Common start-up pitfalls
Like many entrepreneurs my business started from an idea. I was passionate about this, it was my baby and I thought it would sell itself. However, like many others, I found that the level of sales that I achieved didn’t quite match my expectations. Happily, after years of struggling things finally started to happen. But years had elapsed - where did I go wrong in those first few years? Why hadn’t I been an overnight success?
Recently I read some research by Onyemah, Rivers and Ali, that rang true for me. It challenged me to review my approach to selling my ideas, products and services. While I’m the last person to describe myself as a “sales expert”, like all entrepreneurs, I have no choice; we have to sell our product or service to succeed.
Passion is important, however it is not enough to succeed. Entrepreneurs are passionate about their ideas and they believe everybody else will be. The service or product will sell itself! Well, no actually… it won’t.
What’s goes wrong?
- Most entrepreneurs are brilliant coders, designers, chefs, etc – but they have little selling experience
- They usually have no sales training
- Even if they do have sales training, most is about selling established products in established organisations. Not about new concepts in start-ups.
There are common mistakes made by entrepreneurs. Over 120 founders were interviewed in the research and there were striking similarities in the mistakes they reported making and would now prefer they had done differently.
Starting to sell too late. Leaving it until too late to start selling is the number one mistake that founders reported. We want to meet our prospects with a fully developed, ready for delivery, product or service. By the time the prospect sees the product for the first time many opportunities have been lost. Many entrepreneurs spend days or weeks researching what a few potential customers could tell them in an hour. Feedback in the development phase of your service or product is priceless
Not listening. Even when feedback is sought early many people allow their ego or passion to block valid feedback, especially if it is negative. Ideas need to be validated by prospects. A new product or service may need to be modified to fit what the customer really needs. Sometimes the idea doesn’t fit any customer needs, in this case it’s important to move on before too much money is spent. The principles of lean start-up apply: fail often and fail fast.
Selling to family and friends. That’s perfectly OK, however it doesn’t validate the idea objectively. Family and friends usually purchase from a sense of loyalty or love. They are unlikely to offer the kind of harsh criticism that is so valuable during product development.
Not identifying strategic buyers. Not all prospects are equal. Some can introduce you to other buyers or provide valuable feedback. In their rush to make sales and then move on to the next sale some entrepreneurs miss the opportunity to develop relationships with potentially strategic buyers.
Discounting. The pressure to make sales can lead to entrepreneurs discounting their prices. This can lead to unsustainable pricing. Worse still, in some cases, word can spread throughout the community and all prospects may demand the same discount. Where discounts are necessary, perhaps to convince a new prospect to take a risk on a start-up, their terms should be clearly stated in writing.
Even when start-ups do actively engage early in the selling process they encounter a unique set of objections from clients, to those met by traditional salespersons.
Skepticism about ability to deliver. This is a big problem for many start-ups. The prospect is simply avoiding risk. The entrepreneur can help the prospect mitigate that risk, perhaps by supplying independent testing or samples to prove quality, or arranging payment on delivery.
Price objections. Pressure for price cuts is normal in selling, but start-ups face extra pressure because customers usually know that they may be desperate to make a sale. Usually this is because the customer is not aware of either the costs involved in developing a product or the benefit that will be accrued to them. Adequately describing the product and how it adds value can help.
Switching costs. Often the prospect is aware of other costs they need to incur in order to switch to your product. You can’t sell someone a new software product if they don’t own a computer. Entrepreneurs need to be aware of these extra costs and their impact on the prospect. Any cost/benefit analysis presented to the prospect should include these costs, because if you don’t include them then your prospect will add them in later.
Size and Credibility. Often the customer expresses doubt based on factors like size, age, gender, background or experience. These need to be addressed. For instance by emphasising that they will be dealing directly with the founder and not a salesperson, highlighting relevant experience or highlighting your partners' or other directors’ experience. Whatever it takes to increase their confidence in you and reduce their perceived risk.
Engage early and engage often. Getting in front of customers early has many benefits, especially for start-ups:
It’s an opportunity to gather market intelligence that will help with design and redesign. But not just design; market intelligence also helps define how you promote, distributed and price your product or service.
If your product or service is going to fail, and many do, you need to find out as early as possible. Fail fast and fail cheap.
Customers who are involved with a product from the early stages are more committed to the product, more likely to understand your pricing and to purchase. They will also become your greatest advocates.
Finally, in the early stages of development the product or service simply doesn’t exist. Some entrepreneurs see that as a drawback when approaching a prospective customer, but it is a huge advantage. The customer is less threatened because they are not being sold to, they are being asked for advice. At the same time the entrepreneur is not under immediate pressure to make a sale but is gathering valuable feedback. Eventually the sale will just happen, almost as a by-product of the process.
Remember, it’s never too early to start the sales process.