Now not only do you have your great business idea, but you have also thought about the problem you are solving, how you are adding value to your customer and what will make your business stand out from the crowd. If you haven’t figured this out yet, check out How to get started. Once you’ve done that, your next step is to find your first customers.

It’s time to test your product with actual customers who understand what you are offering, see the value and want to pay for it. How do you go about getting your first five customers and why is this an important first step?

The difference between an idea and a business is the presence of paying customers. These are your early adopters, those who understand your service and can clearly see its value. They are therefore willing to pay for it. Customers are the most essential part of a business. Without their money, you can’t stay in business. 

There are many ways through which one can acquire their first customers. In my time as a social entrepreneur whose business supports other entrepreneurs, these are the strategies that I have seen work:

1. The Power of Networks

This is all about reaching out to the people you know. The contact list on your mobile phone is a good place to start. It may be former classmates, colleagues at work, that long lost friend, your family members or close relatives the list is honestly endless. And just in case you feel as though you do not have a network to speak of, go out and build one. Attend relevant events, conferences, get references and start pulling together a list of relevant contacts.

When my partners and I were starting out to build the Kijiji, we focused on building our networks by attending events to the point of event fatigue (yes, this is actually a thing). However, our efforts paid off, as it was through our networks that we got our first paying client. This is also how we got our first major consulting contract as we were just starting out the business. 90% of our clients for the first year were people from our networks.

Does the idea of networking scare the bejesus out of you? Creating a strong network doesn’t have to be so complicated or scary. Check out this free online networking course by +Acumen.

2. Let people sample what you are selling

If you show someone a mango and describe to them how delicious it is, they can never really be sure until they taste it. It is the only way they can really ascertain that it is delicious. The same goes for starting a business, especially if you are introducing something into the market that people are not too familiar with.  

A close friend decided to sell granola as a way of trying to make ends meet. She was convinced that she had a good product as it was fresh, tasty and healthy. However, she quickly realized that people had no idea what granola was. She resorted to giving out samples for people to try out and this is how she built her customer base.

I’ll give you another example. At the Kijiji, we support locally-led social businesses and one of our offerings is a fully serviced office space on flexible terms. To get more people into the space, we offer a trial day where one can come and soak up some Kijiji air and get a sense of whether it would be an ideal workplace for them.

3. Build partnerships that give you credibility

There are new businesses sprouting up on a daily offering numerous products and services. How can you stand out from the crowd? One way is to partner up with those who have already built a name for themselves as this will lend you some credibility to start off with. This is where that network you built will come in handy!

While building the Kijiji, we started out without a physical space, but we focused on building a community that we would later host in our space. Our strategy was to engage people through events, but as we didn’t have a space and were operating on a zero budget, we partnered with different organizations to host these events in their space. At that point we were not recognized, nobody knew who or what the Kijiji was. But we had packed events because the organizations we partnered with gave us credibility, and this was the start of the Kijiji community as we know it today.

4. Get out there and tell people about your business

Unless you are out there talking to people about your business, how will they know that you even exist? There are numerous ways one can get the word out there about their business, such as:

  • Social media: Post about your business on your Facebook/Instagram/Twitter. You never know if your first customers are hiding in your extended networks!
  • Flyers & posters: Place them strategically where your target market is likely to hang out.
  • Talk to new people. Attend events and gatherings that are relevant to you as you build your business.