Eight ways for start-ups to make their first sale

Businessman sat at computer with tablet completing a saleWhen you first started your business, you were undoubtedly laser-focused on building the best possible product for your target market. For most start-ups, this is a crucial time for product development - to fine-tune exactly what makes your product better than the competition's

It's also a critical time to start planning for your first sale, which will be one of the most important sales you'll make during the life of your business. Here are a few tips to help you make that first sale.

Develop your offering with customers

Whether you are developing a breakthrough new software product, or opening a café on a high street, involve your target customers from the outset. What alternatives do they use at the moment? What are the good and bad points about those alternatives? Ask what you would have to do in order to win them as customers. If you can involve a high-profile person from your target market, you are off to a good start - especially if you can trumpet them as your first customer.

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Be your own head of sales and marketing

You understand your product benefits and your company's USP better than anyone else - and you can use the valuable feedback you receive at this stage to connect with your customer better down the road. What’s more, the key to survival is to keep your costs down. So do your own sales until you know the revenues are strong enough to support a larger team.

Look for young, innovative customers

Established organisations are targeted by a never-ending procession of suppliers who make all sorts of claims. So cold calls and emails are simply ignored. It can be extraordinarily difficult for a start up to even get a conversation started, let alone make a sale. Instead, consider going after young companies that are more open to approaches from people like yourself. They are far more likely to listen to what you have to say.

Focus on early adopters

Nurturing relationships with potential early adopters should be a high priority. (This strategy was one of the reasons behind the success of Naked Wines, for example.) Early adopters are crucial to your business success - they don't rely on testimonials to make a commitment, and they understand the growing pains that accompany working with a start-up. These ideal customers are keen on your company's success and more than willing to jump on board early.

Use the magic words - help please

A lot of people react well to a genuine request for help. "I wonder if I can ask for your help…" is difficult to decline with the usual brush-offs like "Sorry, we are not interested." You may be surprised by the kindness and support that you encounter from people who have experienced tough times themselves. Even if they have no interest in buying from you, some people will be happy to point you towards people who they think might be interested in what you offer.

Know when to walk away

"Test fast, fail fast, adjust fast", as the business guru Tom Peters said. Too many founders get stuck trying to sell to the wrong people, or selling the wrong way. So, if something is not working, change and change quickly. For example, if you are selling something to universities and no one is buying, ask yourself who else you can sell to or how else you can approach the universities. But be prepared to move on.

Know who the key stakeholders are

When selling to a small business, identifying the key stakeholder is usually a pretty straightforward process. But if you're targeting a company that operates with executive-level teams and purchasing departments - each with its own key decision-makers - you have to know and work the system to get your product in front of the right people.

Consider focusing on reaching the leaders of the teams and departments that will actually use your product in their day-to-day jobs - not necessarily those who will be making the buying decision.

Market your current offering, not its future

Tech start-ups often have a vision of where their product might end up after further development. When you're selling to your first few customers, focusing on future iterations can make you appear less confident in your product's current effectiveness. It's important to stay focused on how you can help solve your customer's problems today.

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