Starting out is hard
Selling is tough! Especially when you’re launching a new product and haven’t got any prior sales experience. Nickelled, our SaaS startup, makes onboarding easy with interactive guides and we’d bought into the “build it and they will come” fairytale. We were wrong – we needed to get out there, fast!
After six months we realised we had a problem. We had several early stage startups (some that were run by friends) using Nickelled and engagement was really high (some of our users were logging in daily and end user feedback was great), but we weren’t making any money. Eighteen months later we’ve done a huge amount of hard work and listening to potential customers and clients are signing up regularly. However, it was a huge learning curve, as you’ll see from some of our tips below.
Get help and find experts
Initially we thought we could work everything out by ourselves; we’re smart guys so how hard could this sales thing be? So we did what had worked in the past and consumed loads of information via books and blogs on sales, which didn’t really fix our problem. It turns out you need practical experience instead of just theoretical – it was time to get our hands dirty.
One of the first things we did was reach out to contacts who had sales experience to discuss our problem and get their feedback. Bo Pedersen (Charlotte Street Capital) and Juliana Crispo (Director of Enterprise Sales at Ghostery) helped us set our initial sales process in place and gave us lots of great advice from how to structure calls with prospects, setting up a pipeline and analysing which prospects we should focus on.
In parallel we hired a couple of great marketing contractors (Gerry Carr and then Nandini Jammie), which helped us to start generating inbound interest in our fledgling product, as well as improving the on site communications so people could understand what we do. We learned a lot working with these experts and they helped us get to where we are today.
So if you’re just starting out with sales, do yourself a favour and run your sales plans past some people who know what they’re doing early, as they may save you six months of pain.
Go out and speak to people
At the start you need to be aggressive and proactive in getting feedback on your product and solution. Unfortunately, getting feedback from friends is unlikely to be reliable since they’re already biased (see https://blog.kissmetrics.com/best-ways-to-get-feedback/ for more details). This means you need to get your product in front of new people and they’re unlikely to walk into your office, so it’s time to get out there and face them.
Our first major client came by speaking at an event. We’d built an early version of our software and demo’d it on stage at an event in London. Someone from the company saw our software and introduced us to senior stakeholders. This was more luck than sales skills, but sales is a contact sport and the more opportunities you create by getting out there, the more chances you’ll have of “getting lucky”.
Since people don’t know the company, try to meet up with prospects in person or at least get them on a call. This is important, since your business won’t have any track record and at the start people are putting their trust in you rather than the business. It’s also easier to understand the problem they’re looking to solve with your product, increasing the chances of building a successful relationship.
Find early adopters and visionaries
When you don’t have any recognised brands on-board you’re going to have to find people that are willing to take a risk on you. This is what the seminal marketing book Crossing the Chasm calls the “innovators and early adopters”. Every industry has them and it’s your job to get in front of them, so think about what they look like. They’re going to be influencers in the industry, people that speak at industry conferences and want to stay at the cutting edge of technology, CEOs of early/growth companies, people that have given testimonials on other similar early stage software sites and businesses running other growth stage software. Because the early adopters tend to be visible in their industry, you might be able to score some bonus points and get them to mention your product at conferences — this has been powerful for Nickelled.
Fortunately, I’ve got some great news as Jason M. Lemkin looks at this in this quora post. He mentions that the risk profile for adopting software has massively shifted – largely due to SaaS. It’s now cheaper and easier than ever for companies to try/pilot software without the historic capex and consulting costs. This, combined with the increasingly competitive operating environment, poses a large risk for established businesses that can’t afford to miss out on disruptive startup technology. Many are actively seeking innovative solutions to get a competitive advantage. This means there’s more early adopters buying early stage software than ever and the chasm is narrowing, allowing companies to grow bigger and faster… woohoo!
Don’t be afraid to ask for money
For us, it felt really awkward and uncouth discussing pricing – this might be a peculiarly British problem, as it’s something I’ve heard from other startups here. The good news is the feeling passed the more people we spoke to and it also got a lot easier once we had pricing on the site for anyone to see.
If your product delivers real value to your clients you shouldn’t be afraid to charge a decent price for it. You should see charging for your product initially as a litmus test on if your product is solving a problem and the magnitude of the problem it’s solving for your client. As my business partner Fraser says “Pricing is only an issue when you’re not delivering enough value”. We’ve seen lots of SaaS companies trying to start out at a $10-$30 per month price point without any funding. This makes growth challenging since there is no marketing/support budget, unless there’s funding to get through the initial capital trough before reaching scale.
When you’re speaking to a potential lead you should attempt to see if they’re BANT qualified which means they have the Budget, Authority, Need and Timeline for a potential deal to make sense. Otherwise save yourself some time….
Put a process in place
Based on the advice from more experienced sales pros, we put a sales process in place which has been critical to reaching the point where we are consistently getting customers. A shared process gives your team the opportunity to hypothesise, test, evaluate and improve how you’re doing sales. So ours was:
- Structured sales demos – the person has agreed to give us some of their precious time, so you should show them the respect of doing your research. You can download our example
- Track your numbers – Make sure you have a way to track how many leads you’re collecting a week, how many demos you’ve given, how many deals you’ve closed and lost. A good CRM/Analytics system will be able to generate this report or track it in a Spreadsheet similar to this
- Move your leads through a pipeline – we’ve been using Pipedrive but you can use Trello or a spreadsheet to get started
- Schedule a weekly call with the team to review and reflect on your sales performance
Putting a process in place gave us a lot more confidence in our sales approach. As Drucker said “what gets measured gets managed”, so you’ll soon start finding ways to improve the process.
Don’t give up
Sales is a lot to do with persistence; getting started is hard but it gets easier with time. Once you have your first few clients you’ll be able to use them as reference customers and talk about how the technology is being used to benefit real businesses.
* Nickelled’s customer numbers over time exported from ChartMogul. Credit card sales only, excludes invoiced customers. Flatlines until we work out our sales process.
Remember that it’s a marathon not a sprint — don’t expect magic in month one. If you’re solving a real problem for people and you put the sales and marketing processes in place you’ll get there.
Nickelled – Simple SaaS Customer Success Software
David Batey is one of the founders of Nickelled, a London based startup which helps SaaS companies onboard customers better. He is a Computer Science graduate from Oxford. Previously he was a lead developer at Shutl (acquired by eBay) and before that a technology consultant at Accenture. He’s been working in web technologies the last 10 years.