The Screaming Emergency That Most New Business Owners Ignore

canstockphoto16060619Let’s get this straight.

If your business doesn’t have customers yet, it’s not a business.

It’s a hobby. Or an art project. Or an experiment. Or something else, but not a business.

Harsh? Maybe.

But not as harsh as wasting a year on your non-business, because no one wants what you’re trying to sell.

But what about Google, Facebook and Twitter? None of those had revenues in the beginning.

Correct, but they were taking on huge opportunities and were funded with stacks of external capital.

Is that the type of business you’re building?

If it is, then good luck. This post isn’t for you. THDC isn’t for you. Sorry to have interrupted your quest.

A business with no customers is a screaming emergency warning siren for the rest of us.

For those trying to build a one or two person micro business – which is most THDC readers, It’s the number one reason the business will fold, or you’ll give up on it.

Without customers you have no business. You’ll be stuck in that job you hate for much longer yet.

If you have no customers, it’s time to act

Before you get upset because I’ve just called your pride and joy a non-business, all is not lost. How you react to hearing the warning siren is far more important then whether you have any customers now or not. Those who hear the warning, realise what’s happening and go get their first customers will win.

Those who don’t will probably be stuck on one of the “But first”s:

But first I need to get my product right

OK – you need to have something to sell. But what you sell in the beginning won’t look like what you sell when your business is matured. Trying to “perfect” your product before you show it to real customers is impossible. Get comfortable with a Minimum Viable Product and launch it ASAP.

If you’re selling physical things, this can still apply. Yes, the minimum viable T Shirt is still a T shirt, and still needs to be made. Instead create a minimal viable range – think one design in one colour, not a full spring collection.

But first I need my web site to look just so

No, you don’t. Maybe you don’t even need a website? You do need one? Get one page set up with your basic message, then come back to it once your customers tell you what you’re really selling.

But first I need to set up my business properly

Don’t break the law, but everything else can wait.

You don’t need an office, you need a kitchen table. You don’t need a bank account when PayPal is a thing. You don’t need business cards – you just don’t. Maybe you’ll need all that stuff eventually, but not now.

How do I get my first customers?

So you’re convinced of the need to act, but you’re asking yourself how. The good  news is, what you need to do isn’t complicated. The bad news is that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

There’s no right way, apart from “whatever works”.

The thing is, you’re good, you work hard, and you’re determined to succeed. I know you are. If you focus all your attention on getting your first customers, and leave everything else until later, you’ll do it.

Some practical steps? I suggest keeping it simple:

Tell everyone about your business, but don’t try to sell to them

If they’re interested, they’ll let you know, but maybe they know someone who you’re perfect for. D this with your friends, your wider network, and everyone you meet who will listen to you. It will feel uncomfortable at first, but push through that and get used to it.

Focus on getting the sale, not the cost of creating the product

Do things that don’t scale, and worry about making the sale, not making huge profits to begin with.

Copy what works

Find one of these examples that’s like your business. What did they do? You can focus on being unique once you’ve bagged those first three customers.

Good luck. Find those buyers, and then maybe reward yourself with a business card…


  • Ed Oyama

    Fierce, harsh and true! Thanks Rob. Hey, curious… what was your first MVP?

    • Rob Young

      Thanks Ed. Well, when I first started I had no idea what an MVP was – I certainly hadn’t read the Lean Start Up, and I don’t think it was written. So in my ski clothing business, we had a LOT of products initially. We thought we were starting small, but by the time you take in Men / Women , 4 or 5 sizes in each, a couple of colour options and 5 styles, we had 64 products to manage and predict demand for. Not easy. That’s why I would recommend simplifying as much as possible…

      • Ed Oyama

        Oh man. Crazy. How did that business end?

        • Rob Young

          IT died a death of bad fit for our lifestyle, and not being willing to battle through some serious issues with a key supplier…

  • Lindy Siu

    Spot-on article as always :) I can personally attest to this. One year of zero revenue despite having secured seed funding for my alleged ‘startup’ taught me a lot. It was a painful experience, but a necessary one :)

    • Rob Young

      Thanks Lindy. Painful indeed, but glad you’re out the other side.

  • Marie-Anne Nogues

    Hi Rob, I myself started with a recycling craft making item with purpose out of household waste. I could sell my interactive talk but not my “dress” and jewellery. Today I came back to my first love: teaching modern languages. My eco craft is still ticking on the back burner until I find a strategy to revive it and make it strive. Any suggestions?. I love sharing information but not so good at selling my own stuff. Many thanks.

    • Rob Young

      Hi Marie-Anne

      Are you selling your items online? Have you tried putting them into a marketplace such as etsey?

      I’m curious to know what you mean by “I could sell my interactive talk” Was that another product?

  • Liz Kelly Zook

    I’ve bagged my first three customers. In fact, when I first started painting I had two customers right off the bat and then… crickets…
    I’ve had at least ten customers in the long run. The ones that have bought my art stick around, but they don’t really do anything. (Two of my customers are repeat customers, though.) I don’t know if they’re just losing interest or if I’m doing something wrong. I’m pretty consistent with promoting my work.