9 minute read · Published July 5, 2024

How top B2B companies got their first 100 customers

Latest Update July 16, 2024

Getting your first 100 customers is one of the hardest challenges — it’s that zero-to-one phase where companies either make or break. This is especially true for B2B SaaS products where the bar for a good product is high, sales cycles are long, and product adoption can take a long time.

It becomes super important to talk to customers & understand their pain points & scope down your MVP. This approach gives founders a fighting chance to ship fast, gather feedback & quickly iterate.

So we wanted to look at some of the top B2B SaaS companies out there and understand their approach to getting their first 100 customers. A few common themes that emerged were:

  • a constant need of the founders to talk to customers
  • scoping out an MVP
  • developing the product based on user feedback

Some founders even start doing marketing before the product is ready. And when the product’s first version was ready & adopted by early customers, they opened their doors to more customers via a public launch.

None of these tactics are revolutionary or ground-breaking. It’s more of a case of doing things that don’t scale & getting the basics right. With that said, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of how they did it. 

Hubspot

When Hubspot started in 2006, it had a simple first version. It had blogging, social media management, email marketing, and lead nurturing as its features, all designed with one key objective - to create inbound demand & build lasting relationships.

Hubspot got its first 100 customers using a combination of the founders’ personal network & content marketing. At MIT, Brian & Dharmesh built a name for themselves as the go-to-guys for web marketing & website development. This helped lend a lot of credibility when they were starting off with Hubspot.

In addition to this, the founders started blogging about inbound marketing. Brian & Dharmesh started blogging twice a week while building the product for 9 months until they launched their first version.

Brex

The founders, Henrique & Pedro scoped out their MVP to a single sentence - build a corporate credit card for startups. They focused on features like fast sign-up, higher limits without personal guarantees, and automated receipt capture.

The founders focused on friends and family who were either founders or finance people at small companies. Since they graduated from YC, they also got a bunch of early customers from the YC community. They also scraped LinkedIn for contacts of thousands of foreign founders (who typically lack FICO scores and struggle to get credit cards) & emailed them if they would be interested in the product. They had 100 pilot customers doing this.

They iterated based on feedback from these users & Brex delivered its first cards to the pilot customers in four months.

Gusto

Gusto was founded by Joshua Reeves, Timer London, and Edward Kim in 2011. While building the MVP, the founders realized that “the build something scrappy & get feedback model” wouldn't work. They needed to produce reliable, timely, and precise tax calculations, filings, and payments to earn the trust of customers. So they narrowed their scope down - Gusto would be a cloud-based payroll software for SMBs to automate all payroll actions.

They only targeted companies that (a) did not offer benefits or other deductions (b) whose employees did not mind getting paid four business days after the company ran payroll and (3) had only salaried employees.

Since they were part of YCombinator, they reached out to community managers at incubators who introduced the Gusto founders to relevant users in their network.

At the same time, they manually onboarded local SMB companies in California. They reached 1500 customers in 1 year via strong word of mouth and referrals. Their NPS score was 83/100 with 87% of customers recommending the product to other business owners.

Rippling

The founders Parker & Prasanna hired engineers and built the product for about 2 years in Parker's basement. They made a basic one-page marketing website mentioning Rippling.

They started cold emailing & reaching out to people & giving demos to them. They were targeting founders, CEOs, CTOs at the start. Their CMO Matt Epstein was entrusted to fix the website and crystallize the messaging so users would "get" Rippling instantly.

They got their first 100 customers just from sales-led outbound.

Loom

Loom first launched in 2016 on Product Hunt as OpenTest — a tool to help teams collect video-recorded user feedback directly on their website. Users could request feedback across their onboarding, site nav & other parts of the product experience directly from experts.

The launch was successful & they got 424 upvotes & gained 3000 users from this.

However, just 100 days & 12,800+ users later, the founders, Joe & Vinay & Shahed pivoted Loom as the co-founders worked to build their user base and find product-market fit.

They launched again on Product Hunt this time as Openvid which afterwards became Loom. They got 1652 upvotes, got the Product of the Day badge & was the 3rd most popular product of the week.

That day, Loom saw more signups than it ever had in the past 6 months. Over the next week, Loom had thousands more signups. Thanks to a strong PLG lever, Loom’s growth loops compounded really fast. Whenever someone received a Loom, they were incentivized to record their own Loom & share it with more people. The more people knew about Loom, the faster the product grew.

Typeform

Typeform embodies the spirit of building to scratch your own itch. The founders David & Robert were running their own design agencies in Barcelona & partnered on a project together. The deliverable? Building a sleek contact form to collect leads Just like that, Typeform was born.

David & Robert shopped around for solutions but didn't like what they found. So they decided to completely redesign the experience of collecting info. They followed one simple mantra: Make form-filling an enjoyable experience that emulates a real conversation.

In October 2012, Typeform released a teaser video on Betalist. It went viral and got Typeform its first 1000 users.

Typeform leveraged growth loops very early on. Users created Typeforms & then shared those with their communities. Each form had a “Powered by” button & was hosted on the Typeform subdomain. The growth flywheel kicked in & by February 2014, Typeform had reached 50k users.

Amplitude

Amplitude was built as a scratch-your-own-itch kind of product, too. The founder, Spenser Skates was working on a product called Sonalight - a text-by-voice Android app, which got him into YCombinator in 2012. But Sonalight had poor user retention, which Spenser knew from building an internal tool to look at the mobile user analytics (yes, you guessed it, this would later become Amplitude).

The founders decided to speak to 30 prospective customers before building. And they consciously chose to spend 50% of their time talking to customers and 50% of their time building.

Their early motion was super simple. Talk to customers, give it away for free, get feedback, build requested features, and talk to customers. Rinse and repeat.

They began reaching out to folks who have product analytics as a problem and just sent them an email saying — “hey are you having any of these issues with product analytics, if so we'd love to talk more.” On these sales calls, Spenser was often asked how Amplitude works and customers would often say “Hey we are gonna buy this if it has XYZ features.”

And so Amplitude went and built that. Their mantra was to out-build the competition which at the time was Mixpanel. And by doing this they built a much more robust solution that catered to their customer. On sales calls, Spenser would just keep doubling the amount he would ask for in every subsequent sales conversation and people kept saying yes.

In theory, this sounds like a good idea, but in reality, more often than not, building features users ask for can be a trap. Amplitude's situation was a little different as they were trying to achieve feature parity with their competition, so talking to those customers to find out which features were most relevant (so that they don't build everything) was super useful. 

Amplitude took a completely sales-led approach to growth and reached $1 million ARR in the next 9 months.

Trello

Joel Spolsky & Michael Pryor, the founders of Trello were both developers & met while working at a startup.

They started a company Fog Creek from which the first prototype of Trello was spun out. Their MVP? Create a to-do list that is only 5 items long.

Trello was an all-purpose tool that turns sticky notes into a collaborative & real-time tool for cross-functional teams. Since Trello was an all-purpose tool, the founders made sure there was ZERO friction to use Trello so they made it completely free to use.

Their goal was to reach 100 million users & monetize the 1%. Their formula was to capture a big chunk of the market, charge a small fraction, and make a bunch of $$$.

Freemium pricing brought in 500,000 users in the first year for Trello. They launched at TechCrunch Disrupt & were gaining 1000s of users each day with ZERO paid marketing.

Retool

Retool got into YC in the summer of 2017. Their mission was simple - stay default alive. To not burn money, the founders did everything themselves.

The founder David Hsu sent cold outbound emails to startups positioning Retool as a platform that helps companies build internal tools faster. Based on subsequent conversations, he zeroed in on his ICP- software engineers building internal front ends with React, Vue, Angular etc. Hsu also discovered that Retool was very useful for a CTO or a VPE of a fast-growing operationally-heavy company, such as a delivery company or a fintech company.

Their approach to pricing was pretty simple as well. For the customers, David would just quote progressively higher prices (like $2k a month) and see what they would say. If they said no, David dropped the pricing a little. This approach worked great because the customer felt like they got a great deal, David got a customer and also discovered that $2K was probably too high for this particular customer. He rinsed and repeated this process over and over again. He also made sure to never quote pricing via email because they might go away.

By just doing this, Retool made $500K in revenue in the first 9 months.

If you’re reading this as someone who’s just starting out and figuring out how to get the ball rolling, there are a few takeaways I think you should be aware of:

  • As much as it’s been repeated, scrappiness in the beginning is important. So is talking to your customers.
  • A sales-led approach (particularly founder-led) is essential. You can’t tell others how to sell your product if you don’t try to sell it yourself first. Sure, there are all kinds of PLG tactics you can use to boost customer acquisition (like Loom or Typeform). Still doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be in the weeds of understanding why and how your customers buy your product.
  • Price your product high. It’s always easier to bring it down if people don’t want it. We have pretty strong feelings about not competing on price when it comes to B2B SaaS. 

At the start, it’s less about hiring & scaling & more about dipping your toes in the market & testing your hypothesis about the kind of product you think will be useful. And you only validate that hypothesis by talking to as many (of the right people) people as possible. Scope down your ICP, go narrow in the beginning.

And while you’re doing that, you’ll often find that not only will you have to pivot the product, but you’ll also have to pivot your messaging, and the customer you’re targeting. And in doing all this, your hypothesis will be put to the test and so will your founder skills.

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