Eliminate Zombies: Launch with 20 customers in sight


This is the first of a multi-part series authored by The Startup Collaborative co-founding team: The Death (or Evolution) of Startup Accelerators and Incubators as We Know Them!


It astounds me when a want-to-be entrepreneur spends the better portion of a meeting talking about their solution. When asked, “Who is your buyer?” they stumble and fumble through the response.

Shouldn’t this be one of the easiest questions asked of entrepreneurs?

Shouldn’t we understand the person, organization, pain point we’re selling to inside and out?

And, shouldn’t we be able to name more than one person or company?

Last fall, we took a step back, assessed the ecosystem’s true strength and sustainability of startups, ultimately determining a merger of support organizations was necessary. At the time, and in large part still today, the No. 1 problem we saw and continue to see is the lack of product-market fit. This issue has resulted in zombie companies that have hung on for years — literally years! — with small gains, if any, in user growth, customer revenue and other signs of life.

We have to solve this as an ecosystem.

Name Your Buyer

To combat this lack of customer targeting and segmentation, we included a critical outcome as part of our LEVEL 1 // Initiation: List 20 potential customers to validate your concept against.

Think of it as a starting point for what will become your CRM later. Think of it as lead development and sales nurturing. Think of it as de-risking your venture. This list – complete with names, titles, email addresses and phone numbers – is one of the most foundational elements of any newly hatched venture.

As an ecosystem, we urge everyone to start with two questions: What problem are you solving and who are your first 20 customer targets? Please, challenge aspiring entrepreneurs to think with their buyers/users/customers in mind first.

Hacks to Find Leads

Naming a customer segment and finding leads are not the easiest of tasks. We get it. Thus, here are some helpful hacks to help identify your first 20 potential customers.

Step 1: Know who you’re targeting based on the problem/pain point you’re solving.

  • Industry
  • Company size
  • Title / role within company

Step 2: Start the search!

  • LinkedIn — If you’re looking to both identify and communicate directly with top prospects, LinkedIn is the largest self-populated business platform that enables sales professionals access to warm leads – either through mutual interest or connection – in the world. Bonus points: they have a powerhouse in Omaha!
  • ScoutSheet — Lincoln-based ScoutSheet helps warm up sales leads for you by connecting you with prospects already in your network. Built on the Kevin Bacon philosophy, this great tool can be quite useful in the pre-validation phases when warm leads matter.
  • QuickReach / SellHack / Hunter.io — Assume you have a list of names, titles and companies but are struggling to find emails for your prospects. QuickReach, SellHack and Hunter.io solve for that by identifying common email conventions and attaching your prospects name to it.

Step 3: Put it in an early, prototype-style CRM. SIMPLE. Google Sheets works great in this phase.

Scrutinize Your List, Mentors are not early Customers

The list is complete. You have a much-better idea of who will help you validate or invalidate the concept you’re pursuing. Before you press send on that email asking for a customer discovery interview, make sure everyone on your list actually fits your segment.

More often than not, entrepreneurs try to bulk their list with mentors or “smart people.” The reality is, especially in the concept phase, mentors don’t provide much value in validation unless they are also in your target customer segment. If everyone on your list matches with your defined customer segments, congratulations. If not, be ready to defend why those outliers are not within the defined segments.

Parting Thoughts

I mentioned earlier that as an ecosystem we have to get better at naming our buyers earlier. Let’s expedite the time it takes to find product-market fit. No more zombie teams.


No strangers to the venture space, this cofounding pair has both dealt with divvying out funds and receiving venture capital. Having what they would describe as extremely good role coverage, they have aligned the broader community to their ambitious goals for the startup region. Enjoy their radical vision for our region’s innovation economy!

A serial entrepreneur in every way, Nathan can’t help but concept new companies. Thankfully, he has become quite attuned to taking a concept through validation and eventually into scale. His experience in creating more than half a dozen companies led to the creation of The Startup Collaborative’s unique approach to company building.

Prior to The Startup Collaborative, Nathan is best known for cofounding MindMixer, a civic engagement startup that quickly scaled from 0 customers to nearly 1,000 in just two years. Eventually employing more than 75 employees across the midwest.

Ironically, Nathan brought maturity and structure to wild-west style startups across the Silicon Valley, Silicon Beach and now back at Silicon Prairie.

A San Francisco expat, Creighton and UNO graduate and now midwest community leader, Nathan is a fixture on the startup scene.

Before launching The Startup Collaborative, Erica
cofounded Omaha Startup Collaborative.

Best known for creating the elusive sense of density within the Omaha startup market, OSC quickly became home to more than 70 area startups and tech companies. Within just 18 months, OSC had been connected to the creation of a few hundred jobs, millions in venture funding and the inspiration of thousands of current and potential entrepreneurs.

Erica’s entrepreneurial insights have been quoted in publications like Forbes, Inc. Magazine and even on NPR.

Boomeranging back to Nebraska from Dallas where she worked with top civic leaders on pivotal public-private partnerships to change the trajectory of the city. Previously, Erica worked with a handpicked group of growth-seeking clients spanning the marketing, technology and startup companies.