Getting your first customer is a milestone, it's the first time you can breathe a sigh of relief. Getting your first paying customer is an even greater accomplishment, and something you should certainly celebrate as a company — we did at Uncover. Getting your first paying customer means that not only have you built a product people want, but also they're willing to pay you for it. If you're an entrepreneur, there's no better feeling than watching your first dollar hit your bank account.
The Four Ways to Land the First
The very best thing you can do as a startup founder is to earn a reputation for helping others. The startup community has a great "pay it forward" mentality, and if you've helped people in the past by testing their product, giving feedback, and sharing the product with your friends, people will do it for you in turn. This will make it a lot easier for you when you're looking for your first user.
Obviously to be in a position to help other entrepreneurs, you need to be out there, meeting people and generally making yourself available to them. It takes a long time to build up these relationships and it takes some know-how. I wrote a post about How to Network back in early 2010. But even if you're not an seasoned networker, anyone can test a product and give feedback — and that's a great way to start.
If you don't have any relationships with other entrepreneurs, it goes without saying that you should reach out to your friends and family to be your initial users. The only problem with doing this — as is the case with Uncover — is that your closest friends and family may not be in the market you're looking to address. That's less of a problem for consumer apps than enterprise apps, but even family and friends may know others whom they could refer you to.
If you strike out after reaching out to other entrepreneurs and your friends, there are always friends of friends that you can get introduced to. Warm introductions from friends will be a lot easier to follow up on than cold introductions to people you don't know.
Emailing people you don't know without an introduction is the last resort when you're looking for your first customer. Honestly, if it comes down to this, then you're likely building something people don't want or in a market that you don't have any business addressing.
If all else fails, there's always buying advertising from Google, Facebook, and others, but this can be costly and often not worth it until you've reached product/market fit and know who your customers are. Until then, you might as well play the lottery. Your odds of landing a customer that way are about the same.