Preface: the assumption for this essay is that you’re building a B2B app, and you have something built but you’re having trouble getting people to pay for it
There are three problems with getting your first few customers:
- You (probably) don’t know how to sell things
- You don’t know who you’re selling to
- You don’t even really know what you’re selling
Nobody tells you how to answers these questions, and so most people go out to get initial traction in a haphazard way:
- They have a vague idea in mind for who wants their product
- They’ve already built the product, so they put together a landing page which which, like, totally speaks to the core value proposition
- They write some combination of any of the following:
A few half-baked ads
A few forum posts
A few comments on relevant blogs
A few blog posts
A few cold emails to journalists (because, dude, we would BLOW UP if we could just get ‘Crunched)
- They send these out into the wild, and (no surprise!), get very few responses
- They conclude that the product must suck and that nobody wants it, because Mark Zuckerberg did exactly the same thing to launch Facebook at Harvard and look at how that worked out for him
If you try to get initial traction this way, it’s very difficult to untangle why it didn’t work:
Were the ads targeted to the wrong keyword?
Was the copy not compelling enough?
Was the sample size too small?
Or does no one want what I’m selling?
When they fail to get initial traction, most people conclude that the product is the problem. That no one wants what they’re selling.
They never consider that the way they’re selling might be COMPLETELY wrong (either in the way the product is being pitched, who it’s being pitched to, or some combination of the two.)
I think most of us have been lulled into this sense that the second you post your new product to a listserve you should automatically get sucked into a 4 minute montage scene featuring dark ominous 9 Inch Nails background music only to be spat out at the end with enough money to buy that estate on the Amalfi Coast.
And when that doesn’t happen, our first response is always to blame the product.
Formally this is called the actor observer bias which tells us that we tend to blame things that don’t go right in our lives to circumstances beyond our control:
“No one responded to my emails, so the product must suck. Nobody wants it, otherwise it would already be on TechCrunch.”
This is wrong. Here’s the truth:
You have learned nothing from spending $200 on Adwords, or writing a few comments, or sending cold emails to journalists.
Let me repeat: You have learned nothing. You get a big Zero. You have no actionable information.
Your product could suck. But it could still also be completely your fault. Or it could be completely random that you didn’t get any responses. Maybe the journalists were having a bad day, or the three people who clicked on your ads were just bots.
The point is: buying a few ads, or sending a few emails, or writing a few blog posts is not enough to conclude anything.
Untangling why you’re not making sales seems like an almost insurmountable problem, especially when you realize that at the beginning you don’t even really know what you’re selling.
The problem with startups is that you have to figure out WHAT you’re selling AS you’re selling it.
It’s like having a big black bag with a product inside it, and you have to run around selling it to people you see on the street. And worse, you’re not allowed to look into the bag to know what it is you’re selling. You can put your hands into it and feel around, but that’s the extent of it.
Ok, so how do you deal with this? How do you start to figure out what you’re selling, who you’re selling to, and how to sell? How do you get those first few customers?
Find the value
The most important question to answer when you’re starting out is this:
Where’s the value of my product? Who is it valuable for? And why is it valuable for them?
Everything else flows from that.
And it turns out that the best way to figure out these basic things out is BY selling your product.
Remember that Reid Hoffman quote about startups being like jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down? This is why:
You need to figure out what you’re doing as you’re doing it. You need to figure out how to sell and who you’re selling to and what you’re selling while you’re selling it. And if you took VC money you have to do that in a very, very short time period.
At the beginning most people do things the opposite way: they assume that the product provides real value, they assume they know what that value is, and they combine these assumptions into a sales pitch. Then they run around and talk to a few people, get lukewarm responses, and conclude that the product sucks.
Don’t lie to yourself
There are some times in life when you’re not going to get into trouble lying to yourself.
If your friend ditches you for dinner, you can always tell yourself: “Well I didn’t like him anyway.”
If you get a bad score on a math test, you can say: “The teacher sucks, it’s not my fault.”
We’re taught that this is an okay way to deal with the difficult situations that life throws at us. That these white lies are just harmless rationalizations that keep us sane.
There are at least two industries where you can’t do this:
Entrepreneurship and rocket science
If a SpaceX engineer lies to himself, the rocket blows up on the launch pad. If the entrepreneur lies to herself, her company will fail before it even gets started.
Telling yourself: I know what this product is, I know who wants this, and I know how to sell it, when you really don’t is only going to result in YOUR failure. Admitting to yourself that you need to find out what you don’t know is the first step in the right direction.
It’s important to recognize that if you’re just starting out you have no idea where the value of your product lies. And you should make it your goal, not to ram your vision down other people’s throats, but to honestly find out whether your product is valuable, and if it is, who it’s valuable for.
Start with people first, not “hits”
Most people start out by posting on forums or buying ads or writing blog posts because sitting behind a computer is a lot less scary than actually talking to people.
But in order to answer the questions that you need to answer at the beginning you’re going to need to talk to people, either on the phone or face to face. And you’re going to need to do that a lot.
This advice has been reiterated so many times that by now it’s pretty banal. But most blog posts say “talk to customers” and leave it at that.
Let’s talk more specifically about how to do it.
Before you can go out and talk to people, you have to develop an idea of who you’re going to be talking to. Here’s a quick process for doing this:
(Note this advice is primarily targeted at B2B companies, but I believe, can be successfully applied to B2C companies as well)
- Develop a hypothesis about the target customer
- Find companies that fit the bill
- Think about: who at the company is going to want this?
- Get their email and get in touch
- Rinse and repeat
As an example of step one, our first hypothesis about potential customers for Firefly was that people who would find it useful would probably have installed a live chat program like Olark or SnapEngage on their site. So we started contacting their customers.
How to find someone at a company
Once you have a company in mind that you think will be relevant, now it’s time to actually find someone to talk to.
The lowest hanging fruit is reaching out to their catchall email like sales@ or team@. I wouldn’t recommend doing this, most of that stuff gets ignored.
There are really three options for doing this:
- Look through LinkedIn
- Look at something like Hoovers (if it’s a big company)
- Look on their management team page
How to find anyone’s email with just their name
Once you find someone at a company, the next step is to actually get their email address. Most people don’t list their emails publicly so this requires some digging.
What I usually like to do is take their name e.g. Bob Smith and use an email address validator tool (like this one) and do a little guess and check.
So if I was trying to find Bob Smith who works at XYZ company I would go to the email validator and try different combinations:
And very often you’ll be able to guess their email after a few tries. Be careful though, some companies have catchall accounts that make any combination valid – so you’ll have to test at least one or two to verify that you’re getting a real result.
There are also other ways to do this:
- Go to their Press page (many company list a press contact, and you can guess their company email format from the press contact’s email)
- Use something like Jigsaw.com
- Call their corporate number and ask to be transferred
If you’re a student take advantage of it
Being a student has certain advantages, and one of them is that fact that people will be more willing to talk to you, and more willing to help you out. Here’s an example cold email that you might send to someone that you want to talk to:
Subject: Hello from Philly!
I’m a student and I’m working on a project.
I know you work in Industry X and I’d love to get some advice. For reasons XYZ I feel like you would be really relevant for the problems I’m thinking about. Are you free to chat on X date next week?
By the way we both went to UPenn.
This is useful because it’s a low pressure way to start talking to people. You don’t even really have to be a student to do this – but in general, asking for advice in the beginning will be much lower stress than doing “cold sales emails.” It’s also more useful when you don’t know anything.
If you use the tactic above, be VERY careful to be honest about it. If you ask someone for advice and then go in and try to sell them they’re going to be angry. And rightfully so.
If you ask someone for advice, mean it. They might buy from you eventually, but remember that you’re still in the process of learning about your product, learning about your market, and learning how to sell. The sales will come eventually if you do enough outreach. Don’t rush it.
Shut up and listen to them
When you’re on a sales call it’s very important to shut up and listen. Most people have a tendency to drone on and on about their product.
Don’t do this. If your call is successful, you’ll have talked way less than your prospect. (That’s advice Nat Turner gave me and it’s golden.)
Here are some questions you might want to ask:
- What’s your organizational focus in the near term? What are your priorities?
- How frequently do you have X problem?
- What’s your process like for buying software?
- Who would be involved in the process?
- How long does it normally take?
- What other software are you currently using?
- What do you do day-to-day?
- What kind of tasks do you do repeatedly?
Keep the chain going
The biggest mistake you can make is letting someone who’s interested get off the phone without clear next steps. You want to know where you’re going before they hang up because people are busy, and unless they’re committed to something they’re unlikely to remember to do anything.
Feel free to ask: “So what are the next steps?”
To be clear, you only have to do the outbound stuff at the beginning
I know that after I publish this article there’s going to be someone in the comments complaining about scale. “Doing this doesn’t scale,” they will say. “It doesn’t apply to a high growth business.”
To be clear, I’m not advocating doing this forever (unless your business model demands it). But I do think it’s vastly more effective than just spending a couple of hundred bucks on Adwords.
Nothing happens until the sale is made
If there’s one thing to take away from this post (practical tips aside) it’s this:
You should admit to yourself that you (probably) don’t know anything about your business. That you (likely) don’t know how to sell, who you’re selling to, or what you’re selling. That your product is inside of a black bag that you can’t look into. And that you should begin to deal with that uncertainty by selling your product anyway.
Something special happens every time you make a sale: a little piece of the product becomes visible. The product is still wrapped in its black bag, but when you make a sale you get to take a peak at it, only for a second.
And you have to pay attention to it, and write it down, and think about it, otherwise you’ll miss it completely.
The more sales you make, the more you’ll understand your product. And finally after about a year you’ll begin to know what it looks like. You’ll know every nook and cranny, every blemish and every beautiful curve. And you’ll know all of this even though you’ve never taken it out of its black bag.
And you won’t find out any of this by haphazardly sending emails to journalists, or posting on forums:
Nothing happens until the sale is made.
The sale is where you start to find the value, it’s where you start to learn how to sell, and it’s where you start to figure out what you’re selling.