How to get your first ten customers

Max Rozen

Max Rozen / December 18, 2023

It'll soon be the third anniversary of publicly launching OnlineOrNot on Twitter, and I often get asked what I did to get my first paying customers - so I felt like sharing.

I assume when most folks ask this that they're looking for the one thing they can do to finally start getting paid customers.

Let me be clear: it's never just one thing.

Update: I wrote about my third year of running OnlineOrNot here.

Table of contents

What I actually did

Off the top of my head:

  • I tweeted every time I was thinking about a feature, building a feature, and released a feature
  • I tweeted random things I learned about running a business, as I learned them
  • I tapped my personal network on LinkedIn to find out what folks were currently using, and how they were dissatisfied
  • I charged way too low and attracted un-ideal customers
  • I made a free tier to compete with other providers that also charged way too low
  • I wrote changelogs for every big feature
  • I wrote docs for every feature
  • I kept a mailing list where I would update folks about the product's progress
  • I kept a mailing list where I would update folks about running the SaaS
  • I talked about OnlineOrNot on Reddit, Hacker News, in the aim of inspiring people to launch their idea in a highly competitive space
  • I shared OnlineOrNot on popular lists (Product Hunt, etc)
  • I made landing pages that resonate with folks looking specifically for my type of product
  • I built features customers asked for
  • I would spend one week marketing, followed by one week coding, and repeat
  • I was extremely responsive to customers via email and chat
  • I kept improving the product, adding features, and revisiting features

There's probably a lot more, but that's what comes to mind first.

Some context

OnlineOrNot (this website) started because I needed a weekly report for my contracting clients to prove their web host was unreliable, to the point where it was costing them significant money. They were paying for the cheapest possible tier of WordPress hosting at the time, and didn't believe me when I said random 5 minute blocks of downtime throughout the day were adding up.

I built a dirt-simple form that takes a URL and sends an email notification when the site goes down/up, with a weekly summary email.

Then, I kept adding features every day, 2 hours at a time, even after I stopped being a contractor.

I read, a lot

When starting off, I did a lot of reading to figure out what others did before me. While many folks tend to hold-off from starting a business until they feel like they've read everything, I started the business first and started reading as I needed help.

The following articles/books were particularly influential:

  • The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick

  • Deploy Empathy by Michele Hansen

  • Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares

  • Your first 10 customers by Patio11

  • A Bootstrapped SaaS Journey to $10K MRR by Jon Yongfook

  • A random indiehackers forum comment that made me totally re-think marketing:

    • Don't believe for one moment that 5 hours on Product Hunt or anywhere else for that matter represents a serious marketing effort.

      If you want to run a business rather just create stuff, your work has only just begun. In the light of Facebook and other social media revelations, the idea of a truly disposable email address which means your entire life is not analysed and spammed to death has to be worth something.

      You haven't told anyone about it though. And I mean you shout from the rooftops every day and everywhere you can think of. You market. People are not going to come looking for you. You have to start approaching influencers, be seen and be heard everywhere you think your potential users might lurk.

      And, by the way, everyone sees a million new ideas a day so you have to be consistent, appear to be permanent and appear to be solid. No-one is going to entrust communications with you if they think you are a small, one-man band with an idea and little else.

      Time to start reading marketing articles and strategies and applying them.

      And expect it to take time.

On charging low and having a generous free tier

Charging low did help attract my first customers, but few of them are still subscribed years later, as I did not build OnlineOrNot with them in mind.

Of particular note is the type of customer that would overload their single server with hundreds of websites, and complain that OnlineOrNot did what they hired it to, whenever their server would inevitably crash under load.

Customers that only use your service because it is cheap are also the type of customer to cheap out in other parts of their business, making them unpleasant to deal with. At $9/mo, you can't afford to spend much time on support - and these are the customers who will ask for the most support.

I also initially made a free tier to attempt to compete with other players in the market, offering dozens of uptime checks for free. Again, while this attracted tons of free users, it was expensive with little return to the business, so I eventually had to trim down the free tier to a level that the business could support.

Rethinking the free tier

For a very long time, it wasn't possible to even trial OnlineOrNot's paid plans. You would start on the free tier, and if you needed more checks, you would upgrade. This made growth extremely slow and painful as a founder.

I saw this as starting the relationship with a customer like this: "Hey, this is a free tool, if you use it a bit more, you can pay me". I needed to flip the relationship to be more like "Hey, this is a paid tool, if you want slower checks for your personal projects, I can help you out".

It wasn't until I flipped the relationship - starting you off on a free trial of OnlineOrNot's best features - that OnlineOrNot started growing significantly faster.

Battling churn

When I think about OnlineOrNot's customers, there are five "journeys" to spend my time building features for:

  • Lead nurture (aka turning random folks browsing the site into free trials)
  • Trial conversion (turning free trials into paid customers)
  • Trial abandonment (what happens to the folks that don't subscribe)
  • Customer success (ensuring the first month of use is without drama)
  • Customer retention (communicating value over the long term, and keeping the product useful)

When launching a product, most folks (myself included) tend to only focus on lead nurture and trial conversion. This makes sense when you don't have customers yet, I'll admit.

It wasn't until I started balancing my feature development between these five points, rather than just the first two that I got churn down to an acceptable level.

Just keep shipping

One of the beautiful things about bootstrapping a business while working a full-time job is that it's default-alive.

There is near-zero cash burn.

The only thing stopping folks from reaching their first ten paying customers is persistence. Just keep shipping (features, marketing), and eventually you'll get there.

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