Last year during the Pioneers Festival, I had the opportunity to talk to StartupLive hosts from all over Europe about how sales works in startups. From the first company I joined until this day, I am always doing sales. Although never explicitly hired to do so, I think that going out selling the stuff you produce is one of the most important tasks in every company, especially in young ones. It is not something you can outsource or delegate, not as a “C**” or a founder. An important note: this applies mostly to B2B startups, but there is some serious sales involved in B2C startups as well – making a partnership, getting an investor to fund you and convincing journalists and users alike is nothing else but “selling your stuff.”
Founder = Salesperson
In a startup, founders do sales. All of them. Although you need to split responsibilities, you will all do sales, all the time. Never hire an external sales rep. In order to get feedback from your customers and find out how your product is perceived by them, you need to do it yourselves. Outsourcing one of your main means of getting to know your market is a bad idea. Always. So: Practice your pitch. Even if you are the engineer in the team, you cannot wait for the CEO to show up when you are at a party or any other social event. You need to be as fit about selling your business to others as all the founders. No excuses. Because you are probably also selling to future employees, partners, your mum.
- Sales as a habit
Sales is not a project. You don’t just say, “OK, now we’ll do sales.” You make it a habit. Set aside regular time, build a list of potential buyers, make remarks and add the likelihood that they will buy.
Sales is your business
Yes, your product rocks. You’ve been working and dwelling on it 24/7. It is the best invention since sliced bread or Facebook. But even if you cook up the coolest sh** on earth, if nobody needs it, you’re screwed. Don’t wait for anyone – a prince charming or a guardian angel – to bring along your customers. Identify people’s needs, and spark people’s interest. If your product happens to help, even better. So yes, selling your stuff is your business. The product is what you sell. But it is in almost any case less important than you think.
Sales is easy
Yes it is. But don’t forget that the sale itself does not involve much effort; it’s the preparation that does. Remember your last time in the restaurant. When you asked the waiter to make a recommendation, they could easily sell you something that you would have never picked. And they probably didn’t even find it difficult to do so – as long as they knew exactly what they wanted to tell you. If the story is intriguing, you will likely “buy it.” So prepare, prepare, prepare. You need to know whom you are talking to; observe carefully what the customer looks at, does, and says, and find out about their concerns – that will make all the difference. Also, use your powerful sales machine (Google) to find out what situation the company or individual is in, whom you are selling to. The more you know, the more likely you’ll hit the right spot.
Every project, every customer journey is an infinite sales process. It is much easier to sell stuff to existing clients that are happy than to acquire new ones. There is a fine line between being submissive a.k.a. doing all the customer wants, and being attentive and helpful. Know you boundaries, work your strengths, communicate your vision. Kick-ass customer service is the best sales tool.
- Listen to your customer
Listen, don‘t talk too much. If you listen, you collect information. Try to find out the problem of your prospective customer instead of overwhelming them with your solution. Also, while listening to your customer, you need to focus. But not too much. Concentrate on the vision of the product, service, or company that you want to build. Be open to suggestions, if some feedback comes frequently, dig deeper. Don’t run stubbornly in one direction, just because that Henry Ford quote is in your mind. You are not about to invent the next car, markets have changed. So focus, but not to an extent where you ignore important advice.
- Ask questions
Get all the information possible already at the first meeting. Ask direct, specific questions, even those that you don‘t dare to ask. You’ll be surprised how often you get an answer.
The follow-up is your one chance to screw up, as doing it properly is probably one of the hardest things to do. Picking up that phone, writing that email, asking about feedback often seems like intruding another person’s privacy; like begging for money. But it won’t be if you do it properly. Make it a challenge for yourself to get the most information out of the follow-up. Ask people for advice on how to do it next time, instead of begging for something. Try to use it as a way of learning. Refer to something in the meeting you had, send around a link that you were referring to, be creative! If you not do the follow-up (unless you already got a NO in the meeting) you have lost a chance to learn.
So, what are you waiting for? Go out there, and start selling!