Feb 21, 2023

Founder-led B2B sales: getting your first 5-10 customers

We were lucky enough to have Sahil Mansuri, CEO and founder of Bravado, the world’s largest sales network, in to talk with a few of our early-stage B2B founders on founder-led sales and getting your first 5-10 paying customers.

We thought some of the learnings were too good to keep to ourselves, so wanted to share in a blog post.

Sahil has been part of the Expa network for several years now, previously an Expa EIR where he helped scale growth for a number of portfolio companies. He’s also led sales teams at Glassdoor and Meltwater, as well as marketing and product teams at Virool and SalesPredict (acquired by eBay). Sahil enjoys helping early-stage founders fundraise and build sales motions, purple sweatshirts, and curse words.

When starting a business, getting your first 5-10 paying B2B customers can be a daunting task. You may have already raised some capital, hired a small team, built some of (or all of) your product, conducted countless customer interviews, had some calls with your investors who are starting to put pressure on you to “grow quickly” (ahem, cost efficiently of course)…and now comes the time to turn this small little project into which you’ve been putting your sweat and tears into a “real business.”

So, how do you do that? How do you convince people at SMBs up to enterprise-size businesses that, of all the solutions out there, yours is the right one for them?

Let’s start with the basics.

Step 1 - Nail your pitch

The first step to getting paying customers is being able to clearly explain your company. This may sound obvious, but most entrepreneurs actually struggle to explain what their company does. They start with their solution or get too into the technical details, and they generally fail to give their audience enough context as to why what they’re building should matter to the person they’re speaking with.

That being said, it’s also important to be able to vary this explanation by audience. You probably shouldn’t have the same pitch for your grandma and your potential customer. Sahil believes it’s important for founders to have three different explanations ready, for:

  1. A general audience (think dinner party)
  2. Candidates potentially joining your team in some way (new hire or investor), and
  3. Prospective customers

Now, when crafting your pitches for these audiences, it is absolutely critical to remember that psychologically, people don’t really care about what you do – they care about what they do. They’re busy. They get pitched all the time. This leads us to –

Golden rule #1: start with the problem you solve, as opposed to the solution you offer

Example: When a VP of Sales or VP of Talent asks what Bravado does, Sahil usually starts by saying, “Most companies struggle to hire really good salespeople. Do you also struggle to hire good salespeople, and if so, how do you deal with that problem now?”

Note that if they had said they are not struggling to hire good salespeople, that’s a really clear indicator that they are not his target customer. Move on! And also note that Sahil’s response didn’t really answer their question. The answer is implied within, but it successfully turns the conversation back to the customer, which leads us to –

Golden rule #2: get the customer talking

Sahil likens sales to poker -

“There's a joke in poker, which is to say that I'd be the best poker player in the world if we just played with our cards open. Because if I know what you have, I would never lose. If I saw that you had a better hand than me, then I would just fold. And if I saw that I had a better hand, I just keep betting.

And so sales is the exact same thing. Your job as a founder (and therefore salesperson) is to get them to open their hand before you open yours. The magic of sales is getting them to say what their problem is before you explain your solution. And the reason why that's so important is because if you know what their problem is, you can customize the pitch of your solution to directly match their problem.”

Ok, so now that you may have some homework to do on your pitch, let’s move on to the next step.

Step 2 - Build a customer advisory board

Your goal here is to get 5-10 of your target customers into a pilot group. Approach them by saying something like “We’re trying something new, and I was wondering if I can get your feedback on it. We’re building a product that helps [people in a specific role] solve [pain point] – is this something you care about today or think you will care about in the future, or is this not interesting to you?” or “We’re building an early testing environment to solve [pain point] and want to make sure it’s useful - any chance I could have you be a beta tester?”

If they agree, then you can say something along the lines of “Great! I’ve got a group of [people] testing at the same time and sharing their learnings - would you be interested in hearing what they’re saying as well?”

And just like that, you’ve got your customer advisory board. Set up a slack workspace for them or whatever communication channel makes sense, engage them for feedback, take action on it, and make them feel seen/heard.

Assuming things are going positively within this customer advisory board, you’re ready for the next step.

Step 3 - Prep for launch

When the pilot period – which should be set for the amount of time it takes for a customer to truly experience the value of your product (between 2 weeks to 2 months) – is over, there are a few key things you need to do with your customer advisory board.

  • A few weeks before launch, ask each member to suggest one other prospect from a different company to pitch.
  • Sample messaging: “The big day is fast approaching - March 1st is when we’re coming out to the world, monetizing, and becoming a real business! Is there a founder you know who could benefit from this that we could pitch before March 1st?”
  • Ask each member if they’d be interested in being a part of press you may (or may not 👹) get.
  • Sample messaging: “We might be getting some national press – currently in conversations with [namedrop impressive publications]. If there were to be a PR opportunity, would you be interested in being a part of it?”
  • 1 day away from launch, ask each member if they can help promote your launch.
  • Sample messaging: “The big day is 24 hours away! I have a big ask, can you please help promote? If there’s even a small bit of value you’ve gained from this offering, is there any chance you’d be willing to share with friends? Here’s what we typed up for you to share…”
  • On and after launch day, share the press you’ve received with your customer advisory board and thank them generously for their help in getting you to where you are today.

Step 4 - Monetize your first customers

Ok, now it’s go time. 1-2 weeks after launch, it’s time to approach your customer advisory board (individually). Let them know that your launch went well, and again reiterate how much you want to thank them. Then, let them know that you’re moving to a fully paid model starting [date], but as part of being early customers, they’ll receive a 50% discount for the duration of your partnership.

And just like that, you have your first 5-10 paying B2B customers. Congrats!

Getting your first 5-10 paid customers may seem challenging, but it is possible with this tried and true playbook. Sahil promises it will work! (Email him at smansuri@bravado.co if it doesn’t.) The early days of a B2B startup can be tough, but we all believe in you. Go get ‘em!

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