Technical founders love building innovative products. However, it’s a common mistake for engineers-turned-founders to focus all of their effort on development. This can end in disastrous results when a founder builds a product that nobody wants.
In this summary of Jason Mark’s presentation, technically minded founders will learn how to leverage their technical abilities to drive sales. Jason is one to know from experience- he started his career as a mechanical engineer but is now a top performing Strategic Account Manager at National Instruments. Jason’s spare time is spent working on Olley, a purpose-built data platform for roboticists.
Sales for startups
Aside from development, everything you do at a startup involves selling: pitching to investors, raising money, searching for cofounders, recruiting employees, convincing customers to try your prototype and pay you money for it. All of these activities involve talking to people. And whenever you talk to someone for a purpose, you're selling. This could be selling your product, selling yourself, or selling your vision. As an added bonus, when you talk to people, you hear feedback straight from the source, which is the best way to to improve your offering.
Fundamentally, talking to customers is selling. Digging deeper into this concept, selling is a multi-step process with many moving parts. First, you must identify potential customers, that is, the people who will buy what you build. Next, you need talk with these potential customers and learn as much as you can. The most important thing you’ll learn is how to address their needs with your product. This is essential since you’ll need to prove to the customer that you have the best value solution to solve their need. Finally, the last step is to guarantee customer success. Not only do you need to ensure that the customer is extremely satisfied with your product, they should be so pleased with your product that they’ll refer you to your next customer.
You may have previously heard of sales described as a “funnel”. This funnel shows the theoretical journey a customer travels from first awareness of your product to eventual purchase. Typically this involves a large set of prospects that are funneled into a small set of closed customers. While helpful to visualize the sales process as a funnel, the concept can be misleading. In reality, you have limited time to work with a wide variety of prospects. You should instead focus on a few, select customers with the highest return on investment. Every customer with an addressable budget, need, and timeframe should be closed. Moreover, the funnel metaphor usually ends when a client is closed, and this does not account for customer churn. When a customer is closed, the sales process should enter a reverse funnel to retain the customer.
The engineer as salesperson
If you’re a technical founder, do not let selling intimidate you. Engineers make great sellers because selling is a science. Engineers have an advantage in technical selling, since it’s easier for engineers to learn selling than for nontechnical people to learn engineering. Given a technical background, you may be selling a technical product which requires a technical competency. Engineers are in general familiar with optimizing implementation, are concise, and love numbers. And in the case of sales, numbers equals $$$!
Conversely, engineers typically face a different set of challenges in sales than nontechnical sellers. In my experience, technically competent people may be quite prideful of their expertise, which will prevent them from implementing the appropriate soft-skills in conversation. You will need to adopt humility as you face negative feedback, and try to fully understand why that prospect “just doesn’t get it.” Active listening in particular is often a tough concept to fully grasp. Your customers have many insightful things to say, and you won’t hear this if you’re only thinking about what you’re going to say next. Listen to them as they tell you their problems without interrupting or jumping into solutioning. Customers are people. Have empathy and be able to relate to your customers as a human being. This is required to build trust.
There are a number of high-volume, low-ROI sales activities that any seller will ultimately find themselves unmotivated to pursue. Think of these activities as time investments as opposed to time wasters. Day-to-day sales activities are not black and white. Employ your scientific mind to determine which strategies for cold-reach outs work best, and A-B Test various methodologies. The more engineering you make these activities, the more you will be motivated to pursue them. Track your progress, and celebrate the little success, even if it’s just getting a prospect to agree to a meeting.
From idea to startup
The initial startup lifecycle has multiple steps, many of which are sales centric. The first step is to find a topic you are interested in. This is fundamental as your passion and knowledge of the topic will push you all the way to the final step. The next step is to find and talk to people in that space. This a sales focused step, as you need to reach out to as many people as possible to find out who your customers are and what problems they have. A technical founder’s background kicks in for the next step as you determine what you can contribute to that space that directly addresses a need. From there, you can do what you shine at and start building!
Once you have a minimum viable product that directly addresses a need, you need to put your sales hat on again and ask for customer feedback. This is a crucial sales step since customer feedback will ensure you are truly solving a real problem. Then it’s back to the drawing board to refine the product to meet the expectations of your customer.
The last three steps of a startup lifecycle are all about sales: release the product, sell the product, and profit! These are three different, unique steps that are often conflated into one step. A product release involves a marketing and customer acquisition plan. Selling the product is getting out there and actively signing up new customers after the release. Even great products rarely sell themselves. Lastly, you need to continue working to keep your customer base happy and ask for referrals. This is the only way to make money over the long haul and reinvest your profits back into the business for continued growth.
A common question technical founders ask is, “How do I find and talk to people?” There are hundreds of answers, but here a few places to start.
Existing network. As you have developed your technical skills, it is often overlooked how vast and deep your immediate network has grown. Talk to your friends, colleagues, mentors and you will be surprised where your network takes you.
Meetups. Search for meetups online and ask your target customers what meetups they attend. This is a great way to meet many people within a short amount of time that are interested in a particular industry or domain.
Publish content. This is a slower path but it can be extremely powerful if done properly. Learn about a topic or question that is an emerging theme in your target industry and write a short article about it. Once you publish and market this article on your blog and social networks, you slowly become an authority within the space and potential customers will start reaching out to you.
Linkedin prospecting. LinkedIn is a great tool to find targeted customers. Basic searches for titles and companies that you’re interested will return many prospects. You can also cheaply purchase one of the many LinkedIn sales packages for more advanced searching and messaging tools.
Attend a course. If you’re building a machine learning product, for example, audit a machine learning course at a university. You will meet students (and professors) who all have problems that your product may help solve.
Cold call professionals/academics. While a lower-success rate activity, cold calling is an essential skill that you’ll need to master to go beyond your warm leads. It is a numbers game. Expect to make hundreds of short emails and calls but this approach will yield results will enough persistence and refinement.
Knock on the door. Often overlooked, simply showing up to where a potential customer works or socializes can go a long way. It’s hard to say no to somebody in person.
Talking to customers
Ok, you found somebody to talk to, how do you start the conversation? There are a number of ways you can keep your conversation on-track and productive for both you and the customer. If a customer responds to an email or message that you sent, ensure you respond back immediately and ask for a conversation. The longer you wait to respond, the higher the chance they will not meet you for a conversation. Ideally you can meet in-person over a coffee or lunch, but if not possible, you can meet over a video conference. Seeing the customer, even if not in-person, is essential to pick up on nonverbal communication.
Once you arrive at the meeting, ensure you keep the first meeting to 30 minutes or less. You want to generate enough interest for a second meeting and you should not need more than 30 minutes to accomplish this. Respect your customers time and in turn they will respect and trust you. At some point in the meeting, the customer will want to know more about your idea. Ensure you perfect the 30-second pitch that lets them know what problem you are addressing and how. Anything longer can be confusing and makes a customer think you have not solidified your idea. Practice makes perfect.
During the meeting ensure you ask many open-ended questions. Often times you are not pitching the customer but discovering their pain points. By asking open ended questions, you can keep the conversation moving and discover problems or nuances that will help shape and change your solution. Lastly, at the end of the meeting, always ask for a referral to a friend or colleague. Do this at 100% of the meetings, it is very rarely a bad idea and will lead you to your next customer.
Getting better at selling
Remember, selling is a science. You will learn over time and tweak your formula to produce better results. Here are some tips to help you become a better salesperson.
Preparation. Planning and preparing for the meeting is always worthwhile. Do your due diligence, write down your goals, and role-play talking points and scenarios likely to come up in the meeting.
Open the meeting. Kick things off in the right way. Introduce yourself, state the purpose of the meeting, confirm the agenda with your customer, and most importantly, confirm how long the meeting will take. Always respect your customer’s time!
Communication. This usually happens naturally, but get the customer talking and excited. You can find common interests or ask about a new trend in your target industry.
Whiteboard. It is always helpful to understand how a customer currently understands their position in a company and how they attempt to solve the problem that your product will solve. Work together with a whiteboard or pen and paper to draw out organizational charts, problem workflows, product life cycle, and user experiences.
Close the meeting. This closes the meeting loop. Ensure your goals were met, define next steps, and ask for that referral.
Follow-up. Email your customer a concise meeting summary afterwards with assigned next steps. Always do this the same day as the meeting.
Try new things. A/B test specific communication strategies every meeting. Always iterate and innovate to see what resonates more with your customers.
Salesmanship. This is an advanced skill but worth practicing. Enable the customer to arrive at your solution as if it were their own idea. If you are lucky enough to have worked with a master salesperson, you have witnessed this magic show.
Thank you for reading about how a technical founder can become a great salesperson at their startup. Many of these learnings were picked up with years of experience, but there are some great books that can point you in the right direction.
Spin Selling by Neil Rackham. A classic describing successful sales team and processes.
Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon. Describes modern sales strategies.
Challenger Customer by Brent Adamson. Understanding the mindset of your customer.
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. An oldie but goodie on personal and professional growth.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini. The psychology of getting a customer to say yes!
Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. A fun read written by an FBI negotiator with some counter intuitive insights.
This article series highlights previous speakers at Sidepact. Sidepact is a weekend program for employed engineers to start companies. Each week, a founder presents on topics such as building your first product, finding your first customers, creating a team, and fundraising. If you’re working full-time as an engineer but want to start your own company, apply at Sidepact.com