Founders Fighting Human Nature: Selling - Storytelling with a Purpose

Most founders don’t come from sales backgrounds and the idea of selling sends shivers up their spine. In this second post in the series of Founders Fighting Human Nature, we’ll explore how founders can overcome their inexperience and fear of selling to become effective at it and enjoy it.

If you've missed our first installment, read about founders building a great product now.

Founders are Salespeople, First and Foremost

Yes, you read that correctly: from the beginning, a founder needs to be the best salesperson for the company - and that's a multi-faceted job.

You'll be selling people on joining the team, and maybe selling a co-founder on joining the company. You'll need to sell investors on you, the team, the product... you know, your elevator pitch. And of course, you'll be selling customers. Founders have to be able to make these initial sales regardless of how much anxiety and (lack of) sales experience and training they have. Founders who don’t embrace being the first and best salesperson for the company will struggle to build a team, get investment, and acquire customers.

Even if a company is putting in a customer acquisition strategy that doesn’t require direct communication with customers, founders still have to figure out and effectively demonstrate value that persuades people to act positively to support the company’s progress. This isn’t to say founders can’t or shouldn’t have someone leading sales or a sales team if the company can support it financially, but the founder or one of the founders needs to own sales at the start. Persuading the right people and companies to engage with the company is a founder’s job.

Sales is about Understanding, Not Control or Manipulation

Many non-sales founders are uncomfortable selling because they think it is about manipulation and control. That's especially the case when it has been our own experience when getting sold. Sales training also does a disservice to founders, as it assumes neither the seller or the buyer are willing or capable of having an authentic, open conversation. The good news is that sales is really about intent and effective collaboration.

The process of selling anyone anything is really the first phase of collaboration in a relationship. Progressive collaboration is how people determine whether and how they want to enter into a relationship with a person or company. People who are good at selling are the best collaborators. They have the ability to be relatable and vulnerable, while empathizing with the other person. Founders who understand this and who focus more on EQ (emotional intelligence) than IQ (intelligence quotient) will be more effective persuaders.

Intent is always very important when selling, especially as a non-seller. If your intent is to separate someone from their money without commensurate value, it will show. Conversely, if your intent is to demonstrate value and to work in the other person’s best interest, then you can have a positive progressive dialogue about engaging around mutual value.

We are flawed as sellers. Nothing is a panacea. We are flawed as people. Your product/service is flawed. Your company is flawed - it’s okay, embrace it. People know it and they don’t expect perfection. Acknowledging the flaws and fit of your product or service goes a long way in developing credibility and trust. Be a person that is invested in the success of others and you will be able to create mutually valuable engagements and relationships around you, your product/service, and company.

Sales is Storytelling

Great stories are interesting, emotional journeys that engage people. Founders need to learn how to tell the story of why they started the company and why they are one to solve the problem. The facts and figures aren’t enough. "The problem is experienced by this many people, which makes the market this big, and we intend to capture this part of it in the next three years" is not a story - it is reciting of facts and a declaration of assumptions. Most founders do this, yet it is boring and largely ineffective when selling.

A great story has a protagonist and antagonist. Founders that are great storytellers understand this and tell a story that defines the antagonist and positions themselves/their company/their product as the protagonist who’s mission is to defeat the antagonist not for themselves but for others (customers). Telling a great story around why the company exists and why you are the ones to solve the problem will get more key stakeholders interested and engaged in your company. Tell your why through a great story.

Don’t Use your Product - or Anything Else - as a Crutch

"Let me give you a demo. Look at this. Now look at this. See how easy it is to use? See how you can move this thing from here to there? Isn’t it obvious how our product will change your world for the better? Oh, wait. I forgot to show you how you can export data."

Sound familiar? Founders get so enamored with the product they’ve created, they forget that it is less about what the product does and how it does it, then why it does it and what the impact and value is for customers.

Many things beyond the product can become crutches too. Case studies, marketing materials, third party reviews, sales process, sales training, and more. Anything that takes away your focus from having an insightful collaboration with a prospective customer is being used as a crutch and doing harm.

Of course you need to discuss product fit, but in a context that doesn’t use the product as a crutch. Founders have to develop the dexterity and confidence to sell without potential depending on ‘things’ to do the selling. People sell, not things. If you find yourself spending the bulk of your time with a prospective customer clicking through and reviewing the product details, you are using it as a crutch. Jump in and out of demo mode. Make sure you are connecting the product to business issues and impact, rather than simply being a demo jockey. That means listening, not talking.

No is an Acceptable Outcome

When selling you should be pursuing a decision that reflects mutual value. I’ve never really liked the philosophy "a no is as good as a yes." We always start out wanting a yes, but the reality of some potential engagements is that they won’t work and don’t make sense. When this is the case, get to it as fast as possible. Be asking yourself whether you would be continuing the conversation based upon what you know. Similarly, you should be asking the other party if it continues to make sense for them to continue the conversation with you. By asking this you will ensure you aren’t spending time on a deal that is never going to happen or that you are focused on the wrong things as part of the conversation.

This is hard. We know we won’t win engage with everyone, but we don’t want it to be any of the ones we are currently pursuing. Let the no’s come later. The reality is to be effective at selling you have to embrace the fact that spending time, energy, and money with someone that is not going to engage or that you shouldn’t be engaging with is worse than getting to no.

There are Bad Sales

Not everyone is going to be a customer, investor, team member, etc.. Nor should you want them all and all of them shouldn’t want you. There has to be a mutual exchange of value and a good fit. When mutual value doesn’t exist or you are continually trying to make a fit engaging should not happen. Engagement without mutual value causes future problems that ultimately will end the relationship (sometimes badly). Your objective should be to push for mutual value and if it doesn’t happen or is to difficult to achieve, walk away. You are better off walking away from bad engagements than forcing them to happen.

The wrong anything (customer, investor, advisor, service provider) will be a distraction and consume more time, energy. and money than they are worth. Sometimes these bad relationships can be catastrophic. Founders often times want to check boxes and move on to the next thing. Accomplishment feels good. It feels like progress. But signing a customer that de-values your product by negotiating a lower price point than you are comfortable with and who still expects the same level of service and value is not an accomplishment and not progress. 

Selling Doesn't Have to Be Challenging

Understanding some basic principles of how people buy is the first step in becoming a great seller. Selling is one of the most fundamental human interactions. Founders often make mistakes selling because they don’t understand the underlying principles of how people buy. This post scratched the surface. If you would like to continue the discussion, please post a comment or hit me up and we can connect directly.

The next post in this series Founders Fighting Human Nature, will be on The Team