The Big Idea: When You Only Have One Customer

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“If you are thinking of starting a non-transactional consumer startup, be aware that you are entering what is perhaps the most competitive sector in tech in the last decade,” say Chris Dixon in a post provocatively entitled “Ten million users is the new one million users.”

“Non-transactional” simply means you don’t sell anything directly. Picture a publication where you’re hoping to sell advertising…or Instagram.

A lot of us are building enterprises a lot more modest in scope, however. And especially if you are just starting out, the question of “how do I get customers?” Or, “how do I get readers?” is bound to be one that consumes a lot of your time and mental attention.

In his book, The $100 Startup, Chris Gillebeau breaks down the process of starting a business into very simple terms: do what you have to do to make a sale as quickly as possible.

So what if you build a business, craft a marketing plan, and roll it out and you get a lot less than ten million customers? Or a lot less than one million?

What if you only have…one customer?

It happened to me, dear readers.

When I first began offering Skillshare classes, I was pretty cocky about their rapid adoption. I thought that my spin of offering creative folks digital strategy skills would find an avid audience, and while I didn’t expect to get rich from the exercise, I was pretty sure I’d get a decent payday. After all I had lots of teaching experience and got great reviews from my students at Mediabistro.

So I planned my classes, make video trailers, even ran an ad campaign. And when my first course rolled around in June — Build a Killer Email List — I had exactly one student. One.

Going into the exercise, I had seen it as a litmus test of the value of my ideas — I had in mind Eric Reis’ “minimum viable product” and of course Gillebeau’s shortest distance between you and profit.

Of course, the reality of the situation was a lot different. I mean, it does suck to have expended all that effort and not have it connect with an audience.

At the same time, I was surprised by my own reaction. I was eager to learn everything I could about why I got the outcome that I did, and how I could do things differently in the future.

Are there benefits to only having one customer? These are the ones that I found:

Having just one customer allows you to deliver superlative service.

If you’ve only got one customer, you better be sure to deliver wow service. I went ahead and held the class and the one enrolled student got much more like an hour of consulting time with me. We went through my deck but spent plenty of time working on her project. Luckily, it was interesting and I actually ended up learning a lot about some new technology that I might like to use in the future.

Having just one customer allows you to contemplate the flaws in your plan.

In the Lean Startup, Eric Reis talks about the “concierge” approach to building a business in relation to a company called Food on the Table. Food on the Table served one customer at a time early on while building their grocery planning business, and it allowed them to hone and test assumptions in their business plan.

Having just one customer allows you to think about “what am I doing this for?”

With Skillshare, I had a multi-pronged approach: I wanted to develop innovative curricula around digital strategy, build a market for my offerings and make money. In my case, the first two objectives became my focus, because I think they’ll help lead me to a more sustainable business in the long run. The point is, I never would have focused if I didn’t face a real-world test.

Having just one customer allow you to really get close to his or her needs.

My one customer was a transmedia documentary filmmaker and talking to her about building an audience for her project helped me to take an up-close view of a market I really care about — creators.

Having just one customer keeps you hungry

When you’re trying to launch something new, you can’t take anything for granted, including the “brilliance” of your ideas. I feel lucky for having the opportunity to learn, so when it came time to teach another class, I made a lot of tweaks to my formula, searching for the right partner, audience, positioning and pricing that would attract an enthusiastic customer base. And I’m glad to say that it worked, and my next class sold out.

So if you only have one customer, don’t get discouraged. Use it as an opportunity to learn, refine and be even better the next time, when hopefully you’ll have two customers, and then three, and then on and on.


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