How to get first clients as a startup

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Reasons startups fail to acquire new clients

It would be nice if clients were like, “Hey, why don’t I give a try to this wonderful new startup?” In reality, to make a lead ask themselves this question, you need to make an effort. And even then, it’s not guaranteed you get any customers. 

There are three main reasons why startups fail to acquire new customers at the desired rates. 

Poor marketing decisions

At some point, you decided that it would be great to promote your stock trading app in a local newspaper. People do read newspapers, after all – why not use them for acquiring new customers? 

Wrong choice of the target audience

“The more people know about our product, the more clients we’ll get. We must broaden our target audience.”

wrong choice

Unfocused advertising drains your resources and fails to attract anyone because it’s too generic, does not address people’s needs, and fails to explain why your potential customers should choose your company in the first place.   

Mistakes when planning budgets

“Yeah, we dig it, customer acquisition is no joke, we better spend enough money on it. $20K should do it. It’s pricey, but we can’t be greedy about CA.” 

But for how long? Customer acquisition is a lengthy (we’d say – constant) process, and companies starting out can’t afford to spend this much on it. As a result, many of them burn all their money on ineffective CA campaigns.

So, what can startups do to get new clients?

Fortunately, proven customer acquisition strategies won’t cost your startup a fortune and will help you build up clientele slowly but steadily. 

To clear up some things, we chatted with Jonathan Aufrey, co-founder and SEO at Growth Hackers. His comments proved invaluable for understanding key aspects of customer acquisition, so don’t miss cursive text inputs. There’s some marketing wisdom there! 


Let’s take a closer look at what you need to do.


Knowledge is power. Before you can successfully attract new customers, you must have a clear idea of your business, goals, who you appeal to, etc. 

Know yourself


Being a Jack of all trades won’t do you good – at least not until your startup grows into a transcontinental corporation. From the beginning, you must narrow down the field you’ll be operating in and stick to it. 

Decide on which projects you will be working on and which you’ll have to turn down. Find your niche, and strive to become great in it. 

Brand archetypes

It matters not just what you do but also how you do it. This is when brand archetypes come into play. In brief, a brand archetype is the aggregate of your company’s communication style, aims and goals, marketing niche, corporate identity, target audience, how you address its needs and fears, and other nuances. 

In other words, it’s the personality of your brand.

Currently, marketers distinguish between 12 main brand archetypes: 

  • The Hero;
  • The Explorer;
  • The Ruler;
  • The Mother;
  • The Jester;
  • The Lover;
  • The Outlaw;
  • The Magician;
  • The Sage;
  • The Commoner;
  • The Creator;
  • The Innocent.

Google them up and pick one as a starting point.

Know your target audience

Brand archetypes should give you a hint of whom you should be looking for. Now, what you need is some specific info.

Proxy “persona” of a client

Defining your target audience is crucial and difficult. It’s not enough to say, “Okay, we’ll be selling to white male office workers because our brand archetype says so” and hope that people will come running to you. 

To find customers, you must know them. Who they are, what they do, what they want or fear – these are just some of the questions you’ll have to answer.

It sounds creepy, but we’re actually not encouraging you to stalk your potential customers. What you should do instead is to create a proxy “persona” of your typical client. It somewhat reminds me of psychological portraiting from CSI or other detective shows and can prove invaluable. 

The more detailed this portrait is, the more precise your positioning and advertising will be – and the more potentially interested people you will be able to attract. 

Your persona portrait may include: 

  • Name;
  • Age, gender, and race;
  • Education;
  • Profession / occupation;
  • Financial status;
  • Political views / outlook / philosophy;
  • Personal values and goals (What do they like? What do they want?);
  • Fears and insecurities (What do they fear? What do they try to avoid?);
  • Problems they’re facing in life;
  • Places they go to, websites they visit;
  • Other details.

This information will give you a rough template of where to start. Of course, your vision of the target audience may (and probably will) change and adjust as you keep developing your business. 

Customer’s Journey

Each of your potential customers can be seen as a pilgrim on the way from complete ignorance to enlightenment. Ignorance, in this case, means unawareness of your brand, and enlightenment means the purchase of your product.

One way to map the customer’s journey looks like this: 

1. Unawareness (the customer knows nothing about your company);

2. Awareness (the customer learns about your brand somewhere);

3. Consideration (the customer weighs the options they have for solving a problem, including your company);

4. Purchase (the customer decides which product – or the product of which brand – suits their needs best);

5. Retention (the customer is satisfied with the product and stays with the company for a long time);

6. Loyalty (the customer helps to improve the company’s image).  

By understanding which stage of the journey your customer is, you will be able to direct your marketing more precisely and increase the efficiency of your customer acquisition efforts. 

Create a website

There’s no way around it. A website will help you promote your product, attract leads, convert them into customers, retain loyal clients, and so much more.

“The first step is to have a well-designed website. The website doesn’t have to be too complicated — it just lists the services proposed, the value the agency provides, the types of clients fitting the agency, how to get in touch with them, etc. Why does an agency need a website to start with? Because this is the first thing prospects and leads will look at when you contact them, or they hear about you. Your website is your vitrine.” 


Reach out to your existing contacts (family, friends, etc.)

This is probably the first thing you’re going to think of – and you’d be right! Just don’t work for free: it’s unprofessional.  

Social media outreach

Social networks

Start accounts on the most popular networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and begin posting post content there regularly. What kind of content? Say, something related to the industry your company operates in: useful tips and tricks, interviews with business owners, case studies, etc. 


Wikipedia is no longer the main source of information on the internet. Platforms like Quora allow you to quickly gather a bunch of industry expert opinions on any subject you can think of. 

So, why isn’t your company among these experts yet? 

Browse for questions related to your field of expertise and provide detailed, evidence-supported answers to them. Make sure to stick to Quora’s regulation policies and don’t use it for overt advertising. After becoming a trustworthy source of industry-related insights, you can gain new clients! Here’s how Jonathan puts it:

“Answering questions on Quora was probably the most unexpected way we acquired a customer. We knew that Quora can be great for many things: finding content ideas, building your online presence, getting strong backlinks, etc. But we didn’t know it was also helpful to generate leads and close deals.”  

Actually, our Content Strategist Yuliia Mamonov wrote an exhaustive article on how to turn Quora into your lead source, so make sure to check it out.

Use Slack communities

Slack is great for not just communication within your team but also for marketing and networking. Google up and join some of the open Slack communities. They often act like forums, where people with similar business goals and outlooks can share resources and experiences, network, and basically do all the things people in social media groups do. 

But Slack is far less crowded and much more “business-ish.” In other words, it can serve as a great B2B communication tool. 

Along with participating in different communities, you can also create your own ones. Use them for product launches and marketing campaigns, communication with potential customers, and receiving feedback. You’ll need some sort of a sign-up form to invite new users (since Slack only allows joining communities upon admin approval), but there are plenty of online tools to help you do that.

Content marketing

Landing pages and great CTAs

The sole purpose of a landing page is to turn a visitor who clicked on its link in a Google search, a banner, or on social media into a buyer. While other pages of your website may have lots of links and advanced navigation, a landing page should have just one link – and that link should encourage the purchase. Which is impossible without an effective call-to-action, or CTA. 

Needless to say, the text on the landing page should precisely address your leads’ needs. Since “leads’ needs” makes a good rhyme, you can (and should) make it your personal mantra for writing landing pages. 

Email marketing

This is an effective way to attract new customers and retain oldies. It’s just something everyone has (‘cause we all need to log into Facebook, right?) and checks multiple times every day. 

You’ll need a quality lead magnet on your website to start building up your list of email addresses. Also, do invest your time and resources into learning how to write proper marketing emails.


Any website needs content, and this is when blogging comes into play. Here are some topic examples for you to write about: 

  • Success (or failure) stories of people standing behind famous  brands;
  • A personal tale of the great challenges you overcame and victories you and your startup achieved;
  • A published case study is always good;
  • Specific and useful industry-related information is your bread and butter;
  • All kinds of “how-to” guides and white papers are immensely demanded. 

So, you’d rather go and write those blog posts. People are actually searching up all that on Google.  


Creating content for other websites is a great way to expand your audience’s reach. It will allow you to increase your domain authority and brand awareness and will boost your website’s traffic. It can be a blog article, podcasts, YouTube videos, or social media posts. 


Search engine optimization (SEO) is a search strategy aimed at increasing the website’s organic traffic. It implies using popular keywords, optimized meta-data, creating valuable and useful content for your TA, link-building, social media sharing, and other methods of gaining traffic. SEO isn’t fast – you might have to wait about 4-6 months for the results. 

In its turn, SEM stands for social engine marketing and refers solely to paid search strategies. It implies gaining traffic from purchasing ads in search engines – you must have seen them next to the organic search results in Google. 

So, which one is more effective? Let’s see what Jonathan has to say:

“I believe both paid and organic marketing can be effective for a young digital agency when done properly. I don’t think that’s the right question though. The question you should ask yourself is: should I prioritize paid or organic marketing for my agency? And the answer is: it depends. If your budget allows it, go with paid marketing. Why? Because it brings faster results. However, you need some budget to start with paid marketing as it will take you a few tests and tweaks to get your ads, your copy, your keywords, and your visuals rights. If you don’t have a large advertising budget, go with organic. Write blog posts, create infographics, build your brand on social media, work on your website SEO, curate content, engage with influencers in your industry, etc. The optimum strategy is to work on both paid and organic to get fast results as well as working on your long-term strategy.”



Remember when you could not choose between several smartphone models, and you spent days looking up for info, browsing user reviews, watching YouTube videos with comparisons and tests, etc.? If you want to know more about these smartphones, choose the one that suits you best. 

Your leads act in the same way when they have a problem. They crave information. They want to know everything about the solutions. Give it to them! Organize workshops and training sessions where you’d educate your potential customers. Let them see how you can become part of the solution.     

Industry events

Industry-related conferences are great for networking. Visit them as a listener or (if you have enough confidence and experience) as a speaker. It’s your chance to raise awareness about your brand and build up its credibility.  

Partner up with other agencies

Partnering up with larger companies is a good idea because, among other benefits, you get a chance to work with big clients pretty early. If you prove yourself well, some of them could become your customers. 


A referral is a recommendation about your product or service given by your customer to another person. Referrals effectively influence your TA’s minds, often being among the major reasons why a person decides to make (or not to make) a purchase from you. 

Word of mouth

The most common type of referral, word of mouth, is the direct reason a customer makes a purchase decision in 20 to 50 percent of cases. 88% of buyers say that product reviews influence their buying decisions.

The most common scenario is when a customer buys your product, uses it for a while, and then shares their experience on social media or on review platforms. 

This is called experiential word of mouth, and practice shows that customers typically comment on products or services when they exceed their expectations – or fail to meet them. 

Word of mouth can also be a direct result of your marketing campaign when regular people and influencers pass on your advertising messages to other audiences. 

Ask for referrals

If you already have one or several satisfied customers, there is nothing wrong with asking them to give you a positive review. You’ve definitely seen how it works. Mobile apps show you pop-ups with review requests. Web services send you follow-up emails. Startups ask customers to give them positive comments on Trustpilot or elsewhere. 

Treat it as some kind of a CTA. 

Incentive-based referral system

Another effective way to stimulate referrals, especially when you are a young startup, is an incentive-based referral system. For example, it can look like this:

  • New customers get a fixated discount
  • Existing customers get an accumulative discount every time they bring new clients. 

Other possible incentives can include discount coupons, a free period of premium functions, or even cash payouts. You can also come up with your own incentives, setting custom rewards for customers who spread positive word of mouth about your product or service. 

Tips and tricks

Smooth onboarding

Jonathan Audrey believes that the onboarding process can pose a problem if not paid attention to.

“When acquiring our first clients, the onboarding process was a bit hectic. We are much more organized and it’s now easy and smooth for the clients and for ourselves.”

Have a live chat

Sometimes the only thing that stops a person from making a purchase is a small misunderstanding (like, “How do I make a purchase on your website?”) A live chat window popping up on the product page can help your leads eliminate small obstacles preventing them from making a purchase.     

Search open directories

Lead magnets are great, but there are other ways of getting leads’ contacts. Use open directories! Services such as Yellow Pages, White Pages, or Angie’s List are good sources of other companies’ contacts. The only drawback is that you probably won’t be able to get people’s personal emails and phone numbers this way.

Use retargeting

MailChimp says that 97% of people visiting your website for the first time leave it without buying anything. This would sound too sad if there was no way to bring them back. Luckily, there is one. 

Use retargeting! Once a user leaves the product page, they will start seeing your ads leading them back to your website. Mind that retargeting ads are aimed specifically at people who are already aware of your brand.   

Google My Business page

Think of it as your business card in Google. It appears in Google search results and in Google maps and contains information about your business name, location, work hours, customer reviews, rating, and so on. It’s completely free to use, so we can’t think of a reason for you to not use it. 


Acquiring customers will require you to apply a variety of strategies. There is no optimal and “the most effective” way to get your first clients as a startup.  

No battles are won without reconnaissance. Find your marketing niche, decide on your brand personality, define your target audience and study it. 

Run a website and start filling it with SEO-optimized content. Content marketing is one of your most powerful tools in terms of spreading brand awareness and acquiring new customers, so put effort into it. Learn how to use email for sales and promotion. Consider PPC marketing options and reach out to people on popular social media platforms. And don’t forget about retargeting!

Spread word of mouth and ask for referrals. Create a referral program to attract new customers and retain the existing ones.

Partnering up with a larger company or agency could be a mutually beneficial choice allowing you to quickly find big clients.

And the most important thing: keep on keeping on! Customer acquisition is not fast, nor is it easy. Don’t lose faith in yourself, analyze your flaws and victories, and learn in the process – and your startup will succeed.

Any extra questions? Read our FAQ!

  • How do I get free customers? 

    Well, most of the ways of getting customers are free — however, one should spend a considerable amount of time finding and attracting them to your business and product. 
    What are the most popular ways of doing so?
    1. Individual connections. Send kind notes and reminders, make offers and introduce them to one another. Something will surely pay off.
    2. Offer free trials of your products. No one likes buying a pig in a poke. 
    3. Partner with companies offering similar goods or services.
    4. Go offline! This point might seem a bit conflicting with the prevailing mood of the internet civilization, but it works. Some people are still more into humans than AI.
    5. Ask for referrals.

  • How do I find potential customers? 

    There are plenty of ways to track potential customers — and we’ve collected some of them here for your convenience. 
    1. Survey the members of your target market (but define the market at first)
    2. Analyze your competitors and their customers. Formalize their campaigns and targets. 
    A little targeted ad can go a long way toward the target audience. Use them wisely.
    3. Enlarge and extend your social media presence.
    4. Be responsive — but not carpet-type responsive. Define posts and groups you will cater to — and respond to EVERY call of their members. Offer help, and you’ll be rewarded.

  • What is the golden rule of sales?

    It’s plain and simple. The client is always (well, almost) right. If you do the right things and cater to their needs, you’ll be rewarded with income. 

  • How do you get the first 20 customers of your startup?

    1. Go into the spotlight at shows and conferences — you should be noticed.
    2. Make cold calls — as many as possible.
    3. Test your business hypotheses with paid ads.
    4. Use platforms where your target audience has already hung out for some time.

  • How do you attract target markets?

    You should identify your target audience and market to get the best business results and then amend your marketing pitch. How can you attract clients from target markets? 
    1. Review your customer base.
    2. Address the TA of your competitors after adjusting your ideas.
    3. Deeply analyze your product and discover its key features and benefits.
    4. Choose narrow demo- and psychographic groups for targeting. 
    5. Evaluate your decision.

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