Selling For Startups — Pitching

All right so, you built a kick-ass funnel full of great potential through prospecting (stuff you can learn here & here), turn these ‘’suspects’’ into leads taking them through qualification, now you’re ready to drop your pants and get busy: pitching.

The culmination of your business flirting, the Everest of the sales process, the melted Nutella on your vanilla ice cream, is found in that meeting where you get to show your stuff. I fell in love with sales mainly due to the event of presenting material to a customer and seeing the ‘’oooooh’’ & ‘’aaaahhhh’’ once they get what you’re saying. It’s empowering and gives your work a lot of relevance. It makes all the other shit worth the effort.

But not all pitch meetings get that kind of response. Some are blah, and others are cringe-inducing. I’ve done some ‘’America’s Got Talent’’-worthy pitches and other ones where the audience interrupts me and asks ‘’what the hell are you saying?’’…

How do you get to deliver the important stuff, make sure the customer gets it and even more importantly, remembers it? And this, every time? As a startup you have to leave a strong impression, they have to think about you before they go to bed. Depending on the type of product you’re selling, you will be competing with other sales people from bigger companies, the same ones the customer is already spending tons of cash with. This creates a few hurdles:

  • The big brands all say they do what you do. That’s the power of marketing bro, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them from screaming on rooftops their overtly exaggerated list of functionalities.
  • Depending on the dollar value of your product, a competitive tactic the other side has is to include a seemingly equivalent product to yours, at no cost, in the humongous implementation currently in play with the customer. You will see that a lot with companies like SAP, Microsoft, Oracle and IBM. Sometimes these guys have deals that are $100 Million/year. No joke. Then you show up and say “Hey dudes, I’ll change your life for $250K/year”, will make the client wonder 1- if you’re joking 2- How come the incumbent isn’t doing something similar, at no cost.

There is a silver lining though: Hate. Yes, you read that well, hate. This one thing the client harbours for the incumbent’s products, processes, people, support quality, billing issues, failed implementations, exagerated benefits, etc… There are reasons why some startups are successful in the B2B space, my little finger tells me pulling the psychological strings of emotion during the Pitch is one of them.

Here’s how I get there:

1- Read, Read, Read

To awaken the dragon within the client’s reptilian brain, you must know in & out the things that will trigger hate, fear, anger and violence towards the incumbent. Sounds intense? How else are you expecting to win the fight? Because yes, Selling for Startups is literally a dog fight. You will get punched, kicked, bitten, clawed, chewed, … And like Leo in The Revenant, you have to start crawling no matter what.

I read that there are only 3 primal drivers of humans when they encounter something: Should I run away from it (Danger)? Should I eat it? Should I mate with it? Congratulations, you’re still a monkey. What makes you different is your Neocortex. Use it. Reading will give you the edge to know all these triggers as they relate to your audience (each member), the company and the market. Know about:

  • Cash flow issues? Debts? Legal issues?
  • Trade regulations that are pissing them off
  • Are their sales up or down? Why?
  • Their competition, what makes them different, etc..
  • Their customers. Know what they sell, to who and how. Very impactful as this is what your client is thinking about 24/7
  • Product recalls
  • Global trends in technology. For example, Drones are quite haawwwt in agtech right now.


2- Write, Write, Write

I write my entire presentation as if it was a story. This helps you create the different blocks of content in a flow that can be mentally digested by your audience. You’ll be able to see your pitch on paper, making it ‘’a thing’’ that you can mold to your liking. It’s definitely more work but irreplaceable in terms of how confident it’ll make you with your content. It also helps to read it out loud so you can hear yourself and see if you makes sense. This will help you memorize the key points and make you sound a lot more natural. It’s exactly the same as learning a language: you have to use it to be good at it.

Here’s my typical story flow:

Slide 1 Why are we here and/or What do we do: A powerful way to kick-start the presentation. Don’t talk about your history, where you’re from, etc… You’ll have plenty of time for that, and if the client is qualified he’ll know these details already. Stating your company’s purpose up front sets the tone for the rest of the meeting and helps frame the conversation around your capabilities.

Slide 2 (or talking point) What’s your problem: I like reconfirming what brought you there in the first place, which most likely is a pain point or a problem the customer has that you can potentially fix. The conversation is not about you. It’s about them. Yes you’ll spend a lot of time talking about your stuff, but always in the context of how it can affect them. That’s why I highly recommend at least verbally, spelling out the issues you are there to help with.

Slide 3 How we do it: I’ve had plenty of people disagree here, some of them saying that you should state first what the benefits of your product are and how they will impact the customer. Of course, this has to be discussed. However, in my experience, it helps spending a very short amount of time explaining what’s under the hood. Have you ever had a conversation with a 5 year-old about where babies are from? All they care to know is “but how?”. They actually will not listen to anything else AT ALL that you have to say until you tell them, how the hell are babies made. Once explained (I’ll let you figure this one out), then you can talk about the rest. Same same but different in business. You do have to modulate your pitch depending on how technical your audience is, just clear this one out of the way. Some say “it’s not about the technology”, but i beg to differ as it is sometimes exactly this that makes you compelling to your prospect.

This is where I talk about my company, how many people are in it, their profiles, your history and other clients. It’ll bring more credibility to the “how” in your story.

Slide 4 Why should you care: Go ahead and spread the Nutella on the cake and lay out what type of impact/benefits your solution will bring. Always always always tie this up to what they are trying to fix. If it’s operational issues, discuss the increase in performance and decrease in wastes time, if it’s a sales issue, show how you can help them make more money by doing X Y Z. Not all the benefits will be directly tied to their situation, and that’s ok. We call that “gravy”, something extra they maybe didn’t think about that can be a “nice to have” and tilt the balance your way.

In the end you’ll do the same pitch a thousand times, and that’s not even exagerating. It will evolve, you’ll get better at the delivery and the content will be stripped away of all the fluff. My pitch time is 20 mins tops. The rest of the time is spent on the conversation.

3- Practice, Practice, Practice

There is no better way to validate your pitch then by delivering it to another human that is “out of context”. I pitch to my wife once in a while. If she doesn’t understand what the hell I’m saying, I know there’s something I need to modify in my delivery. Let’s also mention she’s completing her Masters in Education, definitely a tough crowd :)

Practicing with colleagues is very helpful. Don’t do that just with the sales team. If you’re reading this, you probably work in a startup and you know everyone in the company by name. Grab one of your engineers, tie them to a seat, take away their phone & their laptop and pitch. See how well you do. First, they’ll destroy all your technical explanations, so you’ll know what to strip away, and also, if you can keep their attention for more than 15mins, you know you got something special, something real special. Not because they are all ADD, but because these folks have other shit to do. Keeping them interested is a feat of the gods, to be rewarded with 70 virgins.

4- Relax

I still get butterflies sometimes when meeting a potentially big client. No shame in confessing that. I do use this as the kick-in-the-ass I need to keep practicing and perfecting the pitch.

But there’s so much you can do. Once you feel very confident in your material, in your knowledge of the industry and in your client’s situation, the only thing left to do is to relax. There are a few ways to facilitate this:

  • Breathing: Go to the bathroom before the meeting, and take 10 deep breaths. Try not to sound like you’re masturbating, you never know who’s taking a dump in the stall besides yours. More oxygen will clear your mind, and doing 10x the same action will put your body in a continuous motion. Not breathing is kryptonite when you’re trying to relax.
  • Stop caring: counter-intuitive I know. But try to think “what’s the worst that can happen here”. Are they going to throw their coffee mug at you? Or are they gonna get all bully on your ass and starting laughing out loud at your presentation, tell you it’s shit? NO! and if they do, they are definitely not people you want to do business with. It’s definitely tough as a sales person carrying a quota to “not care”, but it’s imperative for your confidence. If you have done your work in prospecting, it means you have tons of other companies to chase after this meeting, so if it ends up going nowhere, move on to the next call. It will be fine. Like Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, wrote 2000 years ago: “Is this the condition is so feared?”. It’s not that bad.

Pitching can be a very rewarding and fun experience if you put in the effort up-front. I’ll leave you with this quote:

“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” — Mark Twain