Category: Skinned knees—what an MBA didn’t teach you for rebel sales in a software startup

The pitch you want to give, yet need to create

The pitch you want to give, yet need to create

This post originally appeared on my company blog series “Skinned knees—what an MBA didn’t teach you for rebel sales in a software startup”. In this post, let’s talk about the challenge of doing a sales pitch for a product that has never been pitched.

Every day at a startup has challenges. You know this. That’s why being a founder or a member of the founding team can be very exciting. Having been in your shoes, I find that developing the sales pitch can be both heartbreaking and exciting. Starting from scratch and being ready to take on the world is noble, yet the downside is having absolutely no historical examples to jumpstart the creative process.

You may be lucky. Your software startup may be biting at the heels of one or more big competitors. If this is the case, you simply position yourself against their value proposition and say that you are better at something then the big guys.

Maybe you are also cheaper than the big guys (I hope not because pricing can always be lowered due to competitive pressures). Creating a value proposition that is “cheaper” may not be enough to differentiate you in the long run, but there is no question that it can be an advantage if your cost model still allows you to be profitable.

Do Not Internalize Doubt

But what if you need to create a unique value proposition and you cannot copy the value proposition of anyone else? What if your offering is so unique that it is hard to find another company and copy their idea?

First of all, if you are so unique that no one else is doing this, are you too unique? Is there anyone to actually sell to? Did you identify a missed goal that no one else can see, or is it a market that isn’t really there? Do you have a solution looking for a market, or are you in a market looking for a solution? This is really important, and I discuss it in my book, Eliminate Your Competition since competitors prove your need to be in the market. If you have no competitors, you may not have anyone to sell.

By the way, these questions come from many of my successes as well as failures. In my career, I have been fortunate to have amazing mentors. If you have them too, see if they can do a thirty-minute coffee break with you. Ask them your questions. They may not have the immediate answers you seek, but they will have encouraging words that may lead to somewhere you had not yet considered.

Another consideration is to find peer founders at your incubator or accelerator. An obvious cautionary tale, please rephrase your questions so as not to give away any intellectual property or competitive advantage. Polling your peers does have the advantage of boots-on-the-ground knowledge. Having founders who are in the thick of operations and execution will get you another perspective.

Do Something About It

Before your first customer order, you need to use the time-honored practice of A/B marketing. Whereas, my prior suggestion focused on opinion gathering, now I want you to put some of that knowledge into actual use. You should have enough material by this point to create a compelling story.

The downside of A/B sales pitches is that you run the risk of completely blowing a sales pitch to a prospect you desire. That is fine as it is almost as important to understand what NOT to say as it is to understand what you should say. After all, we all grok that “No” is never final and you can always go back to that rejection and explain that you didn’t explain it well and ask to speak again.

Once you have closed a few deals, then you need to have positive feedback from those early adopter customers. To ensure you are truly addressing a need that no other company is solving, you need customers to part with their precious cash in return for your product. Nothing else will prove your value proposition as well as cash.

After you have those first 5-10 customers, ask them what your value proposition should be for your company and product. They are probably not marketing folks with exceptional abilities to write concise and pointed value statements, but they can give you the essential words or philosophies. Hire a copywriter to take those basic statements to craft a message that is unique to you and epitomizes your message.

This method was recently discussed in an article on First Round. The article is about the email marketing success of Watsi. Grace Garey of Watsi explains: “For the longest time, we had it in our heads that people donate on Watsi because they are moved by a patient photo or story and they act on impulse. When we started to see droves of people sign up to donate continuously through the Universal Fund, we realized that users’ motivations were really varied and there might be new ways to reach them we hadn’t ever thought about. We didn’t expect that people really bought into a much broader vision for what Watsi was about — that they didn’t want to just help the person whose profile they were looking at, but underserved patients in general.”

Watsi found a value proposition for their fundraisers by listening to their donors (customers). They were able to learn from those successes to fine-tune their value proposition. You can do the exact same thing with your startup.

By the way, you should seriously check out Watsi. 100% of your donation funds life-changing surgery. It is a great organization, and you can donate here: I don’t have any relationship with the charity, but I am seriously interested in making the world a better place.

Header image Photo by geralt (Pixabay)
I Need Leads!

I Need Leads!

This post originally appeared on my company blog series Skinned knees—what an MBA didn’t teach you for rebel sales in a software startup on the Agile Stacks, The next in my series, I get down to the brass tacks of how every morning likely starts out for you. Hang in there because even veterans start here.

“I need leads!!!” Did any salesperson not say those words?

It is even more frequent with a startup.

There are no leads. There are very few references (maybe none). The product is relatively unproven.

It takes a unique customer to buy from a startup, and it takes a special sales team to work for a company that has 0.00000% market share.

Sure it is exciting to build something from scratch. If it works, it will be incredibly rewarding (hopefully personally and financially). You rolled the dice! You are all in!

But even with all of that excitement, it is still hard work. The leads are not there. There is never enough.

As the VP of Sales, what are you going to do? Not only are you the lead salesperson on all big deals, but you are also the cheerleader and motivator for your sales force.

Every day is straightforward even though it is tough. Here are my thoughts that get me through the day.

You Are Going To Work 80 Hours A Week

OK, if you didn’t already know this going in then let me spell it out – you can kiss your significant others goodbye in the morning and then kiss them goodnight before you go to bed. That’s about as much time as you are going to see them. No, I don’t mean you are in the office fourteen hours a day. In sales, you are on the phone all the time because of the time zone differences. So up early for east coast then calling late for the west coast. And when that really big prospect comes in the door, the hours don’t matter so much as building that relationship at all costs and all times of the days. It’s just the way it is.

You Are Going To Network With Everyone

I really don’t think you get much advice on this. You are going to call *everyone.* That goes from grandma and uncle Joe to the highest level target audience you can get at a prospect. So don’t leave any stone unturned because you simply never know who is networked to whom outside your immediate Level1 LinkedIn connections. For example, our head for BD is an adjunct at his alma mater. Through other professors, we now have a potential market in the education sector that we never imagined could be profitable. And it just so happens that professors are a great hunting ground for enterprise software.

You Are Going To Attend Every Show

Let me qualify this statement…. attend every show you can access free of charge. As a startup ourselves, the glamour of hitting the largest shows in our market is very tempting. So tempting that I probably flood my VP of Marketing’s inbox with so many suggestions that I think he is now blocking me (he is my editor on this blog, so we will see if he leaves that line in the post).

The point of marketing events is not to spend money on sponsorships. The point is to meet people in your market face-to-face so they see you as a key player. In sales, we have to be everywhere at once, or at least give the perception that we are everywhere at once. I recommend getting as many free expo floor passes as you can and network with a purpose.

  • Educate everyone on what you do.
  • Listen to what they are saying about you.
  • Listen to what they are saying about your competitors.
  • Make your pitch better on the follow-up with this person.
  • Find a lead to close!

You Are Going To Cold Call For Hours

Enough said. Look at my last two bullet points. Leads take time and hard work.

You Are Doing Cold Email For Days

Statistics show that somewhere between six to seven touches are required before a prospect makes any real decision about you. We live in an era of omnichannel sales and marketing. Use it to your advantage as low-cost ways to keep your prospect thinking about you. Also, it’s just a polite thing to do to call someone then send them an email afterward even if you got their voicemail.

You Are Going To Do Whatever You Have To Do

This almost goes without saying, it all bubbles up to that one line. No job is below or above the VP Sales. Whatever you have to finish TODAY, you must do. That means sales is building their own pitch decks using canned templates from Prezi or PowerPoint. There is no marketing team that creates aesthetically phenomenal templates for you like in larger companies.

Or in some cases, you are the social media team by retweeting relevant articles to your market that you hope will show prospects you are bigger than you actually are. Just this week, I received kudos from my leadership for being the best employee advocate on social media. Follow me on Twitter at @soshaughnessey and on LinkedIn. It takes minutes out of my day, but the traction I am getting with thought-leaders is priceless. And it doesn’t hurt I am up 400%+ on impressions. Additionally, these touches show prospects that I am passionate about my value proposition as they connect to the value points I tweet about. I know this is an indirect form of lead generation, but it is lead generation nonetheless.

You are also going to spend writing or critiquing marketing materials (I am finishing this post on the Monday of a 3-day holiday weekend). You are going to be involved in the web site redesign project. You will be involved in marketing events. All of this leads to getting the messaging right so when you make contact then you get the leads because you are prepared.

There is literally nothing that you are not going to do as the VP of Sales and that is exactly why you want the job. In a young startup, there is no job that is this invigorating or this demanding. You know the work is long, but you also know the rewards can be achieved.

Even if yesterday sucked, it doesn’t matter. Go out there and do it some more. You are in sales. Go make it happen. Tom Hank’s character in a League of Their Own said it best, “There is no crying in [sales].” And from another Tom Hanks movie (Apollo 13) “Failure [in sales] is not an option.”

Header Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Don’t stop learning when you are in a software startup

Don’t stop learning when you are in a software startup

This is the first post in a new series of thoughts on selling software as a startup titled “Skinned knees—what an MBA didn’t teach you for rebel sales in a software startup”. It first appeared on the Agile Stacks website where I am the Chief Revenue Officer.

My postings on this topic won’t be on a guaranteed schedule but will be the random thoughts as the Chief Revenue Officer for a young company selling enterprise infrastructure software. This first post will be to give a little bit of background on myself, but more importantly, to offer some advice to salespeople that are just beginning their career in business-to-business or enterprise sales.

The software sales industry has evolved dramatically since I first started selling software. In the mid-80s, software was primarily written to add value to hardware. Most of the computers in those days could heat a room (or a building) and had the processing power that was less than the phone in your pocket. The real commission money came from selling the hardware, and the software was almost always a giveaway as part of the deal. Back then, a cloud was a visible mass of condensed water vapor floating in the atmosphere, typically high above the ground that blocked the sun and sometimes dropped rain to ruin your golf game.

My alma mater is Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology where I graduated with a bachelors of science in mechanical engineering. Most of the time that I was a student I knew that I was going to be a lousy engineer. I love science and physics yet I despise the redundancy of a 9-to-5 office job that many young engineers experience. My tenure as an engineer was over before I walked off the graduation stage with my degree. I had accepted a position as a Sales Engineer with The Allen-Bradley Company of Milwaukee WI.

In all of the jobs over the years, accepting a position with Allen-Bradley (A-B) was probably the best career decision that I ever made. A-B had just been bought by Rockwell and would eventually change its name to Rockwell Automation. At the time though, A-B was investing heavily in college engineers to become salespeople – they wanted smart, raw talent that they could mold. I moved to the company headquarters in Milwaukee, WI and began an 11-month sales training program under the wise mentorship of the A-B sales experts.

Nearly every sales trainer explains that everyone sells. They give examples of selling from the youngest child trying to get a piece of candy to adults convincing a spouse for a new set of golf clubs. This is true, but unfortunately just because everyone sells, very few people do it really well. The sales profession is one of the hardest professions in the world, and enterprise sales is among the hardest of all types of sales positions. Going through an 11-month training program probably cut 5 years off of my on-the-job training.

Few companies today can make the incredible investment that A-B made in me. I wish I could return this favor by doing the same to college graduates, but unfortunately, it is a different world. In that 11 month program, I learned many skills that I still use today. For myself and many others, this was our masters degree in sales. Here are some of the timeless skills that today make a better salesperson:

  • How to plan a sales call so that everyone on my team knew how to succeed
  • How to explain the benefits of a product rather than just its features
  • How to understand a prospect’s business
  • How to build a relationship with a customer to make it a win/win relationship
  • How to manage the entire business with a customer, not just the next deal
  • How to effectively team sell to a customer
  • How to deliver a presentation that it is motivating
  • How to write effective letters
  • How to negotiate and close a deal

Allen-Bradley put me through classes, seminars, and practice sessions for months. I was tested weekly to affirm that the information and techniques stuck. I made joint calls with seasoned salespeople having decades of experience. These were the masters, and I was excited to be along for the ride. Eventually, I made sales calls. The masters watched. Their feedback was foundational to my growth. A lesson I took away – find a great mentor and never let them go.

In addition, Allen-Bradly was patient. This built a strong foundation to be the best salesperson that I could be. Teaching that continuous learning and continuous improvement creates more future opportunity is a value I cherish today. I pass this knowledge to you – my sales peers. You need to master the craft in the profession that you have chosen. Embrace the process of learning and improvement.

It is often cited that you need 10 years of doing something to be an expert. I am sure this is true, but I have seen salespeople that have decades of experience and still are not experts in their craft. I theorize that this is because they are not continually learning and continuously striving to improve.

While I am unable to train a group of young and eager college graduates for a year, I can pass on my experiences and learnings. That is my goal for this blog series. I am hopeful that it will be helpful to salespeople of all ages, new managers trying to learn how to motivate others, and entrepreneurs trying to start the next great software company. I hope that you will subscribe to the feed of this series so that I can help you sell more software and offer benefits to your customers.

While reading this series, I hope you gain some insight into the above bullet points and I hope that you learn a little about what it takes to start an enterprise software company from scratch.

If you like this series, you may also want to read my book on sales, Eliminate Your Competition. You may purchase my book from your favorite book retailer. The ebook version is available at the most popular retailers such as Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble. The paperback version is also widely available at such retailers as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books A Million.

You should also subscribe to the series “Skinned knees—what an MBA didn’t teach you for rebel sales in a software startup” on the Agile Stacks website.

Header image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay