The Founder's Dilemma
Why Your Start-Up Doesn’t Need a Sales Executive—Yet
Founders of start-ups often ask me, “When should I bring on my first account executive? I’m too busy building the product. I don’t have time for sales!” Very rarely do I suggest that they hire someone as soon as possible. Rather, I suggest, “Youneed to make time for sales!” Then they typically reveal the real reason they are not selling: “I’m not a sales person.”
In my experience the person who should be out talking to current clients and potential future clients is the founder of the company.
Founders are the people who have passion for what they have built. Only through the transfer of this passion can early customers buy into the product and the company’s vision.
Founders should hold on to the reins for as long as they can before handing them over to guns for hire who can take their revenues to the next level. That hand off should only be done when a fit between the product and the market has been well established and validated and the founders know exactly who their clients are and what problems the product can solve for those clients. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, founders need to accumulate stories. In turn, those stories can be passed on to an account executive who then, ideally, begins working on inbound leads to close more business.
So, how can start-up founders get over what is ultimately a fear of selling?
Here are 6 steps that, if put into practice, will help you—the founder and visionary—grow your client base.
1) Tell the Truth
If you are uncomfortable with sales, explain to your future client that you have been heads down working on building and testing your product and that you are just getting “out of the building” to start selling. Admit to him or her that you are not entirely in your element. Likely, they will respect you for being forthright and may even help you through the experience.
2) Bleed Passion for Your Product
Passion is contagious. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” If you, the founder, cannot muster up enthusiasm for what you have built, it is likely a sign that you have not followed your passion.
Obviously, there is a balance here. I have talked with entrepreneurs so passionate about their products that they have figuratively thrown up all over me in an effort to tell me about the products’ every feature and benefit. Use your intuition here. Notice your future client’s body language. He or she moving back in the chair and folding his or her arms is likely a sign that you are going a bit over the top. Stop, smile, and make a joke about your enthusiasm: “Sorry. As you can see, I’m excited about what we have built.”
3) Learn to Be Inquisitive
Be genuinely curious about your future client’s environment. In an earlier article I wrote about the FORM (Family, Occupation, Recreation, Motivation) framework (LINK) and how talking to future clients about their families, occupations, recreational interests, and motivations is a great way to break the ice with someone. It is likely that the conversation will naturally turn back to you, at which point you can tell him or her about your own FORM.
4) Do Visualization Exercises
Spend quiet time visualizing yourself being confident about your product or service in the presence of your future client.
When I first jumped into sales, I would park my car a few blocks away from my future client’s office building and spend a couple minutes acting out in my head how I wanted the meeting to start. I would rehearse it in my mind over and over again. I would then take a deep breath (oxygen clears the mind) and drive the remaining blocks to the meeting.
5) Just Tell a Story
Research shows that storytelling is the best means of tapping into people’s minds and emotions. What stories are important? In the early days of your venture, the most important story is yours—how you identified that there was a problem needing a solution, how you built the product or service offering, other client stories, and so on.
6) Be Yourself
When I accepted my first sales job, I immediately went to the local bookstore and bought a dozen books about sales. Most of them were about cold calling, turning around client objections, ABC (Always Be Closing)—all the stuff the old (traditional) sales approach entails. New sales hardly resembles that. It is a known fact that neither extroverts nor introverts are the best at sales. Ambiverts are the most effective. Ambiverts, people who have characteristics of both extroverts and introverts, comprise the majority of the population. So, if you are a founder and are neither introverted nor extroverted, sales is for you.
It is critical for the long-term success of your company that you learn to enjoy selling. If you’re tempted to spend money on compensation for an account executive before you have validated product-market fit, you’re wasting your valuable resources.
All you need to do is find the sales pro inside you and get out of the building. If you follow the six steps described above, I’m confident you can gain the traction you want and need in order to build your business.
Question: At what point do you believe a company should hire its first sales executive? Why? Please share your thoughts.