When you’re a founder at a SaaS, acquiring your first 10 users and customers is all on you.

One of the key differences between successful founders and, well, unsuccessful founders is that they know how to find customers with the right profile; get them to talk about the problems they’re facing and how they’d like to overcome them; and then help those leads to see that the valuable solution is possible because of the founders’ product.

But so often, you hear a founder ask, ‘How can I acquire my first 10/100/1000 customers?’

Fair question.

In this article, here’s what we’ll look at:

  • Why the common objections to founder led sales are really unhelpful
  • How to identify potential customers
  • How to get them to talk about the problems they’re facing
  • And how to help leads match your product to their problems

Ready? Let’s go!

Common objections to founder led sales

In my experience, the majority of first time founders don’t like doing sales. I can testify to this on a personal level because I hated doing sales when we first started.

But since I’ve been running growth in my own startup and also helping other people think about how they can do the same, I’ve seen that the most common question a founder who has a beta of their SaaS product asks is:

‘Anyone know how I can find a marketer or sales team to help me scale sales?’

There’s a number of issues to this.

The first one is that when you hire a consultant or marketing/sales hires, they’re going to want to know who they’re targeting. As a founder, you probably have an idea, but you won’t be able to communicate to anyone how to make replicable sales.

The second issue is that you cannot scale a sales process until you are reliably making sales yourself. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work. You burn cash because of the first reason (you don’t know who you’re selling to, what problems they have or what value you can actually add).

But the third thing that really kills startups who don’t use their founders to make early sales, is that they miss out on key insights from customers. When you don’t correctly understand your customers’ frustrations with how they’re doing things, you can’t help them solve their problems.

Each customer pain point can be linked to a product feature or set of features. Don’t lose out on their valuable insights because you’ve offloaded the sales work onto some poor stranger who will literally sell anything to make their targets.

I’ve found there are three major objections that founders have when they’re told to sell to their earliest customers.

By the way, I have a bunch of these posts about the foundations of growth lined up. If you want to get notified when they go live, join my mailing list here.

Objection 1: I’m afraid to speak to customers

The most prevalent and most relatable objection to founder led sales is this one: your folks told you not to speak to strangers when you were a kid and you’ve somehow applied that very useful lesson to selling your startup.

We’ll talk about some ways that you can better talk to potential customers later, but for now, let’s just sit with this for a moment.

You can spot a founder who’s afraid to talk to customers from a mile off.

They’re usually the ones telling everyone that the company should try any marketing hack that they possibly can (Have we tried the thing from x blogpost?) They’re often the ones who write the earliest content or social media posts too (spoiler alert: your content is probably not great at this point because you don’t know what your customers care about).

By the way, I totally understand the fear of talking to customers. It can feel uncomfortable.

But avoiding uncomfortable things leads to poorly formed companies.

How can you reframe the conversation so that talking to leads is less scary?

Foremost: reframe the conversation – you’re not trying to speak to potential customers, you’re trying to help people solve problems. This will be particularly helpful to product minded founders – it’s just an extension of what you’re already good at.

Secondly: If you’re genuinely helping, asking for the sale should be quite easy. If you’re in doubt about whether your product adds value to the lead or not, there’s nothing wrong with asking them a question like: ‘How do you see yourself using [PRODUCT] in your work?’

And finally, if the conversation feels forced, own up to that and take charge of the situation. Stoke your curiosity about the other person and the problems they’re trying to solve. When you become interested in the other person, you’re changing your whole interaction into one that values them as people – that’ll make it easier to ask them to become a customer.

Objection 2: Sales isn’t scaleable for growth

I think this is one of the most prevalent myths perpetuated by SaaS people who have never had to grow a startup or got incredibly lucky.

Some of the biggest startups in the world are still led by outbound sales – which, when you think about that, is wild – these are huge companies (1000s of staff).

Check out this tweet by Lenny Rachitsky for more insights into how huge startups got their first customers:

How companies you use every day got their first 10 B2B ccustomers from https://www.lennyrachitsky.com


I will accept that adding sales reps endlessly is probably not a good model. At some point, you’re going to run out of addressable market. But even still, that’s not going to happen for a REALLY long time.

Real talk: Most new SaaS founders who object to direct sales should not be thinking about what happens when they hit $100K ARR or even what happens when they hit $10K ARR.

They should be thinking about: is this a product that people want and can we sell it to them reliably?

And by the way, no-one is saying you have to do sales forever. Although, you may find that once you start acquiring customers, you actually kind of like it.

At that point, build yourself:

  1. A scaleable sales system – there are a trillion books and frameworks to help you do this
  2. A secondary growth channel that leverages the insights you got about your customers by doing direct sales

Objection 3: We don’t have this capability in our team

I see this objection to founder led growth roughly 3-5 times in any given week and every single time, my response is: I get it, but you’re going to have to develop that yourself if you want to succeed.

The reality of building a startup is that no matter how good an idea you have, you probably won’t just acquire customers without doing anything.

And it’s totally true that you could use a different channel and you might be really successful. But you’re unlikely to get the quality of insight by using Google Ads to validate your idea that you will by having conversations with your leads.

It’s like this Twitter chat with @harriskenny shows:


Early sales is not a zero sum activity. even if you don’t end up closing a deal, there’s usually a heap of value for everyone involved.

You get:

  • Insights into what problems your customers think you can and can’t solve for them
  • How valuable those problems are to them
  • What words your customers are using to signal value
  • What features/pricing/service works for them

They get:

  • To contribute insights to the development of a product that could add heaps of value to their company
  • A consultation with a innovative, problem-solving machine (you)
  • The opportunity to be an early adopter (which is a powerful value prop for a lot of people – particularly in stale industries)

Those are the most common objections that people have to running sales in their SaaS business early on. Now let’s talk about how to find those potential customers.

How to identify potential customers

There are two ways of running a SaaS company:

  1. Create a product and then find the customers
  2. Find the customers and then create a product.

The first is for people who love pain or have never run a SaaS.

The second is for people who like to go fast, the lucky or people who have done the first before.

One of the greatest things about entrepreneurs and founders is that they’re biased towards solving problems. But unfortunately, it also creates a good number of problems for them.

Most significantly, they often create products that no-one is asking for.

Example: I created a survey tool that didn’t allow people to give any personal information at all. Turns out almost every lead I talked to really didn’t care about anonymity.

When we added the functionality to add personal info, usage skyrocketed and so did revenue.

It’s important that your product aligns not just to the expectations of your users, but also to a market with a problem.

But, that’s the subject of another article.

An easy sell

Before you launch this wunderprodukt, you’re going to have to put in a bit of effort to the development and building of the thing.

No matter whether you’re building some deep tech tool or you’re productizing a process, you will almost certainly be changing the product in response to early testers.

An often overlooked way to find your first customers is to share the work you’re doing in a place that people who you want to buy from you hang out.

Here an example of someone who did this exact thing.

Dan Rowden is a prolific maker who’s responsible for a bunch of really cool SaaS products. Recently, he built Ilo, a product that helps people to understand their performance on Twitter and so naturally, Dan tweeted a big long thread of updates as he was building the prototype.


The result? Here’s Dan to tell you himself:

"I didn’t really have a single alpha launch. I’ve let people in in batches, starting with 5. Ilo is currently at around 90 users, though I had about 190 people show interest."

Would you like to launch to dozens of engaged users who actually wanted to use the product and were invested in the development of something that will improve a part of their lives that they care about?

Will they all turn into customers if and when Dan decides to monetize it? That’s unlikely. But will he have an easier job getting his first 10 customers? Absolutely.

Related tactic: have a waitlist signup

If you don’t have anywhere to collect a list of people who would be interested in using your product or becoming customers yet, set up a simple signup form on a landing page and start directing people to it when you’re talking to them about it.

You can change links on your social media profiles to point towards a landing page. Also consider adding a call to action in your emails.

Go to your early testers

For now, let’s assume that you have spoken to a few people who all share a common problem before you started developing a product.

The best way to find your first customers is to ask people who took part in your product development to pay you.

If they already helped you to build a problem that added value either by solving a problem they had or in some other less problem-focused way (that’s OK too by the way) then they should also be willing to pay you.

Bonus: take as much of the language that they used to talk about your product and put that into a swipe file somewhere.

Getting your first customer is the hardest part. But once it’s done, you’ll want to focus on trying to make a replicable sale(the pitch should stay relatively similar) to another of your early testers.

Repeat this until you have exhausted the pool.

Hang out where you audience hangs out

There is no singular place that should be the focus of your attention when you’re doing early promo work for your product.

However, something that a lot of people do that will be the source of endless misery for them (and you if you copy them): Unless you have a product that is specifically for the maker/SaaS/product community, stay away from trying to acquire customers and asking for too much feedback from sites where they hang out.

Why is this a shortcut to destruction? Because if they’re not your customer, it’s just ego stroking. And ego stroking, as much as we all love it sometimes, doesn’t pay the bills.

Instead, ask your earliest users (or if you don’t have any yet, use a tool like SparkToro to find them), where they’re spending their time online.

If it’s in a Facebook group (where an astonishing amount of conversation actually happens) then go and become an active member. After you’ve interacted and discovered the lay of the land, you can start sharing information about what you’re doing.

A good way to do this is by recording a short demo video to see who is interested. You can do that super easily with a Loom video – don’t worry about production values at this stage, you just need something to show people so that they can understand what they’re trying to do.

Here’s an outline of a status update for a Facebook group that you can use to write your own:

Hey

It’s good to be taking part in the community. I’m trying to help {{your audience}} solve {{your main problem}} by {{your main feature}}. I made a video of a tool that I’m building to {{your main value prop}} — check it out at the link below. I’m actually looking for people to try out the tool I built for this purpose.

Anyone here interested?

{{Link to your video demo}}


After you post this, you’ll learn two things:

  1. If you use Loom, you’ll be able to get notifications when your video is first viewed. And then you’ll get viewing figures (as well as who viewed it) – this should give you a clue of how much unqualified interest there is in your product from the community that you are engaging with. Still, be cool, don’t dive on any of those poor unsuspecting viewers yet
  2. The ratio of video views to comments (a like probably doesn’t mean anything anymore) on your post (or the video itself) will help you to qualify the amount of interest that the community you’re taking part in has to try your product


A Loom video I made showing the view count

The most important thing here is people indicating that they want to actually try your product. If people are saying that you ask them to sign up to your pre-launch form.

However, consider engaging with them directly instead.

I once had someone reach out to my company to ask about using our product for one of their consulting jobs.

It would have been easy to fire back a pre-recorded demo video and a link to our signup page.

Instead, I opened my webcam and recorded a 2 minute walkthrough of our product showing exactly how it could help them in the use case that they had told me about.

What happened? Sale! It took me 2 minutes and an email. And it netted me $120 MRR.

That’s the benefit of personal interaction.

Here are some other places you might find your first customers:

  • Events/tradeshows – You can search eventbrite for local events
  • Meetups – Use meetup.com to find relevant groups
  • Industry bodies – particularly if you’ve got a product for a customer in professional services – many people will publish some kind of industry body affiliation so it should be easy to find members with a quick search
  • Slack (or equivalent) communities
  • LinkedIn’s search is pretty great – but in my experience, using LinkedIn together with a tool like Prospect.io is a better combination. Build a cold outreach list to work through.
  • Any place where you can find 10 or more of the same kind of person is a good place to start prospecting for your first ten users

How to get them to talk about the problems they’re facing

SaaS sales is all about helping people to either:

  1. Create value in their lives by using your product
  2. Solve a problem they have by using your product

In my experience, solving a problem is the easier sell. People like adding value but they also (unfortunately) often like doing the bare minimum to get their day jobs done.

In either scenario, the crucial aspect of sales is helping a potential customer align the challenges they’re facing to your solution.

For example: Let’s say I’ve got a to-do list app that helps people smash through their goals by playing them music while they work and chimes in to ask them how they’re doing if they go off task.

I’ve gone onto a Facebook group for ‘entrepreneur mindset’ because I know that my target customer values things like‘entrepreneurship’ and is also introspective.

That’s alignment.

Getting your prospects to talk about their problems is the key here though.

My initial pitch (see above) might have got me my first 10 pitches.

How do I get them to actually talk about their pain points so that I can sell them my product?

I worked as a journalist for years and spent huge amounts of time refining my interviewing technique so that I could get to the story as quickly as possible. And I’ve also done SaaS sales. Win win.

Here are some tips that I’ve picked up from years of interviewing people:

Have a working hypothesis of how to arrive at the pain points

People rarely just open up and tell you their problems at the start of a call.

Some will, but they’re often so focused on their problem that they actually can’t see past it to a solution. That is likely to be a red flag for your sales pitch.

On the other hand, work backwards from your value proposition to try to get to a starting point for your conversation.

Example: my imaginary product helps people slam through their to-do list by giving them a coach and getting them ‘inthe zone’.

I’d be asking myself: if I want people to open up about their productivity and distraction problems, how do I start?

They probably already have a to do system of some kind if they’re failing to work through their lists. I could start by asking them about that.

Then I’d work back and forth through that process, asking myself a bunch of questions that I will ultimately use to try and highlight and get a strong picture of their pain points.

Have an agenda for the call

Seems creepy to have an agenda for an informal chat. And it kind of is. So you don’t need to have it written out.

What I like to do is start any sales or customer call off with something like:

“Hey.

So great to be talking today.

If it’s OK with you, here’s what I think we should cover off on this call so that we can make the most of the time we have.

[LIST THE AGENDA].

Is there anything else you want to talk about?”


I have found this to be a very useful way to show the following:

  1. I appreciate their time and don’t want to waste any of it
  2. I am focused on helping them solve a problem (more on that later)
  3. I am open to hearing their thoughts on where the conversation should go too

I’ve listened to a good number of people do sales calls from both sides. You would be amazed at how messy those calls get when there’s not an agreed upon agenda.

The best sales call I ever received from someone was a sales rep at ActiveCampaign. It was his first day on the job and I picked up on a cold email he sent me in response to a tweet I’d sent a few weeks previous.

We hopped on a screenshare.

The guy already had a slide deck with the agenda. He listened to my specific problems – which I had already thought about. He demonstrated some of the features that aligned to my problem.

I bought a paid subscription that same day. As you can imagine, a tool like ActiveCampaign retains new customers for a long time too!

Don’t go off on rabbit trails

Customer time is precious. Your time is precious. It’s great to build customer relationships but the focus of this call is to help people get to an open and honest expression of some pain point that they want to solve.

Avoid the temptation to talk about projects they’re working on that are unrelated to that. If you end up going off course, always keep in mind the set of questions that you need to work through in order for them to talk about their pain point. Keep bringing the conversation back to that.

All time top interview advice: ask open questions

This is such common advice but so uncommonly listened to. So let me reiterate.

Best question: ‘How do you keep track of the tasks that you’re working on?’

Good question: ‘Can you describe your task management system?’ (this still leaves an opportunity for a one word answer)

Bad question: ‘Do you have a todo list?’ (They’ll either say yes or no and then you have no more information)

And how to help leads match your product to their problems

We’re slamming through acquiring our first customer acquisition process. We’ve found potential customers, booked sales calls in with them, asked them about their problems. Now we want to match the pain point they have to the solution our product provides.

Here’s how I might run my call with someone:

CHAT BEGINS

Me: Great to be in touch. How’s business?

Them: It’s pretty good. We’re growing fast. So many new customers!

Me: Wow. Congratulations. How are you managing with all that new work?

Them: We’re doing OK. I mean, there’s a lot on. But it’s a great problem to have.

Me: Sure is! But do you think you’re getting it all done? How are you keeping track of your tasks?

Them: Oh, I have a notebook that I keep on my computer desk.

Me: Yeh. I’ve definitely had one of those in the past too. So when a new task comes in, you just write it down?

Them: Yup. Works pretty well for me.

Me: It’s good practice to write down tasks as you go for sure. But what percentage would you say you get done in the day?

Them: Depends. I get the really high priority things done but if I’m honest, I get sidetracked with the more boring, mundane work.

Me: spotting the opportunity to align my product to their problem Oh man! I’ve been there. Have you tried listening to music while you’re doing it?

Them: Yes. I find that helpful but then often something more interesting pops into my head and I find myself following that up.

Me: You need some kind of coach to sit on your shoulder right? And check in with you to see how your task busting’s going laughs

Them: Laughs too Haha! Yup. I guess I do.

Me: You saw the video walkthrough that I posted to the group the other day? Did you see the coach feature? That pings you when you go off task?

Them: That looked really neat.

Me: Would you consider giving it a go?

Them: Yes or No – but here’s my specific objection

CHAT ENDS

And that’s how I’d go about getting my first customer.

Now I’m not saying it will be as linear for you as that.

But by helping a potential customer see that you understand their problems and then offering them a solution, you take the conversation away from a sales call and take it into the territory of a helpful conversation addressing specific pain points your lead is having.

What do you do now?

I’ve often sat down at my computer or been waiting in line at a store reading an article on my phone about how to improve some aspect of sales, marketing and customer acquisition and thought, “wow. That seems easy.”

And here’s the thing about sales: if you put away all the images of sleazy car salesmen and timeshare sales people, and focus on providing value or resolution to other human beings, the job becomes a lot more pleasant.

You’re providing value. They’re paying you. It’s a fair exchange.

Here’s what you should do in response to this article:

  1. Make a list of your value propositions
  2. Identify 10-15 prospects for your product
  3. Work out how to contact them in a friendly way
  4. Hop on a call with each of them
  5. Help them talk about the problems they’re facing
  6. Tell them about how they can use your product to solve those problems
  7. Ask them to pay you
  8. Repeat this often!

I’d love to hear if you end up using any of the stuff from this article in your SaaS sales process and especially if you get any of your first customers using these tips. Ping me on @iammarcthomas when you do!

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