Today at ATI, I went to an interesting panel discussion on sales management in a startup.  All of us early-stage entrepreneurs grapple early the business model — do you generate revenue directly from customers, monetize through partners, or through entirely indirect means that have little to do with the delivery of the product or service?  No matter what path you choose, you have to show sooner or later that your product delivers on the core value proposition you sell, enough so that your core business model is proved.

I learned a lot of things from the panel today.  No matter how many startups you've seen, you're going to learn at an event like this.  Some lessons that stuck with me:

  • If you're selling into a large organization, consensus is key.  The size of company you are selling is directly proportional to the number of people involved in success in some way.  Very rarely can you sell a single person and win over an enterprise.
  • Empathy reigns.  Do as much as you can to truly understand the problems your customers face on a regular basis.  Ideally, you want to immerse yourself in the client's business as much as you can by spending time on-site, interacting regularly, etc.
  • Selling is a truly "people" business.  If the person you're trying to sell is having a bad day, you aren't going to make the sale.  A lot of things can get in your way, and you likely won't have a lot of visibility into what those things are.  Selling into distressed businesses is difficult for this reason.
  • The importance of funnel simplicity.  As early-stage entrepreneurs, we can get pretty fired up about the beginning of traction with clients, customers, and partners.  But that really is just the beginning of the story more often than not, and if you can't identify a date by which a contact is signed then it really isn't over by any means.

The weakness of panels like this one is that you won't ever find specific answers to tough questions.  "What is the fine line between persistence and annoying your prospective customers?"  "How can you accelerate the sales cycle?"  etc.  But these panels will get you thinking, and they will help you think introspectively about how you may get in your own way.