How the biggest DTC companies got their first 1,000 customers
Starting an eCommerce brand is hard. You come up with a great idea, validate it with your friends and family, source the product, create your brand, design your website, and finally, after months of work, hit publish on your new site. Then… crickets.
Getting your first 1,000 customers can be extremely difficult. Find out the strategies and tactics that these brands used to get their first 1,000 customers.
“The number one goal of a founder is to generate momentum. And I like to envisage a huge, ginormous flywheel of the densest material that you can think of; the densest element is osmium. It's twice as dense as lead, if that sort of gives you any indication. And imagine that at the start, it's standing still. And your job is to get it rotating, and you're pushing it. And for the first few months, as you're pushing it, it's barely moving - maybe fractions of a millimeter. But it's your goal to get this thing moving. And the great thing is, once this thing starts moving, it's really hard to slow down; it will keep on moving by itself. Now, that's the goal.”
Rahul Vohra, Superhuman Founder
It takes a ton of effort in the early days to get the momentum going. It’s not going to be pretty. It will often feel like yelling into a void. It’s inevitable. Don’t be afraid to do things that don't scale in the early days. The only goal is to start building momentum.
Tactics these DTC eCommerce companies used to get their first 1,000 customers
Kickstarter & Influencers - ButcherBox
“So we launched with a Kickstarter campaign and the idea behind the Kickstarter campaign was that we were going to be able to get a whole bunch of pre orders and then we are going to be able to order the meat from the vendor and ship it to customers.”
-Mike Salguero, Founder ButcherBox
Through the Kickstarter campaign they landed 1,100 orders and 60% of those subscribed to a monthly box.
The company also relied heavily on influencer marketing in the early days:
“We reached out to anyone who had ever mentioned grass-fed beef on Twitter, and we were like ‘Hey, we're launching this company’. And one guy, this paleo doctor from California, during our Kickstarter campaign was like this sounds like a cool idea and tweeted it out to his audience, and we just saw a flurry of people sign up for the kickstarter campaign as a result of that. And by flurry, I mean like probably seven people. We're like ‘Oh my God, this works’. So over the next two years we focused on influencers and anybody who had written about the paleo diet, the importance of grass-fed, the importance of treating animals right for your own personal health. Reach out to all of them, sign them all up as Affiliates, where they would send any email to their audience and then get a commission every time the person's box came to their door. We didn't even move to really anything else for two years because it was so fertile and such a big market, and frankly we didn't have a lot of money, so it was okay because we also paid people on a residual. It wasn't up front, so it was a really great cash conservation technique.”
“I leaned heavily on Instagram in the beginning to get word out. I would DM each and every person that followed the account and would sell them into the product. I had hundreds of conversations happening at the same time and they then told their friends organically due to the breakthrough idea of our lashes.”
- Ann McFerran, Founder of Glamnetic
Product Hunt - Native
Moiz Ali the founder of Native bought the domain name on GoDaddy on his birthday in July, 2015. He chose the name Native to invoke the idea of natural ingredients without pigeonholing the brand into only using natural ingredients. He landed on nativecos.com since native.com was already taken. He launched the business 12 days after buying the domain. He launched the website with zero deodorants in hand and no photos of the physical product. Instead, he found someone to 3D render the product to use as images on his site. He was speaking to manufacturers about having them make the deodorant, but he wasn’t sure people would shop for deodorant online. At the time the main channel for deodorant sales was brick and mortar at the Duane Reades and Targets of the world. Because of this uncertainty, he treated the launch as a test and would order the deodorant once he made sales.
He launched on Product Hunt and was downvoted so much that he landed on the second page (no visibility) and got one sale that day. $12 for a day's work. Moiz thought he could open up a more lucrative lemonade stand. He planned to refund the customer and shutter the business, but someone who worked at Moiz’s coworking space Founders Dojo knew an employee at Product Hunt, and they were able to get Native on the first page of Product Hunt the next day. On the second day of being on Product Hunt, he got 50 sales for a grand total of 51 sales. This gave Moiz the confidence to contact his manufacturer and order 100 sticks of deodorant
Several months before launching Graza, Andrew Benin gave 25 gift boxes of olive oil per week to food influencers. Andrew targeted smaller food influencers rather than going after big names. There wasn’t a hard ask associated with the gift box. He knew that if the influencers liked the product, they would naturally promote it.
“For us all this organic pre-launch effort was mostly around seeding. I think if you have a physical product that is affordable to seed, you have already struck gold. And then you have to have faith in yourself and your team and your story and how you package it and the notes that you write and everything that you do, that these creators are going to naturally feel inclined to participate. So we took a seeding approach that was no strings attached, no asks, nothing. No incessant communication. If you want to squeeze with us, if you want to have some dope olive oil, drop your address. And if you don't, no hard feelings at all. If you only want to do a paid campaign, we'll speak to you in a year. I think that having a deep respect for the creator economy is vital for a CPG founder. Because these are people that their skill is mocked sometimes. And oh, you have 20,000 followers on Instagram. These are people that are trying to hustle and make a career out of this. And getting behind a camera with food is really hard, really hard. I have tried to do it many times, and my videos are awful. So I just think having the utmost respect for them and treating them like they are the key for all of us. So seeding really worked.”
- Andrew Benin, Graza Founder
This strategy led to them selling out in the first 24 hours of launch.
Amazon - Hero Cosmetics
“We launched our first product, the Mighty Patch Original, on Amazon in September 2017. It was a brand new product on the market and we wanted to do some testing to see if it had traction. The marketplace is great for testing; the customers are there, the fulfillment is fast, and the reviews are a goldmine for feedback.”
Dwight Lee, Co-Founder & COO of Hero Cosmetics
With Amazon, the Hero team wouldn’t need to build their own website or find a 3PL. Amazon would take care of all of that for them. Amazon already had hundreds of millions of customers on their site, and all the team would need to do was put up their product listing page and see if the product resonated. The Amazon product listing page was essentially a one page website for Hero. This helped solve the massive distribution problem that most new DTC companies face.
Before the cowboy boot brand raised $56M and was worn by celebrities like Jason Mamoa, they were struggling to find customers. In 2015, the company was just launched, and they were testing a huge number of channels - influencer gifting, PR, and affiliate marketing. None of these channels worked well in the early days. Undeterred, the team started to test in-person events.
“The in-person events honestly kept the lights on in the early months. I can remember a holiday shopping event at my former elementary school where we sold maybe 20 pairs of boots, and it pretty much covered my fixed costs for the month.”
- Paul Hedrick, Founder Tecovas
Built Email List - Harry's
Harry’s started with 12 employees (must be nice to be vc funded 😉). Each employee wrote a personal email to everyone in their network letting them know about the upcoming launch of Harry’s. Their emails sent people to a landing page where they could sign up to be notified about the upcoming launch. They encouraged their network to invite friends to sign up by offering bonuses based on how many people they were able to refer. If you referred 5 friends, you would get a free shaving cream, and if you referred 50 friends, you would get one year of free shaving. The company used SendGrid to send an email to each of the new signups to verify that the email referrals were legitimate. Using this technique they were able to collect 100,000 emails pre-launch. 77% of the collected emails came from referrals. Even post launch their email list and referrals played a large part in their growth strategy.
“We wanted the entire experience to feel like a fun game. We heard from some friends that they took the referral campaign like a personal challenge.”
- Jeff Raider, Co-Founder & Co-CEO Harry's
Facebook Ads - True Classic Tees
Ryan Bartlett launched True Classic in May of 2019 with a $3,000 budget for Facebook ads ($100 / day) and a handful of t-shirt SKUs in basic colors (white, black, gray). In its first month, it did 651 orders and $26k in revenue. The value prop of well fitted t-shirts (tight in the arms looser around the stomach) at an affordable price point clearly resonated with customers.
The brand Glossier started as a blog called Into the Gloss. Emily Weiss launched the blog in 2010 while she was working full time at Vogue. Working from 4am to 8am before she started work at Vogue, Weiss would write, edit, and publish three articles per week. A $700 initial investment got the blog up and running. By 2013 the blog had 2M unique visitors a month and more than 120,000 followers on social media. Emily Weiss parlayed the success and attention from the blog into the first line of Glossier products. She partnered with a chemist in California to develop the first line of Glossier products. Its first product was a gentle moisturizer suitable for those with acne. They eventually launched with four hero products that sold rapidly with the audience and trust built by the blog.
In-Person Sampling / Sales - Liquid IV
Brandin Cohen launched Liquid IV in 2012 and got into Whole Foods in 2015. In Whole Foods, Brandin would go and sample and demo the product himself on weekends. He’d give out sticks and explain the backstory behind the product. He knew that once people tried the product they’d love it, but the challenge was getting customers to try the product. Brandin also used geo-fenced Facebook ads to promote the product near the Whole Foods locations in Southern California that were carrying the product. Today, it’s known as the brand doing hundreds of millions in revenue per year, but from 2012 to 2018 they did under a million dollars in sales in total.
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