Before I left my day-job at a startup in 2015, my manager gave me great advice when I was reluctant to add a sales territory to my responsibilities. I had been helping the sales team as a sales engineer and was hesitant to "carry a bag" AKA take on a quota. He told me "I promise... once you learn how to sell, no one can take it away from you and you will use it in almost everything you do later."
He was right. And I am glad I did it. Later, as an entrepreneur, I found out quickly that most of what I do is some form of sales. It's the foundation of everything I do and it has especially been helpful during the early days of co-founding two SaaS businesses.
There are plenty of ways to get your first customers (and no wrong way). Some founders prefer to prioritize engaging in online communities, using paid ads, content marketing, or social media. You should try all of these methods.
However, it seems that direct sales is commonly left off this priority list when it can be one of the best methods of finding those first customers.
Here is why I love using direct sales as a validation tactic early in a product's life:
Direct sales gives feedback (v.s. just clicks or data)
The early goal of any new product company is to learn as fast as you can. While other marketing tactics can help you reach more people quickly (social ads, content marketing, etc.,), you rarely learn why they worked or didn't work.
When done correctly, direct sales should, at the least, start constructive conversations with potential customers and create feedback loops. This allows you to gain valuable insights on how prospects view your product in relation to their pain points.
Direct sales gives you the opportunity to as a product "Why not?" and learn why they don't want to purchase or use your product.
BEWARE: Direct sales is very different than emailing industry thought leaders and asking you what they think about you idea/product. I made this mistake with Wavve and now have a few dozen emails from influences telling me that it won't work. As it turns out, influences didn't need my product. People wanting to be like influencers did.
Direct sales lets you test your copy
Levering subject lines and email copy are a great way to test response rates and see what prospects respond to. This helps determine your positioning and how you talk about the problem, solution, & product.
Direct sales allows you to test pricing
Pricing is hard AF. It's never perfect and the only way to truly find the right pricing is to see what prospect will commit to. Each prospect you reach out to can act as it's own test case for pricing. This lets you try a few different prices and see what sticks.
Direct sales can help you narrow down your target market
Much has been written about the advantage of finding a niche and owning it. Yet it's quite the conundrum when you are launching a product that can fit in multiple niches.
Bootstrappers can benefit greatly by narrowing down to a specific niche. Direct sales can help you test your positioning across multiple groups to see which is most interested.
Convinced that you should try direct sales for your new venture but not sure how to do it? Read on:
How to Use Direct Sales to Find Your First Customers
Have a plan and do research
I wish more sales people would take this approach:
The goal in sales to not waste anyone's time, including your own.
Most sales people wind up trying to only save their time by not doing research and just cold blast massive lists. We all know how that goes.
The foundation of any good direct sales campaign is research. You want to make sure that you are reaching out to prospects that could actually be potential (happy) customers. Google, social media, and online communities are going to be your best friends during this time. Keep a google doc or use a simple CRM to track who you decide to reach out to so you can follow up.
Continued research: Find multiple target groups
Always remember that your early target audiences are still assumptions. Until you get paying customers, you don't know that they will pay for your product. A good rule of thumb is to come up with at least 3-5 unique target groups (or "personas") and try to find 50 or so potential prospects to reach out to. Based on the responses, you should start getting a gut feel for which target audiences are the most receptive. Then double down.
Pick an outreach channel
Choosing the right outreach channel to engage prospects with is critical. It can even change from one prospect or target audience to the next, so be ready to test.
Phone: Mostly utilized if you are reaching out to SMB's, enterprise companies, or prospects that operate in "traditional" industries. Think real estate, finance, etc.,
Email: Probably the most common channel for modern sales people. Most prospects prefer to communicate via email. Get really good at this one.
Social: Grossly under utilized properly by sales people. More and more people are getting used to messaging via social platforms. If you reach out to people authentically, this can be very well received.
Keep it short and simple
People HATE being sold to but they LOVE being shown attention and being helped. Great salespeople do the latter.
Keep the initial message or call as short as possible. Instead of trying to sell a customer with the first email, use it as a way to fish for pain. A lot of sales experts recommend using open-ended questions. While this is a great tactic during the discovery question, close-ended questions are best for the initial outreach. For example, let's say you are selling a CRM product. The first question could be: "What CRM are you all using for tracking customers and communication?".
Being direct, nice, and helpful is the best way to go.
Test subject lines as much as possible.
Keep in mind that most sales emails suck so don't copy what other people are doing.
Final words of encouragement
Once you decide to start direct sales, the most important thing to do is be consistent. Don't send out 50 emails one week and quit because "it's not working". Direct sales takes time.
Direct sales might feel intimidating if you have never done it before but it doesn't have to be that way. If you believe in the product that you have created and that it can help solve a problem for others, you can authentically approach sales from a servant-minded perspective. People love having their problem solved and the good news is that you have their solution.