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Now they have valuations rivaling the GDP of small (or not-so-small) nations but the biggest giants in enterprise software — whether Microsoft, Oracle or Salesforce — all began as small startups scrambling to make their first sale.
Most startup founders gaze up toward these giants and build their companies with the hope they, too, will someday be referenced in articles such as mine. These founders have an idea for a needed tech solution, so they grab an engineering partner and start developing. After a couple iterations, they’ve got what they think is a promising product.
But, now comes the hard part: convincing someone to fork over cash for what they’ve built and get to the next stage of the game — hiring more engineers, or maybe just moving out of the cramped space the team calls an office (my early team at Clari spent our first six months working out of the CTO’s garage). Just as importantly, VCs rarely put forward significant capital for growth without proof someone wants to pay for what you’ve got.
So how do you close six-figure sales deals when you’re still a one-figure-sized company? How do you get a huge brand to make a bet on an unknown company and unproven technology (that’s you)? Here are five tips I’ve learned in closing enterprise-level deals when my own startup was still just an enterprize-sized idea:
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1. Look larger than life.
The launching point for bringing in six-figure sales deals doesn’t actually start with sales — it starts with marketing. As basic as it sounds, your website needs to look badass. If a potential customer, VC, or business partner goes to your website (anyone’s first stop these days) and it screams “startup!,” then your chances of getting a foot in the door become slim to none.
If you’re low on marketing assets to beef up your website, use what you have at your disposal. Still only a handful of employees? Showcase your board members or advisors. Still working to prove results? Grab quotes from early prospects talking about the potential of your technology. Not sure if you’ll be able to showcase a company logo on your website? Take a little risk — sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Just don’t tell them I told you so.
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2. Show long-term vision.
Your product is in its infancy; you may have a couple features developed, or perhaps enough to call it a “platform.” But, to capture the attention of potential big-budget customers, you need more than just a compelling value proposition. Aside from being able to strike at the heart of a tactical pain, you also need to have a powerful vision of where the entire technology could go. For example, Salesforce didn’t start off by focusing on the number of entries a sales person could create. They highlighted their vision for “the cloud” and “software as a service,” rather than an install-based model. Go beyond what you can deliver today and show your prospective clients you intend to be around for the long haul with a three- to five-year vision that’s bigger than what you’re currently focused on building.
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3. Create theater
When you have a potential customer’s live attention, whether in person or perhaps through a web conference, it’s show time. Whether or not you have a fully functional product is besides the point — in many cases of early stage startups, you’re probably still working with a prototype. Don’t let that get in the way — and don’t just show stale slides. Even if it’s in PowerPoint, create a demo that feels so real, potential customers can clearly envision how your solution would work for them. This means you might have to be creative. Time your presentation so that when you click your mouse, a graph line appears and goes up and to the right, or a window pops open and is animated. While being transparent about what the product can do today, get your prospective buyers bought into and excited about what’s possible.
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4. Surprise with speed.
Next, if they ask for customized tweaks to the product or a specific feature request, deliver it faster than they expect. Consider this to be the classic approach of underpromise and overdeliver. Do what the bigger incumbents can’t — turn their requests around with a quickness that’s sure to surprise them. They ask for the next iteration in a week? Do whatever it takes to provide them with the iteration they’ve requested in two days. Re-focus internal resources so that your entire team is dedicated to showing your potential customer just how much you want their business.
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5. Remove the risk.
Money-back guarantee. It’s a slogan that’s been splayed across advertisements for decades because it makes people feel safe about taking a bet on you. If you’re a startup founder and your technology is unproven, make it easier for potential customers to say “yes” by tying a tightly time-bound “termination for convenience” (TFC) clause to the agreement. Three month is a good timeframe here — and this tells them if they don’t like what you’ve delivered or their broader team says it sucks, they don’t have to pay. Rally your engineering team and tell them they have 90 days to shine in front of a big prospect, and it’ll feel like a full team press for your company. (As the company matures, the TFC will not be a viable tool — but early on, it’s a play worth running).
From early stage startup to on-the-radar growth company, I’ve had quite the journey that’s afforded me “little tips and tricks” such as the ones above. For business people like me (and especially those of us with a long history in sales), there’s nothing more exhilarating than to getting your first big deal and setting your company up to play ball in the big leagues.