What Every Start-Up Ought to Know About Selling to Corporates

Six light bulbs

Many start-ups dream of securing that first really big corporate customer, that market defining account that will prove their business model, increase their credibility and unlock the door to future sales. I have had the privilege of working on both sides of the table – for big businesses, at KPMG and Orange and for start-ups, having founded Reevoo. Here are six practical tips, based on what I have learnt:

1. Breaking through the wall

When you are starting out and your brand is unknown, it can seem like there is an impenetrable wall surrounding any corporate giant. Whats more, even if you do secure a meeting, many individuals within the corporate environment (however successful they are) simply don’t have the experience of dealing with start-ups. They will have a number of fears, many of which are personal: will you actually deliver or will you let them down?; will you negatively impact their career?

To break through the corporate wall and accelerate your business, you need to find a Maverick. Yes, think, Top Gun! Somebody who is naturally an early adopter, entrepreneurial and will make it happen for you, helping you cut through the big business red tape. There are lots out there – my first Maverick was an individual within Dixons Retail.

What I have learnt since, as I look at the various corporates I have worked with, is that as well as looking for the Maverick individual, some big businesses are simply more entrepreneurial than others – hunt them out.

2. Build a sales pipeline of Mavericks

Don’t just rely on one Maverick within one target customer – there are too many things that are beyond their control (however good they are) that may result in delaying your product getting live. You need to build a sales pipeline of Mavericks which has two direct benefits: i) it de-risks your sales process; ii) introducing competition in terms of who will be the first will accelerate your overall sales process – Mavericks love to be first!

So how do you build that sales pipeline of Mavericks? Network like crazy (yes, it’s hard work) and cold call – nobody does enough in my view. We set up cold calling afternoons, where the whole team hit the phones (including our CTO!). I wore out shoe leather, working very closely with one of my angel investors who introduced me to a number of retailers. It was pretty much the days before LinkedIn and Twitter – nowadays they should form a key part of your armoury, as should an awesome content marketing process. You should be generating inbound leads in parallel to developing your product.

Its worth defining your “perfect” customer and trying to ensure that your first few customers are as close to “perfect” as possible.

3. A “really good meeting” is not a signed contract

In most cases during sales meetings, people are too polite and don’t tell you what they are really thinking. As a result you leave thinking you have had a great meeting and are close to securing the account. What’s more, if it’s your start-up, you most likely think your product is amazing and you have your “happy ears” on. Put away the “happy ears” and be as objective as you possibly can, asking questions that enable your potential customer to go beyond politeness and provide you with frank and open feedback.

Don’t fall into the trap of listening to one potential customer’s feedback and then building a customised product just for them. You are looking to build a scalable product, so you need to combine the feedback you receive from a number of customers – group it into “must have”, “should have”, “nice to have” – to help you prioritise.

4. Once your Maverick has said “yes”, you have only just reached the starting line

Big businesses are complex and in many cases, slower than you would like! You will most likely have to engage with a number of different departments including IT, procurement and legal. Your Maverick can help champion you and guide you, but you should map out the buying process – in effect “who is who in the zoo”. You then need to hustle, hustle and hustle some more within this process – that way you will be using your drive and energy effectively and also understand when you need to be patient. Don’t stop driving the process until your product is live!

5. Make yourself appear as big as you can

Increasing your credibility will help give others the confidence to buy from you. Stand on anything you can to improve your status – investors names, other potential customers (being careful not to overstep the mark), partners, your and your teams personal background. Practice and get comfortable doing this.

6. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas

Many early stage businesses have an inherent fear that the corporate, with all its resources, will be able to take their ideas and copy them. In my experience, most big businesses are not agile enough, their pipelines are too full and long, their decision-making processes complex such that even if they wanted to, they are not in a position to take advantage (Google may be an exception here…). You will gain far more in terms of input and feedback by openly sharing your ideas and future product road map.

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