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Here's why "How did you get your first X customers?" is a terrible question to ask founders

This is going to be a bit ranty, but hopefully it will also be useful to some people!

Hands down, one of my most hated questions is "How did you get your first 25 customers?". I get asked it a lot in my twitter DMs, so much that I actually wrote a whole post about it. I try to answer these inquiries where possible, but I can't help but think that the right questions aren't being asked.

I see this question getting asked over and over again directed at founders on twitter, and on Indiehackers - in the recent AMA by AJ of Carrd he gets asked this several times over in different permutations.

I feel that a lot of new entrepreneurs simply think that success is down to having a product and throwing it at a magic distribution channel. I'm sorry to have to tell you, but it's much harder than that.

Why it's a terrible question to ask

The question is not specific enough to gain learnings from. It's too wide open - successful founders will have probably tried a list of 100 things to get their first X customers. They aren't going to tell you all 100, just the ones they remember, and there's no guarantee those will be relevant to you.

The question makes the indirect assumption that both Product A and Product B are equal, and therefore by knowing how A got customers, one can apply the same methods to B and enjoy the same success.

Here's the reality check: Your product is different. It has a different market, different use case, different value proposition, and different relevant distribution channels.

When you ask this question and the founder replies something like "oh I sent it to my newsletter list of 10,000 people" or "oh I'm huge on LinkedIn" what are you going to do with that information? You don't have either of those things. So it's redundant information. You've wasted the chance to learn something useful.

Better questions to ask

Focus on the things that your product and their product actually have in common. And try to learn what they did in those specific areas.

You both (probably) have:

  • Landing pages
  • Blogs
  • Pricing pages
  • Free trials
    etc

From that, you can draw up things you might want to learn about these parts of the customer journey, e.g.

  • How has your landing page evolved over the last X years and why?
  • What was your most successful piece of blog content and why do you think so?
  • Did you ever experiment with pricing and why did you settle on the current plans?
  • What do you think is the "aha moment" in your free trial? (if any)

This is a rant, yes, but I assure you my heart is in the right place. I want many other indiehackers to be successful and a big part of that is asking the right questions when there's an opportunity to do so :)

  1. 6

    When you ask this question and the founder replies something like "oh I sent it to my newsletter list of 10,000 people" or "oh I'm huge on LinkedIn" what are you going to do with that information? You don't have either of those things.

    This is 100% true! When I was starting out as a founder I was really frustrated with these replies. Not that it's the founder's fault - after all, their audience IS the reason they found early traction, but how does that help me as someone who has no audience?

    It led me to asking founders who built a successful product WITHOUT an audience to share their story, and the responses were very eye-opening for me!

    The one consistent theme from that post: Every successful founder was able to discover one or more reliable distribution channels that worked for their specific situation.

    It might be cold outreach, or Google Adsense, or leveraging partnerships, but they found something that worked for them and ran with it!

  2. 5

    I think we should stop calling rant things that make sense but are expressed after the last drop of seeing the same mistake or nonsense repeated over and over.

  3. 3

    Excellent post and such a great example.

    AJ might've got his first customers from Twitter, but he had a massive surge from K-pop fans and BLM protesters.

    I think indie hackers would have more success if they framed growth questions around these problems:

    • Who are your ideal customers?
    • What do they care about?
    • Where can you find them?
    • What value can you offer them?

    If you've got the answers to these questions, then you won't need to ask anyone for distribution tips.

    1. 2

      wish I could upvote this twice - those are 4 excellent questions to ask both to other founders (for learning) and to yourself (to figure stuff out!)

  4. 2

    This write-up is anything but a rant. I was one of these shortsighted fellas who usually asked this exact question, but now I know better. Thanks for the insight!
    I'd add one more question: What was your most successful traction channel and why do you think so?

  5. 1

    @yongfook I want to hear your answers to the questions you proposed!

  6. 1

    Excelleng questions. Please answer them also 🙈

  7. -1

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    1. 3

      sounds like you may have only read the title and didn't read my post all the way to the bottom.

      my final point is exactly as you described, focus on the things you have in common, and ask questions related to those areas 👍🏻

      1. -3

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