On startup sales: reaching the right people within your customer.. in time

Recently I ran into an issue with sales that I think my startup friends are likely to run into as well. So please pay attention & don’t get hurt like I did.

When selling to large enterprises (who, despite what everyone thinks, still make the world go round) you’ll find that this is complicated business. As noted by grandmaster Marc Andreessen in “The Moby Dick theory of big companies”, what happens on the inside of big companies is very hard to understand. The big company itself may not understand.

Moby dick & friends.

This point is expanded upon further by Ben Horowitz in his seminal piece on why you need very capable salespeople:

As a result of these and other factors, large companies employ complex processes to ensure that major purchases make sense. These processes generally span many different organizations and stakeholders.
(…)
Often these processes are so complex that almost nobody inside the company knows how they work. Excellent enterprise sales reps will guide a company through their own purchasing processes.

So what do I have to add to these excellent words? Frequently when you have invented something, made a new product, created a new service, you find that it is a hit with potential customers. Sales starts. Enthusiasm is great, demos follow. Budget is sought and found. All is looking good, and weeks or even months of progress happens. And then suddenly, no deal. What happened?

What happened was that you hit it off with one department that loved your stuff dearly, and they had a lot of fun with it for weeks or months. And later when the plan went up for higher level decision making, three other departments cried ‘NO WAY’. Because your new thing upset the apple cart, and they were not involved.

As an example, you may have made a new “web store as a service”, and it is so grand the people that run the sales love it to bits. They are already figuring out how much more they will sell with your web store. However, the accountants and technical team were not involved, because they are always so difficult. So no one involved them. And when they finally found out about it, they said no. Often for very legitimate reasons: your webstore may not comply with local tax legislation, or it runs on a platform the company has decided not to use.

So: whenever you pitch your new thing, don’t get lulled into complacency when the people you talk to are super pleased with your offering. Attempt to broaden interest within the customer. You may find that your fanbase says there is no need, or even warns you not to involve other departments. This is a strong sign you should broaden your base rapidly. A reason they may not want interest from other departments is that they might already know this could harm the deal and end the party too soon. But if this is the case, get the pain in early and do it.

It may be that you can make the accounting department happy if at an early stage you commit to implementing the tax reporting they need. It may also be that the technical department becomes a lot happier with you if you say you can deploy on Azure as well. These are simple things to take care of at the right time. But if they found out about these problems during high-level sign-offs, it is too late and you are toast.

So — enjoy the enthusiasm for your product/service/thing within your customer, but do NOT neglect to get buy-in from all other departments that might possibly care, specifically if your fanbase tells you there is no need.

Good luck!