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Four B2B Sales Tips for Startups

In today’s lean startup environment, entrepreneurs are spending less time and money than ever before turning their ideas into marketable prototypes.  After a pivot or two, minimum viable products turn into betas and hopefully, into semi-finished products with all-but-proven market prospects.  Yet in order to realize those prospects, somebody still has to sell these products. 

For many startups, SEO, social media and Google AdWords will makeup part of the equation, particularly for those aiming their product at the consumer market.  But for startups looking to capture the B2B market, success means having traditional business development skills somewhere on the team.  Whether co-founders have the time and skillset to take on B2B sales themselves or decide to bring in an expert, the following tips are designed to enhance early-stage sales success for startups.

Narrow your scope – seek early adopters

Defining your target market is an elemental project that continues throughout the life cycle of any startup.  The inbound marketing tools listed above can help you tackle a vast B2C market, but it takes a more focused approach when selling to businesses, particularly if a large B2B market for your product exists.  Rather than setting your sales team to work pursuing the vast realm of potential business customers, spend some time analyzing  the field and hone in on a segment of potential early adopters.  To figure out which companies to target first, consider the following:

  • What companies stand to benefit the most from your product?  What about those companies makes this true (ie. industry, size, geography, mission, etc.)?
  • Are there companies already buying a similar solution from your competitors?  Do any companies already have a budget for this type of solution?
  • At which organizations does an intersection exist between people who would benefit from your product and decision makers (ie. the person who would want or use the product has the authority to influence the purchase of the product)? –See “Know your decision makers” below.
  • Which companies would make the most valuable customer for your startup based on profitability, referral potential, and marketing or other partnership potential?


Once you’ve used these filters to narrow your target market, focus in further on businesses that fall into multiple categories and refine your value proposition to speak to the most relevant of these issues.

Know your decision makers

If you’re selling to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), it may seem obvious who within the organization is the “buyer” of your product.  However, only the smallest and most old school companies still employ a single omnipotent decision-making leader, whereas most companies today use collaboration and committees to solve problems and make purchasing decisions.

One of my sales mentors told me he always targets at least three different contacts within a prospect’s organization during the sales process.  This is an approach that I have since adopted with increasing success, and the reason is simple: decision makers buy from people they know and trust – and that trust increases exponentially as you build relationships across the organization. 

Geoffrey James, author of the Sales Source column on Inc.com, offers a simple way to delineate three different types of decision makers that exist within organizations:

  1. The Access Owner – a critical contact who has access to inside information as well as other decision makers
  2. The Problem Owner – the person or group that is most directly affected by the problem or challenge that your product solves
  3. The Budget Owner – typically a manager who controls the purse strings and determines whether investing in your product makes financial sense for the organization


According to James, sales teams will need agreement from each of these positions in order to be successful in earning a new client.  Regardless of your strategic approach, it’s clear that pursuing merely a single contact within your potential customer’s organization is not the best way to grow your startup.

Qualify hard

Possibly the worst and most avoidable outcome in the B2B sales process is losing a deal in the late stages of the process, after your sales team has put in a significant amount of time and other resources pursuing the deal.  In order to avoid this, your team must keep an eye on all facets of the deal and identify any potential roadblocks early on.  This means making sure that A) your product is actually solving a real problem or challenge for the customer, B) the customer acknowledges a need to solve the problem and C) they are willing and able to pay your price in order to do so.  It’s imperative to address these issues in the beginning stages of the deal, rather than mistaking perceived customer interest and a willingness to continue the process as a sincere interest in buying your product.

I first learned the importance of qualifying prospects while working with Steve Fretzin, founder of Sales Results, Inc. and author of Sales-Free Selling: The Death of Sales and the Rise of a New Methodology.  According to the Fretzin model, “Without qualifying our buyers, we find ourselves tied up in a data-gathering experiment that may go nowhere. Therefore, if we can qualify their compelling reasons to buy, commitment to change their existing situation, while understanding that we are speaking to the right person and that they have the wherewithal to invest, our time with the prospect is better spent.”

In fact, the need to qualify prospects is especially relevant to startups because our products are often comprised of some new technology that generates a lot of up-front excitement and interest from our potential customers.  Even when that interest is genuine, if not backed up by decision makers' authority, available budget and willingness to take action, then the initial excitement can lead the sales team to spend an inordinate amount of resources developing a deal that's ultimately going nowhere.

Companies are people, too

In B2B sales, it’s important to recognize that companies are made up of people, just like you and me!   Why is this important?  Consider that a company has never bought any product or service, ever.  Indeed, only people can choose to buy things, or choose not buy them.  Only people can sign purchase orders, and only a person who really believes in your product will promote it internally to a decision-making team that will ultimately comprise your customer.  Therefore all customers are people, and business developers will have greater success by treating them as such.

As an entrepreneur who is passionate about your product, it’s easy to visualize how your solution can deliver value to your next customer’s organization.  But what about delivering value to the person herself?  How will your product make the buyer’s life easier?  What problem will it solve for each decision maker? Will it make them look good in front of their boss?  Will it save them time or save money from their budget?  By thinking in these terms, startup sales teams will gain critical insight into the minds of their customers and can start conversations around delivering value to these people, as a part ofthe overall value proposition.  Of course delivering value to the buyer is not exclusive from delivering value to the buyer’s company, and on the contrary, creating value for the organization will often make the buyer look like a rockstar. 

The bottom line is to keep your buyers’ personal interests in mind throughout the sales process.  Not only will this help you connect with and build a relationship with the buyer, but you’ll be surprised at how people respond and want to do business with you when they see that you treat them like a person and not just an access point to their company!

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