By: Stewart ChambersCC BY 2.0

I meet many people who struggle with ideas for a startup – at least for one they would be ready to take a risk to explore.

Thankfully this is not a problem I have. There is no shortage of ideas nor of the capability to generate ideas. Neither do I have a huge aversion to risk – I try to fail cheaply and try to learn as fast as I can.

My biggest problem is finding customers. Not customers to buy a finished product that I have spent thousands of pounds and countless hours building – I don’t often get that far. What I struggle to find are early adopters to test the ideas on for real – meaning that they actually have the problem I am trying to solve and would be willing to pay for the solution.

Early customers may not stick with your product all the way through, but the early feedback they can give is invaluable – at least this is what I hope. Without early customers helping to validate my assumptions, my real risk aversion kicks in and I will stop working on the idea. The lack of feedback may, itself, be valuable feedback!

There may be lots of reasons why early customers are hard to find, but some reasons are more reasonable indicators of the viability of the idea than others. My main reason is fear of what I perceive selling to be, crossed with impatience.

My Definition of Selling (and marketing)

My operating definition of ‘selling’ is this:

Selling is the art of persuading someone to exchange  something they have  – that you want –  for something you have.

Interestingly, my definition of ‘marketing’ is:

Marketing is the art of persuading someone to want what you have to sell.

In my mind, selling and marketing share the same process – persuasion- and differ only by goal.

To me customer development is a form of selling. One where I’m trying to persuade someone with valuable insight into how their business works and real world needs to exchange their insight, time and money with me for the chance to have those needs met through my development of a product/service. Once I ‘sell’ them on the idea – then I can do surveys, usability testing, A/B testing blah, blah, blah. But if they don’t ‘buy’ – I got nothing!

My Name is Mike and I’m Afraid of Selling

I love people, I love talking with people and listening. I love hearing about the problems they have and I have learnt to not jump in with solutions. However, when I think that what I need to do is ‘sell’, my brain goes into lockdown. I find every possible reason not to ‘sell’. I procrastinate, dive into distractions and otherwise avoid this activity.

My perception is that selling is a black art that I am unqualified to do and this ‘inferiority’ complex haunts me. This means I constantly second guess myself in a way I don’t do when I code or when I coach. It also means I over-analyse what possible response to my approaches will be (and overwhelmingly I conclude they will be negative, hostile or both). Inevitably I never do anything.

To make matters worse, the people I want to contact are busy people. They aren’t sitting around waiting for my call. So, often their responses are delayed and this plays into my fears.

Frankly I’m stuck at this point. I think I understand where my current problem lies. Once I can get to speak with a potential early customer, I’m fine. All my skills kick in and mostly I can persuade them to try what I am offering  – if they have a glimmer of the problem I am trying to solve.

My problem – when I zoom into it, is in generating leads. Getting folk interested enough to get to speak with them. This is where the art is the blackest for me. This is where I need help.

Do I have to be good at the approach?

My gut answer is that early customers are key to building businesses – at least using a lean startup/customer development approach. So generating leads would seem a fundamental skill that every founder should have. So now, I am operating on the basis that I have to go from ‘crap’ to ‘good enough’.

When I have wanted to improve at things in the past, I have often hired someone with the skills I wanted to improve and I then paired with them doing some real work. It was slow for me and them, but the learning was incredible. It cut out a lot of the noise and the outcome was awesome.

That is what I intend to do this time. This worked for understanding SEO and learning Ruby on Rails. So I am exploring hiring someone to help with customer development who I can pair with. More on this soon – in the meantime if you know someone I should be talking to , ping me!

Do you have a fear of selling? I’d love to hear your experiences – maybe something you have learnt can help me, maybe vice versa. Either way – let’s not suffer in alone.

5 thoughts on “I really suck at finding early customers.”
  1. Hi Mike,
    A great post and one I wholeheartedly agree with! I have some ideas about what I want to do, and those ideas are becoming tangible, saleable services. But they aren’t much good if I don’t approach people with them. Perhaps a thicker skin and acknowledgement that rejection from a percentage is likely, but not necessarily personal, is a useful outlook? I might try that one on for size!

  2. I ‘m not good at selling either. especially cold calling, which is what you are talkking about.
    I think peopel at startup typically spend months and years at trying to sell their they
    – get better at understanding their product
    – get better at understanding the value they bring
    – understand the market better
    – the market knows them

    I have the impression that with your serial startups, you don’t have the time to do that.
    So yes, you hardly have time to find these initial people.

    If you are a little like me, you have already 25 idea’s ready by the time you have finished this implementation.
    so my advice would be, go dive into such a market and stick around a little longer.
    (I’m not sure I want to do that.)
    this is why I can “sell myself” in the agile community, I already know the market, I know the product (myself)
    yet selling a product I make (pragauthors, thoughtjockeys, retroflection etc etc) is harder as I don’t stick around enough to make it go and have 3.589.457 people…

    1. Hi Yves and thanks for taking the time to comment on this post. I appreciate your insight and suggestion because it helps to meet my need for connection with other people.

      I wouldn’t say I am a serial startups guy – more a serial and parallel ideas person. I am a believer in experiences vs duration and I believe there a minimum number of experiences one needs to have before they are qualified to play in that space. The whole idea of startup hacking – for me – is about gaining those experiences in the shortest possible time.

      Also with regards to the ‘selling myself’ – that is the biggest motivation for me away from coaching. It is entirely that and personally I don’t think it is sustainable. We have had this conversation before I think.

      In anycase, I only have to be right once 😉

      1. A) I did not say you should stop doing that; I admire you for doing what you do.
        yet I can see why this makes it harder.

        >Also with regards to the ‘selling myself’ – that is the biggest motivation for me away from >coaching. It is entirely that
        please say more. I don’t understand.
        And I don’t think we did have that conversation yet. we planned to have it and then never met in person again….


  3. Mike, I whole-heartedly agree to what you’re saying and admit feeling the same way quite often. Pairing sounds like an awesome idea, as in my experience two cowards are four times as brave as one.

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