Getting to 100 customers: how being in the field helped us build a better app

Three tips for selling a Slack app as an engineer

“Don’t Panic.”

That’s the catchphrase of one of my favorite books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and what I kept telling myself after one of our first customers officially churned.

Managing your own psychology is a founder’s most important skill. This setback was a test for me, especially since my background lies in engineering, rather than sales.

About three months before this, I laid my trusty editor aside in favor of a new set of tools: a phone, headset, and notebook. With my new weapons in hand and on head, I conquered my inner introvert and did about 150 phone demos. Yes, talking to real humans. Those calls netted us our first 50 customers. Losing one of those hard-earned customers was painful.

From engineer to founder: a view into my demo-packed schedule

In most companies when a customer churns, it’s usually no big deal. Engineers build the product, then salespeople sell it. The feedback loop never gets closed for either team.

A startup is different. And as a technical-CEO (who coded up half the product), I was now experiencing this panic up-close and personal as our lone salesperson. My own blood, sweat, and tears had gone into building Tettra, our knowledge sharing tool, and convincing this customer to buy it. Only months later, they deemed it no good. This stung.

As an engineer, selling was a whole different beast. But the array of lessons I learned and new skills I leveled up from that adventure proved to be invaluable for my startup.

Tip 1: Send engineers into the field

There are obviously compelling financial reasons to do sales, so it’s probably easy to justify putting the coding on hold and picking up the phone to do demos yourself. But there are qualitative benefits to having an engineering-mind do sales as well.

Not only does it allow your company to run lean, but it gives you rich feedback to use when building your product. When done right, every sales call is essentially a customer interview. You get insight into your customers’ needs, pain points, and mindsets. You internalize those viewpoints in a new, meaningful way. Do enough sales calls, and obvious patterns will emerge about your prospects problems that you’ll be able to solve with elegant, product-driven solutions.

We also gained a new appreciation for our users’ struggles when using our product. Because I personally sold each customer, when they ran into an issue with Tettra they’d reach out directly to me. That upfront personal touch meant we’d get tons of feedback as we built our early versions of the product. In the early days of a startup, feedback is like oxygen.

Unfortunately, witnessing customer pain points felt nearly as hard as that first churned account, especially when we caused that pain. In the early days, we had a few nasty bugs that could wipe out hours of people’s work. No longer could I brush this off as a typical engineer might with the casual response, “yeah, that’s a bug; we know; we’ll fix it.” When you’re managing the relationship from end-to-end and can match a real person you know with a tough support ticket, that feels especially bad.

The good news is that this closeness fostered a new level of empathy with our customers, and that empathy further motivated us to delight them with every single experience in the product. It forces an engineer like me to build the best product possible and pay attention to every detail because if we don’t, I’ll hear about it.

This obsession with detail became a valuable weapon for us. A great product (nay, even a near-perfect product) is table stakes in this day and age; once you piss someone off, you’re likely never getting them back, and your brand is tarnished forever. We knew from talking to so many people that if we focus on the details, and the big picture would fall into place over time.

One key sales lesson I learned is that asking open-ended questions often yields surprising feedback. Some of the questions I asked often included:

  • “So, what made you interested in our product enough to reach out for a demo?”
  • “What problems are you experiencing with sharing knowledge among your team?”
  • “That’s an interesting feature you mention needing; can you tell me more about your use case and why that feature would be helpful?”

Let the person talk as much as they want, and don’t be afraid to ask clarifying questions. A good rule of thumb is to just shut up and listen. It might seem while doing sales, but the prospect should be talking more than you.

Remember, the goal in the early days is to get input, not to solve for the customer immediately or convince them to buy. That feedback will pay dividends in the long run, in terms of your knowledge of customer needs and pain points to ensure you’re making something people want.

Takeaway: Encourage your engineers to speak with at least one customer each week. In the early days with your company or product, you probably don’t have money to throw at comprehensive user research that you can later share with product and engineering. Having the people on your team who are building the product talking directly to users will allow them to gain empathy for your customers’ problems firsthand. Underscore the value of open-ended questions, and document the feedback you get, so everyone can learn from conversations with prospects.

Tip 2: Accept that not every customer cares about every feature

When you have a hand in writing the code for every single feature, it’s easy to think each one is super important, since you’re the one actually building them.

What I learned after speaking with so many customers is that people have very specific needs. And that’s ok. So what if they don’t use the feature I personally care about most? This is why it’s important to ask what problems the customer is trying to solve and who they are from the start, then tailor the pitch around their needs. After letting the customer give more context on the problem, I learned to frame the conversation to focus on the features that best fit their needs. If they were sick of hard-to-use wikis, I’d focus on our easy-to-use editor. If they had lots of Google Docs they wanted to organize, I’d make sure to show off our import function that carries over formatting. Or if their team were big Slack users, I’d focus on our Slack integration.

Doing so many calls and getting instant feedback started to surface patterns around what parts of our value proposition resonated most for whom. We started to notice patterns in how people described their pain points and which features they cared about most. We then rejiggered our product and marketing to focus on those, and tried to focus our entire company around a few core use cases. Resources are limited in a startup and it’s important to know where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck.

Furthermore, these patterns help inform how the product should be priced. The fact that not everyone cares about all the features can be an asset, not a liability. By identifying trends about who values what, you can create pricing tiers with different feature sets, thus making it easier to charge people for what they truly value.

Doing sales demos helps you pinpoint the customer personas that are a fit for what you’re building. And these conversations become touchstones you can return to when making a decision about where to build next or how to improve your pricing tiers.

Takeaway: Recognize that different kinds of customers need different features. Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach, hoping to convince every person that they need everything. Instead, document the trends you’re seeing, in terms of which personas value which features. Longer-term, use this data to inform your pricing strategy.

Tip 3: You can sell earlier than you think

Being listed in the Slack App Directory, especially early, was really useful. We captured inbound demand and had steady volume, even before we had the right sales systems in place. Turns out we didn’t need most of the tools and systems that people said we would. All we needed was a good close.

At the end of every call, I’d use a closing script that started with something like, “so James, given what I showed you today, is there any reason why you couldn’t use Tettra to help you share knowledge better on your team?” The answer was pretty much always, “Nope, the product seems great!” At that point, I’d say “great, so would you like to sign up today then? All we need is a credit card for your first payment and you’ll be good to go.” Don’t shy away from asking for the sale.

We didn’t have a billing system, so I handled the sale manually. I’d turn off the call recording and ask for the credit card details over the phone then put them directly into Stripe myself. No one complained about the manual approach or felt weird giving us their credit card on the phone. After all, I’d just spent 30 minutes on a demo with them, building trust.

Our beta program was similarly manual. We told people they needed to access a special invite system. When I promised to “provision their account” after a successful sales call, this really meant I would send them an email template, thanking them for signing up with a link to the beta app url. In reality, anyone could have signed up for access using this link. But it worked fine, and this scrappy approach allowed us to focus our effort on building a great Slack integration instead of fine tuning our business processes.

Our processes were manual at first, including the sign-up flow via email

Lean into the sale, even if you don’t have the perfect systems in place yet. You can often “fake it until you make it” and do things manually. Though this labor-intensive approach won’t scale easily, it’s a good way to jump-start your revenue stream and validate people are actually willing to pay for what you’re building.

Takeaway: Focus on getting the sale, even if you don’t have the perfect systems in place yet. If you’re doing demos, actually ask for the sale before getting off the call. Take a credit card number immediately when the opportunity presents itself, even if it’s just to hold a spot in the upcoming beta. This scrappy approach will not only boost your revenue, but it also allows you to validate that your product is worth paying for as soon as possible.

Getting close to the customer is an investment

By ignoring engineering for a while, I gained insight that shaped my thinking on Tettra for years to come. Every single conversation informed the product roadmap in some way. Every customer objection represented an opportunity to build something great in the future. You have to chip away at each objection as you build, addressing them in the product and the sales process.

I tried to document as many of the conversations as possible, so that the entire team could gain knowledge from them. I recorded each call with permission, had a notes template, and shared all that in Tettra, of course. As we grew the team, these documented sales conversations allowed us to move faster together and have become a key part of new employee onboarding. The time I spent with customers was an investment in myself and my knowledge, but it was also an investment in the future team.

It takes time, and often, willpower to walk away from the area that you know best. But the time I spent with customers has made us a stronger product and a stronger company. It’s part of the reason why “Talk to Customers” is number one on our list of company directives. At Tettra, we’re believers that the best way to run a high functioning organization is to arm people with the right knowledge. And what better knowledge to share than the drivers that make people want to buy what you’ve built?

So even if you’re just getting started building something for the Slack App Directory, keep the following best practices in mind:

  1. Send your engineers into the field. It’s the fastest way to get every one aligned on making sure you’re building the right product for your early customers. This feedback loop between what you’re building and how it’s perceived will pay off for years to come.
  2. Don’t assume that every customer wants every feature you offer. Listen carefully to what a prospect needs and adapt your pitch to their specific situation. Use this information to fine-tune your pricing strategy, so that you’re aligning cost with the features that a specific person wants.
  3. Don’t wait to sell. Don’t wait until you have the perfect process in place, or even a product, and don’t wait until the prospect asks you to buy. Instead, do things manually if you need to, and make sure you actually ask for the sale when you have a prospect’s attention.

Get our demo notes template that we used to easily document and share the feedback we got from customers and prospects with our entire team.