What I say when I “sell”

As Branch’s only non-technical hire, I’m often described as some combination of PR, marketing, content, BD, or sales, depending on who’s doing the talking (or listening).

Of these, sales has the unique honor of being both my least favorite and the one that best describes what I do. While I think sales tactics can be incredibly helpful to startups like Branch, sales people feel completely out of place. The phrase makes engineers recoil and, even for me, conjures images of MBAs and slide decks.

Here’s how I describe my role at Branch: I help grow our user base by finding smart people and talking to them about what we’re building, why we’re building it, and how they can use it.

But that’s a mouthful, and the truth is I’ve acted a lot like a sales person over the last 11 months. I’ve generated a lot of leads, sent a lot of cold emails, and pitched Branch a lot of times.

But even though I act like a sales person, I work hard not to sound like one. People hate getting “the pitch,” so I try to choose my words carefully when I talk about what we’re building. Here’s what I say instead when I “sell” publishers like Frontline PBS and Fast Company and brands like Hyatt on Branch.

1. “Just give it a try.”

As a sales person, it’s easy to be focused on a bottom line. But with a brand new product, you probably don’t have one — or at least you have the freedom to create your own. I chose to make ours very simple: Just give Branch a try. No commitments. No timeline. Just one try.

This lets me do two things. First, I keep my relationships with the people I pitch light and informal. Second, I separate my responsibility (bringing in new users) from the product’s responsibility (retaining users). At an early-stage, product-driven startup, your job probably isn’t to keep people around. It’s to keep people coming through the door. This works double time to grow the user base and help the company test its assumptions about the product.

2. “We want you to experiment.”

In meetings or on phone calls, I’m often asked for a list of “best practices.” Now that we have almost a year of branches behind us, I have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. But last June, I had no idea.

It’s easy to feel pressure to have these learnings on hand. After all, it’s your job to help people understand and have a good experience with your product. And in fact, the first time I was asked for them, I made a few up on the spot. (See also: “Fake it ‘til you make it.”)

But over time, I’ve found that a much better strategy has been to ask people to experiment with what we’re building. I encourage them to push boundaries, to break rules, to hack. This reframes the product’s youth (and fragility) as an asset, and people’s anxiety as creativity.

3. “We’re just 7 people sitting in a room.”

Once you’ve convinced someone to give your new product a try and asked them to experiment with it, it’s important to let them know they won’t be left hanging.

Have you ever spoken to a real human when you’ve had a problem with (or suggestion for) Facebook? How about Google? I bet you haven’t. Use this to your advantage. I often tell people that Branch is just “7 people sitting in a room” because it lets them know that the risk they take when they use our product is offset by seven real humans being there to fix their problems and hear their feedback.

Give out your phone number and email. Ask for feedback. Show that you passed it along to the product team. You’ll be surprised by how much goodwill (and empathy) it builds.

4. “We’re figuring it out as we go along.”

At Branch, we do our best to be honest with ourselves and each other about not having all the answers. Instead, our job is to figure them out.

I try to have this attitude when I talk to people outside the company, too. As a sales person for a startup, it’s easy to frame your company as an answer to a question (“Is Branch the future of online conversation?”) or a solution to a problem (“Are you solving the comment problem?”). But the honest answer isn’t “Yes.” The honest answer is “We could be, with your help.”

Being vulnerable is hard. But for better and worse, startups are all about vulnerability. As it turns out, learning how to ask for help (and being comfortable needing it) is the first step toward getting it.

5. “Thanks for the kind words.”

The night we launched Branch, I set a personal goal: Make sure every person who spread the word about our launch or shared Branch with their friends heard from us — every one. Over the next few days, I sent thousands of tweets, and I was careful to make sure that as many as possible included the phrase “Thanks for the kind words.”

Whether we were thanking an investor, a beta tester, or a random person with 30 followers wasn’t important. It was important that they knew our team was listening and that we appreciated their time. (I picked this up while working in restaurants, where you learn quickly that “thank you” is the great equalizer. Customer, busser, bartender — they should all be thanked early and often.)

Just like in a restaurant, this simple act of gratitude was the first contact we had with some of our own “regulars” — early, active users (and now friends) like Justin, Goldie, and Sean.