Getting your first customers is one of the most crucial parts of running a startup. You need customers in order to survive and grow, yet how do you tempt people in to take a punt on an unknown brand – and survive during the process of building a customer base? It’s the dilemma faced by every business.

Here’s how four entrepreneurs – Gini Newton of Karma Cans, Polly McMasters of The Fold, and James and Richard Gold of Skinnydip – got through those early days and attracted their first customers.

Finding your niche

“The most important thing that I learnt when starting up was about customer pain. I recognised that there were a lot of women like me working in finance who like clothes, but who were working in a dry fashion environment, and the options weren’t there. You need to be able to solve a customer pain. The customer pain I had was genuine, and it wasn’t just me – others had it. You need to identify a market.” - Polly

“We realised that there was a gap in the market for tech accessories such as phone cases for trend-conscious women –we looked into Topshop and there were no options. So we went for it.” – James & Richard

“We were selling all things to all people, but we realised we needed to be more exclusive and aspirational. We went on Dragon’s Den and it helped us realise that we needed a stronger brand identity - so we decided to focus on championing British designers and giving them opportunities.’ – James & Richard.

Logistics

“Knowing your strengths and dividing the labour is really important. The ability to learn and be honest is really key – me and my sister are very honest with each other, I can say anything to her. If you can learn and adapt as your business grows it will be sustainable.” - Gini

“To find customers you need to put all of these pieces together and figure out if you’re the right person to be doing it – ask yourself ‘ do I have the right network, do I have the right skills?’ I felt like I had the customer side nailed because I was the customer, but I wasn’t in the fashion industry, and you have to be realistic – if you’re not in the industry you have to learn it.” – Polly

“We would waste hours deciding on whether to sign off ‘Yours sincerely’ or ‘Kind regards’, but it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference.” – James & Richard

Dealing with pressure

It’s only natural that you’ll put the pressure on yourself to succeed – the biggest pressure you’ll feel will probably be from yourself. There’s that fear of  ‘Will it all end tomorrow?’ – it can feel really real, and you’ll never know anything like it, so be prepared for that. Don’t underestimate the planning – everything that you can do to be prepared, do it!” – Polly.

“You go into a startup thinking you have one role, but you do everything. You have to be prepared to get your hands dirty.” – Gini

Surviving financially

“We had no capital to start with - every penny was put back into the company, so that we could develop ready for the next stage.” - Gini

“We realised that in kitchen renting a kitchen was so expensive that we decided to build one ourselves – we bought one from a business in Norfolk for £600 and put it in a shipping container, then moved to a space in Hackney. To help cover costs we rent out a desk in the space too.” – Gini

Persistence

“We made a list of every retail outlet in the UK with their contact details, and we were fearless. We didn’t care about being rejected - we were very single-minded and we had nothing to lose.” – James & Richard

“You have to network your socks off. Go out for a million coffees with people who can spare five minutes to meet you. Be patient with people, but do try and get in the diary. Be quite specific about what you want when asking someone about their time.” - Polly

“We had 100 rejections before one person gave us an opportunity. We called the next few months ‘the blagging era’ – we made out we had a whole team behind us! In the end our big break was Topshop, and we caught their notice through appearing on Dragon’s Den. It led to a meeting with their buying team, and we opened a concession in the Oxford Circus flagship store.

“Perception is everything. We’ve been fortunate to meet the top people in the industry over the last few years, and if you pretend you’re the biggest company in the world, retailers feel your confidence and buy into that. Our business cards at the start said ‘Account Managers’ – we didn’t want them to know we were the founders.” – James & Richard

Recognising your achievements

“We had a launch party early on where we sold some dresses, and it gave us a huge sense of pride – we had rails of clothes that we would lug around. When you look back on early days you can feel proud of how far you’ve come, and the sense of achievement from seeing those first few customers. Celebrate achievements on the way, because it’s a hard slog and if you don’t celebrate it will be tough!” - Polly

“We had fun in the early days, and that’s important. Happiness is a by-product of success. If you’re happy doing something you’re usually good at it and being good at something usually means you’re successful. You spend a lot of your life at work, so you have to enjoy it.” – James & Richard

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