long time. In early 2012, it struck me. Marketing was the perfect blend of analysis, creativity, and planning…all the things I love. So while exploring this idea, I was unexpectedly laid off that summer. Grateful for my incubating plan, I quickly built and optimized my website and arranged personnel for skills I did not want to possess.
I knew from sales support experience and education (MBA) that I needed a huge pipeline to net a few clients. I quickly exhausted my first line of attack on my family, close friends, and email database of past and recently past colleagues. I then made a list of people who had impressed me, but perhaps were not considered a close friend. I considered my husband's friends, businesses I frequented, and people I had met since moving to a new area in 2009.The last person I contacted on my list was someone I had met about a year before while serving on the school PTO. She was last on my list because she did not work outside the home, so I had not really put her in the business building category (shame on me!). But she had tons of family and friends. A couple of weeks after I reached out to her, she brought me my first client, her aunt, who was starting a new business based on an invention. My next client came from someone I worked with 25 years ago without much contact since. And that client now has 2 businesses that I help market. Two very unlikely sources of help were my saving grace.
Lessons learned: Make your list of potential contacts for business long and exhaustive. Think beyond business contacts. Never assume someone can't recommend you. Make each request for help personal.
– Wanda Anglin, Owner of SEO Buzz Internet Marketing
13. Paul Sheng, CEO of iHouseWeb and FoundHere.com
We got our first ihouseweb customer at 7.32pm PST august 20th 2000. in our garage, we had slaved away for several months building one of the first real estate website template companies. it was designed to be self-service and self-sign up via a web form, since we had no customer service or sales department at the time. To be honest, it wasn't really quite ready for external consumption and had lots of bugs, but we just wanted to put it out there in the market place. Looking at our first version today, it looks so dated!!
Earlier in the day, we literally copied and pasted hundreds of email addresses of realtors we found on the web and then sent a simple email to them offering our product. We had built in real-time tracking to observe any click activity on our website so we could see any interest, particularly for our free trial version. We huddled in the garage watching the monitor screen.
Suddenly, at 7:32 pm, we saw that the event that defines a customer – namely a credit card transaction! There were a bunch of high fives and we sat there till midnight staring at the scrolling screen. Unfortunately it took a few more days for more customers to come, but it was a fun moment.
14. Justin Dignam, Founder & CEO of BigFish Payroll Services
We incorporated in fall 2003 and got our first client because my wife called a local printer asking if he could produce business cards for me. He said yes, then asked what we do, then signed up.
It made us think that building this business would be a piece of cake, which we learned it was not. If only every sale was that easy!
– Justin Dignam, Founder & CEO of BigFish Payroll Services
15. Tim Barry, Founder of Intelligent Technologies, Inc & Extend-ITs
I had a job and all I really wanted was to buy airline seat belt extenders to use on my own flights. Since the manufacturer's all had minimum order quantities I set up a small web store to sell off the rest of them. I'm an Internet developer and the whole thing took a couple evenings.
Once I took it live I did a couple quick Google PPC ads and within a couple weeks I had my first customers and had sold off all the rest of the belts I had ordered. Surprised by how fast this went, it looked to me like it might be a business and, over 40,000 extenders later, I guess I was right.
From that single online store in 2002 I now have 10 different niche market online stores and it's now my full time job.
16. Becky J. Benes, Founder of BeckyJBenes.com
Actually my first customer found me. Our children were in the same Girl Scout Troop and my first client watched me successfully and joyfully balance my work, family and play. She was intrigued at how I kept it all together with grace and ease. Her life was chaotic, hectic and stressful. She seemed to be running all of the time and getting nowhere.
She approached me saying, “Becky, I want what you have.”
I invited her into a conversation about leading a Spirit-Led life and business which meant operating from a place of purpose, authenticity, and balance. In this conversation, we discussed the cost of living and working in chaos and overwhelm. We discussed the impact all of this had on her life, her family, and her business. We then discussed the possibility of something different.
This conversation turned into a client which is actually how I find 90% of my clients and what I teach my clients. By living and working from a place of authenticity and doing what you love, you attract your ideal clients. Once someone is attracted to you, it is time to enter into a conversation. The conversation is a heartfelt discovery of where the person is and where they want to go and how you may serve them. From this place of authenticity, one’s life and business begins to flow with ease and grace and stress and competition is greatly minimized.
– Becky J. Benes, Founder of BeckyJBenes.com
17. Britt Menzies, Creator of StinkyKids.com
A friend of mine was in Nordstrom’s wearing her StinkyKids tee shirt in the kids department. A sales associate came over to her and asked her where she bought such an adorable tee shirt. She then explained that it was a brand created by her friend and began to tell the story behind the tee. The sales associate then brought over her manager, who also listened to the story behind the tee. She then called the store manager who also listened to the story and contacted me with the name and information for the buyer of kids clothes for all of Nordstrom stores.
I immediately called the buyer and within 2 weeks, my StinkyKids tee shirts were in all Nordstrom locations. From there, they also purchased our StinkyKids dolls and books and have been a fan of my brand ever since.
I owe a lot to my friend, and Nordstrom stores for believing in my brand and myself so early on in my process of becoming a successful business woman.
– Britt Menzies, Creator of StinkyKids.com
18. Marian Thier, Founder of ListeningImpact.com
I was facilitating a leadership initiative at a Fortune 100 company, and at the end of a session, the head of HR approached me saying, “You seem to be good with people and we have an executive team that's a disaster. I'd like you to see what you can do to help them function better. And don't worry if you can't make a difference, they can't get any worse.” That was both the start of my long and rewarding coaching career, and two years with that team during their impressive evolution.
– Marian Thier, Founder of ListeningImpact.com
19. Jared Carrizales, CEO of Heroic Search
I got my first customer/client by getting fired from my last job.
I currently run a search marketing agency in Dallas, but used to work for a digital marketing agency as their director of search. As management and I continued to go in different directions on how to perform SEO (search engine optimization), they eventually decided to let me go.
I started my own search marketing company over the next month, which was also about the time when my newly formed company earned its first client. As it happens, one of my previous employers clients found out I left the company, and decided to come on board with me and discontinue recurring work with my previous employer. They were a sizable account and left my new company immediately flush with cash – on top of the start-up capital.
People say that ALL successful businesses have to have at least a little bit of luck to survive. I've experienced this thought process and say that it's absolutely true.
– Jared Carrizales, CEO of Heroic Search
20. Craig Hohnberger, Sr. Partner – Buji Group & ActionCOACH Business Coaching
In 2001 I jumped out of the corporate world to start a business coaching firm working with business owners to help them improve their businesses. A few weeks later at the dentist for a regular checkup and cleaning, the office manager was taking my new insurance details and asked about my new business. When I explained what I do, she asked if we consider employee suggestions in our approach. I said “absolutely, they normally have most of the answers already anyway, but too often the owner just doesn’t listen and needs to hear it from a 3rd party.” She told me the dentist needed to hire me. I told her to tell him to ask me about the business and tee me up. She did and I did the first half of the sales call while he was looking in my mouth. Not sure how dentists understand us when we are mumbling past their teeth, but he did. Signed him up officially a week later.
– Craig Hohnberger, Sr. Partner – Buji Group & ActionCOACH Business Coaching
21. Michelle Roediger, Owner of Baire
We did all sorts of advertising to prepare for our Baire Grand Opening; We handed out flyers, put up posters, did online advertising, contacted every single person we knew, and so much more. But our first client came from a small article in the local, neighborhood newspaper called the Clinton Chronicle. They had a short story about our opening. It was really nice.
Our first client called the day that the article came out and was booked for our first available opening. He brought in his girlfriend, who eventually also became a client. So, it was a major first client win for us!
– Michelle Roediger, Owner of Baire
22. Janice M. Sellers, Owner of Ancestral Discoveries
My small business is Ancestral Discoveries, and I do genealogy research for people and companies. I found my first customer by placing a free ad in the monthly newsletter of my local Mensa group. The first time I placed an ad, someone responded. He was a customer for 5 years.
– Janice M. Sellers, Owner of Ancestral Discoveries
23. Shilonda Downing, Owner Virtual Work Team LLC
While I did side work for several co-workers in the HR realm when I worked full time; my first client came from me deciding to do a local search on Craigslist. I wanted to see if anyone was looking for administrative services. I noticed that the Chicago Cabaret company was looking for such services and the president allowed me to work on their membership services from home. It was awesome and I went in to work in her home office a couple of times. She was a wonderful client, my first non-brick and mortar client and we still keep in touch to this day and that was over 8 years ago.
– Shilonda Downing, Owner Virtual Work Team LLC
24. Nellie Akalp, CEO of Corpnet.com
I found my first client by attending a networking group. I was able to network with other small business owners and market our products and services at the same time. As a result, the head of the group who happened to be a CPA started using our services for himself and all of his clients.
– Nellie Akalp, CEO of Corpnet.com
25. Ian Aronovich, Co-founder and CEO of GovernmentAuctions.org®
Our company bootstrapped from the beginning. We started off by buying a domain and building up the site with money from our own pockets. We invested $5 into advertising with a now defunct PPC search engine called GoClick (where clicks cost a single penny). After spending the $5 in ads, we acquired our first customer who was eventually led to our site.
– Ian Aronovich, Co-founder and CEO of GovernmentAuctions.org®
26. Kathy Steck, Founder DinerWear LLC
When I first started DinerWear® with stylish alternatives to the adult bib I followed the advice of my small business administration counselor and talked to directors of assisted living communities. During one of my fact finding meetings, I received feedback that lead to a new product design and my first order. This product has become an integral part of our offerings. My initial meetings also lead me to networking groups that have helped me gain exposure in my industry.
– Kathy Steck, Founder DinerWear LLC
I hope these stories inspire you to find your first customer. While several of these small business owners found their first customers online, it seems the majority of those interviewed used networking to get their product or service out there. I thought that was interesting with all the technology available today. What do you think?