That was the question I posed to a friend of mine who asked me to help him create application questions for a business competition he was running. The original question he posed was "What is your marketing and sales strategy?" That seems like an appropriate question on the face of it, but generic questions tend to receive generic answers like:

  • Go to trade shows
  • Use Facebook marketing
  • Partner with XYZ distributor
  • Hire salespeople
  • etc.

For one, these are all tactics, not strategies. Two, they all treat sales as if it were some future event. It's not a future event though! Startups live and die by their sales! If your sales strategy is better focused on how you'll acquire your 10,000th customer 5 years from now but does nothing to tell you how you're going to sell 10 people today, you're doing it wrong.

Conventional wisdom teaches us to put our own vision in front of reality instead of the other way around. We think about how Steve Jobs launched the iPhone when no one was expecting it, how "all it takes is a really good idea" to get funded on SharkTank, or how our alma matter taught us it requires a very intricate business plan to be successful. All of these perspectives though do not treat sales as a "now" problem.

When you ask yourself how to sell 10 new customers today, it changes your perspective entirely. You can't answer "Go to a trade show" because what if there aren't any trade shows today? You can't say "partner with a distributor" because you probably won't even have a chance to speak with a decision maker in the organization within 24hrs. You also can't say "hire sales people" because you at most will have time to post a job description. The question forces you to think about the reality of the situation as the founder of a new company. It's fun to sit back and daydream about what your massive success story will look like in 5 years but meanwhile in the real world the only thing that's happening is your bank account is getting that much closer to zero. You need to sell someone on your current product using the current resources at your disposal TODAY.

When you consider the problem from that perspective, defining a target market starts to make a lot more sense. Many entrepreneurs resist that idea because it may "limit their total addressable market". The truth is it doesn't. All you are doing is trying find the low hanging fruit; the path of least resistance to your first 10 customers. If you can't identify: Who the innovators are that have the most dire need and what their buying process is, you're sunk. You'll never acquire those first 10 customers which means the 10,000th customer is just a pipe dream.

To find your first 10 customers, start by creating as specific of a hypothesis as possible of who those people are. What things does a customer do that would signal they're an Innovator? How do you know who has the dire need? Once you have that hypothesis of who these people are:

  1. Figure out how to translate those criteria you came up with into prospecting filters. Honestly this is where much of the creativity lies. How can you leverage the hypothesis that your target customers are orthodontic practices with at least two partners to help create a shortlist of prospects? At this stage the specific you can get the better.
  2. If what you're left with is a list of 100 people or organizations then great! 100 people is a list you should be able to contact in the next 2 days. Now start looking for a couple of marketing campaigns you can run (simultaneously). For example, a campaign may be an outreach email to the decision makers at the organization, or a cold call, or running a LinkedIn ad, etc. Try to run 2-4 campaigns at the same time if you can. It's best to run a variety of seeds, nets, or spears campaigns to start before focusing in on the methods that works best.
  3. Be mindful enough as you start running marketing campaigns to be able to test each one of these filters as an assumption. Even if you find your marketing efforts are working well, they can only be improved if you know which of these filters can be fine tuned. For example, being cognizant of whether targeting customers with 10 employees is performing better than targeting those with 50 employees or vice versa.

From there continue to test, analyze, and iterate. You can only get better at closing sales if you experiment. I recently spoke with a friend who made 1,000's of phone calls before he was able to refine his sales script enough to make it past the gatekeeper on to the decision maker and close the sale on a regular basis. As you refine that sales process you will close your first 10 sales. Importantly, you'll also have developed a data based strategy for how you'll close the next 100.

 

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