Getting your first 100 customers with Salesflare Co-Founder Jeroen Corthout

Dec 19, 2019
Author: Collin Stewart

There are countless milestones on the road to startup success: the spark of a new idea, hiring the first members of your team, fundraising… startup growth can be a wild ride.

But, of all the landmark moments on the way to world domination, getting your first batch of customers – 10, 50, 100 – surely ranks amongst the top. After all, without any customers (or users, depending on your product’s market) what have you got?

That’s why, for this week’s podcast, our very own fearless podcast host Collin Stewart teamed up with Salesflare Co-Founder, Jeroen Corthout, to talk about just that: how Salesflare got its first 100 customers.

And like all good startup tales, this story starts with a misconception, a great product idea, and some really shrewd marketing.

How it all started

According to Corthout, the Salesflare ride starts with a pretty naive idea.

“We thought that products were launched in the press. We had experienced sales and had run previous software company. But, we wanted to go beyond sales strategy. We wanted to launch in the press with a big boom, and people would come to us. The press launch seemed like a defining moment,” says Corthout.

“We thought we could get in TechCrunch etc. and that would be a good lead acquisition strategy. Of course, you have to convince them that your product is noteworthy and with a CRM that is almost impossible.”

The good news? Salesflare did manage to get some positive local press coverage via an innovative feature (Docflare) they built – and that media attention got them into a startup accelerator.

It was at this accelerator that Salesflare received two invaluable elements for their future growth: an early network, and the knowledge that doing customer interviews are critical for success.

“This is what I would do if we could start all over again – do customer interviews first. They are super valuable. When I learned of the importance of customer interviews, I started with personal network, and then created a pipeline of customer interviews,” says Corthout.

“But, you need to do at least 20 – 40 to gain a real understanding. When you are conducting user interviews, think of it as the beginning of your sales process – you are learning about issues and what your market needs to have solved.”

Of course, customer interviews aren’t a free for all – there are some rules you should follow. For example, don’t go to customer interviews to validate your ideas. If you just wanted them to tell you that you’re right and your ideas are smart, then you’re not going to get much out of the exercise.

What you’re actually doing is digging for pain, just not the pain you presupposed. You want to pull out relevant pains and challenges that people are actually experiencing. 

And, like Salesflare is doing right, you can do these interviews over and over – not just at the beginning of your company’s journey.

“Right now, we’re actually doing these interviews again with our top 40 customers to really understand the job we are doing for them,” says Corthout.

“We wanted to chat with CEOs, VPs of Sales, and salespeople to understand all the different players. And, we wanted to get a mix of companies to find out who aligns best, and get a sense of who says what.”

Customer interview questions

So…what are some of the questions you can ask during these interviews? You can take them in many ways, of course, but there are some fundamental aspects you should touch on.

For example, Salesflare asks these questions:

  • What CRM were you using before Salesflare?
  • Were you involved in buying that software product?
  • How was it working?

Then, Salesflare investigates the four forces buyers endure when switching products:

  • What is the inertia of the current solution? (What keeps you using your current solution?)
  • The push factor (why did you look for something new?)
  • Before you bought Salesflare, what did you imagine what life would be like?
  • Finally, were there any habits you had to change?

(Editor’s note: at Predictable Revenue, the questions we ask during customer interviews are: we narrow in on a job to be done. Then, on a scale of 1 – 10, how important is that job to you? And, how satisfied are you with your relationship to the way you currently handle that job?)


Building the MVP

After the customer interviews, Salesflare built an MVP of their CRM, and immediately wanted to get people to use what they had built, derive value from it, and, eventually, be able to charge for it.

Part of the MVP process at Salesflare was building a presence at events. They had built a small user base, had a growing product – now they needed to expand their network.

And what better way than to take their product on the road to events?

“We had exhausted our network. The good thing about events – you can build relationships in real life. This took us from 10 customers to about 30. We go to startup conferences. But, if your customers are in real estate, then go to real estate events. Events aren’t super scalable , and they aren’t cheap. But, you can always figure out a way to do them on the cheap,” says Corthout.

“We have a very strict process at events – we book as many meetings in advance as we can, then book meetings at the events, and follow up after the event. And we put everything neatly in our CRM, of course.”

(We had Tenbound’s David Dulany on the pod a while back to discuss the importance of SDRs on your conference strategy. You can read about our chat here, or listen to the entire in-depth interview here)


Developing an online presence

Finally, SalesFlare worked to build an online presence. At the forefront of this growth method, says Corthout, is content marketing.  

 As such, they were active on Quora, reddit, LinkedIn. In fact, a lot of early growth came from Quora (when it was still a powerful force online). 

In addition to that, Salesflare was active in Facebook groups – these good for creating hype and community. Salesflare would create content pieces, most unfinished, and ask the community for feedback.

Then, the company launched on Product Hunt. At this point, they had around 30 customers.

“We decided to have the biggest launch of a CRM on Product Hunt. It took us about two weeks of prep – you can find out all about this on our blog. We got 250 trials in two days, of which 25 or 30 became customers,” says Corthout.

“That was huge for us. In fact, that page is still paying off – people still tell me they found us on Product Hunt. The thing with Product Hunt, though, is that it is attracted by early adopters, so they do churn rather quickly.”

Finally, Salesflare leveraged AppSumo for more signups. 

On AppSumo, they got about 6,000 signups (these were people who made one-time payments to use Salesflare, about 25% of which still use Salesflare actively). 

For those unfamiliar, what AppSumo does is blast to 1,000,000 people. For that effort, AppSumo gets a cut of the money a company receives from signups. So, although this was not a huge financial windfall for Salesflare, it was an important learning experience. 

“We got to scale with the AppSumo volume, tested our systems at scale, tested the power of reviews, and word of mouth at scale – this all thanks to AppSumo,” says Corthout.

For more on Corthout’s thoughts on Salesflare’s growth – including some of the tips and tricks the company has been employing lately – check out the rest of his interview on The Predictable Revenue Podcast.