After nine months of jumping through flaming hoops, my partner and I landed our investors. You would think we would be leading a conga line through our offices, or at the very least popping open a bottle of Dom Perignon. The only celebrating we did was take our wives out for a quick dinner, half of which was paid for by a gift certificate my mother had given to my wife and me for our anniversary.
Once you raise the money, the real fun begins. Right after getting our investors, I was sweating bullets trying to rustle up the beta clients. What are beta clients?
Beta clients are corporate guinea pigs. They are the first to step into your little unknown world to try your products and services. There's nothing scarier than having to email someone about your new product or service to ask them if they would be willing to discuss doing business with you. If they don't answer your email, which is very likely, you have to pick up the phone to ask someone to trust you with their money, clients or employees.
There are three things you go have to think about as you contact your potential client:
- Subject line: Was the subject line too salesy or not powerful enough? Did the target even bother to open it? Worse yet, did the spam filter kill it?
- Clarity: Did I explain my product/service in a way that the reader will understand and appreciate what I offer?
- Length: Was the correspondence so long the reader was too overwhelmed to read it?
You send your email and wait up to a week to follow up. Aggressive "A" types want to call the same day they send the email, but they are afraid of looking desperate. The "B" personalities don't want to follow up at all, because they are afraid of rejection.
When you do make that call and your target picks up, one of two things happens. The first is that nothing comes out of your month and there is dead silence, which causes your prospect to wonder if he or she picked up a crank call. The second is that the words race out of your mouth like horses at the start of the Kentucky Derby, and the listener is overwhelmed and says he or she doesn't have time to meet.
I have run more than 20 start-ups, and I've sold retail space, magazine ads, trade association memberships, online services, consulting and financial services. What terrifies me the most is getting that first sale! I have nightmares about everyone saying "no" or hanging up on me. Getting that first sale is like trying to get your first job.
So how do you increase your chances of getting that first sale? I have developed a process that calms me down and almost eliminates my stress. Here is what I do.
: I develop a PowerPoint presentation that demonstrates to me why I am even in the business. I try to sell myself. While I am doing that, I find holes in my story and try to plug them.
: I send my PowerPoint to people who will look at it with a critical eye. I incorporate their comments and suggestions.
Develop elevator pitch
: I write out my 30-second elevator pitch. The pitch is what my parents would say if someone asked them what I do for a living. Writing this can take a lot of time, because I'm trying to be short and to the point.
: The phone has taken a back seat to the Internet. People would rather be contacted initially by email than by telephone. I develop a two- to three-paragraph email explaining what we are selling. I test that email on various business associates before sending it out.
Ask for help
: Forget cold calls -- no matter where you go in the world people rarely respond to people they don't know. I make an Excel spreadsheet of my friends and the companies they work for and ask them to make an introduction. I prefer they don't try to sell the person on what I am selling. I just want them to ask the person to take the time to meet with me.
: Once I meet with the first prospect, I make notes about what may have been confusing to them and ask them for advice on how to hone my presentation. People like being asked for their opinion, and most people want to support the underdog start-up.
If you believe in your product or service, you have to project that air of confidence. Just remember you are adding value in your own way. Try to be patient, which is something most of us struggle with, and remember that the law of averages is on your side -- you
make that first sale!
Kramer is the author of five business books on topics related to venture capital, management and consulting. He is a faculty member at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and the veteran of more than 20 start-ups and four turnarounds.