Sales Strategy – The right strategy for your start-up business

If you play above (or below) your level, most of the time, you’ll lose. You need to take an approach to commercial sales strategy that matches the status of your organisation. Let’s find out more.

Formulating the right sales strategy for your start-up business.
Formulating the right sales strategy for your start-up business.

One size doesn’t fit all. Don’t run before you can walk. Sure, these are cliches, but they’re cliches for a reason – they’re true! 

My football team, Liverpool, play a super-fast passing game and they press the opposition high up the pitch to try and force a mistake that they can capitalise on. To play tactics like these, you need players who are incredibly skilful and extremely fit. Luckily, Liverpool have a whole squad of players like this, which is why we’re doing pretty well right now. If a lower league team like Tranmere Rovers (no disrespect!) tried to play like Liverpool, it wouldn’t work because their players aren’t as good, and they’d probably get relegated. But, if they get promoted, they’ll bring in some better players next season and their tactics might get more sophisticated.

The same is true in SaaS sales. If a startup goes into the market behaving like Salesforce or Oracle, they’ll get exposed pretty quickly. You have to play at the level you’re at. Once you achieve scale, you can (and must) adapt your approach.

In this article, I want to outline three stages of a business’ growth and set out a commercial sales strategy that will propel you forward.

Three stages of growth

If you hadn’t realised already, I’m a sucker for a football analogy – and I’m going to give you another one now. The stages of growth for a business are just like the development stages in a footballer’s career. These are the three stages:

  • Youth team – just getting started, hoping you’ll get noticed
  • Reserve team – you’re building a career, but you still have to work to make that step up
  • Dream team – you’ve made it, but there are still competitions to win

Now I want to talk about each stage and what businesses need to do to achieve their growth goals at their level.

1 – Youth Team Sales Strategy

The youth team stage of your business is when you have just started, you’ve got less than ten customers and still finding product/market fit. It’s a challenging stage because you need to find customers quickly to stay in business, but you probably don’t know exactly what problems you solve yet, because you don’t have enough customers to give feedback.

Sales strategy; don't look the wrong way when it comes to aligning your sales strategy and start-up stage.
Sales strategy; don’t look the wrong way when it comes to aligning your sales strategy and start-up stage.

The sales strategy to approach at this stage is to stay flexible, thinking on your feet in order to close customers that can become ambassadors of your brand. Talk to a variety of prospects with a diverse range of pains until you can find those with the pains your minimum value product (MVP) covers. This sounds like an inefficient way to work, but it’s part of the hard yards you have to put in when you startup looking for product/market fit (p/m fit). Once you locate a prospect’s pain point in and around what you’re trying to solve, give them a trial with your product so you can see if they’re a good fit for you to “build-measure-learn” – a principle from Eric Reis’ Lean Startup methodology. This methodology can also be used in the sales approach too. 

The good thing about this commercial strategy is you will find what works not just from a product/feature perspective, but also from a sales viewpoint. From the initial cold outreach (email and calls) to follow-ups to demos and pricing to contract negotiations – adapt to find success. We also want to get through this feedback loop with maximum speed.

A mistake many startups make during the Youth Team stage is the founders taking on too much – from the product development to platform iterations to customer success, plus sales and marketing strategy. The pressure to deliver on every aspect of the many balls they’re juggling is intense. Under such pressure, the temptation to cut corners is too tempting, especially with the areas they’re not too comfortable with. With most Founders coming from the product or tech side it’s always the commercial, sales and marketing side that is sacrificed. 

Youth stage is all about finding test partners, alpha/beta clients, providing them with a trial (often a custom-build solution, holding their hand with the features they require and the UX, in order to lock them in) and then proposing them a deal that works for you both. This proposal is more about utilising and expanding on your partnership, rather than the revenue aspect of the deal. That will come at a later stage. 

2 – Reserve Team Sales Strategy

The reserve team stage of a business is when you have enough customer ambassadors and a proven product/market fit to then go win some market share. You have a clear idea of the problem your product solves, who it works for, and how you’ve succeeded in selling it into similar customers in that vertical or geography. 

Your mission is to keep growing, by finding prospective customers that have similar problems to your handful of customers. You must also look at turning your full squad size customers into enough to have your own league of clients. The beauty is, you now have knowledge from your previous stage of how to pitch and market it – and better yet, customer ambassadors to help endorse your product. All of these lead to you closing more deals. 

Rather than the youth team stage where you’ll do anything for anyone; at the reserves stage, you can be more targeted with your approach, with the use cases you have from your client ambassadors. Narrow your lead generation down to a few tightly-defined target use cases, become experts in those markets and adopt a more consultative, educative approach to selling. 

Your outreach becomes more efficient because you’re only addressing three uniting pain points, rather than trying to please anyone who will listen to you. 

Your sales strategy can still offer trials to your prospects, but make sure you agree on the criteria on which your prospect will judge your product. Focus on your product’s ROI. 

Don’t make the mistake of going too broad with your three target customer profiles. Be as narrow as you can, so you can get super granular in the way you address your prospects’ pain points. You want to use a combination of sales and marketing here, especially if your product or service is disruptive and forming a new market. You need to educate the customer that there’s something out there that solves their pains and they need to find the budget for it. A good place to start is by looking at what works best for you (what features your clients use the most) and create messaging into the market about them using outbound and inbound sales and marketing methods. As these approaches start to get results, you can start to build your baseline KPIs and benchmarks, and start scaling teams to help you with the sales demand you’re seeing.  

Sales strategy; Targeting the right strategy for your start-up stage
Sales strategy; Targeting the right strategy for your start-up stage

3 – Dream Team Sales Strategy

Congratulations! You’ve made the dream team. You have more than 100 customers and you’re scaling fast. You’ve worked hard to beat the odds and you’re pushing for unicorn status. Your task now is to turbocharge your growth and market share.

By now, you should reduce your number of ideal customer profiles to one. That sounds counterintuitive, but you’re big enough now to dominate one niche, rather than paddling around in two or three. Your name should be strong enough in the market, thanks to your sales and marketing mix, that potential customers come to you asking you to put proposals together for projects that already have budgets allocated. You may choose not to offer trials any longer, as you have already proved your value to the market.

Once you dominate a niche, you can move into other similar sectors with slight tweaks to your product.

Companies that get this stage wrong do not gain traction in the market. It’s often because they believe the methods that brought them to the first team will be enough to keep them there. They don’t adapt to the big league fast enough. Now is the time to hire salespeople with strong track records. Now is the time to invest in marketing. 

Find out more

The key to achieving the right sales strategy at the right time is self-awareness. You need to be honest about the stage you’re at. 

One of the critical things I help businesses with is identifying exactly where they are on their growth milestones today. Check out what clients have said HERE. Once we do that, we can look at how to reach tomorrow’s goals.

If you’ve read and enjoyed this article, it would be great to speak to you about your organisation’s European or international growth requirements. 

Drop me an email at jbswerd@gmail.com.

Connect with me on LinkedIn

To find out more about me – and how I support expanding businesses in sales, business development and coaching, visit joshswerdlow.com

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