Finding new customers and creating a stable demand is at the top of every entrepreneur’s to-do list. Is it on yours, too? Great, then this guide is for you. Here, you’ll learn everything you need to know to find customers for your startup without spending any money.
That doesn’t mean new customers will come for free.
Success isn’t something that just happens. Success is a daily fight, and only those who work hard get it. The key is to invest time and discipline.
Or as Nike put it:
JUST DO IT.
Don’t just skim this guide and forget about it ten minutes later. Print it out and use it as your roadmap, step by step.
The fundamentals of a successful startup.
You need to have a WHY.
People don’t buy WHAT you do. They buy WHY you do it.—Simon Sinek
I’ll take a guess and say you aren’t the only startup doing what you’re doing. You’re swimming in a red ocean full of competitors trying to hook the same customers with similar products.
WHAT you do isn’t setting you apart from them. HOW and WHY you do it makes you stand out.
The Golden Circle (not the Kingsman movie).
The Golden Circle is a young concept presented by Simon Sinek in his business book Start with Why. When the book came out, it was a fresh take on the purpose of businesses. Sinek suggested that businesses aren’t just about making money. Just like the humans working at and interacting with the business, the business itself needs a purpose beyond financial gains.
A century ago, all the businessmen and women would have laughed at Sinek. No wonder. To dominate the market, a good product was enough. We couldn’t choose the same product from hundreds of brands.
Now we have a choice. Brands with a strong purpose that aligns with our own are winning over soulless companies.
The WHY in action.
Meet Nikin, a Swiss clothing brand that let’s its WHY guide everything they do.
Can you guess what drives Nikin?
Did you guess nature? Trees? You’re right. That’s what they do. They plant one tree for every purchase.
That mission is on clear display in everything they do, from logo and website copy to ads and navigation menu.
Compare Zalando’s navigation bar.
It’s hard to not fall in love with a brand that fights for a better world.
Having a WHY means standing for something.
Only when you stand for something people can stand with you.
Colin Kaepernick took a knee in protest of police brutality and racism. It cost him his career, and many Americans called him a traitor to the flag. Nike took Kaepernick’s side and released an ad:
Nike took a strong stance. Those who were against Kaepernick’s actions started to boycott Nike. They even burned their shoes on camera and uploaded the videos to social media. The hate spread like wildfire.
But you know what happened? Nike’s sales BOOMED, and their stock shot up. More people stood with them than against them.
Find your WHY.
For some, the WHY comes easily, or they are already clear about their purpose. For others, it takes time and many ideas before they find one that clicks.
If you’re having trouble finding your WHY, invite your colleagues for a brainstorm session. Your thoughts can easily get stuck in a corner, and new people will make you consider angles you haven’t ever thought of before.
Know who you’re selling to.
Have you ever heard someone say they could sell an umbrella in the desert, sunglasses to a blind person, ice cubes to an Eskimo?
Turn on your heel and walk away.
It’s better to sell your umbrella in London, sunglasses to those who squint against the sun, and ice cubes to your local cocktail bar.
Look for customers who are in the market for what you’re offering. It takes less time and effort and has a far higher success rate. Also, you won’t have to deal with buyer’s remorse because your ideal customer will be happy with your product.
We call those who are already looking for the solution we’re offering our ideal customers, or “personas.” They are the perfect fit for us, and we should put our focus on them.
You’re our persona.
You found this article on Google, social media, or linked on another website. You liked the title, you clicked on it, and you’ve read (or skimmed) so far.
You, dear reader, might be our ideal customer.
If you’re an entrepreneur with a tech startup reading this, you’re who we can help best with what we do.
Before we could create an enticing offer for you, we had to know your goals and struggles, your motivations and fears, and how you’d try to overcome them.
Do the same with your ideal customer. Find your persona with the help of HubSpot’s persona creator tool.
Make a strong promise.
You’re looking for a coworking space to settle in with your startup. You ask your two best friends about the coworking space they are using and why you should join it.
Friend #1 tells you:
“You need to join my coworking space. They have super fast wifi, free coffee, and 7800 square meters of office space! It’s ginormous!!”
Friend #2 tells you:
“In my coworking, you’ll share an office with potential investors and business partners that can take your startup to the next level.”
Both are talking about the same coworking space, yet you might like one offer more than the other. But while one promised you coffee and good internet, the other promised success for your startup. That’s real value. And it makes all the difference.
How to write your own value proposition.
A value proposition communicates the benefit (not feature — more on that later) of using your product.
Adrian Sprenger, our Entrepreneurship Manager, taught me an easy way to create your own value proposition. Just fill in the blanks to this statement, and you’re set:
For (target customer) who (statement of the need or opportunity), the (product name) is a (product category) that (statement of key benefit – that is, compelling reason to buy). Unlike (primary competitive alternative), our product (statement of primary differentiation).
Tweak the statement to make it fit wherever you want to put it. It can go on your website, your business cards, in your ads, and anywhere else where your persona might see it.
Here’s our example:
For IT entrepreneurs who need to find financing opportunities, the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Areais a coworking space that helps them connect to the right people. Unlike traditional coworking spaces, we have in-house accelerator programs and a network you can use to find investors.
Learn how to sell.
You have a compelling WHY, and you know who is in your market. Still, your product doesn’t sell itself.
Mastering sales tactics takes years of training and practice. But being decent at it just takes reading and using the following four principles.
It’s all about pain and pleasure.
Our day-to-day life is full of financial transactions, and every single one of them is either to move us closer to pleasure or further away from pain.
There is no other reason. I’ll tell you a story about an average guy on an average morning, the transaction he makes, and how we can categorize them into pain or pleasure-motivated.
David gets up at 6 am, turns on the lights, and heads towards the kitchen. He boils water for his coffee. While the water is boiling, he puts on some Beethoven, and starts reading the news.
How many transactions did you spot?
He pays rent for his apartment. He pays for electricity when he turns on the lights. He pays for the water and the gas he needs to boil it. He pays a subscription fee to the newspaper. And finally, he pays to stream the music.
Paying rent gets him away from the pain of not having a roof over his head. Paying for electricity gives him the pleasure of light in his home when it’s dark outside. Boiling water gives him the pleasure of drinking a hot beverage.
Does your person buy from you to get closer to pleasure or further away from pain?
Sell benefits, not features.
You don’t spark a desire within your persona with cool product features. Your persona cares about the outcome they get.
A receptionist doesn’t care about the CPU in their computer. They care about quick loading time. A Fiat 500 driver doesn’t care about horsepower and the number of cylinders. They care about going from A to B, looking dashing.
If you buy toothpaste, do you look for one with 1,350 to 1,500ppm fluoride, or the one that “makes your teeth shine and keeps them healthy?”
When you advertise or pitch your offer, state the outcome your persona gets when they use it. Let them imagine how their life would look if they had your product.
Every sale is based on trust.
From ordering a pizza online to buying a villa in Palma de Gran Canaria, every transaction is based on the trust that the other side will keep their end of the bargain.
You might say that’s obvious. And you’re right, it is. But because it’s so obvious, the upstanding entrepreneurs often forget to pay attention to it.
Your moral compass is on point, you would never mislead or exploit someone, and you always make good on your promises. You don’t spend a second thinking anyone would mistrust you. That’s why you don’t use any trust-building techniques for your brand.
Con artists and scammers, on the other hand, know that they have to make their victims trust them. That’s why they add fake testimonials to their website, reference big publications they never were on, and advertise a non-existent money-back guarantee.
It’s time to cut a slice from their cake and put it to good use.
Trust through testimonials.
Displaying happy customer testimonials on your website or on external review pages is an easy way to show that you actually deliver what you promise. Ask your customers to write or videotape a testimonial and upload it wherever you can. The more information you add about the client, the more pull your testimonial has. A photo of them smiling and a little backstory, for example.
Trust through proof.
People might not outright believe that your offer brings the benefits you say it does. A verifiable case study on your or your client’s website can convince them otherwise.
Trust through quality.
There’s no faster way to kill trust than spelling mistakes, low-quality images, or sloppy appearance. Everything you put out for the world to see needs to be as good as you can make it.
Trust through consistency.
Your messages need to align on every platform and in every publication. If you say one thing on your website and another on social media, you lose credibility. Those discrepancies often happen when different people are in charge of different channels, and their views aren’t perfectly aligned. That’s why you need a clear WHY and value proposition.
Trust through certifications and awards.
Be a show-off. Let people know about the certificates you earned and the awards you won.
Trust through transparency.
Like swimming in the ocean, not seeing what happens beneath the surface makes people uncomfortable in business. Show as much as you can of yourself, your team, your goals, your wins, and your flaws. Let your customers build a relationship with your brand.
Trust through security.
Make sure your customer knows that you handle their data with care, respect their privacy and that you always have their safety in mind.
Objections lead to sales if you handle them well.
When I worked as a banker, prospects would always come up with the same reasons not to sign an offer.
“I have to sleep on it. I’ll call you back sometime next week,” “I can get the same for less at my other bank,” and “I don’t speculate with my retirement money“ were the showrunners.
Objections are rarely what they seem to be at first.
“I have to sleep on it” meant they didn’t want to make an impulse decision. “I can get the same for less” meant they didn’t see all the value in my offer. “I don’t speculate” meant they didn’t understand the stock market and our products well enough.
With an easy 5-step framework, I turned those objections into sales time and time again. Here’s how it works, illustrated with the “I don’t speculate” example:
Step 1: Acknowledge their concern.
Thank them and let them know that their concern is valid. Show that you understand why they are concerned.
“Thanks for bringing that up. The stock market can be dangerous, and gambling with it is a bad idea.”
Step 2: Counter with a statement.
You know more about the matter than your clients, and it’s your job to educate them. Make a true statement that counters their objection.
“There is a safer way to invest and still beat the lousy interest rates on a savings account.”
Step 3: Prove your statement.
People tend to defend their position. And they certainly don’t blindly believe salespeople. That’s why you have to offer airtight proof on any claim you make.
“Looking at the last 50 years, this asset has never had a losing period of more than four years. This means that no matter when you bought it, you just had to hold it for four years and it turned a profit, even in 2008. All that while making 2% a year on average, while the money on your savings account sits on 0.1%.”
Step 4: Link a benefit.
We always sell with benefits. 2% doesn’t sound interesting. Enough interest to buy a boat to go fishing when you retire does. If you know your prospect, you know what they desire and how to link to it.
“That small difference of 1.9% gets you that Finca on Mallorca by the time you retire.”
Step 5: Close the objection.
Make sure your prospect understands what you told them and that they see eye to eye with you now.
“What do you think about that solution? Sounds good?”
DISCLAIMER: Only do this with your prospect’s best interest in mind. Don’t lie or try to sell something they don’t need.
Keep your network tidy.
A big part of success in business is knowing the right people. Especially in higher positions, it’s crucial to have a helpful network.
“Ha, I have more than 500 contacts on LinkedIn.”
Having a big network doesn’t mean having a good network. The average LinkedIn profile has over 930 connections. But go take a look at the number of likes they get on their posts. It’s probably below 50.
It’s important to focus on connections and nurture them. There is a limited number of meaningful relationships humans can have.
Robin Dumbar’s numbers aren’t set in stone, but they give a good indication about how many relationships you can have with what degree of intimacy.
Is your network full of meaningful relationships? Or is it just connections on a screen? If it’s the former, congratulations! If it’s the latter, here’s how you can network, despite the pandemic:
Connect with Sébastien Meunier.
Sébastien is our Director of Industrial Transformation. He invites a small number of people for a virtual coffee break every Tuesday from 8 to 8.30 AM or on Wednesday from 3 to 3.30 PM. Just drop him a line to receive your invitation: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Connect on social media.
Forming meaningful relationships on social media is an art most have yet to master. Here are the three most important tips that’ll help you connect the right way.
- Do your homework. Take some minutes to learn more about the person you want to network with. If you find common interests and talking points, you’ll hit it off right away.
- Don’t be a bore — my favorite statement by David Ogilvy, one of the original Mad Men. If you aren’t interesting, no one will give you the time of day. Try to stand out.
- Bring value to the table. If they publicly talk about something they’re struggling with, offer advice and help them overcome that struggle. Show support and make talking to you worth their while.
Revive old connections.
Who have you not talked to in a long time that has been important in your career? Reviving old connections has a great advantage over forming new ones: The old connections know and trust you already.
Here’s how you start the perfect email to an old acquaintance: “Thank you for…”
If you want to network with them, they must have been of great help in your career. Thank them for it. Gratitude is a great base for a meaningful relationship.
The easy ways to find new customers for free.
Make a referral program.
Your customers know your brand, they use your product or service, and they like it enough to give you money for it. They could (and should) be your biggest promoters.
You’re looking at the inbound marketing methodology. It’s a customer-centric marketing method that aims to show the right content to the right person at the right time.
With this methodology, you turn strangers into promoters of your brand, who in turn bring in new strangers. It’s a glorious cycle.
The more your customers tell their network about you, the better. An easy way to make them talk about you — besides having a great product — is by rewarding them for it.
How to dominate the car market with no ad budget.
Yep, it’s Tesla. Elon Musk has generated a spirit of evangelism around his cars, and it paid off big time.
Tesla’s satisfaction rating among customers (89%) is higher than that of any other car manufacturer. With its loyal following, Tesla established a referral program that yielded 42x ROI.
Tesla had long turned its customers into promoters. But now, they gave them an incentive to spread the word.
How to dominate YOUR market with no ad budget.
Asking your customers to share your brand is a start. But realistically, you need to give them an extra nudge.
Your first step is finding a reward that’ll get them talking.
Airbnb offers to pay for your next stay (or at least a part of it) if you get a friend to sign up. Harry’s sends their customers free shaving supplies, depending on how many friends they refer. It goes up to a year of completely free shaving. Dropbox, the most famous referral marketing example, just offered more free cloud storage space.
What can you offer?
Your second step is implementing your referral program in your company.
Sometimes we create an offer and instantly fall in love with it. We create all the material around it, and just as we’re ready to promote it, we realize, implementation is impossible due to technical or administrative limitations. That’s frustrating.
Before you go all out on creating your promotion, make sure you can actually implement the referral program.
Your third step is sharing your referral program with your customers.
How will your customers learn about your referral program? The closer you can be to them, the better. A direct message on Instagram or a personalized email will get more attention than a social media post.
Create evergreen promotional material, like a banner on your website, a popup in your app, or a signature in your email newsletter. The referral program should always be on top of your customer’s mind.
Bonus tip: Think about rewarding your customers, even for just sharing your referral program as a way to push beyond your own channels.
Leverage your network.
Did you tidy up your network like we said? Yeah? Awesome. That’ll come in handy now. If you don’t have a network to tidy up, learn how to connect in times of a pandemic. You’ll meet the right people in no time. And knowing the right people can help you solve most of your problems.
My golden rule for my network is: Don’t ask for money. Ask for advice.
If you ask for money, it’ll feel to them as if you just befriended them because they have deep pockets. It’s not a good look and will break the trust in the relationship.
Asking for advice tells a different story. You value their knowledge and expertise. It makes them feel appreciated. And most people like to talk about themselves and their skills. Grant them permission to show off and take notes.
My silver rule for my network is: Ask for money but the right way.
You are networking to build your business, and sometimes that means you need money. There are two right ways to go about it.
First, you can ask investors. If they label themselves investors, it’s ok to ask for bucks instead of wits (although they have tons of wits to share, too).
Second, don’t ask a specific person. Just whisper to your network that you are looking for investors. Mention it on social media and in your newsletters. Let the right people come to you when they are ready.
Bonus tip: Check out our accelerator program. We connect you with the right people for advice AND funding.
Solve problems for free with the right content.
Content marketing means sharing educational material online. It can be blog posts, YouTube videos, emails, social media posts, etc. The content has to be interesting, valuable, and not about your product.
A company promo video isn’t content marketing. A social media post about your newest product isn’t content marketing. An article about your service isn’t content marketing.
A video that helps your audience solve a problem without having to buy something is content marketing. An email that gives them value without asking for anything in return is content marketing. A social media post that engages with your followers without the goal of making a sale is content marketing.
Content marketing is incredibly powerful and a must-have for every startup.
- 95% of B2B clients say that content helps them trust a business.
- 70% of consumers learn about a company through articles rather than ads.
- Content marketing is 63% cheaper than traditional marketing.
And here’s how you attract new customers with your content.
By now, you know who your persona is and what problems they are trying to solve.
As an example, I’ll use you, our (potentially) persona.
We know you’re an entrepreneur trying to make their business grow without spending too much money.
Where does your persona get their solutions from? That’s where you need to be.
Where does someone like you search for solutions to their problem? You use Google. What phrase do you type in? According to our keyword research, you might be searching for something like “finding new customers (without money/for your business/…).” That’s when this article should show up on Google’s front page.
How can you answer your persona’s question as completely as possible? Create content that helps them overcome their obstacles.
Next, we think about how we can answer your question. We want to go into detail and answer possible follow up questions, too. For example, in this article, we aren’t just giving you a few methods for customer attraction, but also a guide to laying a foundation for success and additional resources like our sales tips for cold calling.
Is it working? Analyze and improve your content continuously.
Use Google Analytics to analyze if your content is effective. Find out how many people are reading your articles, how long they are reading for, and what other pages they are visiting on your website.
Use Google Search Console to analyze what keywords you are ranking for and what your CTR is.
When your analysis shows that you can enhance an article (maybe it gets clicked often, but people don’t read it entirely) do it. Improving existing content is easier and more lucrative than creating new content.
Transforming strangers into customers.
Solving problems makes you an expert in your field. It builds credibility and makes you the first one to turn to if they need more help.
Let’s look at the inbound marketing methodology once more.
Blog articles (and YouTube videos, social media posts, etc.) are your tools to attract strangers who haven’t heard from you yet. Once they engage, they become visitors.
They can still choose to leave any time at this stage, and you’ll never hear from them. You need to take control of the interaction by getting their contact details.
The simplest way to get your visitor’s contact details is by asking them to sign up for your newsletter:
We regularly invite our subscribers to online networking events, where we talk about new residents at the Park, events, news from the Basel Area, information about our acceleration programs, and more. Join our newsletter with the form below.
Sometimes you need to sweeten the pot. Offer something in return for their email address, like a free PDF download of the article they’re reading. That’s called a lead magnet.
Once you have their email address, don’t flood their inbox with sales pitches. Continue delivering value for free and build a relationship with your leads.
When they need your product or service, they will convert themselves from leads into customers.
Send cold emails (or messages).
Direct mailing has always been one of the most lucrative methods to get new business. Legends like Gary Halbert and David Ogilvy attribute a big part of their success writing good sales letters.
Computers have made direct mailing so much easier.
You can automate your email sending process while still communicating on a personal level. You don’t even pay for a stamp anymore.
All you need to invest is time.
Save time by creating a template you can quickly personalize for every prospect. Writing an email from scratch for every prospect would take too much time. But sending the exact same email and just changing the name isn’t the solution.
With a base template, you can save time and send an email that reads like it’s addressed to one person specifically.
Improve your template continuously. Change wordings and arguments to see what works and what doesn’t. Also, experiment with different platforms. Maybe your prospects don’t appreciate another email in their full inbox but would love a DM on Instagram.
Make cold calls.
Cold calling is alive and kicking. As with cold emailing, you have to invest nothing but your time and pride after getting rejected more than pimple-faced me in high-school.
But as Jack Vincent said in our article about cold calling sales tips, regret is worse than rejection. You’ll always dwell on the crush you never asked out, not the one that said no. Just as you’ll always dwell on the prospects you didn’t call, not the ones that declined your offer.
Are you confident to make the call? Nice. Let me tell you the best cold call opening line that’ll make your prospects hear you out.
The best cold call opening line for instant trust.
“[Insert referrer’s name here] told me to call you.”
There is no easier way to get your foot into the door than having someone else do it. If you can tell your prospect a friend of theirs said to call them, you immediately establish trust and curiosity.
Your prospect trusts that their friend has their best interest in mind. They wouldn’t share their number with someone who could be bad news.
Worried about getting someone to give you a referral? It’s actually pretty easy. At the end of every call you make, say: “Before I hang up, do you know someone else who might be facing the same challenge?”
If you’ve been polite and genuine, you’ll get another phone number or two to call.
This “calling from a referral” strategy has the nice side effect of building a prospect list on its own.
Tips on what to say after your first line.
I’m sure you’ve had one of those typical sales calls. You picked up the phone, and the line was silent for a few seconds. Then a click and an over-enthusiastic sales rep blasting, “Hiiii, this is Maurice, I’m calling from Best Insurance to …”
You knew the caller was just an employee, faking enthusiasm, trying to hit a quota.
Here’s how you avoid sounding like that:
- Care more about how you say something than what you say. Like in a face-to-face conversation, it’s much more about how you say something than what you’re actually saying. You can pitch your product in dozens of ways, but you always have to be calm, assertive, and friendly.
- Have a sales script but don’t let it show. This ties in with the previous advice. If your prospect hears you reading from a script, you lose.
- Do your homework. Take a minute before each call to look up your prospect on social media. That’ll give you some conversation starters and personal benefits you can use.
- Know common objections and how to deal with them. Above, I taught you my 5-step framework to deal with objections. Be ready.
And some more general cold calling sales tips:
- Make as many cold calls as you can, as long as the quality of the call doesn’t suffer. Five high-quality cold calls a day will bring better results than twenty poor ones.
- Listen twice as much as you talk. This is true on the phone and vis-à-vis. A salesperson should always be listening more than they talk. It helps to understand the prospect and personalize the sales pitch.
- Value your prospect’s trust. Never dupe your prospect into thinking you’re someone you aren’t. I’ve read articles recklessly advising not to tell your prospects why you’re calling, so they might mistake you for a customer and listen long enough for you to hit them with your sales pitch. Don’t do that.
- Always be closing. You can’t get a sale every time. Probably not even most of the time. But a close is also scheduling a meeting, arranging a callback, or even just asking for a referral.
In case you’re looking for even more ways to find new customers for free, read:
- 6 top trade show alternatives — Present your product in 2021.
- 5 free ways to get new customers for your startup.
The extra nudge for success.
We help you grow your company to an established stage and create a stable demand for your product.
Startup support services — for a breezy early phase.
Thanks to our partner organization Basel Area Business & Innovation, residents at Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area can rely on a broad set of services and offers covering the early phase of founding a company.
Founder course — for knowledge and connections.
This program of seminars and workshops is perfect for first-time and for seasoned entrepreneurs.
We cover everything from the planning phase to legal questions and more. We also help you establish valuable contacts with specialists and potential cooperation partners with various events we organize periodically.
Venture mentoring — for extra guidance.
With this program, we offer startups to have their project or business idea reviewed by established industry experts, entrepreneurs and investors.
Startup acceleration—for faster growth.
We support ventures in the field of therapeutics, digital health and industrial transformation with our three accelerator programs.
To enable a thriving production technology and industrial innovation ecosystem, the I4Challenge focuses on innovative solutions, new approaches and next-generation products or services for industrial transformation. The i4Challenge offers a platform to help SMEs, startups and Industry 4.0 projects promote their product or service. Participants will gain access to partners, mentors, collaborators, and potential customers.
The incubator and accelerator helps scientists and entrepreneurs launch exceptional biotech companies. BaseLaunch helps build companies from inception through to Series A funding, providing financing of up to CHF 500,000 per company and supporting all aspects of business development.
The DayOne initiative brings together a community of great innovators who want to shape the future of health. It enables contribution across disciplines and industries to deliver solutions that serve healthcare needs. The platform offers events, catalyst projects, startup acceleration, and innovation workspaces.
Keep your customers coming back.
Gather ‘round, people. The numbers are in, and they are indisputable.
It costs five times as much to attract a new customer than to keep an existing one. Even more important, increasing your customer retention rate by a mere 5% boosts profits by 25–95%.
That’s why you need to focus on making your customers come back.
The easiest way to keep your customers coming back is by having a great product and delivering a great service. Don’t give them a reason to switch to the competition.
Stay in touch via email, social media, and other channels. Show your appreciation from time to time instead of just trying to sell. Give value for free with the content you’re putting out.
Aim for a relationship that’s built to last instead of a one-off transaction.
6 top trade show alternatives — Present your product in 2021.
Networking in 2021 — Where and how to connect in times of a pandemic.
Networking in 2021 — How to take care of your network and turn it into opportunities.
5 free ways to get new customers for your startup.
10 cold calling sales tips for entrepreneurs in 2021.
Jack Vincent’s best cold call opening line (and what to say next).
How to create a value proposition WITHOUT the Value Proposition Canvas.