A few days back we crossed 100 paying customers (yay!) and tweeted about it
We just hit 100 paying customers. No investor money, no ad spend - purely organic growth! Thank you all for putting your trust in us!— SupportBee (@supportbee) April 1, 2013
Much to my surprise, this became one of our most popular tweets. A bunch of people (on/off Twitter) asked us how we got first our first few customers without spending anything. Here is the story and the details.
We Started Early - Really Early!
We started talking to people much before we had a product. We only had a product idea back then. We knew that we wanted to make a better help desk software. We were frustrated with what we had used in the past and thought the tools could be better. However we wanted to be sure that this was a real problem for others too. Months before we even wrote the first line of code, we had reached out to many customer support people that we respected and had talked to them about our idea and what they thought of it.
In fact, the first one, with Valarie of Balsamiq was way back in July 2010 (our first code check-in was in August 2010 and the development picked up steam only in Jan 2011). If you see the email, I had not even setup my SupportBee email then :)
Over the next few months, we talked to Derek Sivers from CDBaby, Chris from Wufoo and many others. If you want the details, you can see our customer development questionnaire.
Customer Development is not a Customer Acquisition Channel
Even though we talked to a whole bunch of people in the first few months and it helped us define our MVP, we were not yet ready for customers. We were not engaging with these folks to turn them into customers. In fact very few of those early interviews lead to actual customers. Other people have written about the fallacy of customer development.
Customer Development Stories can be an Acquisition Channel
As we did the first few interviews, we saw that apart from learning about customer problems, there were a lot of great customer support learnings and stories in these interviews. We started turning these into blog posts and started publishing them. We appended a small message about SupportBee at the end of the blog posts and this helped us in finding first few beta customers. We also posted a few of them on Hacker News that helped us gain additional visiblity. This is how the first few visionary customers found us. They could relate to the problem that we were solving (an email like tool for customer support). Over the next few months these blog posts gave us 100s of beta signups and a lot more understanding of the problem.
Talking about our Technology Stack helped us
As we started working on our product, we decided to start writing about our technology stack. In particular about building a single page app with Backbone.js. Some of these posts got us a lot of visibility on Hacker News, for example the post on building a dependable hosting stack on Hetzner. Even though our target audience is customer support people we realized that in SMEs (our target niche), developers are involved in the decision making or act as influencers. In fact, in a recent customer interview one of our very early customers told us that their developer found SupportBee when they were looking for an alternative to Zendesk.
Other Smaller (but useful) Channels
There were a few other interesting channels for finding early adopters. Quora tops the list. The obvious way to use Quora is to pitch your product in the right questions. We did that but what we found more useful was to answer other questions that we had expertise in as a team. This involved single page apps, Backbone.js, accepting payments as an Indian startup etc. Once again the decision makers/influencers for our market hang out on Quora and this gave us the right kind of visibility. I think we explored Facebook/Twitter etc but that did not work very well for us (mostly because I think we did not know how to use it right)
So that's how we found our early adopters. If you have any stories of your own, please add them as a comment or post a link to your blog posts on the subject. If you have any questions, please leave them as comments.