6 Lessons Learned Using Preselling To Guide Product Development

This post originally appeared on the Troops’ blog.

A lot of very smart people believe early stage startups are more poised to succeed if they have a very product-heavy team comprised of engineers and designers…

Given the increasing importance of having an excellent product and customer success, this makes a lot of sense.

Having this DNA at the start can be incredibly valuable. But it also can be really dangerous if the core team cannot do critical things external to building product like validating and iterating upon assumptions by talking to the people you’re building for.

If you’re building a B2B product, the path to validation requires getting in front of a lot of customers and convincing them to do things that will validate whether or not you should build a product. Quickly.

Validation can mean anything from signing a pilot contract in order to help you build a Proof of Concept (POC) or using your Minimal Viable Product (MVP).

To date, one of the biggest advantages for Troops is the speed at which we can get in front of our market and learn.

This has helped us determine two critical things during initial phases of a startup:

  1. Are we building something that creates value in the marketplace and for our customers?
  2. Does the sequence of our product roadmap create the most leverage for the company based on how we think we can corner & win the market? (Happy customers is implied in this “leverage” equation)

Though most of this post is about the “early days,” these questions need to be reiterated throughout the lifetime of the company. Product sequencing is everything.

Tactically, trying to determine these things before over-investing in product development equates to preselling. Depending how you define it, this can range from things that feel more like customer development to getting contracts to fund development.

At Troops, preselling has primarily been pitching powerpoint decks of products and functionality that didn’t yet exist. The first 4–5 months of the business was me and one of my co-founders sitting in a small room presenting decks of products that were “in development” to see if people were even interested.

Our process looked like the following:

  1. Formulate a hypothesis for a product (or feature)
  2. Find a few potential customers to talk to and convince them to take a meeting
  3. Probe them on their pains/challenges
  4. If congruent with thesis, propose showing them a product we were building in a subsequent meeting (*or immediately after if you already have your deck ready to go with a solution that aligns with their pain.)
  5. Mock up or create a deck displaying a solution
  6. Get initial potential customers feedback on the solution
  7. Iterate on your proposed solution (deck) based on feedback
  8. Get it in front of more potential customers
  9. Push for skin in the game like a contract or pilot rollout
We probably talked to 200+ potential customers and changed our “product” 30+ times…all of this was done in a relatively short time, before a line of code was written. [Click to tweet!]

Below is a folder full of old sales decks before we ever had a product. Preselling to anyone who would talk to us while downing lemon flavored Seltzers was pretty much all we did.

We eventually got a few customers in pilot contracts prior any product delivered which helped us obtain our initial seed financing.

Preselling in some form does not and should not stop even as you actually have product in market. The fastest and leanest way to discern if you’re building the right thing, in the right order, is to presell new features and functionality before you build them.

In a paradoxical way, your ability to do sales or customer development then distill that down to real product quickly can create the most leverage for your business.

I’ve seen a lot of early teams spend way too long building product before talking to customers or giving them something basic to play with. They spend months building things no one cares about because they don’t know how to get in front of people or their natural proclivities are to build things instead of face the music about whether they’re building the right thing.

This is why I think it’s important for someone on an early team to be able to get in front of a lot of customers fast 🚀

For the remainder of this post, I’m going to assume that you’re able to get in front of customers early and share some important lessons we’ve learned selling ahead of product. These tips blur the lines of customer development, product, & sales. If you’re trying to start a product driven company, prioritizing these lessons early may save you some time…so I urge you to read on : )

1. Define A Number Of People/Customers to Validate

Whether we’re talking about validating a market or a new feature, you need to put some constraints on your evaluation so you know when to make a decision.

For Troops this number has been 30 customers.

Pre-product, the number 30 originally meant pitching 30 potential customers a concept. When we got an MVP with some basic functionality, this evolved to rolling out this new product experiment to 30 companies.

We became more rigorous around this process after hearing Michael Sippey, the former VP of Product at Twitter, speak about the importance of “Getting In The Van” to talk with customers at last year’s First Round CEO summit.

I cannot stress enough how helpful having a simple number to be our compass for making decisions has been.

2. Create A Consistent Feedback Template

Ideally you want to have your qualitative customer feedback set up in a way that you can make data driven decisions.

“65% of customers said the ability to schedule and pull reports was their number one feature requests.”

To facilitate this you need to create a template or standard set of questions that you can use. Your questions should facilitate a set of standards you can use to gauge the scope all the disparate feedback you’re getting i.e. company size, and customer role.

In the beginning we were just taking copious notes on what people were saying…especially when people liked stuff 😱

The lack of structure made it hard to put a framework and weight around all the things we were hearing, which is why starting off with something consistent is so helpful.

Today we use a standard Evernote template for every customer facing call which is then shared with the whole team in a Slack channel.

Click Here For Our Customer Note Taking Template!

Which brings me to my next point…

3. Distribute Feedback In A Way People Will Actually Read

When we started to put more rigor around early customer conversations, I shared everyone on my Evernote notebook.

I’d review the patterns I was seeing each week during our Monday morning weekly war room as well as make everything available to the entire team.

“If you guys want to see all the notes, they’re all in Evernote.”

Despite the fact that massive decisions about our business were being made from the contents of these notes, I had no idea if people were actually looking or not.

I can’t pinpoint why I tried this, but one day I noticed this feature in Slack called “Slack Posts.” I thought it looked cool, so I created a new channel called #sales_calls_reports and started transferring notes from my Evernote into the channel to share with everyone.

Immediately, everyone reacted with excitement indicating how helpful seeing the notes were…

“GUYS, you’ve had access to these in Evernote the whole time!”

Surprise, surprise…turns out people don’t want to log into yet another system.

By transferring these into a place that people were already hanging out, everyone was much more aligned on what users wanted real-time which helped us move faster.

4. Set Expectations and Be Transparent

It can be really easy when you’re pre-selling to promise the world.

“Oh yeah, we can definitely do that.”
“It’ll be ready in about a week.”

The more you do this, the more likely you put yourself in a potential hole with that customer down the road.

When preselling, one easy way to avoid this is just create a hard and fast script that you get comfortable with when presenting stuff that isn’t built. You can do the same for your rebuttals of commonly asked questions that might induce embellishment.

To kick off these calls I often use a statement like this:

“My agenda for the call today is to show you what we have, but also get your take on a few things we’re considering building very soon. If it makes sense, I’d love to go back to my product team prioritize the stuff that is going to be most valuable to your team…in order to do that it’d be helpful understand a few things….”

At this point, the expectation has been set that part of my demonstration is going to be things that are not built yet.

I then have similar go to’s for questions like:

When will this be ready?
How much will this cost?
Will it have X functionality?

Having stock answers that you feel comfortable with around things you’re still defining makes it much easier to avoid over promising and misaligning expectations.

5. Create Clickable POCs Over Decks As Soon As You Can

One lesson that has been huge for us is the difference between a clickable proof of concept demo and deck that displays the same exact functionality.

A great sign that you’re on the right track with your product is when you see a customer’s eyes light up after showing them something. At Troops, we call these “magic moments.”

Though possible, it’s much harder to create a magic moment with a powerpoint deck. The conversation around value creation ends up being much more theoretical based on the conceptual nature of a deck vs. something that looks and feels like a real product. This is why clickable POCs can be so valuable.

Here’s a few other reasons clickable POC’s are better than decks:

  • You’ll get much more pointed UX feedback
  • You can create gifs of the POC in action which you can send in outbound emails to get meetings and gauge interest in a lower friction way then a demo
  • POCs can be leveraged for other types of “sales” like investors and even people you’re recruiting that need to be vision sold

There are a ton of great tools out there like InVision that make creating these easier than ever.

6. Tag Feedback So You Can Go Back To Companies And Make Them Feel Special

One cool thing about selling ahead of product is that there is a massive opportunity to make the people you’re chatting with feel special.

Again, usually the reason you’re preselling is to help answer the question should you actually build a certain product or functionality? And if so, what is the sequencing of that product development?

Your notes from these conversations should not only help inform this, but also serve as ammunition to make those customers who helped shape that product feel special when it’s ready.

Every single time you release a feature, you want to follow up with each person who said that it was important in order to let them know that they helped bring this part of the product to life.

“We heard you last time we talked which is why we moved this up in the queue.”

Users and prospective customers love hearing this type of thing. This is one tactic to create those early product evangelists 🙌

We’re getting better at this now than we used to be. The key is to have organized system that makes it easy for you to retroactively identify who amongst your conversations wanted which features.

In my notes template, I have a section called “top 3 feature requests.” When we release something, I search this section across all my notes and go back to those companies letting them know that we heard them.

Where Do We Go From Here

There are a whole host of things we probably missed, but these lessons are things we wish we knew earlier in the process…AND they will continue to be part of our process as we move forward.

If I had to give advice to someone starting a company today it’d be:

Make sure you have someone who can get in front of customers quickly to validate your ideas and create process so that you can extract as much value from those conversations to drive product.

The lessons above are a good start, but I am sure there are many things that people do which are even better! What systems and processes have you put in place for customer development and pre-selling? Let us know in the comments on the Troops’ blog!