Lesson 1: Even Technical Founders Should Sell Their Own Product


Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak to thousands of SaaS founders and CEOs as an opening day speaker at SaaStr Annual 2018. I had chosen a presentation I called, Building a Winning Sales Culture, and I was really proud of how well it turned out and the number of attendees that were there to hear it.

When I finished the talk, about forty people lined up to ask questions during the meet and greet.

My initial assumption was that they would be interested in translating what I had spoken about into a better culture for their sales teams, but I was caught off guard when several of the questions centered on something totally different: How do I sell my product?

I looked through the brochure for the conference and realized that I was one of only a handful of sales leaders that were invited to speak, that was also leading a company past $50M in ARR. It appears many of the founders had noticed as well, and were prepared to talk sales. I loved it.

Of the forty or so people that I spoke to, about 25 of them were interested in learning how to sell their product as the founders of their startup businesses. As I think back on this, it shouldn’t have been surprising.

As we approach 2019, I personally believe that all founders of startup businesses, technical founders included, owe it to themselves and to their companies to be effective early salespeople.

I’ve outlined four key reasons why now is the perfect time as the founder, to become the first salesperson at your startup business. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to be a better founder, CEO, fundraiser and recruiter – go sell.

If you can sell, several new channels for customer acquisition open up earlier

Today’s founder must embrace the video and audio-centric nature of their prospective buyers and get comfortable with public speaking, being recorded, pitching on video and simply looking comfortable. An easy way to practice for these moments is to sell.

Selling requires that you get out in front of your prospects, whether that’s visiting them in person (recommended early-stage) or jumping on a screen share to walk them through a demo of your software, product or platform.

When you’re selling, you’re telling stories. You’re connecting one-to-one with your audience to talk about their pain and challenges, and how your product or service can help alleviate that pain.

By selling, you will start to learn what does and doesn’t resonate, and how to best weave your story together to maintain customer attention. This storytelling will be the foundation for every interview, every podcast, every keynote that you give during your tenure. If you aren’t constantly in front of these customers telling that story, it will show.

Look up any good CEO and watch their keynotes and interviews. Sure, they all have their elevator pitch memorized, but you’ll also notice that you hear many of the same stories, anecdotes and solution-selling tactics time and time again. These all get built (and iterated on) during the initial phase of your business – when you’re out in front of customers.

If you can sell, you can rapidly onboard your first customers and start learning

Your earliest customers will be the early adopters in your industry and they act and buy differently than most of your future customers will. Early adopters are much like early employees at your business – they are buying your vision. They are buying your dedication to the disruption of something that needs it. Because of this, it’s crucial that you can tell your story and paint the picture of your customer’s industry or profession doing things differently.

These customers will be unlike your 5,000th and 10,000th customers, as they generally aren’t buying a particular feature or a better widget than they are using now. Often, they won’t expect your product or service to change their business in the first week, month or quarter.

They are patient. They often consider themselves entrepreneurs to begin with. They want to be part of the process of iteration and improvement. They are the perfect customers to solicit feedback from and often they will help guide you to a better feature-set that your future customers will actually require for purchase.

It’s difficult to onboard these types of customers with a feature-set comparison or with an outdated sales methodology. You need to be engaging, smart, and visionary. It’s imperative you see them nodding their head in excitement, reading their body language, interacting with your story, and becoming an early part of your team.

Learning to sell, especially through storytelling and painting a positive future, will be key to finding your earliest (and most engaging) customers.

If you can sell, you can hold off new entrants to your market.

Coding and engineering talent is growing faster than ever before. There are about 18.2 million software developers worldwide, a number that is expected to rise to 26.4 million by 2019, a 45% increase, says Evans Data Corp.

With a rapidly rising talent pool, your software platform or product is one smart technical founder away from being copied, expanded upon or just simply done better. How do you separate yourself in a pack that is highly likely to be crowded – especially if you’re seeing early success?

Being able to actively sell the benefits of your product or service is a must as we head into 2019. What is the plan when there is a lower-cost entrant who tells a better story and seems to have the same exact feature set? What happens when a large software company that has never competed with your service, suddenly enters the market with more firepower and a bigger team?

Understanding the story that resonates with your customers will always be a major piece of ammunition you have in helping you stave off competition and maintain market share.

If you can sell, you can build an all-star team that will follow your vision to the very end.

In 2009, I took a bus from Allentown, PA, where I was making good money selling surgical capital equipment, to New York City to interview for a job with a small, nine-person software business. I arrived at the rickety, old HQ in Chinatown, where an older Polish gentlemen took me up on a hand-cranked elevator to the 3rd floor. I remember thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” — this place looks…well…gross.

I sat down for about 2 hours and I met with the original four Executive team members, each one more engaging than the previous. By the time my last interview was about to begin, with founder and CEO, I was feeling really excited. He entered the room and I remember immediately feeling as though I was in the presence of someone special. He had a larger than life demeanor and radiated confidence. He sat down, grilled me for about 30-45 minutes and then, having gotten what he wanted, shifted to telling me about his vision for the business.

I drank it up. I stared wide-eyed as he told me his founder story, talked about transforming healthcare, and solving one of the biggest pain points for patients in the United States – easy access to healthcare providers and appointments. I left the interview more jazzed up than I had ever been in my life. I called my parents, my friends…everyone I knew, to tell them about this incredible opportunity. This is how ALL of your first hires should feel when they are going through your interview process or being onboarded to join the team. It’s crucial.

I worked at that company for nearly five years. I LOVED it. I worked early, worked late, traveled 200 days out of the year — all to help this team see their vision to fruition. I remember looking at the number of people attending the every-Friday company gathering at 5pm, and seeing hundreds of our employees gathered around to listen to this man speak, when most people from other companies were already out having cocktails with their friends.

We recruited some of the most talented people in the country at that startup. I spent every day in awe of the people I had a chance to work with. We did big things, including taking the company to a $1.8B valuation.

See, being a great Salesperson-founder doesn’t just mean that you are great in front of prospective customers and investors. Being a great salesperson means that you can assemble a team of passionate, incredible, loyal followers that share your mission, vision and values.

Learning to sell effectively can be challenging, especially if it doesn’t come naturally to you. The easiest way to get over that is to hit the pavement or phone, and get started.