Insights from 5 years of running a B2B startup
Why did you open this article? Perhaps the topic of sales was relevant. I would imagine that the BIG names got your attention. The big names play into my credibility. If I sold to them, I must know what I am doing.
This is, in fact, one of the biggest insights about how to sell. Get BIG logos. These companies are not just companies, they are brands that have been building up their reputations for decades. By selling to them you are rubbing off their lucky charm.
Robert Cialdini talked about the 6 principles that help you influence people. In B2B space getting big brands signals social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. Get this one right and a lot of other things fall into place (of course, assuming you have a great product).
I was flabbergasted by 32K+ people reading my article on building startups “Don’t raise money. Don’t hire. Don’t build. Sell.” The point there was simple. Sell first to validate your business ideas. I realized that the logical continuation of the topic would be to talk about HOW to sell.
For the past 5 years building B2B startups, I was acting not only as a CEO but also, primarily, as a salesperson. I sold to companies like Universal Pictures, SAP, KONE, Skanska, Mindvalley, Siemens (currently in the final stages of negotiations), and many more.
Say you understood that every business is a trust business, that you need to build your credibility, and that the way to do that is to get big logos. How do you get about doing that? They have credibility for a good reason, they don’t work with just anyone.
Here my mental model is similar to the idea described by Ryan Holiday in his book “Trust me I’m lying” that he called “trade up the chain.”
Imagine that companies and their brands are divided into categories. A is the top category, then less known companies are in category B, after that are companies in category C, etc. You can’t get clients in category A right away because they don’t trust you. But if you had clients in B, they could give you a shot. How do you get clients in B, if they are also picky? You start with clients in C, then B would give you a shot.
This is a rough simplification, but the point is that you start with the lowest level and then trade up the chain leveling up as in a computer game. In the case of my startup, we started with local IT consulting firms. We did a couple of those. Then we were able to get a local not too big corporate. That allowed us to get more known corporates.
Here is a quote from Ryan Holiday’s book:
“…he made a YouTube video for the Kickstarter page showing off his charity’s work… Next, he wrote a short article for a small local blog in Brooklyn and embedded the video. This site was chosen because its stories were often used or picked up by the New York section of the Huffington Post. As expected, the Huffington Post did bite, and ultimately featured the story as local news in both New York City and Los Angeles… he sent an e-mail from a fake address with these links to a reporter at CBS in Los Angeles, who then did a television piece on it… When the CBS News piece came out and the video was up, he was ready to post it all on Reddit. It made the front page almost immediately. This score on Reddit (now bolstered by other press as well) put the story on the radar of what I call the major “cool stuff” blogs — sites like BoingBoing, Laughing Squid, FFFFOUND!…”
Of course, to sell even to the “small fish” clients you need to have a channel through which you can sell to them. What I learned is that there is no silver bullet here. Channels come and go, they are very specific to your business and change over time once they get overused by marketers and salespeople.
I can, though, share what worked for us. Number one is cold calls. It must be noted that they don’t work everywhere and my impression is that it’s much harder in the US than in Finland. That being said, give it a go, even in the US. The reason cold calls work is because many people seem to think they don’t.
Then, many people are still unaware of how business conference networking has transformed in the past few years. Nowadays, most events have a matchmaking platform where attendees can message each other and set up physical or online meetings. In my experience, these work as a charm. Matchmaking at conferences works because (a) your clients come there to buy, (b) people who agree to meet you based on your intro message are already interested, (c) the conference environment often builds trust and hype.
Finally, a free trial worked great for us too. It’s amazing to give the buyer a trial and them go “this is great, how much does it cost and where can I sign?” without ever seeing the sales deck.
The WHO and the WHAT
Sales is hard work, mostly because a lot of it is not the fun meetings, but the brutal hustle of setting up those meetings. My life hack was getting an assistant to outsource prospecting and setting up the meetings. Remember, the client doesn’t care who does the dirty work.
Lastly, a friendly note that even the greatest sales won’t save you if the product is bad and clients don’t buy ever again.