According to the American Marketing Association, marketing is defined as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

What activities, institutions and processes do early stage startups use to sell their users on their newly launched products?

First, what activities, institutions and processes are there to use?

Social media marketing.

  1. Engage.
  2. Share quality posts.
  3. Capture Leads.
  4. Entice.
  5. Convert.

Content Marketing.

  1. Write quality posts.
  2. Build awareness, authority and trust.
  3. Convert.

Search Engine Ads.

  1. Define target.
  2. Promote.

Affiliate Marketing.

  1. Build relationships and partnerships.
  2. Create campaigns.
  3. Convert.

Public Relations.

  1. Get coverage.
  2. Convert.

Product Hunt.

  1. Engage and contribute.
  2. Publish.

Add to the list, marketing initiatives like hosting launch events, running contests, upgrading beta users and more.

The 4 case studies below, teach us one important lesson about acquiring the first paid users that’s beyond the channels and campaigns outlined above:

Market your product as if you are selling a million-dollar solution. That is, by treating every potential paid user as a million-dollar buyer.


1. Existing network (Exp. Groove and Slack)

Alex Turnbull, founder of Groove, started by reaching out to his existing network who ran businesses and dealt with customer support.

Users, The Most Effective Way To Getting Your First Paid Users (evidence from 4 startups), Abdo Riani, Abdo Riani
After the call, he asked if they’d like to try Groove when it’s live. Many said Yes and a few later converted to paid customers.

Lesson 1: Look no further. Someone you know must fit your target buyer persona and those are the ones you should reach out to first. They’re more likely to trust you, give more of their time, recommend you, and pay for your solution.

About the early users, Stewart Butterfield. founder of Slack said, “we begged and cajoled our friends at other companies to try it out and give us feedback.”

2. Find and go meet them- in person (Exp. Groove)

Alex knew his target buyers hang out at Meetups and Incubators. So, he went there. Building relationships, being of value with introductions and advice, essentially giving before asking removed a lot of the friction out of potential users/buyers’ adoption.

Alex writes, “most — an overwhelming majority, in fact — of the early people I spoke with did not end up trying Groove. But some did. And that’s why it was so important to put in the time to reach as many people as I could, so that even with a single-digit conversion rate, we could get enough early users to start growing our business.”

Lesson 2: Go meet people in person. You know what most of us expect from logging in to our emails and social media accounts everyday? Not to be sold to. However, when we attend events, we’re expecting to meet new people, make connections and learn about others’ projects and progress. When there is a fit, most of the time, this turns into a long-term business commitment: a sale.

Your target doesn’t hangout at social events?

Mine didn’t either. In that case,

3. Adopt a customer service sales mindset (Exp. Chargebee)

This simply means: find where your target buyers ask questions and go answer them.

The billing platform Chargbee gained its first users when the founders joined discussions in forums like Hacker News and Stack Overflow. After answering the questions, they would write, “by the way, we are building a billing system. If you would like to be part of the beta we would welcome you.”

4. Use their products or ask for their feedback on your competitors’ products (Exp. Groove)

Using their products. If you are targeting businesses, the easiest way to get them to listen to you is if use their products. Imagine you want to sell a restaurant on a advertising banner in your site. What are the odds that you’ll here a rejection if you just walked in the restaurant and started pitching your service? Most owners will say No. Now, imagine that you’ve eaten at this place a couple of times before making the pitch. Chances are, more people will listen.

This also applies even if you’re targeting consumers. The best way to get them to listen and convert is by helping them improve their own products even if it’s just a Facebook or Instagram photo that you liked, commented on and shared.

Asking for feedback on a competitor’s product

Users, The Most Effective Way To Getting Your First Paid Users (evidence from 4 startups), Abdo Riani, Abdo Riani
This was Alex asking the customer support representative of a company about their experience with Zendesk. This not only helped him gain a lot of insights about user needs, struggles and expectations but also reduced switching costs by striking conversations with leads before he even had a product.

5. Sell door to door (Exp. Groupon)

Groupon founders walked out of their office in their building which had many office spaces, went from one office to the other and asked teams to sign up to get half priced pizzas at a restaurant on the first floor. This earned them their first 500 signups/paid customers.

The lesson is clear:

No matter what you’re building, get your first paid customers as if you are selling a million-dollar product: one customer at a time.

When you adopt this mindset, you will ask less questions about who your customer is, how to reach them, how to market to them, which marketing medium you should focus on, how to fund marketing and promotions, etc. When you make one on one selling your first and most important selling strategy, everything else follows naturally because you’ll find the answers from your interactions and not by guessing.

In the downloadable checklist below, I added 2 more ways to acquire the first paid users by interacting with them. Whether you have a product or just an idea, whether you’re pursuing your venture full-time or starting as a side hustle, use these approaches to


  1. Validate your idea.
  2. Define the persona of your target buyers.
  3. Identify the most needed features.
  4. Generate early sales.
  5. Grow.
Next, below I have some recommendations for what you should read next, but I suggest you start with:

The 5 steps for building startup value before having a product. In the post, I outline 5 consecutive steps for building startup value regardless of how limited or extensive your resources (time, money, skills, etc.) are.

Right now, in the comments section below, I want to hear if you have another example of a company that acquired their first users by getting out of the building. And don’t hesitate to write any other story or comment you have.

If you haven’t yet, download the diagram with a step by step process for launching and growing profitable startup ventures with higher success predictability.

If you haven’t yet, download the diagram with a step by step process for launching and growing profitable startup ventures with higher success predictability.

The diagram will come with summaries to help you implement the steps to move your ideas or startup forward whether your current focus is validating your ideas quickly, acquiring the first or next 100 paying customers, building an MVP or the next versions of the product. You’ll find examples and case studies. 

Got it! Please check your email for confirmation and the diagram will be on its way.

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