There is a lyric in the titular song of the movie “8 Mile” that goes, “His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy.” This pretty accurately describes the feelings of most founders as they approach their first sales calls. In fact, when I ask founders to share their first sales experiences, the word they use most often is “exposed.”
This post is the first of a 12-step series to help startup founders sell their product during the early stages of building their startup. Before we start, let’s define a few terms so we are all on the same page for the purposes of this series:
- Founders – These are the people responsible for launching the startup. That is not to say that the material here is not of value to others. The point is that the unique position of starting a company means there are tactics and strategies that make more sense for founders than salespeople.
- Early Stage Startups – These are startups that are still trying to identify and optimize product-market fit. Founders in more mature startups still “sell” but are not involved in the mechanics and tactics of selling because they have a sales team in place. For the earliest stage startups, there are often no salespeople.
- B2B Sales – Otherwise known as business-to-business, this type of selling is focused on selling to businesses. The other common models such as business-to-consumer (B2C) more often rely on marketing or partners to drive revenue.
- Sales + Marketing – Sales is often thought of as 1-to-1 engagement with prospects versus marketing which is 1-to-many mechanism to generate awareness. Though the emphasis in this series is on sales, there are times when incorporating limited marketing activities is helpful to support your sales efforts.
With definitions and expectations clear, let’s start with the first part of our sales series.
If there is only one thing you take away from this post, let it be this: you can sell!
At the beginning though, it does not feel that way for most founders. In the earliest stages of building, the focus is entirely on product development. Part of the product development process will often involve validation of questions and assumptions made in building the product; in the parlance of the “Lean Startup,” this is called customer development. Though the term “customer” is used, there is no selling involved. It is just questions and feedback gathered from people and organizations that fit the profile of a typical customer, and often these are built on existing relationships.
At some point however, founders will need to acquire real customers—the type that want to invest money and time into the product. This means giving the product a price and reaching out to unknown people to sell them on buying your product. While building the product is exciting and fun, selling induces all sorts of anxiety and stress. This is the business building and revenue generating part of startups that technical and product oriented founders often dread.
It is at this point that some startup founders fall into what I call the Three Stages of Sales Avoidance. First, founders adopt a “build it and they will come” mindset and assume they will get customers with just a website / app and some growth marketing tactics. Second, they dabble in outsourcing sales TO WHO to take it off their shoulders. Third, they explore hiring a senior salesperson or a few eager but junior sales reps to tackle the sales issue. The net result of these forays is mostly lost time and no revenue.
Most founders, however, recognize that sales is both necessary and not something to offload or outsource to others. Being resourceful, they reach out to people in their network that are in sales and find books and videos in an effort to cobble together a strategy. Over the years, I have had many founders cite texts like Predictable Revenue, Challenger Sale, and Fanatical Prospecting to help guide them in the early days as they were learning how to sell.
There is nothing wrong with using these resources. In the past decade, there has been an explosion of sales resources, blogs, and communities like the Enterprise Sales Forum to help founders and salespeople raise the bar on sales skills. However, none of these address the key ingredient involved in early startup sales, especially when the person selling has no experience in sales. The missing ingredient is confidence.
It seems ironic to talk about confidence when it comes to startup founders. Starting a company involves an incredible amount of determination and boldness. But in the beginning, founders are relying on an existing skill set and doing something that comes naturally to them, such as coding or developing a product. Sales is a skill that is not naturally in most founders’ toolboxes.
The good news, however, is that we all know how to sell— we may just not recognize it as selling. If you have chose to have co-founders, you had to convince them to join you. If you’ve ever applied for a job, you sold yourself to your future employer. Any time you are trying to influence a decision, whether it’s convincing a co-founder, a potential hire, a co-worker, a family member, or friend, that is a form of selling. As Daniel Pink shares in his book “To Sell Is Human”:
“To sell well is to convince someone else to part with resources—not to deprive that person, but to leave him better off in the end.”
Sales in the context of selling a product is simply focusing those core instincts of influence and applying it in a more structured and deliberate way. Salespeople are not any more exceptionally gifted at sales than others. They just have more training, time, and experience in building up their skills, which creates a flywheel of building more confidence and achieving more success.
Plus founders have an ace in their pocket: Founder’s Passion. This is the contagious energy and enthusiasm all founders have for starting a company. Most potential customers (referred to as prospects going forward) you come across will likely admire and respect your status as a founder. Even when selling into huge enterprises, being a founder affords you extra credibility and authority as an expert, which opens more opportunities. Use this dynamic to your advantage!
There will always be nerves when approaching a first call (or any call) with prospects. We all have personal coping mechanisms, but one that has helped many founders is visualization. Prior to your conversation, find a peaceful, quiet spot, and visualize a successful outcome. Role playing the discussion can help focus your thoughts and ease your nervousness.
Besides visualization, what also helps build confidence is to practice your pitch. This will be discussed in more depth in a future post on pitching and sales meetings, but the point here is that when you have practiced what you are going to say ahead of time, you will be less prone to fumbling your pitch or misspeaking during the sales call.
Use the methods above and harness the knowledge of being an expert in your domain to lend you confidence when you sell. If you approach every sales call with that mindset, you will have better success in influencing prospects to thoughtfully listen to your story and solution. Having a positive mindset is the foundation for every other skill and tactic shared in this series.
In the next post, we will discuss understanding the customer perspective and what motivates them to listen and buy.