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Nail founder-led sales with these lessons from Antler’s co-founder and Managing Partner and a sales operator-turned-founder

November 17, 2023

When Wee Leng Tay started her startup Smilie, she leaned into her skills and network from her previous BD roles at Apple and Uberall to close her first customers.

But not all founders have that—especially first-time founders. When you're building a startup, the product and brand you're selling are entirely new. 

You don't have credibility behind you, unlike when you're doing sales for an established brand. Instead of customers wanting to work with you or buy your product, you're the one doing the heavy lifting to introduce the product (they don't even know it exists!) and convince them to make the purchase.

In this interview, Wee Leng Tay (co-founder of Smilie) is joined by Jussi Salovaara (co-founder and Managing Partner Asia of Antler), who has helped dozens of companies with sales, to dish out the most practical sales tips for founders. 

1. Leverage your personal brand and existing network to acquire your first customers fast.

So, how do you acquire your first few customers? 

The best distribution (yes, sales) channel is yourself—your existing network and personal credibility. So, sell to family and friends, former colleagues, personal referrals, or others in your network.

Wee Leng also says that this is why it's highly beneficial to build in a space where you have existing networks to maximize success.  

Why does it work? The people you've sold to know you and your reputation already. They've seen you execute on your deliverables well! 

  • In this case, you're bigger than the product. These people are more likely to buy because they know you well, believe in you, or want to support you. In the early days, it's less on the product's actual features or performance. 
  • Closing the sale is more complicated if you're selling to a stranger. Customers don't know you yet, so you've got to let the product speak louder–and sell yourself and your credibility too. 

After you close your first few clients, you can leverage the credibility of having closed those first few clients (and their brand name, if they are well-known) to close succeeding clients. But again, it only comes after you close those clients—and your personal credibility still plays a major role.

2. Always be selling.

Initially, it's best to be open to selling to anyone and everyone. As an early-stage founder, sales rely on you, and it can happen anytime, anywhere, so sell, sell, sell! 

You'll never know who your next customer could be. 

Wee Leng shares that she and her co-founder are always selling—most times, unintentionally, even outside of work. Why? Because as a founder, you’re always representing your company.

"I do bouldering on the side, and I would have random conversations in the bouldering gym. There was a person next to me who happened to be an insurance agent. And I'll be like, Oh yeah, I do corporate gifting. You would see his eyes light up, and he would go, can you do that for me? I have to give so many presents to my clients all the time. It takes up so much of my time."

3. Once you’ve brought on a substantial amount of first customers, find your ICP.

You won't know who your ideal customer is from the get-go. As we shared, the best move is to sell your product to anyone willing to lend an ear. You may be surprised that you have a market in an industry you're unfamiliar with! 

But you shouldn’t do this forever. Once you've closed a certain amount of initial customers (this depends on the type of startup you’re running — it can be 10 to even 1,000), you'll get a better picture of the ideal customer profile/s (ICPs). Jussi shares more on why refining who your ICP is key below:

"An often-overlooked but critical element in sales strategy, especially for those new to the domain, is the concept of Ideal Customer Profiles (ICPs). Many founders make the mistake of casting the net too wide, trying to sell to everyone. This is both inefficient and ineffective. 
Understanding your ICP helps you focus your efforts on prospects most likely to convert, ensuring a higher ROI for your sales and marketing efforts. It's not just about identifying industries or titles but really understanding the pain points, needs, and behaviors of those who would most benefit from your product. Without a clear ICP, you risk squandering resources on less-than-ideal prospects, diluting your message, and lengthening your sales cycle."

It’s a continuous process of testing a hypothesis on who your ICP is and validating that over time.

From there, focus on finding clients with these profiles and double down on selling to them. It’s beneficial for founders who can focus on selling quicker and more efficiently since they’ve figured out their ICP, but it’s also great for your customers because you’ll build a better product for them. 

"You start by hypothesizing who your ideal customer might be based on initial research and assumptions. But it doesn't end there; you continually refine this profile through direct interactions with prospects and customers. The insights gleaned from these interactions offer a two-fold benefit: they allow for the iterative improvement of your product and help you focus your sales efforts where they're most likely to succeed."

4. When it comes to the sales call, don’t just pitch and show demos. Drill into the problem!

We've pushed the 'always be selling' narrative so far, but what do you say when you're on that sales call? Jussi says that a common mistake founders make is that they tend to focus too much on the features instead of how they will solve a very specific problem. 

We get it. Founders love their products like their own babies, but it makes them overemphasize the product and product demos when they should be focusing on the prospects' explicit needs and pain points.

How do you address your customer's needs better?

  • Use targeted questions to unearth the business challenges the prospect faces and quantify these pain points in terms of money, time, and resources.
  • Consider using relevant stories and case studies to demonstrate how their solution has addressed similar problems, ideally for competitors—either direct or indirect.

When do you do the demo? Only when the prospect's needs are fully understood. And even then, the demo should be tailored to address the issues identified during discovery.

The objective? It's not to showcase the product's features but to present a compelling case for how the solution can positively impact the prospect's business outcomes.

This is part one of the Startup Sales Masterclass Series by HubSpot for Startups. These insights have been primarily extracted from Asia Growth Forecast, a HubSpot-owned podcast where they decode successful sales strategies of fast-growing brands and show you how to scale your business in Asia.

We at BackScoop are teaming up with HubSpot to bring the best insights and actionable tips from their three-part Startup Sales Masterclass Series to you.

Their program, HubSpot for Startups, helps entrepreneurs scale their businesses.  HubSpot for Startups is on a mission to help millions of startups grow better.

If you are a venture-backed startup or a bootstrapped startup looking for the right set of tools to speed up sales and scale your business, head over to HubSpot's website here to get access to free masterclasses, startup toolkits, a connected ecosystem, and up to 75% discount on the entire HubSpot platform! (Don’t forget to select Bootstrap Asia as your partner when applying.)

Antler is the most active early-stage venture capital firm that backs the world's most driven founders from day zero to greatness. Their global community backs people from the beginning with co-founder matching, business validation, initial capital, expansion support, and follow-on funding.If you’re an early-stage founder looking to get your startup launched and funded in 10 weeks, find out more here.

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