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Why do so many startups struggle getting off the ground?

First, let’s begin with their products. Most new products are incomplete (explained in Geoffrey Moore’s excellent book, Crossing the Chasm); they lack features that users expect; they have no brand name recognition; their teams are “two guys and a dog”; the problem the product is solving is yet to be obvious to most buyers; they don’t have competitors to validate their value.

My point? To successfully sell a product with so much going against it, you need a phenomenal salesperson. Unfortunately, most startups don’t have one. That’s the problem.

Eighty percent of the founders I meet lack real selling skills, which is what stymies their success. For example, recently after speaking at an incubator, I met two founders who’d been working on their startup for eight years, but gained little traction. (Their product is a small plastic device that helps you manage day-to-day activities. It’s a fine product idea.) I asked:

“How many people have you tried to sell this to?”

“Probably 100,” one says.

“Do you mean per week or per day?”

You may pick up on my sarcasm, but I also meant it literally. After eight years, they had only approached 100 people? They should have been selling their prototype to 200 people before engineering the first screw. But, alas, sure enough, during our conversation, they said their biggest challenges involved patents, finances, costs, partnerships, designs, manufacturing, and anything else they could dream up. These founders are getting distracted with problems that are not going to get their product to the forefront. They aren’t focused on selling – now that’s a big problem. Until they get on the stick, they’ll keep right on floundering.

The Solution

Do you lack selling skills, experience, or desire? Here are four tips for getting in the game.

  • Recognize that selling is your biggest challenge: The first step is admitting to yourself that convincing people to pay you money for your product is your biggest hurdle. Once you’ve done that, you can begin working on the challenge.
  • Employ creative sales tactics involving lots of trial and error: One reason entrepreneurial selling is so difficult is because you aren’t sure which sales techniques will work best. Should you cold call? Go to trade shows? Sell face-to-face or by phone? Should you generate leads through marketing campaigns? What price should you charge? What process should you use to demonstrate your product? There are endless questions that mature companies have already answered. This why you need a phenomenal salesperson—because he or she must be able to not only sell, but sell while learning how to sell your product.
  • Learn how to sell and focus your time on it: I’m an investor in an online recipe technology firm, Myxx. Founder and CEO Monica Wood has never been a salesperson, but she has a knack for it. She recognizes the value of selling, so she’s spends most of her time learning the best selling practices, making cold calls, building connections, and meeting with people. Once she gains enough traction, she’ll likely hire an experienced sales leader, but for now, she’s selling her product herself. Want to learn how to really sell? Check out Craig Wortmann whose company SalesEngine teaches entrepreneurs the skills to be successful. 
  • Bring in a cofounder who can sell: In 1998, when I first met my cofounder of First Research, Ingo Winzer, he said, “I can write a research report, but I can’t sell.” I said, “I can sell, but I can’t write a research report.” Nuff said. When Schedulefly was starting out, Wes Aiken focused on software programming…he knew selling wasn’t his thing. So he brought in Tyler Rullman who focused on marketing and selling. Wes gave Tyler 40 percent of Schedulefly to help him. (Wes is a smart guy.)

If you’re starting a startup, this blog might help you see the elephant in the room. Roll up your sleeves and get to work—selling!

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