How to get your first 100 customers
Taking that first step is the best way to start a business even if you don't know if you'll be successful. But what happens after that and how do you find your first customer? UTS Startups founder and CEO of Clipboard Sam Clarke shares his top tips for building a healthy customer base.
Start with a genuine problem
Like many entrepreneurs, Sam has founded multiple startups; but his first two struggled to generate users.
“I was just obsessed with doing things that I thought were really cool, and I was basically going to a solution and then engineering what I thought was a problem to fit that solution.”
“We started with the solution first and in both cases that didn't work.”
This eventually led Sam to create Clipboard, a software for managing extracurricular programs.
“Unlike my previous two startup ideas, Clipboard genuinely solves a big need”
Anyone can do it
A lot of people think there’s a baseline level of knowledge and experience needed to begin a startup.
“We just figured it out,” says Sam.
“At the time we weren't selling or anything so I just said ‘okay I gotta learn how to code’ and I spent the next year just teaching myself how to code so I could help out.”
“I think especially with web development and software, everything's available online and you can teach yourself.”
“I did communications and dropped maths in year 11, and I taught myself how to build an app that's now used by 26 schools.” - Sam Clarke, CEO of Clipboard.
For almost a year, Sam and Ed were the first users of Clipboard, trialling the software as sports coaches for their old high school Knox Grammar.
“At a certain point, we got enough interest from different activity managers that it got escalated to the head of IT, the Head of Finance, and the Head of Sport.”
Eventually, Knox were set up on a trial basis and later signed on as their first official customer.
“Knox was the backbone of the company. If we hadn't gotten Clipboard into that school we wouldn't have been able to get any other schools."
Leverage your network
Sam drew on his own network of contacts to reach out to similar schools and even gave affiliate marketing a go.
With the incentive of $100 for every successful introduction, the tactic resulted in six more schools signing up to trial the product.
“We just used that 12 months as a period to say, ‘hey, we know this solves a problem for you, it's not perfect so we'll give it to you for free if you do us a favour of giving us the feedback and working with us for 12 months’.”
“After 12 months of them using it, 100 per cent of them paid.”
Define success for your business
With such a promising start, Sam has to be very clear about what success looked like for Clipboard’s future.
“In terms of product development perspective, we're very much focused now on shifting from output-driven development to outcome-driven development.”
“We used to measuring success by saying ‘we've shipped a new feature’.”
“Now success is like ‘what was the outcome of that feature? What was the engagement like? Is it working?’.”
Find your niche
Sam wraps up his success story by highlighting the importance of a sales strategy that’s tailored to your specific market and needs.
“What we've learned, sometimes the hard way, is that a major key to success in any startup is being laser-focused on your definition of your ideal customer profile. If you're not that, and you come in as a lead to our website to book a demo, I'm just going to say, look unfortunately at this point I don't think it's right that we work together. I would recommend looking at these other services.”
“If you try to solve everyone's problem, you don't really solve anyone's problem very well.” - Sam Clarke, CEO of Clipboard.
Watch the full talk with Sam
Emma: He probably doesn't need an introduction, I don't think...following along with the journey of UTS Startups and our community... So Sam you studied Faculty of Arts and Social Science, is that right?
Sam: Yes I did a Bachelor of Communications majoring in public communication, which is basically advertising.
Emma: I always loved these extra stories where they didn't study something very "businessy" or "entrepreneurshippy" and then they've gone on to be a really successful entrepreneur. And it was 2018 that you joined UTS Startups…
Sam: Was it? I thought it was a little bit earlier than that?
Emma: It only launched in, did it? No... So Clipboard was one of the first startups actually to join UTS Startups?
Emma: Did you have much experience before that in entrepreneurship?
Sam: So I'd started two startups before that, neither of which got anywhere, but definitely taught me a lot. So when I was in first year of Uni, me and a friend created a- well I got obsessed with the idea of virtual reality, and I was... and like what I could do, and was really interested in e-commerce as well. So I came up with the idea of building a virtual reality shopping mall, and like blending the best parts of online shopping and in-person; and the online is obviously the convenience and the person's experience, and I thought, well with VR what we can do now is we can create sort of the best of both worlds. And I stayed up with a MACE to work...like three months straight, building this online rainforest shopping centre. [Laughter] I kind of like taught myself how to use Unity and like code it. And yeah, then you put this headset on and like walk around the shopping centre, this like rainforest and the t-shirts are like in the wind, there was wind. There was like Nikes on this ladder between the rainforest platforms, you could like pick them up, and you could like try clothes on. I thought it was the coolest thing ever...Because my friend was at USYD, unfortunately got knocked back and the guys there said that "oh clearly you two don't know anything about shopping". [Laughter]
Emma: Ouch! Zing.
Sam: Yeah, so that was like kind of devastating at that time. And then after that, another friend of mine was telling me about AI and how far image recognition had come, so I decided to use this API that I found for image recognition... basically Shazam for products, and it would allow me to take a photo of somebody- I could go "oh, Emma" you know, "great jacket" and take a photo and it would...
Emma: You could Shazam this UTS t-shirt…
Sam: Exactly! And then I'd be able to buy the UTS Startups t-shirt, and see all the places where I could buy it online for the cheapest price using that. And again, it was like a really cool idea and everyone patted me on the back and said "cool idea, that would be really- that's a really good idea"... Ever use it. Everybody would download it once and then not use it again.
Emma: So the first two startups lacked users?
Sam: Yeah, they were both- I was like, just obsessed with doing things that I thought were really cool, and I was finding- I was basically going to a solution and then engineering what I thought was a problem to fit that solution. We started with the solution first and in both cases that didn't work.
Emma: Write that down, folks! Write that down.. How did you get from user-less, really fun startups that you loved, in the sort of retail space, to education, co-curricular, for Clipboard?
Sam: Yeah, so I think the first thing I'd say about Clipboard is it solves a genuine problem,
and that's why we've got to where we are now. Unlike my previous two startup ideas, Clipboard genuinely solves a big need to a customer who has money as well, so that always helps... We both did a lot of extracurricular activities during school, all kinds of different activities that we loved, and learned a lot of life lessons from. When we finished school we
became basketball coaches at our old high school, and we were literally working in the field during Uni as just like, casual jobs, coaching these basketball teams. And from that experience, having gone from actually experiencing it as students to then experiencing it as staff members, we saw just like how many administrative problems... Hours and hours were being lost each week to administrative work that was just unnecessary, and that was time being taken away from the actual students and teaching them the life lessons.
Emma: And how did you actually find that those problems existed?
Sam: So we were just working there. Like we saw it firsthand, like we felt like we would, we personally had to mark the role on team sheets or pieces of paper that were printed out and would get wet in the rain, and would invariably not... having to like input them into an excel spreadsheet. We saw how people would overstate hours in their time sheet and cost the school tens of thousands of dollars every year. We saw firsthand how dissatisfied the parents were when they weren't told where their game was on Saturday and they drove halfway across Sydney in the rain only to find out that the game had been cancelled.
Emma: So, well that's really interesting. And if, how did you then go... problem, but... ones that would necessarily be the decision maker to pay for a solution? How did you then go about validating that that problem not only existed for a future customer but that's something that they wanted to pay money to solve?
Sam: 100%, and I think that was sort of the hardest initial transition. So when we first started out, Ed was studying computer science, so he did most of coding. At the start I was pretty useless and I couldn't code, and I remember us catching up one day... loads of things we had to do, and Ed had a thousand dot points on his list and I probably had three. [Laughter] And at that time we weren't selling or anything so I just said "okay I gotta learn how to code", so I just spent the next year like just teaching myself how to code so I could help out. And so that first sort of year was just really product development- we said, okay
we've realised we've got something, now we've got to build a product and present it to the school. We presented wireframes to our manager of basketball, She went "yeah! We'll..."
...The first version of that product, over probably a few months, three months or so. We didn't really know what we were doing so we were just kind of figuring it out as we went.
Emma: Write that down as well, because what we see a lot, both in the wider ecosystem and students that come to some UTS Startups events, is that they think they need to have this baseline level of knowledge and experience before they can start. You've just said that you had no idea what you were doing and you figured it out as you went...
Sam: Yeah we just figured it out. I think especially with web development and software, any discipline really but software is an easy one, everything's available online and you can teach yourself. Like I did communications and dropped maths in year 11, and I like taught myself how to build an app that's now used by 27 schools.
Emma: Love that.
Sam: So, yeah like you can definitely learn, as you go. But it definitely helped having Ed... did teach himself more, tangible web development skills, but he had a good computer science base to fall back on, and had a rigorous way of thinking that's really helped us.
Emma: Lourdes I'm just getting a bit of a notification that our WiFi is on a bit of struggle street today, so jump in and let me know if there are any issues, and we'll see if we can maybe switch to another connection. But, so you said 27 schools?
Sam: It's actually 26. We have 26 in...
Emma: …Reaching out to the first, was it non-paying first two?
Sam: Yeah, so it was our old school Knox Grammar School, that was the first school. So Knox, we got it in with the basketball program, they then tried it for a while- we were still working as coaches, so I think the biggest thing that helped us starting off with is we were actually the users of our own product for about six to nine months, I would say. We worked three times a week at the school after they implemented Clipboard on a trial... Do you want to keep going or is that network connection pretty bad?
Lourdes: Maybe try and switch it Emma?
Emma: All right. Give us five seconds. Okay we might be back! Give us give us a wave if we're back! Thanks Hanisa, I can see you waving. Perfect. Alrighty so...
Sam: We good? So we were just, I think the biggest thing that helped us starting out is we, Ed and I, were working as staff members at the school, three times a week, using our own product. And so, when things didn't work I would experience it firsthand, I would personally feel the pain of how annoying it was that you couldn't record a score automatically, and you know things like that, that we would come across doing our job, and we would hear feedback from the other staff members as well telling us what was going... Got it into Knox, we got it initially into the basketball program on a trial, then we got, a few other sports were like "oh hey that looks pretty cool, can we give it a go?" And then they just started trialling it, and it was still pretty under the radar at the school, it wasn't like an official software platform, it was more just, we're all boys, we were staff members, and they were just trying it. At a certain point we got enough interest from different activity managers,
that it got escalated to the head of IT, the head of Finance, and they had a Sport, and the head.. sat down and basically said "all right look, we want to properly roll this out, we
want to trial it first. If the trial goes well we'll then pay you", and they gave us basically a long list of requirements that they needed to see in the product, like how it would integrate with other systems at the school, how the payroll side of things would work. That was a really complex area that we had to figure out, because we manage all the casual time sheeting for the school's payroll. So we had to sort of work through those requirements... staff at the school, got it in, did some training sessions. They used it, I think, for the rest of that year. So Knox probably would have got about 12 months for free, maybe a bit less. At the end of that period Knox then agreed to sign up, and I think they paid us 20 grand in the first year. So that was our first customer, when Knox came on board.
Emma: Can I ask, how did you go about- so this is a somewhat typical go-to-market strategy, to get some people on board, either for a free trial or something similar... and as a paid customer, and then utilise that as a use case for future client outreach. How did you utilise Knox as the use case to your advantage for future prospecting for sales?
Sam: Yeah, well Knox was the backbone of the company. So like, if we hadn't got it into that school we wouldn't have been able to get any other schools, and I think in our case we were really lucky because the school did take a chance on us... They definitely took a chance on us, they liked us and they gave us a go, I'm not sure other schools would have done the same, having no credibility. I think we would have got an initial product into another school but it would have been a lot harder and we would have, I think the bar would have been a lot higher, we would've had to do a lot more first. So that really helped. We then got some feedback. I'm lucky that- we're lucky to have a great mentor in Daniel Petrie from AirTree, and he kind of sat down..."you just got to get users", like you guys are Uni students, you don't need money, you've just got to get users and build some traction.
Emma: Short-term pain for long-term gain.
Sam: Yeah exactly. So based on his advice in that first- I guess it was second year, we then used the Knox case study to go around to similar schools around Sydney and say "hey look, Knox Grammar School is using it" you know, kind of like "why aren't you?" And managed to- I think we got six... schools, then we literally just gave it to them for free. We said, look, we knew at that point... we knew at that point- is that still causing lag?
Emma: I've moved my phone away so we'll see if that...
Sam: How's the line, is that all right?
Emma: Cool? I'm hoping that's a thumbs up.
Lourdes: Maybe just keep going while it's...
Emma: We'll just all cross our fingers to the WiFi... Sorry so keep going, but you mentioned, so you went around to other schools, got six trials signed up. When you say "went around", without giving away too many of your secrets, did you cold call, cold email, send physical things, knock on doors? How did you actually "go around" to schools?
Sam: Yeah, it was pretty inefficient what we did, initially. There was, trying to think how we got most the leads. It was mainly just introductions from people who knew... If I had my time again I'd probably do it a little differently, but even then we didn't have much credibility so we really had to just do whatever we could to get an intro. So generally the way it would work is I would have a friend who coached at Cranbrook and, or whatever school it was, and he would, as like a junior coach, would email the head of sport who was his boss, and say "hey, introducing you to Sam who's got this thing that's working at Knox. I thought it'd be worth you having a chat." And then I would... actually get to the point where I paid people, we paid people like $100 for a successful introduction to a school.
Emma: That's a, it's another great sales tactic. Referrals & affiliates!
Sam: ...We got randoms at Sydney Uni who coached and they would just like introduce us. [Laughter]
Emma: So, for the people that weren't in your immediate network to then sort of intro you to the right person, the decision maker, how did you then go about building those relationships for the subsequent sales, not just that first?...
Sam: Yeah so, that first year was literally just getting like Uni students and sports coaches who worked at schools, oftentimes paying them and posting on like a Facebook group like "hey, if you introduce us to your boss we'll pay you a hundred dollars if we sign them up as a customer". And then we got like tons of emails. So we got a lot of, a lot of introductions from that. And then after that, we just talked to the school.
Emma: And what's, if you can share, what's the typical annual package/subscription...?
Sam: In that second year we literally went to, I think we signed up like Pymble Ladies' College, Kincoppal Rose Bay, I can't even remember now, it was like six schools, that started using it and just tried it for free. We weren't in a position at that point to actually charge money for the product because it just, it wasn't developed enough, we didn't have enough credibility, it was still super basic. And so we just use that 12 months as a period to say, "hey, we know this solves a problem for you, it's not perfect"... with you, work really closely to get all your feedback, so we'll give it to you for free, if you do us a favour of giving us the feedback and working with us for 12 months. And because we didn't- there was no budget, the sports people didn't have to go to the IT or the business manager and get approval, they just used it, and then would give us the feedback and then after 12 months of them using it 100% of them paid.
Emma: This is seriously great advice for everyone out there that is thinking... To what you think is the perfect product offering. Look at Sam; got into six or seven schools before- he just said the product wasn't very good. So double whammy, you're getting your customer to use your product so you can improve the product tenfold, more, whatever. Product market fit, you're nailing that, absolutely nailing that, you're building your prospecting list and your customer base, and then hopefully after the end of the trial you're actually making... what more could you want?
Sam: [Laughter] Sleep.
Emma: And have you, so does this freemium model still exist now?
Sam: Yeah, so we tried freemium last year, we brought out a free tier, thinking that, thinking that we could onboard schools for free without them needing to get approval from the bosses. Get it embedded- kind of like that Slack model, and then upsell the business and IT department... leads from that. But it was a just a logistical nightmare to manage. We had a really small part-time team last year, we hadn't raised much capital, so a lot of our time was just focused chasing up the junior sports administrator at some school who'd signed up but wasn't properly using it, but we needed to use it in order to get them to convert, and then invariably they would churn. So for us at that point, like even last year, with a still, an undeveloped onboard... and just I guess a customer success operation that wasn't very fine-tuned. We couldn't do free tier because it was too labour intensive from us. So now we've moved away, some feedback we got in during Startmate was just to cut the, cut free tier,
and if you want it you pay, we don't do trials. We know we're worthy, we know we're going to help you, so just pay.
Emma: I love it- over the years you've just changed. And I asked a similar question to
Lana in the talk... you and your team study the data to make pragmatic decisions, versus follow your gut to make decisions about what next?
Sam: Yeah interesting question. So in terms of like product development perspective, we're trying, we're very much focused now on shifting from outcome, from output-driven development to outcome-driven development. So basically we used to measure a, measure success by saying we've shipped a new feature... success is like, what was the outcome of that feature? What was the engagement like? Is it working? So obviously the data is super critical. You try to use data as much as you can in running a company to make good decisions, but I think at the scale of a startup, oftentimes the data pool's really slow, no sorry, really small. So like, we haven't had the luxury to look at our marketing website and go "oh how could we optimise for demo bookings?" because... you know, every month or something. So you do need a large data set to look at that.
Emma: Fair enough. I will throw quickly to a question from Kimberly; how do you manage
privacy issues with students or children?
Sam: Yeah, great question. So obviously in the school sector and education sector, privacy is one of the most important considerations. We've traditionally not had students and parents on our platform, so when we started out I think... when we didn't have very sensitive information and data that we were collecting. So schools were satisfied with the pretty stringent data security processes that we had in place, and we have like pretty strong documentation around that, because obviously it's really critical in the school sector. We're now starting to bring students and parents into the equation, but I think from like a engineering perspective we have pretty strong security. All the data... twice daily, we have to ensure everything's encrypted. We would like to, when we have the resources, undergo ISO 27001 Compliance, which just gives us a nice tick of approval, so when the IT teams are
looking at clipboard, they can immediately go "yep, tick, I don't even need to read the security handbook". But what we have in place now satisfies most of the you know bigger schools that we work with.
Emma: Love it. Makes me feel very comfortable if I had kids in school.
Sam: Yeah! [Laughter]...
Emma: ...You can ask it, we've only got one or two minutes left with the incredible Sam Clarke so go for it Hanisa, so what's your question?
Hanisa: My question was, in the early days, like with my startup it's, I'm sort of torn between growing my user base, or developing and working on my product, and what was your focus based on? Like, of the two?
Sam: Right. I don't think you can separate them. I think... and with at least some users. I think like, I'm, you know- every, every you know founder would probably echo a similar line, which is that of course you need to work really closely with your users in the early days, and gather their feedback. So for us and Hanisa I know that we, Clipboard's a very different business to your app, but for us we worked really closely with one school, and that was enough for us because... work really closely with them, get all the feedback, have lots of meetings. I would say with a networked startup like yourself Hanisa, that's a different equation that you would have to try to understand, is how many users? How big does my network have to be in order to learn as much as we can? In order to continue to improve the product and drive the viral loop? I don't know what that is but I'm sure if you talk to... how to find that out. So really tailoring your sales strategy to your market, your needs. Yeah, I think the biggest thing to understand is just being really clear with who you're focused on. So for us, for us a really useful exercise this year has been to clearly define what our ideal customer profile is, and that's not something we did initially. We used to think that, oh whoever asked for our product we'll sell it to, whether it's an independent, a large independent school, a mid-tier independent school... international school in Abu Dhabi, a
sports club, like whatever, we'll sell it to you. But what we've learned, sometimes the hard way, is that I think a major key to success in any startup is being razor-focused on your definition of your ideal customer profile; your ICP. So, for us right now we're still a pretty small startup, so we've defined our ICP as schools with fees over twenty thousand dollars a year that run big extracurricular programs... need to create, and have compulsory sport. It's like, if you're not that, and you come in as a lead to our website to book a demo, I'm just going to say, look unfortunately at this point I don't think it's right that we work together. I would recommend looking at these other services. That must take a lot, a lot of discipline to not just say yes to any, every customer. Yeah because once you say yes to everyone you massively dilute your offering. You can either be great for a really, a real subset of a customer and... globally. So like it's fine for us to do that, but even if it's still a really small market you just want to start a fire, you need that initial kindling really, really burning, and then you can add on top of it, and you need customers who absolutely love you, and your razor-focus on solving their specific problems. Because if you try to solve everyone's problem, you don't really solve anyone's problem very well.
Emma: What a perfect, perfect piece of advice to end on. It really is a lightning talk, time... digital or actual round of applause for Sam Clarke from Clipboard, thank you so much! Thanks for coming Sam.