Clients: They will kill your startup

By Guest Author | customers | May 9, 2018

Words by Mari Suviste founder of, cover photo by  José Martín Ramírez C on Unsplash.

I have organized startup training events for 15 years. I’ve worked with world known mentors, advisors and investors. No one ever told me that getting customers is not the difficult part. The really difficult part is having them.

I was prepared when I established my marketing agency on 2nd of January this year. I had the funds, I knew who I will hire and how as a team we will start working towards getting customers and then provide them a service. I knew the time, when each month I’m putting in my personal funds to the company and getting rejected again, again and again by possible clients, will be the most difficult in my life.

The reality was very different.

We didn’t have time to do a website because our sales pipeline was filled. I didn’t get to have sleepless nights from the stress of not getting any paying customers because they came willingly.

By the middle of March, we had enough customers to cover the costs of our micro-firm. We stopped taking more clients on because we couldn’t handle it.

You probably are assuming that we were struggling because our customers weren’t happy. I would assume that. That wasn’t the case though. Our clients were happy and they seem to continue being happy.


The stability of a team without clients

The first months, when we had only a couple of customers, was heaven. Most of the time we concentrated on sales. We had processes in place – weekly meetings, goals, KPIs.

We counted our leads, discussed what was good and what went wrong, changed something in our message, sales or team management all the time. We had open discussions, strategy sessions, team lunches. We had all the fancy shenanigans you can dream of.

One by one we started getting ‘YES’ replies from prospects. A week without onboarding a new customer was weird. I embraced the new clients with open arms and they came with open palmed slaps to my face before pouring a ton of cement over my fluffy dreams. They continue to do so.


The nature of a firm

I don’t really blame the customers. They’ve been dreamy. We get to be a part of their team and vision. But its what they bring with them is something I wasn’t prepared for.

Onboarding a new customer brings a myriad of things you never even think about.

It’s like getting into a new relationship and needing to discuss “so how are we going to label this” to “who washes the dishes”. Imagine this times 10 in one month. And this is the easy part.

How are you offering the service? What are the standards? How to provide even better service with less time? How to make sure your team is on board with the process. Does everyone know what to do? Is this text ok? Is that picture suitable? The constant influx of questions ranging from “what’s the meaning of life” (company example: how can we improve our KPIs) to “this soup needs more salt” (company example: I don’t like that one word in that Facebook post – it’s so 1990s).

Needless to say, we don’t have regular meetings anymore, we don’t have long strategy discussions and we rarely have space for any sort of deep discussion. I’ve developed a habit of asking a question and not listening to the answer – something I despise in others.

Our daily actions are best described as a total mess where something happened and I have no idea why everything is working just fine.


No more customers, please!

Luckily I do have good days when I think: “Wow, the fourth month and we’re in a small plus with happy customers and team. Nice!” Then I remember that I need to talk to the lawyer about that change in the contract, should really have a heart-to-heart check up with the team about how they are doing, and go over the state of monthly goals for each of our customer. Then do the invoice copies for the bookkeeper and oh yes, I really need to post that Instagram story. Here comes the headache.

The worst thing that I was not prepared at all was customers that don’t pay their bills on time. As an employee or a freelancer I was used to payments on time. I’m a conservative person so I made revenue forecasts taking into consideration that money will not come in as was fast as I’d like to. But I was not used to being in constant communication with customers to remind them that the bill is overdue. By today I’ve found out that in Estonian business culture, this is usual. So imagine this: in the morning I have a strategy discussion with the CEO and the management board of the client, while in the afternoon I’m making a call to do a ‘friendly reminder that the bill is overdue’. Talk about multiple person disorder.

And that’s probably what is killing me the most is the running between of the many different roles I have. I’m a coach to my team while running out to get more coffee after which I pay the salaries before stepping into a meeting with people whom I’m told are ‘extremely important’. (Who isn’t important?)

I run a marketing firm but my own job couldn’t be farther from anything related to marketing.

We’re a small company and it’s not yet reasonable to hire an assistant or finance manager or whoever would fill one of those many roles. The struggle to keep in mind that I need to keep my focus on stable growth (dear lord how inconsistent that term is) while making sure the bill for the water cooler is paid.

My only remedy right now is to ‘keep at it’ and ‘push on’ but to be honest, it’s f***ing tiresome.

Any mentor, advisor or investors out there that could teach how to survive having customers?