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Building a Sales Machine

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a sales person?

A lot of founders fall into the mindset that if they just focus on building the product, they can hire experienced sales people to acquire customers later. Sales reps are often seen as people who are articulate, charismatic, dress well, play great golf and have killer closing lines. Founders underestimate their ability to sell on their own and would rather pass the torch to someone else. The problem with this assumption is that it's not reflective of how sales typically work at a startup.

As an early stage company you don't have money to hire a sales person. So the sales rep is the founder, who also happens to be the coder, the builder, the marketer and the janitor. You don’t have time to practice long speeches, attend networking events or play golf (never mind afford it), and most of the time you are wearing jeans and a t-shirt. We prefer this version of a sales person as opposed to the traditional corporate sales rep persona.

In an early stage company the Founder is usually doing one of two things - building a product or talking to users. The talking part is nothing other than selling. Founders posses unique advantages that make it possible for them to be really good at sales: passion for the product and knowledge of the industry/problem they are solving. In our experience, this passion trumps a sales background.

Become an Alchemist

As with most everything else, becoming a good sales person requires discipline and a good process. Start with a good sales funnel, a mechanism through which you move and track customers. First, figure out who is interested in your product (prospecting), have a lot of conversations (engagement) so you can find out who's really serious, close the deal, and reach revenue.

Let's break it down into tangible steps.

1. Prospecting

Figure out who is likely to take your call. When you first start out, you have no users, revenue or track record. The people most likely to try your product will tend to be innovators willing to try new things.

Everett Rogers created the innovation adoption lifecycle, a bell curve that described the adoption or acceptance of a new product or innovation. At the front end of this bell curve are innovators i.e. your potential customers. There are a few ways you can start reaching out.

Begin with your personal network, direct and indirect. Who can make other introductions? Attending key conferences is another great way to reach customers. Don't just focus on the flashy ones, SXSW, CES, etc. Figure out which ones your prospects attend, find the participant list and schedule meetings in advance. Don't discount cold emails and LinkedIn. Less is more with this method. Send a short note comprised of three sentences: who you are, what you are building, and a request for an opportunity to get their feedback. Hit send and move on to the next one. Be resourceful!

2. Engagement

Once you get someone to agree to talk to you, do yourself a favor, don't talk just listen. This is hard to do, especially when you are proud of what you’ve built. Conquer the urge to talk about every feature and over describe the product. Instead ask probing questions - Why did you agree to take my call? What do you currently use? What would be your ideal solution? Leave the conversation understanding their problem better than they do.

Don't Forget to Follow up!

It takes more than one follow-up email to close a deal. Get pride out of your system and develop an unreasonable willingness to follow up and drive things to closure. We are not suggesting you make several attempts to win every single person. Your goal is to get people to a yes or no as quickly as you can while avoiding a thousand maybes. Focus your efforts on the right leads, have ambition and a super human level of follow up.

3. Closing

So you've talked to a ton of people, followed up and now they’re willing to sign an agreement. Have a standard agreement that’s easy to understand. Don’t sweat the minor details and avoid closing traps.

A typical closing trap includes half-interested prospects that'll buy the product only after you include one more feature. Quickly avoid this one by getting a signed agreement with the additional feature build in included or just respectfully walk away. Let the target know you’ll wait to see if you get more demand from customers.

Another one is free trials. Freemium models work best when you have a set trial, with an easy way for customers to opt out, or when you offer up sale features (more common in subscription based models). The problem is when you are a startup you need revenue, validation and commitment. Free trials get you none of those things and at the end of the trial you’re going to have to sell them all over again. Always be on the lookout for closing traps.

4. Revenue

Congratulations, you’ve closed and have money in the bank! You did things that do not scale to get those early customers and have reached the Promised Land. Now it’s time to build a repeatable sales model. Time to brainstorm with the team on what are some of the sales aspects that can be optimized and scaled.

Christoph Janz wrote the five ways to build a hundred million dollar company. As you go through your sales funnel remember this chart. Think about what category you ultimately want to fall into. If you want to be in the elephant category, you're going to have a really high touch sales cycle. If you're going to be a rabbit, but your sales process involves flying out for meetings, five demos, three pilots, and two months of redlining, you may want to reconsider.

- the Crew

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