You’re ready. You have a product, you have product-market fit (or you want to find out if you do), you’re out there making things happen and you want to start selling. You want to become a revenue machine. But what do you do? These are the steps that anyone can use to begin building the revenue engine for an early stage B2B SaaS startup. This isn’t the only path and can and should be used with other revenue channels, but it’s a channel within your control and the results are immediate. How do I know this works? Because these are the steps I’ve used and continue to use to get started selling and scaling SaaS sales.
Find the truth or the truth will find you
This will be scary. I know because I’ve been through this myself with my own products. You need to know what the market really thinks of your product. Is this baby of yours that has consumed your brain, your finances, your emotions and your time actually valuable? Too many founders I meet prefer to go to startup events or try to raise money instead of doing the inevitable work involved in understanding whether there’s value in their product.
The money generated from sales demonstrates how valuable the market believes your product to be. This is the truth. This is what most investors want to see and whether it’s now or later it will determine whether you have a business. You cannot avoid this, and you have to be ready for the answer.
Step 1: What is your value proposition?
First, the easy step. What do YOU think is the value proposition of your product? This is why you’ve been building your product. This is the use case that will get others excited enough to spend their time and money using your product.
Here’s the important bit: you need to write it down and be able to articulate to others. If you’re reading this article you’ve probably “pitched” your product to yourself, your family, friends or investors (and hopefully prospects) so this shouldn’t be too hard. But write it down and keep it simple. No jargon. Just like you’re describing it to a 10 year old. I’m not joking here: could you describe your value proposition in language a 10 year old can understand?
Step 2: So who cares? Your Total Addressable Market.
Step 2 is closely linked to Step 1. Who do YOU think cares about the value proposition or use case of your product? These are the customers you are going to go for: your Total Addressable Market. This is a list of the companies who could and should buy your product. You can narrow this down to an industry, size of company and narrow it further by geography or anything else that gets to a list that will allow you to define your initial Target Market. Now make the list. Actually write down the 20, 100, 1000, 100,000 companies that would buy your product.
Now that you have a prospect list of companies, what is the title(s) or roles of people that would buy your product? If you wrote “Mark Zuckerberg” or “Jeff Bezos” start again. You need to figure out the actual titles or roles of your prospects who would be involved in the buying decision so you can narrow further the humans at your prospect companies who would use or buy your product or ideally both.
Now go on LinkedIn and find the names of the people at the prospect companies with the correct titles and write their names down (up until this point you can do everything with a spreadsheet). Add as many people as you can find per company who you think could value your product. Write down all their names. The more the better. Plan on casting a wide net.
The way I’ve outlined this step doesn’t scale (at least for now). But it gets you to a place where you know IF you can scale. As you hire more advanced operators with sales leadership experience they will know how to boil the ocean for your lists of leads. I’ve hired and worked with experts on this (usually called B2B Growth Leaders) and they can build or buy the tools to farm the lists of your Total Addressable Market when it’s time to scale. As part of the work I do in helping build these sales engines for startups we’ve built a custom software that when calibrated can narrow the companies, titles, prospects and emails of almost any TAM. It’s the starting point of any sales engine, so it made sense to build our own proprietary software for this part of the funnel.
Step 3: Put your Value Proposition in your Target Market’s face
Now is the scary part. You’re going to find out if anyone cares about your product’s value proposition. Many people don’t do this. If you want to play startup and have the hope that maybe you have a product that has product-market fit or maybe provides value and you only want to talk about building a business, you should stop here. But, if you’re a truth seeker and want to know if you should continue with your business, pivot, iterate, redirect your energy or even shut it down…. read on.
You have the prospect companies. You have the titles/roles. You have the names of the human prospects. Now you need to get their emails. This is easy, just search @ and the URL of the company and add as space and write email. “@theurlofthecompany.com email”. Somebody within that organisation will have put their email on the internet. You then use the same format for your prospect. This works most of the time. If the email bounces back you can alter the format and try again as there’s only a few formats every company uses.
You can also cold call, but if you’d prefer not to then just start with email for now.
Now you can send emails to your prospects. I use a software called Mixmax which connects to gmail and makes life much easier. Mixmax allows you to personalize and scale your prospecting efforts. What I mean by this is that you can setup all of your emails in a sequence (you write them all at the beginning which saves an enormous amount of time) and if your prospect doesn’t reply to your first email a second email will go out a week or so later and if they don’t reply you can send on and on. I recommend 3–4 times.
This is important because about 25% of my responses are on the first email. 50% on the second and 25% on the 3rd or 4th. Automating this makes life significantly easier.
The aim of this is to schedule a sales meeting. Often times you need to talk to people to get them to buy your product and you definitely need to speak with people to get feedback and data on why it’s working or not.
Step 4: The email structure/strategy I use
Keep it short. Unless you have an unbelievable story to tell them personally, the shorter the better. Try to personalize the emails a little if you can. The more personalized the email the higher response rate, but it’s more difficult to replicate and more time consuming, so you need to find the balance of your time between personalization and scale.
First Email: Simple subject line about your value proposition. Intro is a simple reason for contacting them…. them specifically based on their role and their company. In the email write out your value prop in 1 sentence and then 1 sentence about why this matters to them. Then ask a question which goes something like: “Does it make sense to schedule some time to discuss?”
Forward the first email (3–7) business days later. I use something like “Hey you may have missed my note. Does it make sense to discuss?”
Forward the second email: “Hi X, I want to be diligent without being overly persistent. Did my value proposition miss the mark with you or is there someone else I should connect with?”
Remember with Mixmax you can setup all these emails to go out automatically and it’s fun when you forget you have a sequence of emails setup and then all of a sudden you get a wave of replies a few days later from another scheduled email blast.
Step 5: Get ready to fail a lot (it’s OK it’s just numbers)
Email prospecting is a noisy channel. EVERYONE is doing it, so you need to try to stand out and know that you will fail a lot. If you can get a 20% response rate- just one in five- from email to meeting you are a god. If you have a < 5% response rate you are still OK. Just keep at it. Remember this is a tradeoff against the time invested. The more personalized your email the better your response rate, but the more time it takes to write each one. And your emails will bounce, but you will get better over time at figuring out correct emails.
Now the scary part is over, the fun can begin. You’ve blasted out emails to your prospects and crossed your fingers. You already bought a Mixmax plan. Now you need to get a CRM because you are going to get responses to your emails and you need to track these people. You need to be able to add them to a simple database (that’s what a CRM is) and add reminders (tasks) at later dates on what to do. If you use your CRM for just this you will already be well organized. Mixmax has an integration with popular CRMs like Salesforce, Pipedrive and Copper. I prefer Pipedrive to start as it’s very lightweight and easy to use, but it doesn’t scale to later stage businesses, so plan to migrate later to Salesforce as they have integrations you will need for running a more complex business across marketing, finance etc. I’ve heard great things about Hubspot and SugarCRM, but I haven’t used either.
Step 5.5: Why you need a CRM and how it’s different than Mixmax and your Calendar
Operational Excellence is key. Use tools for different functions to get speed and stay organized.
I outlined above the need for Mixmax and as a single user I use Mixmax to scale and personalize my email communication. The application also includes additional functionality like workflow rules and automation that is also quite helpful as you become more proficient and becomes essential when you begin building a team. But your CRM is where you need to keep track of all the daily tasks that are associated with a person or company. Your calendar is NOT the place for this. Your calendar is great at events/tasks/meetings that need to be done at an exact time- this is not the same as a task list.
In your CRM you create a task list which will be used for keeping track of things you need to do with your prospects. It’s literally a list of things to do with your prospects that you schedule for a future day. If the prospect said they would get your order form signed next Tuesday you’d schedule a task to check-in next Monday to ensure they are on schedule to get it signed and sent on Tuesday. If you don’t schedule this and move on to the next hot lead you will forget that there was an action that needed to be taken by the prospect and they drift off into that wasteland of forgotten leads. Another common example is when someone says call/email me next week and you scribble it on a post-it. Don’t use post-it notes or a calendar, you use your CRM with tasks and notes on what’s next.
Side note: Sales requires an enormous amount of proactivity and your prospects will constantly drop the ball when they need to do something and you need to be right there to help them along at almost every step.
Step 6: Sales Meetings (this is the hard truth)
Someone will need to actually speak (yes, on the phone or in person) with your prospects and learn what they actually think. Are they buying what you are selling?
You need to force them to make a decision. You need to know what they think. This is the toughest part of this whole process for startup founders as this is the closest you’ve been to “making a sale”. But more often than not, founders end up living off of the hope of too few deals. This isn’t terrible as hope got you here, but it isn’t good in a sales process. You need people to decide. You’ve heard the expression Always Be Closing and what that actually means is “closing” for the next step, the next meeting, the decision, the signed contract.
Adding more prospects to your funnel gives you more opportunities and with more opportunities the likelihood of success goes up and the need for hope goes down.
Step 7: Repeat
You need to do this again and again. Repeat until you have money coming out your ears OR you iterate/pivot your business/value prop OR shut it down.
DO NOT do this for a week and get a few conversations started and then stop. This is often the case as this process is not that fun for most people. It takes discipline and if you stop doing it you don’t fill the top of the sales funnel and you end up relying on chasing the few meetings you’ve booked. You need to have so many opportunities going on that you can walk away from the people who waste your time.
You can do mornings for emailing EVERY DAY! and afternoons for your sales meetings.
The beautiful thing about this process is that you are now doing R&D on your value proposition. You can now tweak and iterate your value proposition based on your research until you have product-market fit.
Good Sales Leaders can kick start the above engine in a matter of hours and start booking meetings in just a few days and have opportunities in the pipeline in less than a month. With the right sample size they will know how scalable the business is and the resources needed to scale. Once the lightweight engine I’ve outlined above is built you then need to start hiring the right people at the right time to make it scale. More on that later.
Hiring full time is always best, but if you need help in the interim or aren’t ready for the full time commitment/cost of a sales leader I’m happy to explore whether I can help you. I currently advise B2B SaaS startups with building and optimizing their sales engine. I work on a range of engagements from an advisor a few hours a month to an interim VP Sales.
Good luck and I’ll answer any questions in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org