Category Archives: Sales

How to use “forcing function” events to buy time on your side as a sales person

Some VC’s are known to ask the question “Why is now the best time for your idea / startup / venture to succeed”?

That question is indicative of the key underlying themes of successful venture funded companies – they have to grow extremely fast in a very short period of time (3-5 years), unlike other businesses which take 7-10 years. That helps drive valuations of early stage startups higher quickly and soon.

The question also forces you to think about why a customer would buy or pay or use your product now, versus stall and not have a large reason to buy.

This is what most of us in sales call a “compelling event“. A compelling event is a forcing function that has a hard date for your customer to buy by.

If your customer does not buy from you by that day, really bad things happen – for example Sarbanes Oxley law required you to report certain items of your company or you would face stiff fines. Or your customer has an upcoming product launch within the next 2 months and they need to get a logo, website and social presences up and running.

There are some natural forcing functions, such as year end, quarter end, new product launches, regulatory deadlines, obsolescence of an existing solution or their current vendor withdrawing support for their current product.

In many cases, customers dont have forcing functions. They may not have them because the problem you are trying to solve is not a visible pain for them. It may be latent, so they dont even know that if they solve this problem they will benefit otherwise.

So, if your customer does not have a compelling event, or forcing function, can one be created?

Here are 3 techniques that I have used to create a forcing function:

1. Create competition by the date: This works best when you are trying to raise money, sell your startup or when you have something to sell that is produced in limited quantities. For example, if you have an event space or a training event and there are limited seats, you can let your customer know that their competitors might get the product which leaves them behind.

When does it backfire? When you truly have no competitors lined up, and claim to have them, and your customer calls your buff, you are left without a deal and an artificial deadline that passed. You leave the opportunity with no deal and also a customer who knows you are now possibly desperate.

2. Show the paucity of resources: This works best when you are selling consulting or services. If a client is taking too long to let you know if they can start a services engagement, some sales people let them know that the resources they want will no longer be available if the customer does not make a decision by a certain date.

When does it backfire? When the customer believes that resources and people are “replaceable” and so they can make do with any resource not just the person they want on the project.

3. Offer time-bound discounts: This is the most used and abused technique by software sales people. Offering a discount by end of the month or quarter (or any other time they are measured) helps the customer understand that if they dont sign up by that period, the offer is no longer valid and the negotiation process and sales process begins again.

When does it backfire? In most cases. Truly. This is what happens, when most sales people try to set discounts by their defined time schedule. The deadline passes, the customer does not buy and the sales person sets a new artificial deadline. Meaning, the discount is now valid for the next quarter, month or week.

Forcing functions or compelling events are rare. So if you have one at your disposal, use them to the fullest. Else, find another way to get time on your side, since the customer has the money.

How to get channel sales or indirect sales going for your startup?

When I talk to entrepreneurs who are developers and they don’t have a hustler (sales person) on board, they ask me if they should outsource their sales function. I usually advice them never to outsource startup sales efforts. They then look to find partners who they can work with. The main reason they want to do this is because they find the entire process of hiring, managing and growing their sales team revolting.

Some of them talk about possible “channel” sales efforts via partners or larger companies in their domain who can help, who they would like to approach.

When I tell them about the potential costs, commissions and the customer relationship efforts that are involved, they take a second look at their direct sales efforts. I thought I’d document that for many of the other entrepreneurs who have the same question.

There are 5 models of partnerships I have encountered so far in my career. I will outline these models and list their pros and cons. While I cant say which model will work for you, and there may be other models as well, I think understanding the landscape will help you figure out which one makes sense in your situation.

First off, most channel or indirect sales models assume that the partner has an existing relationship with the startup’s customer. After all you are trying to shorten your sales cycle by using the partner’s strength.

Lets now look at these different models.

1. Co selling partnerships: These agreements tend to have a low to medium level of commitment from both the partner and the startup. If a sales person from the partner is going to meet the client, and are in active discussions on a deal and they feel like bringing your solution will help them win the opportunity, they will look at trying to position your product as well. In this case, you will have to go on the sales call with the sales person at the partner. The advantage of this partnership is that you typically dont have to do the initial “opening of the doors”. The “paper” or contract is typically separate as well. This means there will be 2 separate agreements for the customer to sign.

Pros: Since there is no commitment (most times) from both parties towards a quota or target, the discount you offer to the partner is low (typically starts at 20% and can go up to 30%). Also, since you can have a direct relationship with the customer, you can control the relationship going forward. Be sure to ensure that there are lower levels of “pass through” revenue you have to pay to the partner after year one.

Cons: There is no commitment to sell by the partner so you cant quite depend on this channel to deliver consistently. The customer also tends to get confused about the single person who will responsible for their success (the bad term usually used is one throat to choke).

2. Reseller agreements (sometimes called VAR or Value Added Resellers) : This partnership is medium to higher level of commitment. The partner will either resell your product on their paper or include your “quote” in their contract. You will hence have to train and manage their sales professionals.

Pros: There is a quota commitment in most cases, so you can be sure that sales people are motivated to sell, but you want to be sure that there are some downsides if they dont hit the commitments, else all this is a co selling agreement structured on the partner’s paper.

Cons: Since there are commitments, you will pay a much higher commission % – typically 40 – 60% are standard. Some partners may ask you for more. You will still have to train and do the lead generation to bring their sales folks into deals. Typically when you sign an agreement, even if you bring the partner into a new customer, they might ask you for the commission that they technically dont deserve.

3. OEM associations: When your product (or module) becomes part of another product and is integrated in such a way as to cause sales of your product each time the other product is sold, have an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) association. These are typically for run time modules of developer products or a contact management product within a CRM system as an example.

Pros: Since your product is part of another product, you will typically be sold each time the other product is sold. In most cases this guarantees revenues and commits the partner to certain revenue goals.

Cons: Since your product is part of a module, you dont have the end customer relationship. Most OEM products also tend to generate smaller % of sales. Don’t be surprised if the final product is sold by the partner for a significantly more cost that what they pay you. Typically I have seen 10% of the final cost of the product paid out to the module.

There are 2 other models that I dont have much experience with, so I will let you give you an overview and try and address them in a future post.

4. Certified agent alliances: These are loose agency models (typical in affiliate sales) where the solo sales person who maybe has a few clients will try and sell for you. Since you have to recruit and manage each sales person yourself, these will be hard to scale. The only advantage is that the sales person is not an employees, so their base salary costs dont hit your books. This also means they are less committed to your product.

5. Distributor agreements: When your product is sold in a different geography where you need a local partner to stock (for hardware) or help educate local re-sellers, then distributors can help you with education, local tax and integration and identifying resellers. They can help you navigate a local market, but since they stock and manage multiple products for that region, getting their attention to focus on your product tends to be rather hard.

Startup Channel Sales
Channel partnership Framework

If you liked this post, please follow me on Twitter and say hi. I will follow folks who comment or tweet back usually.

How to move from “selling through my network” to “building a sales process”? #entrepreneurSales

Most every entrepreneur does things initially that don’t scale, and that’s okay to start. Pretty soon they realize that the things that made them successful enough to get initial sales and customers wont work for them to reach the next level at their startup.

One of the most frustrating things for the entrepreneur is when they run out of folks “in the network” who they can sell to. After having sold to their ex colleagues, friends, etc., their network dries up. No longer is it possible to sell via the network to sustain the growth.

That’s when they realize they have to build a sustainable sales process and organization to grow the business and increase revenues.

They then encounter 3 most frustrating things as they try to recruit sales people, define the sales process and grow their sales muscle.

1. How to hire the right sales people who are motivated by commissions alone? 

First, realize that the market tends to be fairly well balanced. It follows consistent demand and supply constraints. Most good sales people have many folks chasing them to work in their company, similar to good engineers. If you wont expect an engineer to work for stock options alone, then expecting a sales person to work for commission alone is something you should be able to relate to.

The problem I hear from many entrepreneurs is that they are unable to determine if the sales person would actually close any deals, so they are unwilling to make a commitment to the sales person. Well, that’s the chicken and egg problem for sure, which means that person who’s more in demand will not make the compromises. Most likely, you the entrepreneur will end up finding some small amount of money to pay as base salary to give the sales person a start to get going. The best sales people are smart about risk and reward. If they see the opportunity to make more money by forgoing their base salary but get a much higher commission, they will.

2. How do they share the details of the “sales process” that they have perfected with the nuances that make the new sales people successful quickly?

As an entrepreneur and the initial sales person, you understand the sales process for your product the best. You have likely sold to many potential prospects and have addressed many objections and handled the toughest questions. So, it is best for you to detail the steps of your sales process to on-board the new sales person. It is best if you do it in a 2 step method.

a) First you can tell – take the sales person through the steps in your sales process via examples. How you sold to the first 5 prospects is more important than how the ideal sales should happen. Take them through the detailed steps in the number of meetings, the different people you met and what questions came up at each stage.

b) Follow this up by showing them – go on the first 5-10 sales calls together so they can learn from your initial pitch, the questions, etc. Show them how you demo, how to position the product, handle pricing questions etc. This also helps you build a bond with the sales person so they can be honest with you later when it comes time to ask the difficult questions.

3. How can they determine if the sales person is on the right track?

Initially you have to be on all / most of the sales calls after you hire a new sales person. Hopefully you have hired someone ambitious and mature, so they will be able to then build a sales organization for you instead of you having to hire a new VP of sales above them. The Tell and Show approach works best for sales people, is my experience.

Use this time to determine and evaluate the sales person – are they able to build relationships with the prospects? Are they able to handle questions effectively? Are they following through on their commitments? Are they able to keep activity level high consistently?

The other thing you should do is to take your average sale cycle time – lets say that is 8 weeks from introduction to close. Double that and evaluate the sales persons ability to close deals in that time period. The reason is that the first cycle time is usually the period of extreme learning. It is rare to get a sales person that will shorten the sales cycle right away unless they come with connections in the industry who have the problem you set out to solve.

Should I pay my sales commission on bookings, revenue or margin?

Yesterday I was at Chicago running a workshop for TechStars alumni (about 12 companies) on SaaS sales. The companies were largely B2B, selling to mid-sized or larger organizations. Most were trying to go beyond the founder being the primary sales person and were getting ready to build out their sales team. One or two of them even had a couple of sales people on board.

The section of sales compensation generated the most questions. Obviously most of the entrepreneurs were founders who did not have a background in sales, so they were curious as to why it was so complicated. Most were used to paying out salary + bonus or more likely salary + stock options for their engineering staff.

Sales compensation does not have to be complicated, but it can be made to appear so. Obviously it starts out fairly simple – most sales people like cash and are motivated by cash more than anything else. Entrepreneurs should like sales people that are motivated by making as much short term money as possible.

On Target Earnings (OTE) is the term we use for total compensation for sales people. OTE comprises of Base salary (fixed, paid monthly or every other week), which is typically between 40-60% of the OTE and Commission, which is variable making up the remaining amount. Sometimes a bonus is added to the mix to achieve certain objectives the company has – for example, an objective that is important, but does not generate revenue – getting reference customers or supporting a marketing program.

OTE = Base Salary + Commission (+) Optional Bonus

The question, specifically was about when and at what conditions is the commission paid?

1. Early in enterprise software, most companies paid commissions on bookings. When the purchase order has been signed by the customer, the sales person gets paid. That’s usually good for perpetual license deals, where the customer pays an upfront fee for the software and amortizes it over the life of the usage. Since most customers who could afford this were large, the possibility of them defaulting the payment was rare, so it made sense. Most large enterprise software companies did this.

2. Thanks to monthly recurring revenue (sometimes billed and recognized monthly and other times billed annually and still other times billed for 2/3 years), most SaaS companies started to pay commissions on recognized revenue. This aligned the interests of the company with the sales person.

3. Still other companies actually only paid out commissions on income. That is when the money hit the bank. This ensured that the sales person would ensure the customer would actually pay the money, but then puts the sales person in a position to be responsible for some non-revenue generating tasks.

4. Some companies pay out commissions on contribution margin achievement. So, software (high margin) would get X% margins, but services (lower margin) would get less than software margins. VSOE regulations prohibit vendors for arbitrarily charging different customers, different prices (or inconsistent price discrimination as it was known) so this practice is rarely followed.

5. Finally some startups pay their commissions on implementation. This is typical in companies where there is a lot of services to get a customer up and running. Typically, if a customer takes 3-4 (or longer) months to get the software working thanks to customization, then most companies would prefer to pay their sales people after the customer has successfully implemented.

Regardless of when you choose to pay your commissions to your sales reps, the method cant change as often as you’d wish, since it confuses sales people and creates a lot of angst.

I would stick to one method and keep it consistent. Realize though, that the later you choose to pay the commission (closer to implementation) the more time the sales person spends on non new sales opportunity related tasks. The earlier you choose to pay the commission the less the incentive for the sales person to see the customer be successful.

How to B2B is morphing into B2A, B2D, B2M

From the broadly 2 types of companies, those that focus on consumers (B2C) and those that focus on businesses / enterprises (B2B) there is an explosion of new types. While most of the new types are still a subset of B2B or B2C, the increasing sub segmentation of B2B is creating multiple niches among those trying to sell to the “enterprise”.

The problems with B2B are fairly well documented – Long & slow sales cycles, multiple decision makers with largely different agendas (procurement wants it cheap, CIO wants it to fit into their technology stack and end users want it to be usable).

There are a 2 very interesting articles over the weekend from Dave McClure and Christina Cordova  which document the changed landscape in B2C. What I am seeing among our startups in the Accelerator is consistent with what Christina mentions in addition to the initial problem with most mobile consumer startups – which is getting users.

Essentially the marketing mechanisms (ads, PR, email) create a lot more friction to getting users to try / download the mobile app versus the web app.

So you have to primarily use a combination of reviews, recommendations or in-app ads to get users.

What’s happening on the B2B front is even more interesting.

B2B is morphing into B2D (developers), B2A (Architects, as an example) or B2M (Marketers).

Thanks to SaaS and Cloud pay-as-you-go services, the products are inexpensive enough to get enterprise segments without the hassles of going through the entire Purchase order process for many products.

So most B2B companies are targeting a specific user who is also the person to approve, buy and select the product / service that works for them.

The implications are obviously dramatic and ones that change the landscape completely.

In a follow on post I’ll document the ways this changes the marketing and sales techniques.

Why you should not outsource your initial sales efforts

Most technical founders are not comfortable with the sales process or the disciple of selling. They tend to treat it as beneath themselves and “sleazy”. Given that most entrepreneurs I interact with are engineers, I usually walk them through an engineer’s approach towards selling, which tends to mirror the agile development process they are familiar with (more about this in a later post).

Many entrepreneurs do try to sell, and not seeing quick success, come to a conclusion that they should outsource their sales efforts to an “expert”. Usually this is after they have exhausted their initial contacts and get frustrated with the constant rejection that comes with sales, or after they have finished tapping into their entire list of first level contacts who could possibly be a customer. They tend to be more comfortable “convincing” people they know well rather than “selling” to people they dont know at all. Which is why I ask them to “dig their well before they are thirsty“.

Without sales there is no business.

Without sales there are no customers. No customers means what you are building is a side project.

Without sales there is no revenue. No revenue means what you are working on is an unsustainable venture.

I have heard of enough companies who have died because they could not sell, but rarely heard of companies that died because they could not develop or build a solution that was sold.

To me, sales is the headlights to your business. I would never recommend outsourcing your sales function in your startup.

Even large companies I know in other areas besides technology, outsource manufacturing, engineering, finance or customer service, but rarely outsource sales or marketing.

I dont consider selling via channel partners as outsourcing your sales. That usually means you have to “sell” and convince your channel partners.

There are 3 reasons why I dont like sales outsourcing.

1. You dont “own” the customer and dont get direct customer feedback. In the initial days of your startup, its absolutely important to have direct customer connections, feedback and input. Even after you grow larger, customer connections are the biggest source of innovative ideas. Without direct customer access you will get a warped view of the real problems and pain points they have, which results in a sub optimal solution.

2. It is very hard to predict predict consistent closure of deals and commit to financial milestones. When you outsource sales, the outsourced company has the eyes and ears on the ground to understand what moves deals, whose budgets are cut and when deals might happen. That information is critical for you to plan your quarterly projections. Without that information you will also find it hard to understand how to allocate resource towards projects and features the engineering team should be working on.

3. Even if sales is “outsourced” most outsourcing vendors will require your help to constantly tweak your positioning, handle customer objections, change pricing, etc. Even after 5+ years at a large software company with over 500+ in a direct sales function, I found us to be constantly changing messaging and positioning each quarter to keep up with customer trends.

Can some parts of the sales process (like the initial lead generation) be outsourced instead of the entire sale process? Possibly. If you feel that the biggest challenge for you is to get the initial meetings and you get a sense that after your get those appointments you are able to move the sales process forward, then I would suggest you look to getting help from a firm that sets up appointments, or does targeted lead generation.

Why do companies buy anything from B2B startups?

Yesterday I had a chance to talk with a software entrepreneur who has built a security product that’s primarily sold to mid-sized and larger companies. Over 8 months have gone into the development and he has been able to get fewer than 5 customers for the product. Surprisingly he’s been able to get enough interest from investors who have provided early funding to the tune of several hundreds of thousands of dollars. He has been able to also generate lots of interest from partners but that has not translated into customer sales. Given his developer  background, he was keen to talk about sales and how to generate some initial traction in the market.

Here is what I have learned from all my initial startup selling in the B2B space (i.e. startups selling anything – software, hardware, services, juice bars, etc. to other companies, not consumers).

There are only 2 reasons why companies buy from startups – The person buying has a very good relationship with the entrepreneur, or the person buying has a dying pain that she feels can be solved by the startup’s solution.

That’s it.

This is dramatically different from why they buy from Cisco, Office Depot or any other large company – where politics, budgets, executive management preferences or any other of over 100 factors also come into play.

Lets drill down into both those reasons.

I have personally only been able to sell the first 10 or so first customers for all my software companies through relationships that I built earlier. Which is why I always advocate digging you well before you are thirsty. Most of the software that I have built (B2B) did solve a problem, but I found that it was never an “immensely-horrible, I’ll-die-if-I-dont-fix-it” kinda pain. I avoided those because I did not have as much confidence in my ability to solve that type of problem since the scrutiny & pressure of “must-work-or-you’re-dead or this-better-work-or-you’re-out” causes buggy software.

So I focused on building relationships with key people (that usually took a few months), without me talking much about my product or service. It was purely to help the other person who I wanted to be friends with.

When you build a strong relationship, you will find people are more willing to forgive bugs, try unproven software or even give a no-name startup a chance.

Given my engineering background, I have a “formula” that I believe that will help you understand relationship building.

Relationships = Time + Trust + Mutual interest.

In this case, + is not addition, but an operator. More about this formula in a later post, but the summary is building a relationship takes time (quality not quantity) spent together, building trust by small commitments you deliver on and mutual interests you share with the other person.

The only other reason larger companies buy from small startups is that they are in a huge pain and they believe startup has a unique solution, offering or product to solve that pain in the fastest possible time. I emphasize “they believe” because they are really not sure yet since they have not built a relationship with that individual.

Relationships trump everything in sales. Everything. She who has the relationship wins.

Which is why you are better off getting a referral from one of your customers (who you have a good relationship with presumably) to another potential prospect (who they have a good relationship with).

So before you start you own B2B entrepreneurial venture, build relationships.