Getting into sales can be hard when you’re a start-up founder with a programming background – suddenly you have to get acquainted with management, marketing and sales which, I know, seems very demanding at first. But with the right mindset and resources, it doesn’t have to be hard.
There is no right “path of the founder” that you have to follow. You define your own path based on the skillset you have and the people you invite to work with you. But the main issue that every founder has to tackle is sales, to succeed you’ll have to understand and practice sales – and here’s where I can help.
I’ve noticed some patterns in what roadblocks programmers have to deal with at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journey. I want to jump-start your progress with some key insights about sales.
You won’t drop out of the loop if you get outside your main domain
What if you lose technical skills because you’ll have too many other priorities on your plate?
This is a big problem that programmers deal with. But if you want to run a successful company, you have to be all in from the start and forget about this. Define a company vision to guide you, which will in turn reduce any fears you’re experiencing. Becoming less of an expert in one domain shouldn’t be too hurtful considering that the skills and the grit you’ll develop in the process of running your own venture will be invaluable.
Reach out of the domain you have the most expertise in and acquire business skills along with technical skills. It’ll benefit you regardless of whether you’re already creating your own company, or only thinking about it. Plus, sales aren’t anything to be afraid of, everyone’s a salesperson. You’re always selling – your ideas, your jokes, your projects, yourself when applying for a new job.
How can you get better at sales?
What do clients actually pay you for?
- how well you understand them
- how quickly and efficiently you solve their problems
- how easy-to-use your solutions are
So the intrinsic value of your products comes from how comfortable you make someone’s professional life. You don’t need to sell thousands of features – sell one feature that solves someone’s main problem.
- Focus on solving your clients’ biggest problems, not on creating all-in-one solutions to all their problems.
You have to learn where the right markets for you are, how and where you can generate leads, sell, and get revenue. These start-up community classics should give you a basic foundation for sales:
- Dale Carnegie – How to win friends & influence people – Transcript of Carnegie’s lectures about building and maintaining relationships in business and beyond. Value: a book for everyone to improve personal & professional communication. 288 pages, about 340-minute read, or < an hour a day for 6 days.
- Daniel H. Pink – To Sell is Human – written in 2012, about the business of “moving others” that we’re all in, not just the business of sales that some of us are in. Value: if you have an aversion to selling or feel uncomfortable doing it, this book will help you a lot. 272 pages, about 326-minute read, a bit over an hour a day for 5 days.
- John Warrillow – Built to Sell – not about sales per se, more about building sales processes and building an organisation that can sell, profit and grow without your operational involvement. Value: a strategy for all founders that need to scale sales efficiently, without micromanaging sales all the time. 178 pages, about 200-minute read, or a bit over an hour a day for 3 days.
- Geoffrey Moore – Crossing The Chasm – how tech companies should handle the transition from early to mature markets. Value: basically a tech startup blueprint for success. 211 pages, about 250-minute read, or an hour a day for 4 days.
- Aaron Ross – Predictable Revenue – Aaron Ross pioneered the best approach to B2B Sales so far. Value: learn how an efficient sales department should be ran, how to prospect, how to pitch clients and cold email them. 198 pages, about 240-minute read, or an hour a day for 4 days.
If sales seem challenging – realise that you’re already prepared for sales, it’ll give you an additional confidence boost. What do I mean? Well you have a few aces up your sleeve whether you know it or not:
- Expertise – potential clients are more willing to open up to you, either out of simple curiosity or to benefit from your knowledge. In any case, this gives you opportunities to sell.
- Authenticity – you want to help your customers, you’re not unwillingly doing something that a 9-5 would demand from you. It’s easier for you to empathise with potential clients, because you know what problems they experience and what you can solve.
- Company insights – you’ll often be selling the future versions of your products, luckily you’re probably the only one that knows what they’re going to become, so you’re just the right person to sell them.
Once you start selling and get good at it, DO NOT hire inexperienced newbies intending to teach them – it’s the worst next step you could take:
- What helped you convince customers is basically unteachable, because it’s your unique personality and expertise. Assuming you were never interested in sales, you also don’t know any conventional sales strategy or approach.
- To make sure things don’t fall apart once you start scaling up – look for an experienced closer to take care of the sales side of your business, when you no longer have the time capacity to do sales on your own.
Now that you know sales basics, it’s time to start creating your sales process from scratch.
Early stage network sales
An effective, scalable business requires a steady, scalable stream of incoming leads – inquiries from potential clients that you have some data about.
Many programmers leave their jobs because they’ve got a lot of clients with new projects lining up. Even at this early stage you can start organising sales into a manageable, scalable process – here’s how:
- Do things that don’t scale first – and one of those things is referral lead generation, ie. finding new clients from network recommendations.
- As the founder, it’s best that you do sales yourself at this stage. This is very important because talking to your clients will give you market insights, product feedback and new ideas. Don’t think about outsourcing or hiring sales reps yet.
- From the clients that come to you, analise and isolate specific groups – niches – that are the best business partners for you. The conclusions will become the first assumptions about your target groups for complex marketing later on.
- Start focusing on clients from these niches. If they stop coming to you themselves, comb through your network and ask for referrals and introductions.
- Give your first clients immense value, this way they will spread the good word about you and provide new referrals.
- If you screw something up, do everything you can to fix it. Offer discounts, give money back, improve your product, do whatever it takes to make clients smile again. If the customer sees that you are doing everything to make the sun shine again, you can win him back. And you can’t afford hurting your company’s reputation at early stages.
- Take all the feedback you can get – regarding your sales approach, what you offer, your brand, etc. The sooner you start analysing customer satisfaction, the better.
- Start building your portfolio and get your first case studies. Show potential clients that you’ve helped similar companies before, ans you’ll close new deals easier and faster. It’s also a motivational boost, when you’ve already delivered value to other customers you will get more confident in selling your products.
Referral leads will start drying out at some point, and you’ll have no more network buddies to approach because you’ve asked everyone for introductions to potential clients. What’s next?
Where will you get sales leads from when referrals dry out?
Early stage network sales won’t sustain your business’ growth long-term. You’ll need a strategy for creating interest in your company’s solutions and finding new clients outside of your network.
- Now’s the time to look for someone to take over the sales side of your business
- Start investing in marketing and sales. You know where the leads are, what to do to make your clients happy and you have proof of how well you do business.
Compare outbound and inbound marketing tactics and prepare a strategy with multiple lead generation tactics that you’ll be able to implement based on your team’s skills and resources you have available. For starters, I can suggest two that you could start implementing right now, and describe the basics of implementing them effectively:
Direct cold email:
- Define your target groups – define markets with the most buying potential, you should already have a good idea about this from network sales. If the first target group you pick is tough to penetrate – iterate, look for different geographies, industries, types of companies.
- Write your emails – prepare an email campaign consisting of up to 9 short & sweet emails – an introduction email and up to 8 follow-ups. The crucial parts are Unique Value Propositions aimed at your target groups’ pains.
- Find target companies and contact data – mining data on google and linkedin is a time consuming process, so I suggest going for a sales intelligence solution from the start.
- Organise outreach – start with sending emails to up to 50 companies, because you can still control this in a spreadsheet without a completely defined process and automation solutions. Regularly send emails and iterate subject lines, email contents and time of sending until they start converting.
- Set up a blog – either a stand-alone site that you’ll use to redirect traffic to your company website, or as an addition to your main company website
- Research – for instance go through social media platforms where your target customers spend their time. Collect the main keywords your target customers use in a spreadsheet. Group them into general discussion subjects, and generate a blog theme and article topics based on that
- Decide on a theme – you’ve got a great theme on your hands already if you’re dealing with (or developing) newest technologies. This sets you up to become the leading expert in your niche domain – and to pop-up on the first page of google when people search for specific technologies.
- Start writing – and encourage your team members to write as well. Your combined expertise will be your selling point, and your team members’ different points of view will increase the variety on your blog.
- Distribute – share your content on social media outlets that your target groups use. Increase your visibility online by sharing content from and interacting with industry influencers.
- Offer value – accumulate content and redistribute it into whitepapers, books, research papers that you’ll offer on your website in return for visitor emails. This way you start building a targeted emailing list, which is an invaluable asset.
The key to succeed is to write and post content regularly and see what generates more traffic, what goes well with your target audiences and what passes through unnoticed by anyone. Iterate and improve until your content start generating decent traffic and inquiries from potential customers.
To succeed in the market, you have to learn to collect feedback – and to win deals. That’s how you get to know your target customer up close, and most importantly their buying preferences. Sales may seem hard at first, but talking to your customers means experiencing live feedback and objections. This is invaluable for product development. As is the general understanding you get of which market holds the best customers for your company.
Get out there and start winning deals, you can only benefit from this.