A Real-Life Entrepreneurs Guide to Getting Customers Part 1: Direct Sales (how it really happens)
My name is Jonathan Sexton and I have a really cool job. I am the Entrepreneur-In-Residence at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, in Knoxville,Tennessee; a small, but very creative and kick-ass city. My job description is simple: create and grow a business, while helping other entrepreneurs create and grow theirs. But the job itself is far more complex.
Sometimes I wonder why anyone would pay me to do this. Build my own exit? But there is actually tons of value to the people that I serve in being “in the trenches” growing a business. One of those things is being more transparent about what works, what does not, and what I hope to try next. Some people like to keep their business a secret, for obvious reasons, and while I may not disclose everything, I’m going to use this as a platform for sharing as much as I can.
My company is Bandposters. I have 2 co-founders (Mike Fabio and Travis Vignon). We do tour marketing, (specifically, tour posters) for bands and artists. Being a touring band is hard work. Writing, rehearsing, and booking shows is just the start. To have success, people actually have to COME to the shows. That’s the part we like to help with. To learn more about what we do, check out this video.
Musicians don’t always think of themselves as entrepreneurs, but they are. And entrepreneurs are always juggling 200 balls at once: Investors, Hiring, Key Metrics, Revenue, Patents, Marketing, Analytics, Investors, Product, Customer Service, Investors, Taxes, etc. etc.
After launching a few of my own startups and working with hundreds of early stage startups, I’ve come to the conclusion that almost everything listed above is a DISTRACTION from the most important thing a business can focus on. CUSTOMERS. Customers are the reason for the season, no matter what season it is. They make all other aspects either relevant or irrelevant.
There is NO Problem your company has, that more customers wouldn’t fix.
Since the launch of Bandposters, we have attempted a variety of things to get customers, some have worked well. Others have bombed. Others, I still don’t know. The thing is, there is only 24 hours in a day and startups have to make CHOICES about how to spend their time, and it’s hard to know what is or isn’t going to be effective. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but over the next few weeks, I’ll be giving an honest and comprehensive “tell-all” about our customer acquisition strategies over the last 2 years.
Of course it all begins with the most traditional strategy of them all, Direct Sales, which, when faced with the reality of having to do, led to a variety of thoughts and feelings, which I’ve broken out below.
My First Thought:
“What?! You mean I actually have to sell?”
From the start, direct sales felt conflicting because it’s SUPPOSED TO BE A SCALABLE startup. I mean, didn’t Instagram sell the company for 1B dollars with only 12 employees, most of which were coders and not 1 dollar was spent on sales and marketing? I thought having a startup meant NOT having to do sales at all. Boy was I wrong! If you haven’t read Paul Grahams famous “Do Things That Don’t Scale Article” it’s the #1 article you MUST read. In fact, it should be required reading for anyone who gets a business license. Damn. Rock and a hard place. I have to sell.
“But What if they don’t like me?”
Running a Startup often feels like rolling the snowball uphill, and there isn’t much leverage for a startup. When it comes to selling your product. It often feels that you have more to gain than they do, and they are doing you a favor by taking the call or meeting. SCREW that. If you have a good deal, then they need to know about it. You really have to believe that, but it took me awhile to get there. In the beginning, it always felt like getting someone that’s “too busy” for me to take some of their time to tell me I have an ugly baby. In the early days, this was a real stinger; until I learned that nothing in business is personal. The truth is that if you have a product that solves a real problem, then have a reason to talk to “leads” about it. And guess who’s job that is? Yours. The Cavalry is NOT coming. It is your job to tell potential customers about your offering. Get in the game, and matter how it goes, take the feedback and apply it to the next meeting or to the product, anything to move forward.
“Sounds Cool, Let me introduce you Lance in Digital Marketing” (bcc myself)
Even after I admitted to myself I had to go sell, and then got over the fear of being rejected, I still had to get the meetings, which is HARD. Direct Sales takes an incredible amount of time to build relationships, get warm intros, or do massive amounts of cold calling and LinkedIn stalking. If you are a startup selling into a bigger company, sometimes it can take MONTHS — and more than one “sorry, no” — to find the person inside the company that even knows what to do with the service you’re selling. To put it mildly, we’ve become EXPERTS in the “corporate handoff.” Regardless, it’s a necessary evil and it can really pay off big. One of our biggest partnerships took 12 months, almost to the day, from the first meeting to “go live”. We had to be patient. We also couldn’t put all our eggs in that basket. We had to keep pushing and selling to other people as well, because the deal isn’t closed until the check is in the bank.
“OMG, they said yes! ”
It’s not the intent of this blog to derail you from direct sales, rather than to share my experiences with these particular model of customer acquisition. Direct sales are critical, and led to some of our biggest deals and best customers (INgrooves, Kobalt, Moon Taxi, Sturgill Simpson, etc.). I love when they say yes, and also when they come back. Not only that, but some of these bigger marquee customers have been critical to us getting other clients along the way, and WE MADE MONEY…sometimes a lot, or at least more than usual. So, we keep chipping away at it. Most of it was about clearly stating what we do, and figuring out the most likely person to care (inside the company), and being REALLY “respectfully persistent”. No is not No until they say no, assume people are busy, Not blowing you off.
“They Love Me, They Love Me Not”- Take Care of Yourself….and the Customer
Basically, I’m going to give you 2 conflicting points of advice becomes sometimes they are both true. I HAVE over-promised what we can do in order to try and get the sale. I’ve priced too low, promised too quick of a deadline, agreed to foot the bill for integration work, all because that’s what I thought it took to get the deal — and I don’t regret any of it because it got the business up and running and we as a team needed to discover our boundaries and limits. BUT, now that we are more established and those early days are behind us, I ALWAYS think twice before over-promising now. You will always have to do what it takes to get the deal done, but I’ve also learned to have a more realistic understanding of what that means: one week may not be a deal breaker for anyone, that extra $100 probably wouldn’t have mattered to either side, waiting to get everything “perfect” wasn’t necessary — I made those decisions from a place of fear. We do it differently now. We know our limits and what it takes to deliver a high quality customer experience. If someone needs it bigger, better, faster or cheaper than our current product, they can ask, otherwise, we do what we do and we have to be confident in that, and the results that has brought so far.
So what now ? Go Sell More!
This is the beginning. Direct Sales is a difficult but necessary tactic for a young business. Those early customers are the hardest to get for a variety of reasons, but if it was easy, everyone would do it. I image many people out there LOVE sales. I’ve had to learn to love it, but nothing like a few “wins” to get momentum going there.
As necessary as it is, direct sales only scale up so far, and therefore cannot be relied on as a sole tactic for reaching your goals of more customers. We’ll look at some of those in the next chapter, but for now know this: Feel the fear, and do it anyway.