This will be my first in a series of posts about sales in the world of technology startups, and I plan to write directly toward founders.
As a new founder/CEO of a startup myself, I’ve been exposed to several other startups and have noticed a consistent need for insight on how to take a new product to market and how to set up a sales team. I’ve spent over 18 years in sales and sales management, and have gotten our new business, LevelEleven, off to a fast start by securing over 75 enterprises in relatively short order.
I believe a big part of why we had early success at my startup, and built momentum, was because I personally did the selling at the very beginning. The most significant value I got out of that was not just getting a few contracts signed; it was that I got feedback on what the market wanted out of our product. Personally taking ownership of the sales process in the beginning was as much about defining our product as it was about bringing in revenue.
For this reason, I believe that you as the founder of a startup need to be the first salesperson – which means figuring out who to target, making cold calls, doing all the follow-ups, writing proposals, crafting your marketing collateral, developing an agreement, etc. You should do this completely on your own for a good handful of your early customers before considering your first sales hire. Here’s why:
You Tell the Story Best
The best salespeople, those best at persuasion, are great storytellers. And nobody can tell your startup’s story in a way that moves people better than you. The company was your idea, your vision. If you can communicate that inspiration, you will captivate your audience. Part of your authority comes with the title “entrepreneur”– people like to meet with founders and CEO’s of startups because their ideas show creative flair and the potential for success. You should take advantage of that.
You’re Best at Seeking Feedback and Can Respond
When your company is in the very early stages of development, you need to formulate your pitch, and you also need to further refine your product based on feedback from prospective customers. An an idea person, you are likely intellectually curious, as well as good at asking questions and reading between the lines.
Imagine each sales meeting as a laboratory. Based on what you learn, you’ll keep refining your formula. Be very upfront with people about this metaphor. Start out the meeting saying something like, “This is a new idea that we are taking to market. While I would love to get you on board as a paying customer, I’d also value your direct feedback to help us shape the product into something that would be valuable to you.” By making such a disclosure, you are telling people that it’s safe to be critical and they will appreciate your genuine approach..
You Need Some Sales Process in Place Before Hiring
When you are ready to hire your first salespeople, your odds of success will be dramatically higher if you have some familiarity with pitching your product. You need to know what objections people will throw at you, what collateral prospects they want, how to demo your product, and how to take someone from initial pitch to the signed contract. If you go through all those steps, as small and simple as some of them may be, you will be in a strong position to help train your initial sales hires.
Define Your Ideal Customer Profile
While you may feel that any company out there could buy your product, there is a company, and a contact, that is the ideal match. For us, we’ve learned that it’s the VP of Sales at a technology company, based in North America. This company has 250 to 1000 employees, is VC backed, and uses salesforce.com. While we can and do sell to companies in many different industries, geographies, and sizes, you need to define your ideal customer profile. As you start talking to customers, and learning their interests, you will begin to form such a profile, and with that, your future sales team is off to a strong start.
Sales can be intimidating, especially when there are so many ways you can spend your time. It’s easy to let responsibilities slip and think you can just hire a salesperson to make it all come together. But just like you invest your time building and iterating on your product, you need to spend time building and iterating on your sales and marketing process. Think of it like this… if you can’t sell your offering to someone, how in the world do you think someone else is going to sell it?