Ask any entrepreneur who’s launched a startup without seed funding, and they’ll tell you that the first year of business is your most important. Without sufficient capital to see you through difficult months, it’s critical to become revenue-positive as soon as possible.
Covering operational expenses should be the number one goal for every bootstrapped business.
Getting this right is dependent on hard work, clever fund management, seriously committed staff members, and a deep understanding of how to optimize sales processes.
In this post, we’ll take a look at sales and marketing tactics bootstrapped startups can use to survive and thrive.
1. Ensure Your Value Proposition Is Clear
Understanding exactly why a potential customer needs your product is one thing, but making it extremely clear on your various landing pages is absolutely critical.
Avoid the temptation to clutter your site with information that doesn’t focus on the pain points your product can solve.
As tempting as it may be to delve into the details of the product itself, showing your audience the effort that’s gone into its development or telling your company’s history, rather focus on answering the main question on their minds: “How is this product going to make my life easier?”
FutureKind’s homepage is an excellent example of how to instantly communicate customer value to the site visitor.
A beautiful, simple photograph depicts the supplement company’s target audience, while the hero banner text states exactly what they can expect from the product: vitamin supplements aligned with a specific dietary lifestyle.
2. Use Your Blog To Add Exceptional Value
Not every single blog post has to pitch a hard sell at your site’s visitors. Buying goodwill with your audience goes a long way towards boosting your company’s credibility and the sense that you genuinely care about your customers.
Using your blog to educate your potential customers is also a great way to draw traffic to your site. Visitors learn something useful that may only have a slight overlap with what you’re trying to sell them.
LFA Capsule Fillers does this extremely well in their blog post about the benefit of making your own capsules over purchasing them directly from a retailer.
The post contains a wealth of information on the benefits of self-created capsules while spending minimal effort discussing exactly how their product (a capsule filling machine) fits into the process.
Its primary aim isn’t to sell, but rather to educate.
This gives the post a “hook” and makes it far more engaging than content whose main goal is to advertise a product. Readers feel like they’re learning something important rather than being treated like just another entry in the company’s sales funnel.
Reference to the product is there, and if the educational information is engaging enough, click-throughs to the product page will happen.
3. Leverage Social Proof
Here are three mind-blowing sales statistics:
✔ 92% of potential customers trust testimonials more than messages directly from the advertiser.
✔ The average online shopper will read 10 reviews before purchasing a product.
✔ Testimonials have been linked to a 34% increase in conversions on sales pages.
Further evidence of the importance of social proof is extremely easy to find. The bottom line is: people trust the opinions of people who have already purchased the product they’re considering buying.
With data like this supporting the use of peer recommendations, it’s clear that providing credible product reviews is critical to boosting sales.
Zoma Sleep, an online mattress retailer, is a great example of a company that clearly understands this principle. Their beautifully designed homepage dedicates two separate sections of valuable real estate to testimonials.
The first features highly credible, candid imagery of professional athletes posing with Zoma products. These aren’t professionally taken photographs, nor are the athletes posing as they would for a publicity shot.
These are regular people in their homes, clearly happy with the purchase they made.
Research into social proof shows, however, that average online shoppers place more trust in reviews than endorsements. While the latter obviously carries some weight, consumers prefer hearing from regular folk who have bought and reviewed the product.
Zoma gets this. That’s why, not much further down the page, they have another UI element dedicated entirely to showing star ratings and written reviews provided by previous customers.
Users can also click through the product page itself, which contains all reviews from satisfied customers.
The product page also displays an average star rating of 4.7 (out of 5) for the flagship product. As Hubspot’s research showed us in a previous link, 57% of consumers will only consider buying a product online if it has a 4-star rating or higher.
If your bootstrapped company is fortunate enough to be making sales, ensure that your after-sales processes gather user reviews in a way that can be leveraged as Zoma does it.
4. Build Your Sales Team Intelligently
Making a commitment to paying salaries is often one of the biggest concerns for bootstrapped businesses. However, the rise in popularity of freelance, remote working has made this challenge easier to overcome.
A staggering 57 million Americans describe themselves as freelancers. As companies continue to open up to populating their workforce with “temporary” hires, this figure is only set to rise.
This represents an incredible opportunity for the bootstrapped business to limit their risk of over-committing operational expenses.
If your company experiences a couple of lean months, going through the lengthy (and possibly costly) process of laying off staff can be detrimental to cash-flow and morale.
While there are genuine benefits to signing a highly valuable employee to a contract, there’s still no guarantee they’ll be around for as long as you need them. There may be cases where you genuinely feel that you need to secure the position of a certain employee.
Perhaps it’s something they insist on, or they have another offer which you need to counter. In this case, it’s critical that your projected cash flow and growth metrics can support the decision to bring them on board full-time.
Don’t be hasty when making this decision. Building your team should be something that takes time when you’re bootstrapping, and making a permanent hire requires a lot of consideration and research.
5. Make Clever Use of Email Marketing
Still the most cost-effective method of generating sales, email marketing is the bootstrapped startup’s best friend when it comes to digital marketing.
Despite all the coverage that social media, content, and affiliate marketing gets, being in direct contact with your potential customers via their inbox is still an extremely effective way to grow your revenue.
The first step to being successful at email-driven sales is to build your subscriber base. The most effective way of doing this is to ensure that visitors are properly incentivized to give you their email address.
For instance, offer them a free e-book to be delivered to their inbox. Or a discount on a purchase if you’re running an e-commerce company.
There are numerous other tactics to grow your list of subscribers, but the most important thing is to understand that there has to be something tangible in it for the site visitor.
Once you have “permission” to mail content to the subscriber, the next step is to ensure that what you’re sending them is of value to them.
Neil Patel has written an excellent post about how to ensure you’re converting access to a customer’s inbox into revenue. He believes that doing so effectively lies in striking a balance between providing tons of free, valuable information and pitching your product.
Success here comes down to prioritizing customer needs over your impulse to make a hard sales pitch every time you send an email.
Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Play the long game. Work a sales pitch subtly into the content of your email campaign rather than bombarding the recipient with sales pitches.
Your priority here should be to provide valuable information first, then start selling.
6. Convert Early Adopters Into Evangelists
Brand evangelists are worth their weight in gold. Each customer who is deeply invested in your product or brand typically produces three additional customers for you.
Imagine the impact on your business growth if you manage to convert 10, 50, or 200 customers into evangelists within that critical first year.
Despite living in an era where companies use multichannel digital marketing strategies, personal recommendations are still regarded as the number one referral source, even when compared with celebrity or influencer endorsements and online testimonials.
The value of converting a customer into an evangelist is clear. But the question remains: How does one do this?
The key is to create opportunities for personal engagement with your first batch of loyal customers. Delight them with your excellent, personalized after-sales service.
Even dealing with a support request or complaint in a way that makes the customer feel like a valued member of your brand’s community goes a long way.
Running contests that generate exposure for the customer is another tactic that’s proven successful for certain brands. If this is an approach that suits your product or service, seriously consider following this example.
Think outside the box here.
What can your company do that will create such a sense of satisfaction with your new customers that they simply cannot help talking about it with their friends and colleagues?
7. Partner With Affiliates
Strategic collaborations that benefit both parties are an excellent way to gain early traction, and affiliates are a proven way of doing this with no upfront investment.
The key to surviving during this important phase of your startup’s life is to bring in sales with limited investment. By paying commission to individuals selling on your behalf, this risk is entirely avoided.
Sure, your revenue may be somewhat affected since you’ll need to pay the commission, but this only happens once a sale has been finalized. And early sales result in exactly the type of momentum and visibility that a young startup needs.
Online affiliate networks are a great place to find the ideal partner, as are conferences that enable businesses to meet with potential affiliate partners in person.
What’s important is to find one that has a great reputation for conversion and also compliments your business and product.
You’ll want to maximize your chances of generating sales through this partnership, so rushing into the first one that looks promising may not be ideal.
Do the necessary research, apply some diligence, and make an informed decision.
8. Automate Processes As Much As Possible
During the first year of running a bootstrapped business, founders typically wear as many hats as they can handle.
It’s not uncommon for CEOs to be doing customer support or other “menial” activities they’d much rather delegate to junior staff members.
The more of these processes you can automate, the more time and energy you’ll have for finding creative solutions and making important decisions.
Fortunately, there’s a wealth of cost-effective (or even free) software tools out there that help enable this.
Obviously, these need to be implemented without compromising the personal touch that’s so necessary if you want to create brand evangelists, but this isn’t a difficult balance to strike.
Implementing a great CRM system is your goal here, and there are plenty that focus on delivering the basic functions at a very low cost.
There are also customer-interaction tools like Intercom that, among other amazing automated features, help customer service operators to log a site visitor as a lead and guide them through the sales funnel.
Let’s Wrap It Up
The first year of a bootstrapped startup is all about gaining traction and generating enough revenue to cover critical operational expenses.
Some tactics aim for driving revenue, while others’ objective is to limit unnecessary expenses. What’s important is to find a balance between these two approaches.
A world of opportunities awaits a profitable startup.
Once you and your team have guided your young business through this challenging phase, you’ve weathered arguably the biggest storm it will face.
You’ll be financially and emotionally positioned to take on more advanced growth strategies.
Until then, stay on your toes and focus on what’s important: staying alive and gaining traction.
Editor’s Note: The article is part of the blog series Grow Your Business brought to you by the marketing team at UniTel Voice, the virtual phone system priced and designed for startups and small business owners.