Ah, the first customer. No other single event is as important and nerve-wracking to an enterprise software company as getting your first customer up and running. Fail, and the ensuing reputation damage could kill your business. Succeed, and the reference will set you up for a much easier sales effort to the next one. Not to mention the effect on employee morale, investors both current and potential, and (heaven forbid) your revenue line.
You know there are a few things not quite done about your product yet, but you think most of it is there, and you can manage around the rest. You know that you’ll learn some things from how the customer will use it, but exactly what is still unclear. You think you know how to deploy it, but some of the integration challenges are still opaque. As somebody said, you’re 90% of the way there, and the last 10% takes the other 90% of the time.
Choosing the right first customer is essential. Someone with a champion willing to work with you through the inevitable obstacles that will crop up. Someone with a problem hard enough that your solution delivers significant value, but easy enough that your alpha-quality solution doesn’t choke. Someone name-brand enough to provide a strong reference.
In my experience, setting expectations is the hardest part. You don’t actually have any idea how long it’s going to take to deploy, but the customer wants an estimate. You don’t know exactly what the main value propositions are, because you don’t know exactly how they’ll use it, but you had to say something to sell it to them. And you want to leave yourself enough wiggle room that when you finally do deliver something of value, you can declare success and say that was your plan all along. This is a balance beam that’s hard to walk.
Final piece of advice: listen to your customer. Don’t just listen politely, but really dig in and listen hard. Spend a lot of time with them, both in the office and out. Learn why they think you can help them, and understand their own motivations. Watch them in their daily work, both with your product and without, to understand what they do and how they see the world. These things will help you work through the challenges, deliver a product that they love, and give you the foundation of a successful business.