Five Reasons Why Selling Is Different at Startups

I hear it all the time. In fact, I used to say it myself: “Selling is selling.” But it’s not. And salespeople that haven’t sold for a startup before usually don’t understand just how different it is. Here are five (though there are likely more) reasons why selling at startups just ain’t the same as it is everywhere else.

  1. Your customer isn’t shopping. Most salespeople need to convince their customers to buy from them and to buy now. At startups, you must first get your customer to buy anything. With innovative, disruptive new products, new markets are often being created. Though your customer might be feeling the pain your technology seeks to solve, they aren’t out looking for your product because they don’t know it exists. Some customers might need to budget funds to purchase a product like yours, but the next budget cycle doesn’t start for months. You must create demand. This is what Mark Suster refers to as The Burning Platform.
  2. Your value proposition is still baking. Most salespeople sell mature products with established pricing, feature sets and easily understood value propositions. I call this “rate card” selling, which is much less challenging than selling a product or proposition that’s still being developed. Startup sellers are learning what messages, product features or pricing resonates with various customer groups. This requires listening more than talking, and looking for cues from your customers on what they want and what they are willing to pay. Startups need problem solvers who understand good marketing as much as they do good selling.
  3. You don’t have an established sales process yet. Because your customer might not be shopping, you’re still figuring out what value proposition resonates with your customers, and you don’t have a clue what the sales cycle is, each sale will be different. Different means that you won’t be able to build a repeatable process necessary to scale efficiently. Good salespeople are as much about creating good process as they are at creating demand. Startup salespeople need to be comfortable building the process as they go.
  4. You have no brand. This seems obvious because it is. I’ve had experience selling for “never-heard-of-them” providers and globally dominant brands. Let’s just say that I got a lot more returned calls when I said I was from Apple than when I said I was from Mobshop. If you’ve only sold for companies with strong brands and established distribution channels, you don’t know what it’s like on the other side.
  5. You have no support resources. Again, this is obvious. But salespeople who’ve come from established companies always talk about how they can roll up their sleeves and fly economy class. The fact is, you’re selling a product that has the input and support of hundreds of lead generation, customer service, product development, market research and communications professionals. At a startup, you may only have yourself and a product person at best.

In another blog on startup sales, Suster adds:

The next mistake people make is to hire people … from Oracle, Microsoft, Salesforce or whatever who have never been at an “unbranded” startup. The skills to be successful at a sales academy company like those listed are very different than those who would work at a startup If they left an “academy” and worked for a startup before coming to you, then they’re probably fine.

Now, once you understand the drivers of your sales process, the cycles of your customers and value proposition of your product (even if you don’t have much of a brand), you will want to unleash the process sellers. These are your churn-and-burn salespeople who are all about efficiency and speed. But until then, you need strategic business developers who can close deals and build process at the same time.