Many inexperienced startup founders expect sales to come flooding in as soon as they launch their product and marketing campaign. In reality, that rarely happens even if you have an outstanding product that is fairly priced. I have seen many startups flounder at this point as the team gets discouraged by the lack of sales and traction thinking that the product is a failure. The trick is to be patient and take a very hands-on approach initially. In this article, I will provide a strategic outline for the earliest stages of your sales initiatives.
1. Become your company’s first salesperson
Every startup founder should sell, and most take on the role by default in the absence of a dedicated sales team. Beyond necessity, serving as your company’s salesperson has vital benefits in that you will personally learn what are the weak points in your offering and process. Rather than hearing feedback second-hand, experiencing it directly will allow you to make better decisions and improve at a faster rate. The success of your sales efforts will likely hinge on the following factors:
- The competitive value of your product;
- Your ability to reach your ideal customer (those whose needs your product will address most squarely);
- Your ability to convey the benefits of your product; and
- The efficiency of your sales process ranging from initial contact to post-sales onboarding and support.
By speaking with prospective customers, you will be able to engage in dialog with them to drill down on their needs and better understand the strengths and weaknesses of competing solutions as well as your own product. As your company’s key visionary and leader, this critical information will allow you to chart a more effective course for your solution and company.
In addition, how you speak about your product will evolve greatly from day one, and pitching it will allow you to more efficiently hone in on the message that resonates most. The added benefit is that whatever pitch is compelling with customers is usually also most appealing to investors, and given that your other primary responsibility is fundraising, this is very valuable information.
When you do bring on salespeople and build a sales team, the experience that you gain by selling to customers yourself will allow you to more critically evaluate the strategy, methodology, and performance of your sales team. Just as importantly, you will know what to look for in the hiring process.
It is okay if you are not the world’s greatest salesperson. Educate yourself on sales in your field as much as possible. Also, you do not have to be the sole salesperson and remember to take things one customer at a time.
2. Do things that don’t scale
Conventional startup wisdom dictates that you should not do outside sales (in-person sales) if your deal size is less than about $35,000. While it’s true that the long-term economics of selling in-person do not work out if your deal size is significantly lower than this baseline, we always advocate selling in-person in the very beginning of a startup’s journey even if the company is charging $10 per month for its product.
The reason for this is simple: one-on-one human interaction with your customers will provide you with much richer data and valuable feedback about your product, value proposition, and sales style. Not only that but by meeting your customer in their place of business or home, you will grow to understand their real-life environment and constraints. Perhaps you missed an important environmental or social impediment to adopting your product, or you overestimated your target customer’s technical acumen.
Most importantly, you are able to read your customers’ body language and engage them in a more authentic way than you could over the phone, chat or email. Many folks are polite and will not voice their displeasure with your pitch or product while their expression conveys how they truly feel. Picking up on such ques can help you drive the conversation deeper to unearth their true reservations, which you can smooth out for future customers.
Interacting with potential customers in person can also make it easier to build trust, which the relative anonymity of impersonal channels such as email and chat can not match. Once again, this trust is critical because it can make it easier to gather candid and detailed feedback on your product, pitch, and sales tactics.
By engaging in in-person dialog with your customers you are likely to garner more in-depth a candid feedback, which will allow you to quickly iterate and improve your product and sales approach. This will ultimately accelerate how quickly you figure out and optimize your sales process whether it ends up being relational, partially relational or fully automated.
3. Create a robust lead pipeline
You might start with a cache of leads that you have amassed from past business and personal relationships. But what happens when you exhaust all of your personal leads? Your pipeline will run dry and your sales efforts will come to a screeching halt. Effective sales isn’t just about selling; filling the pipeline with effective marketing is just as important.
This is perhaps one of the most challenging balancing acts in a startup’s early days. On the one hand, if your marketing is poorly executed, you will be underutilizing your sales capacity. On the other hand, if your acquisition efforts are producing more leads than your sales team can effectively handle, you are losing sales and potentially building ill will and undermining brand value.
What’s more, creating an effective pipeline isn’t just about the right quantity. The quality of the leads matters greatly in that potential customers that are poorly targeted will not want to ultimately buy your product and addressing them will result in low sales conversion and wasted effort. Constant communication and collaboration between the sales team and the marketing team—even if they are one-person teams—is vital to ensuring that the lead acquisition engine gets optimized quickly and efficiently.
4. Going beyond
The first three elements of creating an effective sales engine at the earliest stages of a startup should provide your team with a strong footing upon which to build our a bigger sales team and more complex process. Just as nearly everything else in the startup journey, nothing is perfect, and the trick is to make sure that the base is solid enough to build upon. More likely than not, the next steps in developing your sales operations will be driven by demand rather than by an arbitrary decision, and the next steps include things such as optimizing your sales infrastructure, process and building a bigger team. All of this takes time, so be ready for the journey and stay patient.