There can be a mystery to sales at the earliest stages of a startup. Wise counsel on building a strong sales deck or designing sales onboardingexists, but when it’s just an impassioned founder or salesperson drumming up leads pre-launch, advice is often ambiguous and reduced to flexing a “go get ‘em” attitude. It’s enthusiasm for an idea that’ll engage your early customers, but this isn’t uncharted territory without tested tactics for growth.
With more than a decade of startup sales experience, Whitney Sales' expertise might as well be her last and middle name. Creator of theThe Sales Method, she supports founders who need a seasoned sales executive early on. She’s currently the VP of Sales at TalentIQ, but has been in sales leadership roles across a range of startups. At Wanelo, Sales sealed 200 partnerships — including Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters and Sephora — in just eight weeks. Within a year of leading sales, she helpedSpringAhead rise to #567 on the Inc 5000. At TalentIQ, Sales has generated over $1.3 million in pre-launch sales in under eight months.
If your startup is still building its early sales function or tallying its first deals, it must approach sales differently. According to Sales, early-stage companies need to place more emphasis on their founding narrative, customize their customer stories and integrate both seamlessly into a structured prospect pitch. Here, she deconstructs each area with exercises in a step-by-step, minute-by-minute format. Let’s get started.
No customers? Pull from your beta users. Not yet? Draw from the startup’s origin story. There’s always a seed.
Before diving into creating a use case through a founder or customer story, Sales underlines two key differences around sales for early-stage startups:target customer and company validation. On the former, she says, “The buyer for an early-stage company is going to be different than the one buying established enterprise products from Microsoft, Oracle or GE. As an early-stage company, you’re generally selling to a targeted group of early adopters, founders and entrepreneurially-inclined experts, who can be from small companies or larger, established organizations. You’re looking for people with a very particular mindset. You’re seeking the early adopters, people on the hunt for new, fresh approaches to solving problems in their markets. This mindset comes with a lower barrier to entry, higher threshold of forgiveness and an active feedback loop as your company finds its way. This customer is buying a product because it’s innovative, different and they want to be the first to find and test your product before others do.”
When it comes to company validation, before the sales function of an early-stage startup has product/market fit or paying customers, it has an origin story. “The narrative of how the founders came up with an idea for a product and the feedback they received from their first customers. This narrative is the validation for a company’s and product’s existence and is something every company has. To abandon these stories is to neglect why you decided to build a company in the first place,” says Sales. “The inception of any company is inevitably linked to the challenge the founder first faced and addressed. This part of the narrative is too often forgotten and it’s key to connecting with a customer.”
Go earlier than Steve Jobs in the black turtleneck. Invoke him in the calligraphy class when he realized that fonts were a big deal — and what that meant for the first Apple customers.
HOW TO CONSTRUCT A VALUE-BASED FOUNDER STORY
In the hustle to grow, too often early founders overlook their initial reason for doing so — to Sales, this is a critical mistake. “A lot of the time young companies don't even talk about their founding story; they don't think it's important. They see a sales call as a sales pitch in its classical dramatic interpretation — the Glengarry Glen Ross monologues — and that's not what sales actually is, especially not these days,” says Sales. “It's more involved. It’s about being able to relate to people and the challenges they face on a daily basis. If there is a solid fit for the prospect you’re engaging, they’ll share the challenge you address — that itch you first needed to scratch so badly that you decided to dedicate years of your life to relieve.”
Value-Based Founder Story Template
The following exercise is designed to help tell your origin story and impart common ground with a prospect — and to establish a connection with potential customers through shared pain points. Here’s an example, using Sales’ current company, TalentIQ, as a model:
Our founder, Sean, started his first company in college three years ago. He was looking for an Android developer for an app and sat down with a recruiter to outline what an ideal candidate would look like. The recruiter said she’d get back to him with candidates shortly. Sean soon learned that ‘shortly’ meant ‘ten days.’ By the time the recruiter sent over candidate profiles, Sean had already sourced his own candidate, translating to thousands in lost business for the recruiter.
Knowing recruiters work on commission, he wanted to understand why it had taken so long to send candidates. She showed him her screen, which had 50 tabs open, each representing different aspects of a candidate’s online profile and work history and living in a different system of record. He realized that recruiters are missing one place to go for key, up-to-date candidate information. Investigating further, he learned that this challenge exists for most workflow management tools. None of them track people, they just track activities on people. There wasn’t a simple way to keep a person’s online personal and professional footprint up-to-date in workflow management tools recruiters, salespeople and marketers use everyday. As a result, he developed TalentIQ.
This example can be abstracted to this basic template:
[SUBJECT] [ONCE UPON A TIME], [SITUATION] [CUSTOMER PROBLEM]. [CUSTOMER] and realized [FEATURES OF PROBLEM]. [COST]. [SUBJECT] learned [IDEATION PROCESS]. As a result, [SOLUTION].
Use the following key to create your value-based founder story with the template:
SUBJECT. Who is the main character of the narrative? You, your founder, a friend, colleague or previous employer? Example: Our founder / Sean / He
ONCE UPON A TIME. When did this happen. What was going on at this time? Example: Started his first company in college three years ago.
SITUATION. Set the stage. Describe the scene. Example: He was looking for an Android developer for an app and sat down with a recruiter to outline what an ideal candidate would look like. The recruiter said she’d get back to him with candidates shortly.
CUSTOMER. Describe your target market or characteristics that match your current prospect. Example: The recruiter /She
PROBLEM. Describe the problem. Example: Sean soon learned that ‘shortly’ meant ‘ten days.’
FEATURES OF PROBLEM. Recruiters work on commission, he wanted to know why it’d taken so long. She showed him her screen, which had 50 tabs open, each representing different aspects of a candidate’s online profile and work history - each living in a different system of record. He realized that recruiters are missing one place to go for key, up-to-date candidate information.
COST. How does the problem translate to time or money.Example: By the time the recruiter sent candidate profiles to Sean, he’s already sourced his own candidate, translating to thousands in lost business for the recruiter.
IDEATION PROCESS. Identify the process of understanding what the need is and hypothesis what is need to fix it. Example: Investigating further, he learned that this challenge exists for most workflow management tools. None of them track people, they just track activities on people. There wasn’t a simple way to keep a person’s online personal and professional footprint up-to-date in workflow management tools recruiters, salespeople and marketers use everyday.
SOLUTION. Keep this brief. It is about you, not what you do. Ta-da moment! Example: As a result, he started TalentIQ.