Acquire Customers One at a Time

Think about the last time you baked a cake. Or, for those of you not culinarily-inclined, imagine yourself baking one. If you’re like most people, the first thing you’d probably do is pull up a recipe, then portion out your ingredients and follow the instructions. 

But what if someone stuck you in a kitchen with all the ingredients necessary to bake a cake, and told you to make one — only without a recipe? Your first response, at least if you’re like me, would be something along the lines of, “Are you fucking kidding me?” 

Now imagine they told you they’d shoot your dog in three months if you couldn’t figure out how to bake that cake from scratch. By the end of those three months, you would probably save your dog and enjoy a nice slice of chocolate cake, and along the way, there’d be a ton of disgusting, inedible cake that ended up in the trash.

And that, my friends, is Megan’s perfect metaphor for how you acquire customers as a startup founder. You’re shoved against your will into a room to make something happen, there’s no magic recipe, and it could take months (or longer) to figure it out with a whole heap of trash discarded along the way. 

If you’re a founder, you might be plugging your ears with your fingers now and humming the Jeopardy tune trying to drown this out. But you need to hear it. Because one of the problems founders are always trying to solve is how to acquire lots of customers, efficiently, right now, usually before they even know what they’re really selling. They try to solve this problem by hiring a chef (i.e. a salesperson). But even the best salesperson is not a chef. At most, they’re a high-end waiter. In order to acquire a customer, founders have to get down and dirty in the kitchen. 

When first starting a company, sales boils down to:

  1. Establish the problem being solved,
  2. Validate your solution is meaningful, and
  3. Figure out the value of solving it. 

At the very least one of those things, and most likely all of them, can’t be done by salespeople. Part of your value as a founder is your credibility in your market — a credibility salespeople won’t have. Especially in the beginning, you’re asking your customers to take a leap of faith. And they’re only going to do that for the person with the vision. 

Another reason you don’t want to hire salespeople before you’ve figured out what you’re selling is because there is literally nothing worse than a salesperson who comes to you and offers advice on how to change the product or make it better. Believe me, no one likes that guy. Good salespeople sell what they’ve got. And as a founder, you’re empowered to be flexible and make changes to your product or service. But you’re the only one.

My intention here is not to drag on salespeople, who are awesome and important to company growth. I simply want to convey that as an early-stage founder, you will have to get comfortable with a slow sales process LED. BY. YOU. You will only acquire one customer at a time. You will talk to a prospect and you learn how they describe the problem you solve and then you’ll fuck up your description of the solution. You’ll talk to a different prospect and learn how to describe your solution, but you still won’t know how to establish the value of your product. You will only acquire one customer at a time. 

And once you’ve acquired a whole bunch of customers, THEN can you begin creating scripts and handing off sales to a team. Only once you’ve sold your product enough times, one at a time, can you start creating efficiencies. Sales is a process. And just like all processes, it makes a set of tasks more efficient. But you need successful tasks first. Otherwise, you just have super-efficient shitty tasks. 

For product and engineering founders especially, sales can be a hard process to grasp. They think of it as a sort of magic. Do this, say this, abracadabra, sales happen. They’re not wrong, but the only people who can figure out the spell are the founders. And there’s very little magic involved. Mostly, it’s just asking a lot of fucking questions until those questions are always the right ones, and you always get a yes. 

This is something that people who have never successfully built a company struggle with, and even if you have, it’s still something you’ll have to do again and again with each new venture. To return to our original metaphor, even if you eventually figure out the recipe for chocolate cake, your next company is going to ask you for a fruit tart. Some of your previous knowledge may prove useful, but there’s still going to be a lot of pastry in the garbage can. 

Remember that your first sales aren’t really sales. They’re lessons in how to describe your product, solution and value. And they can only be learned one at a time. 

— Eric Marcoullier

Even though I hated selling as a founder, I weirdly love working with my clients on how to sell. Probably because I don’t actually have to do the selling (yes, I know I’m a dick). But the time spent walking a founder through how to sell THEIR product one customer at a time usually pays huge dividends over the long term when sales become predictable and then scalable. If this is the sort of help you could use, send me a note at or visit my coaching site.

(Photo by Phakphoom Srinorajan on Unsplash)

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