How To Validate Ideas and Get Your First Customers With Email Outreach

This simple guide to direct sales using email outreach will teach you how to validate a business idea and get your first customers.

How To Validate Ideas and Get Your First Customers With Email Outreach

Sales is by far the most measurable and efficient way to validate a business idea and get your first customers without the need of a large audience. This simple guide to direct sales using email outreach will teach you how.

What is direct sales?

Instead of complicating things, just think of direct sales as taking some action in order to sell your product directly to your customers. This can be either a phone call like telemarketing, selling newspapers on the street or sending cold emails to sell your SaaS. It's different from marketing activities in the way that it is a direct conversation between you and the customer. While marketing activities can scale better, direct sales offer a lot of benefits, especially early on in a business.

Why you should consider direct sales to get your first customers

If marketing activities scale better, why shouldn't you just use that instead? Because in the beginning of your startup, you want to have a dialog with your customers in order to find out what they like / don't like. For example, a customer may tell you that they won't buy because it's too expensive or they are missing some feature. This information would be really hard to extract from doing marketing activities, but now you have a person, who is also in your target market, saying they won't buy because of [some reason]. This is very actionable information! You can start a discussion and ask follow up question and build a relationship with the person. Who knows, they may become an early customer at some point, especially if they give your their time to give feedback.

Another thing with sales is that there are a lot of successful companies out there minding there own business and doing sales, and they won't let you know anything about it 🀫.

Sales is everywhere, but don't tell anyone

Don't take it from me, Paul Graham wrote one of the most shared essays in the startup community about doing things that don't scale.

"Do things that don't scale" - Paul Graham

5 Step guide to validate your idea and get your first customers with direct sales

Enough discussion about why you should do direct sales. Let's dig right into it and see how it works. I've put everything you need to know to validate your idea and get your first customer in the 5 step guide below.

1. Define your audience

This is a good time to define your audience, if you haven't already done that. Try to be as specific as possible as this will help you find better leads to email. For instance, "small businesses" is ok but not super good. Try something like "small businesses that uses Intercom for customer support" or "small retail businesses".

2. Find leads and build your prospect list

Once you've got your target audience down you can start finding leads. Create a simple spreadsheet with four columns to begin with:

  • Company name
  • Person name
  • Role of person
  • Contacted (date)
If you've got a simple CRM system, use that instead of a spreadsheet

Now, start searching the web for customers in your target market. Try to find 50-100 leads. If you're organized you should be able to do find around 10 in an hour. Here's some inspiration for sources to find leads:

  • Comany directories: Company directories are a great go-to place to find leads for your startups. There are also niche directories which may or may not be a really good fit for your specific market.
  • Job boards: Job boards can also be an awesome resource for finding leads. For example, if you're building a service for onboarding engineers, look for a company who's working on growing their engineering team.
  • Adjacent startup testimonials: This one is a little more tricky but can generate super quality leads if you're an early stage startup. Look for early-stage startups that are in adjacent market to you and then scan their customer testimonials. These companies are probably not new to buying something early on in the development process and could be potential early adopters to you as well.
  • Google and other search engines: Google can be pretty effective for finding leads. You just need to be a little creative and figure out what kind of keywords your target customers are promoting on their websites or content. For instance, searching for "Great coffee in Seattle" should yield some pretty good leads if you're looking for those types of businesses.
  • Freelance platforms: Freelance platforms can be a great way to find leads if you're running an agency or maybe have a productized service that you'd like to promote and sell.
  • Foursquare and Yelp: Foursquare, like Yelp, can be a great platform to find local businesses. For instance if you're targetting coffee shops, restaurants and bars in certain areas.
  • Niche platforms and directories: I once used a booking platform for healthcare to reach out to physical therapists. It worked really well since they all put their contact information on the site to accommodate customers. Try to figure out where your customer's hang out and publish there contact information.
  • LinkedIn: LinkedIn can be a great way to find customers to your startup. Especially looking at your own network but also looking at 2nd and 3rd hand contacts.
  • Industry news: Industry news is an interesting way to find quality leads. By looking at who's doing what you can be smart and approach companies at the right time. For technology startups this might be Techcrunch or Lifehacker for consumer products. Think about where industry news is published about your target market.
  • Quora and Medium: Use Quora to search for questions relevant to your industry. You may find some really high quality leads by looking at either answers, or by answering questions yourself and being helpful to others. On Medium you can subscribe to and monitor tags relevant to your industry.
  • Twitter and Facebook: Twitter is a fun and fast paced way to interact with potential customers. One way to find leads here is to use Tweetdeck to monitor searches and hashtags.
  • Hacker News and Product Hunt: These sites are kind of tech specific. Hacker News can be a great resource to find startups within your market. Either by checking the frontpage or diving into Show HN to see what projects has launched recently.
There are tools like which can help you find email addresses to people by entering a domain.
You can also buy lists of leads, but try to avoid these for now.

3. Define what a successful campaign looks like

Before sending your first email, make sure to define what success looks like. This is especially important if you're trying to validate an idea. What response rate will convince you to keep working on the idea?

4. Design your outreach campaign

When you've got a list of highly targetted businesses that are in your market and defined what success looks like, you can start designing your outreach campaign. A good outreach campaign usually consists of 3 main parts:

  1. First cold email
  2. Follow up emails
  3. Goodbye email

Let's dive deeper into each part.

Designing your first cold email

Try to be as personal as possible when designing the first email. If you know the persons name is Jill, make sure to include it by saying "Hey Jill". Also include other things if you can. If you've read an article by them that you liked, let them know!

If you don't know anything about the company and only have a generic email address, that's fine, but don't expect the same level of response.

A general template for the first email could look like this:

General template for first email

Hi {{name}},

My name is Foo McBar and I'm the founder of a company developing a product/service that helps you do X.

[Why you are contacting them / Personal note]

Are you interested in trying it out?

Foo McBar

Also make sure to keep the subject line short, and feel free to include their name or company name as well.

Pro tip! Get an intro to the correct person by asking who is responsible for [your thing] at their company if you send an email to a generic address like [email protected].

Designing follow up emails

The most important aspect of cold emailing is following up. It has happened so many times that people who are interested missed my first email and replied to my second, third or even fourth follow up. However, note that some people may also be annoyed if you follow up too many times, so do what feels comfortable to you. I recommend at least 1-2 follow ups. These email don't need to be as personal as your first email, but can instead be a shorter version and more to the point.

For example, in the first follow up, you can simply drop the why you're contacting them paragraph and go straight to the point.

Example follow up email #1

Hi {{name}},

My name is Foo McBar and I'm the founder of a company developing a product/service that helps you do X.

Are you interested in trying it out?

Foo McBar

You can make your second follow up even shorter.

Example follow up email #2

Hi {{name}},

I'm the founder of a company developing a product/service that helps you do X. Are you interested in trying it out?

Foo McBar

How to craft an efficient goodbye email

Make sure to always send a goodbye email (also known as break up email) that simply thanks your prospect for their time and lets them know you won't send any more emails but they can instead contact you anytime if they become interested.

This may sound unnecessary and annoying but this last email creates a little bit of urgency and is an industry secret weapon and generally has quite a high response rate!

Example goodbye email

Hey {{contact.first-name}},

Since you haven't replied I assume that you are very happy with your [current solution to X].

I won't bother you with more emails, so let me know if anything changes in the future!

Foo Mcbar

How long time should you wait between each email?

You can send each email with 1-10 days in between, depending on what you prefer.

A common sending schedule looks something like this:

  • Day one: Send first email
  • Wait 3 days
  • Send first follow up
  • Wait 4 days
  • Send second follow up
  • Wait 6 days
  • Send goodbye email

Leave it, for now

If you still haven't got a reply, leave it. However, this doesn't mean you can't take up contact again next year and see if they have changed their minds. You've already done the work researching the lead, so why not try again!

We've all been there

5. Start reaching out and measure

Finally, let's start sending. To keep track of follow ups I recommend adding additional columns to your spreadsheet with dates for follow up and goodbye emails. This way you can stay on top of everything.

Response rate vary greatly between industries but generally speaking you should aim for at least 5% responses on your emails. While some industries do have a much higher response rate (up to around 40%), this may sound low and discouraging, but consider that sending 100 emails shouldn't take you too much time and may lead to at least 5 potential users to your product!

Good response rate for cold email outreach

Depending on your response, you can now choose to iterate/pivot or continue your outreach to more people πŸš€.

Tools to make your life easier

Doing things manually works in the beginning but once you start to send a lot of emails you'll quickly loose your mind trying to keep track of follow ups.

This is also the reason I built Wobaka to keep track of all my customers and automate email follow ups. Make sure you find a tool that makes it super easy to:

  1. Follow up: You should be able to create follow up tasks on contacts to get reminded when to send the next email.
  2. Avoid duplicates: The CRM should inform you if a contact email is already in your system.
  3. Help you measure response rate: You should be able to easily see how many replies you get for each campaign.
  4. (Optional) Automate: You can save a lot of hours by automating your follow up emails.

If this sounds like your jam, give Wobaka a try. It's an all-in-one CRM and email automation tool that makes it easy to manage contacts, share emails and automate outreach, without losing your mind.

Good luck!

I hope direct sales will help you validate your business idea and get in contact with your first customers. Feel free to reach out on Twitter if you have any questions @drikerf.