4 Proven Ways to Acquire Your First Customers Without a Marketing Budget

Resources are limited in a new startup. If you have employees, there are salaries to pay, processes to put in place, development work to get done, etc. Sometimes, your budget just isn’t enough to cover paid marketing campaigns on channels like Google search or Facebook.

That doesn’t mean you can’t go head to head with the big players to acquire your first customers; you just have to get creative.

But, how do you build a startup to compete with entrenched players who have huge marketing budgets?

Below, we’ll look at proven ways to grow your customer base without spending a dime on a marketing budget. All you need is a bit of sweat, determination and time.

Before you go customer hunting, create a profile

The biggest mistake you can make is having a vague idea of your ideal customer without putting much thought into your target customer.

For example, my company serves people who do business online, but we’re not in the “make money online” space. You won’t see us write an article about “How to monetize your blog” or “The 10 advertising programs better than Google.”

That’s not the target customer we’re after. The point is, if we didn’t have a clear picture of who our ideal customer was, we’d be tempted to make content around those topics.

Granted, they’re high volume search terms, so we would be able to rank for them in search engines. But, a very small percentage of them would become customers and in the end, it wouldn’t be worthwhile.

In order to succeed with little to no marketing budget, you’ll have to guard your time and attention just as closely.

Before you go out there and try to drum up customers, answer the following questions about your target customer:

  • What is their income (or company income)?
  • How old are they?
  • What industry (or industries) do they work in? List no more than three at this point
  • Where do they hang out online? I.e. Facebook, forums, Quora or niche websites?
  • Who do they ask for advice? I.e. Do they read reviews? Do they follow prominent influencers?
  • What job do they want to get done? I.e. They may want to lose weight, but why?
  • What would be their objections to your product or service?

Don’t skip this step! This is customer segmentation 101. Once you answer all of the above questions, you’ll be in a much better position to acquire new customers.

Related: How to Engage the Right Customers at the Right Time

Leverage the audience of others

If you look at almost every successful company, they have an iconic story.

For example, Henry Ford worked for years to build a combustion engine in his free time before developing the Model T.

Steve Jobs was fired from his company, started a new one, and was acquired by the same company that fired him.

You, too, have a story and an expertise that you can share with your audience. Take the time to refine your message, and ask yourself the following questions about your own brand:

  • What makes you different?
  • What special experiences influenced your journey?
  • Why do you even want to start your company?
  • What do you bring to the table in terms of expertise?

After you’ve done that, it’s important to reach out to the right people. No matter how good your story is, it doesn’t matter if the people you want to pitch are in the wrong space.

For example, Men’s Fitness would never write about my company even if I had the most compelling startup story ever devised. On the other hand, Tech Crunch would be all over it.

Use a tool like Buzzsumo to find pitch opportunities for your business. Type important keywords in the search bar and it’ll provide the most popular content based on shares. Let’s say your startup is working on a budgeting app, so a relevant keyword you search is “personal finance.”

The results show the most popular pieces of content based on this term, the websites, and where they were shared on the internet. Sort by content created in the last year or six months.

Add the interesting/relevant ones to a spreadsheet along with their contact information. Keep going until you have at least fifty contacts.

Start pitching, and a few of them might accept and publish content about your business. This will drive relevant visitors to your website, some of which might turn into customers.  

Note: When you pitch your story or relevant expertise, be sure to frame it in a way that’s helpful to their audience, as well.

Get active in niche communities (and how to find them)

There’s a community for almost any niche imaginable. A while back, I stumbled across a Facebook page dedicated to finishing a task before the microwave timer runs down. You’d be surprised at how helpful this kind of focusing can be. It’s almost like a Pomodoro method.

Anyway, niche communities can be an amazing way to build lasting relationships, find your first customers, establish authority and create advocates when used properly.

There are a few general places you can go that aggregate niche communities:


There is a Subreddit for almost anything, but it’s notoriously difficult to market yourself. If you decided to try, be sure to:

  • Hang out for a while so you know the rules
  • Understand what kind of content is appreciated and what kind of content is downvoted
  • Connect with people on an individual level instead of trying to be a “great marketer”


This platform has a topic for most niches. When you sign up, there are a few things to be aware of to make sure you get the most out of it.

  • Optimize your profile. Add links to your website, social profiles, and a summary of who you are and what you do. In short, build up your online persona.
  • Follow topics related to your business. This will ensure you see relevant questions you can answer. Also follow topics you’re personally interested in.
  • Follow popular writers in each of the topics you follow. Note the way they write answers and the kind of questions they spend time on. Do they use bullet lists, images, a conversational tone? Understand what sets them apart, then emulate it until you gain footing on the platform. 

Reddit and Quora will only take you so far. Other niche communities will round out the strategy.

Finding relevant forums

Navigate to Google and search for communities relevant to your business. Here are a few search queries you can use.

  • Keyword + community
  • Keyword + forum
  • Keyword + inurl:”/forum(s)/
  • Keyword + “discussion board”

When I typed “personal finance forums” into Google, it brought back tons of results. Keep in mind, it’s important to check these results out to confirm they’re active before you sign up. Check how many total threads there are, when the most recent post was, how many views it got, and total members (this last one may not always be possible).

If everything looks good, sign up and start contributing. Before you post about your company, please make posts that only add value to members. Some forums have labels such as “new member” or “novice” attached to your profile until you create enough posts or comments. Contribute enough to get it removed before you start promoting your own business.

Give it away free

Sometimes giving your product away to influencers in exchange for a permanent mention can do wonders for a new business. These aren’t the influencers with hundreds of thousands of visitors or followers, however. No, we’re talking about micro influencers.

Bloggers, YouTubers, a popular forum user, journalists in your niche all qualify. These are the types of people we’re looking for because:

  1. They operate across different channels
  2. They tend to have a closer relationship with their audience

Micro influencer marketing works best when you can create an echo chamber. For example, if you’re selling a product that could be used in multiple spaces like fashion, accounting, fitness, etc., you’ll get maximum results when a few people in a single niche mention you and your product.

The metrics you use to determine whether someone is an influencer will be different based on your startup. Here are a few rules of thumb to follow:

  1. They should have at least a thousand social followers across their active social channels
  2. They create content regularly (minimum of once a week)
  3. They have decent traffic
  4. They have a domain authority of at least 20

You’ll also want to add your own criteria relevant to your business.

Finding influencers

Create a list of relevant keywords you can use to find them. You’ll need to go deeper than searching for something simple like “fashion bloggers.” You’ll get lists of the top bloggers in fashion, which isn’t what we’re after, because they’ll charge a premium.

Instead, search for terms like “How to dress to formal occasions” or “How to wear a little black dress.” These are things niche fashion bloggers would write about.

The next step is to filter the results by date. If you don’t perform this step, you’ll get the most popular websites in your results. Filtering by date shows you recent posts that otherwise wouldn’t be on the first page. Limit your search results to one month.

Add websites that meet your criteria to a spreadsheet and get their contact information using one of the many email lookup tools out there. If you send 100 emails, roughly 20 to 25 people are likely to reply to you. Roughly half of them will work with you. That’s a 12 percent close rate.

Rinse and repeat until your brand is generating a consistent flow of customers from this method.

Sign Up: Receive the StartupNation newsletter!

Channel partnerships

Have you ever signed up for a service and during the on-boarding flow, they recommend other products for you to check out?

These are often referred to as preferred partners

When this happens, two companies come together and create a mutually beneficial relationship. One company promotes the products and services of another in exchange for a cut of the revenue. Or, they refer clients back and forth.

It’s up to you to determine how you want to set up your channel partnership agreements. Of course, this depends on what kind of products and services your startup offers.

Before you start looking for channel partners, think about what you can offer and what you want to gain.

Ask yourself:

  • Can you refer customers their way?
  • Are you willing to give up a percentage of sales revenue?
  • What do deals in your space look like?

Do your research before you jump in.

Once you’re sure about what you can offer and what you want to gain, brainstorm businesses that would be a good fit for you.

For example, a hosting company might partner with an email marketing service or a web design agency.

Make a list of all your potential partners and reach out to them one by one. These deals take longer to establish, so I suggest you take your time and get comfortable with the longer sales cycle.

One they’re set up and running, they’ll take you from zero to 100 customers quickly.


It’s easy to look at the competitive landscape and get discouraged because of your limited budget. That’s not an excuse to give up before you’ve even started.

There are tons of ways to get your first customers without spending a fortune.

We’ve outlined four of the most effective which include:

  1. Using the audience of others
  2. Tapping into niche communities
  3. Giving it away free to specific influencers
  4. Establishing channel partnerships

Are there more methods? Of course. However, what I’ve outlined here are strategies with the highest impact.

Let me know what you think of these strategies in the comments section below, and let me know what strategies you’ve used for acquiring customers on a budget.

Leave a Reply
Related Posts
Read More

Exempt vs Non-Exempt Salary: Key Differences Explained

Are you juggling between what your work-life balance and compensation will look like? Choosing between an exempt and a non-exempt salary can significantly influence this balance. And understanding the key differences between the two is...