At last I have gotten my SAAS product to a state where I can take on some customers. I believe as-it-stands it offers significant advantages over existing solutions.
I am finding it incredibly hard to get those first customers, even if I offer the service for free for a period of time.
What are some good strategies for getting initial customers? What are my pre-requisites?
You'll have to get out there, hit the phones, burn some shoe leather, and build some real world relationships to get people using a brand new platform with no other reference customers.
Rather than think of them as customers, why not approach your earliest ones as partners who will help you test, refine and improve the product. The best partner will be a passionate early adopter who is really keen on your solution to the extent that they will put up with it's current shortcomings, put the effort into making it better, then act as a reference and evangelist.
Also, a wise man (bear?) made the point to me yesterday that there is no point in building a product and all that surrounds it until you've managed to excite people about the idea. If you talked with people, found out their exact pain point, and worked out exactly what excites them, your earliest customers are there for the taking.
Even if the service is free there may be frictional costs for migrating from one system to another. People may not have time to make the effort. Reduce ALL barriers (not just the "price" you charge)
An effective way to get your product out there is to give it away to non-profits or small companies (provided they wouldn't buy it anyways).
You gather feedback, testimonies and references that way. If they like it, ask them to spread the word around.
And then you might try to up-sell these early adopters to additional features, services, etc.