Steli Efti (@Steli) knows more about sales than anyone else I know. He's also the founder of Close.com, a profitable all-in-one CRM tool doing many millions in revenue, so he's the perfect person to answer the question: What should founders know about sales? So in this episode, my goal was to extract as many founder-specific sales tactics as I could from Steli. Whether you're growing a business now, or it's something you hope to do in the future, Steli's advice isn't something you can afford to miss.
What up? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com, and you’re listening to the Indie Hackers podcast. On this show, I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes. How do they get to where they are today? How do they make decisions, both at their companies and in their personal lives, and what exactly makes their businesses tick?
The goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from their examples and go on to build our own profitable, successful internet businesses. Today, I am talking to Steli Efti. Steli, welcome back to the Indie Hackers podcast.
So awesome to be back. Thank you.
It’s awesome to have you back. You are the founder of a company called Close. You know more about sales than pretty much anybody that I know. So today’s episode’s going to be all about sales. What should early-stage founders know how to sell?
The thing about Indie Hackers is that most of us are developers, and we’re not a group known for being enthusiastic about sales. In fact, most of us would prefer it if we had nothing to do with sales whatsoever. However, most of the successful founders, including developer founders that I’ve spoken to, have had sales play a large role in their business. So it’s crucial to learn how to sell. I’ll defer to you, Steli. You’re the expert here. Where do we even start on this topic?
Yes, where do we start? I think first and foremost, let’s talk about our relationship with selling, especially in the Indie Hacker community, or when you’re mainly from a background that is more technical and less in the sales or marketing world. I do think that sales has a bad rep in a deserved fashion.
A lot of my friends that are not coming from a sales background always told me that when they think of salespeople and selling, their internal response was just, “Blech.” It’s just sleazy people. They’re annoyingly persistent and just want to bully you into buying something you don’t want.
So there’s a lot of internal resistance. I think that that’s the core of a lot of problems that can occur later on. If you think that selling and sales is just this fundamentally terrible thing, then you will not want to learn anything about it. You will not want to practice anything in it.
And if you’re somebody that is building things and want these things to be brought to market and find a customer base, you are going to have to sell. You might want to call it something different, but what you’re going to be doing is you’re going to be selling, in one way or another.
I think, first of all I’d like to give a definition. My definition, when it comes to sales, to me, sales is really nothing else than result-driven communication. So if the two of us just chitchat and there’s no purpose, rhyme, or reason for us talking, we’re just talking.
The moment that there is an end goal in mind for one of us or both of us, when I’m trying to convince you of something, when I’m trying to get you excited about something, when I’m trying to make you make a decision, whenever there’s a purpose and an end result I have in mind while I’m communicating with you and vice versa, we are now in the world of selling. We’re not just talking, we’re selling.
Selling does not necessarily have to do with a financial transaction. For people that have children, I have two boys, if you have children, you know it’s a never-ending negotiation. It’s just a never-ending pitch of the parents just trying to sell their children on doing something or being into something, and the children selling the parents on some ideas that they have about the world and what they want.
Then there’s so many different situations in life. Even when it comes to hiring people it’s nothing else than a sales interaction. Finding a significant other, a lot of it is a sales interaction. You’re communicating, trying to convince somebody of certain things that are good about you, some things you want them to see in you that might be attractive or interesting to them.
Life, to a large degree, is selling. Not all of it, but a good portion of it. So if it happens, and if it’s so ubiquitous and if it’s so core to being successful with the products that you're building and the things you’re bringing to market, you might as well get good at it and understand how it works.
Then you can do it well, and you can do it with the right intentions, without being sleazy, without being a terrible human being, without doing things that are unethical, which I wouldn’t recommend anyway to anybody in today’s world.
One of the things I see and a lot of Indie Hackers is a bent towards more mass marketing rather than individual, high-touch sales conversations. People are really averse to selling, and it’s not just because they think it’s sleazy. It’s because it seems hard and mysterious and not particularly scalable. How many of your product are you going to sell if you’re relying on sales?
You look at these big inspiring companies that you’re trying to copy. You don’t really see their salespeople. You see their marketing materials. You see their blog posts at the top of Hacker News. You see their advertisements and things that don’t require a person to talk to another person.
Why should I as an Indie Hacker not just build one of these types of businesses, where I don’t have to talk to anybody and my product just spreads via word of mouth or through channels that don’t require talking to people?
Man, if you can build a product that sells itself, go ahead and do it, and then come back and tell me about it. I’m going to be your biggest fan anyways. I’m going to be talking about you to all my friends and telling them about everything you’ve done brilliantly.
I think the reality though is, it’s the same thing as me saying I want to lose a lot of weigh and build a lot of muscle. Why should I be eating healthy stuff and working out a lot? Why can’t I just take a pill and take care of the problem that way?
I get the appeal of the idea but it’s not necessarily reality. These solutions that are easy and require no effort from you and no change are usually truly bad solutions, right? They’re not really long-term good investments in your future, in your business.
First of all, let me dispel the idea that there are these companies that have only mass marketing and there’s no sales team behind it. Most of the modern products, software products that you admire have massive sales teams behind them.
In today’s world it’s a cool idea to say we have no salespeople, especially companies that have a massive amount of technical audience or technical buyers, they like to explain to the world, “Oh, we don’t even hire salespeople here.”
But then they hire a bunch of people that what they do is selling but they call them implementation engineers. They call them customer success engineers or something. But what they are doing is they are going, visiting their largest customers. They’re shaking hands, kissing babies. They’re asking lots of questions. They’re building relationships. They’re making presentations. They’re negotiating contracts and they’re closing deals.
So there’s a lot of B.S. going on in the world of “we don’t need salespeople.” This might be too long ago for most of the newer audience that’s listening to this, but the OGs (ph) of the Indie Hackers community will appreciate this example. Yammer, which used to be the Slack before Slack, was the poster child in B to B for, we finally have built a company in the B to B space that is virally growing.
Individual team members started using Yammer to chat with each other, and then normal people that do it. And eventually the company goes, “Oh my gosh. All these employees are using this. Can we pay you money to get some control over it?” That’s how we grow.
But then David Sacks, I think, is the guy that started Yammer, one of the original PayPal mafia guys. When he was interviewed after they sold Yammer to Microsoft for an insane amount of money, they asked him what was one of the hardest lessons that they had to learn.
It was exactly this. He’s like, “Well we were telling everybody we don’t need salespeople. We’re doing this virally, until we realized this isn’t working without salespeople. And then we had to hire a ton of them and then we had to figure out how to manage them and deal with them and then we started seeing success.”
He was like, “I wish we weren’t so bought into that flawed idea in the beginning. We held onto that idea for way too long because it was just such a cool idea. We had told everybody about it already.”
It’s a humble brag.
Like, “Oh, my company is so good, we just don’t even need salespeople.”
“We don’t need salespeople.”
People are incentivized to say that. “I never sleep. I work so hard. I don’t need salespeople.” So many things in the startup world and it’s actually not true.
It’s sort of a virtue signaling to say, “We don’t even need salespeople, our product is just selling itself.” So the other thing that’s more relevant I think to the audience, more practical than technical is this selling one customer at a time, that doesn’t scale.
Even if we take this premise as true, especially if you have a product that is not an enterprise-level solution, which a lot of people won’t have in the Indie Hacker community, it’s more affordable in price. It’s true. It might not be possible for you to sell your $10.00 a month subscription product one person at a time through pitching and negotiating with them. I get that, and that’s absolutely correct.
But in the early days, up until the point where you get to your first, let’s say 100 customers as a good benchmark, you not selling one-on-one is only going to make it harder for you to generate the level of customer intimacy, the level of customer insights, to truly understand the psychology of your customer, the ideal profile of your customer, how to communicate with them, what convinces them, what moves them, that will then allow you to both build the right features or the product in a way that will get a better response from the market.
But also understand how to do sales en masse, which is marketing, copyrighting, how to explain the benefits of your product with words, how to design things that communicate in images and create the feelings that your buyers want to have and that will help them want to buy your product. These things, you cannot get secondhand insights.
To me, it’s like this idea, “Why can’t I just put together a landing page, Courtland, and then I’ll spend $1,000 on Google AdWords and I will AB test the shit out of the copy of the design, and then then the data will tell me what to do?” I love that idea. That’s such a pure idea. I like it. I also want it to be true.
But the reality is in the beginning, when you don’t have scale, when you might be able to get a couple hundred clicks on the landing page, just looking at numbers is not going to give you enough context, dense enough signals, to truly understand what is going on.
I’m telling you, take your laptop and your landing page and go to a place where there’s a bunch of people that could be your buyers, maybe a Starbucks. Then show somebody your landing page and tell them, “I’ll buy you your coffee if you give me one minute of your time. I just want you to look at my site and then tell me what it does and tell me what you think about it.”
I’m telling you, there’s no better medicine to our stupidity than reality, and reality that’s context-rich. You could show somebody a screen and their facial expression is this. They look all confused and puzzled and they squeeze their eyes and they scratch their forehead and they’re in physical pain.
Then they tell you, “Oh, I think I like it. Yeah. I get it. Yeah, I think it’s a cool idea. You should go with it.” Then you ask them, “Can you tell me what my idea is? How would you explain it to a friend?” And then they go and they butcher it. They explain in a way that pains you.
Now that’s context that you will not get if you just send somebody to click a link, they see a landing page and they maybe click on “see what’s next” or “signup” or whatever, or they just leave. You might not understand why they’re confused.
When they scroll around on your website, you’ll see the areas where they’re confused, where they spent more time. You’ll see the words they use. You show that landing page to four people and all of them come up with the same flawed summary of what you do and use the same words that you used in your copy.
That might point you into what you need to change about how you explain what you do in a way that will communicate better and more effectively. Now showing five people at a coffee shop your landing page, that doesn’t seem scalable.
But it is going to be a lot more insightful, I guarantee to you, because the information you’re getting is richer. You’re not just getting an action, like a click. You actually can see the body language. You can hear the tonality.
I could tell you, “This is, uh, good.” Or I could say, “This is good!” Those are not the same statements. It’s not the same amount of positive signal. So the reason why we don’t want to do these things I don’t believe is because it’s quote/unquote not scaling. I think that’s a bullshit excuse if I’m honest.
I think the reason why we don’t like that is because it’s a much harsher feedback loop with reality, and we all don’t like when the feedback isn’t good, and most of the times it isn’t. Most of the things that we do, the feedback loop is quite harsh. It’s much nicer for my emotions to see, “Oh, shit, man. I got 400 clicks and just two signups. Is this good? Is this bad? What should I change?”
It’s a much softer thing to direct with than going to a coffee shop, showing my thing to ten people and everybody’s telling me this sucks. I’m going to get a much stronger emotional-felt reaction of rejection and failure, and we all like to avoid that. This doesn’t feel good to any real human being.
I think the reason we don’t want to do the one-on-one sales in the beginning is not that we truly don’t believe it scales, because it doesn’t have to. In the early days you don’t have to scale. You don’t have anything worth scaling yet. Don’t worry about scaling. You have to try to discover and uncover something that is valuable and that people want. And to do that, you will have to spend time one-on-one with people.
I think even Jessica from YC had written a blog post about why sales is more important than marketing in the early days in a startup. Think about that. That blew my mind, for the YC community to be advocating for this. And why? Her central thesis in that blog post, in that article, was that sales is so direct in its feedback loop, it’s so less open to interpretation. Either somebody says, “Yes, I’m buying,” or “No.”
Marketing can be a lot softer. They liked it. They clicked on something. They hit a like button. They retweeted whatever, my ad or something. There are so many more things that we can feel good about that aren’t a true, clear result: yes, no, bought, didn’t buy. And so sales in the early days what we’re looking for, strong signals on what to do next, I think is a beautiful tool, and it doesn’t have to scale at all.
I love that. So to summarize, it doesn’t really matter if sales doesn’t scale in the early days. You should probably still be doing it, mostly as a learning tool, because there’s no better way to learn what kind of product you should be building, what your marketing copy should even say, than having these conversations with people.
It’s important to go into it with a mindset where your primary goal is to discover the truth. You’re not trying to confirm what you already think, but you’re trying to discover the realities, because early on in those early phases of your startup, the biggest risk is that you just build the wrong thing because you don’t understand what people want.
Let’s talk about this process of sales, switching over from being a way that you learn to a way that you convince other people to use what you’re doing. One of the first things that a lot of the founders that I talk to begin with is sending cold emails. I never went to a coffee shop, for example, to show people Indie Hackers. Maybe I should have. It would have been really easy to do. But I prefer to sit in my apartment and send emails to people.
I’ve talked to so many other founders who also started their companies by sending something like 50, 100. The first person I ever had on this podcast sent 1,000 cold emails in the course of three months to get his business off the ground. What is your advice for founders trying to convince the very first people to use what they’ve built? What are some tactics for being persuasive?
I love that. I think in the very early days, you can use the advice I got from an investor once about fundraising. You use probably the same principles to selling, which is, you ask for money and oftentimes what you’ll get advice. You ask for advice, maybe you’ll get lucky and get some money.
What I’ve used a lot of times and I’ve taught a lot of founders to use successfully and apply successfully is that in the super early days, when you’re trying to get to your first 10, first 20 customers, it can be a much better approach to reach out to potential buyers, and instead of telling them, “I’ve built something and I want to find my first customers. Do you want to give me our time and attention and figure out if you want to purchase?” That is a big ask. Ask them for advice, which is something you should be valuing above their money anyways, and you might get their money.
So what I would is I would ping somebody and I would say, “Hey, I’ve seen that you’ve been in this industry for a long time. I’ve built something new for people like you. What I’d love to do is, maybe as a founder I can get 10, 15 minutes of your time to show you the technology that I’ve developed and get some advice from you as an expert, as somebody that’s been in this industry forever.”
I have learned that people love to give advice. Everybody wants to be an expert. Everybody wants to give advice. And people are much more open to talking to a founder about the technology startup idea and give them some feedback. That seems like fun to people usually.
So what you do is you jump on the call. And you don’t lie. That should be the number one purpose that you have. You show them what you do. You tell them, “This is something I’ve built for people like you. This is why I built it. This is how it works. You, as an expert at being you, I’m not you, you tell me, what does that look like? Would you want to buy this? What about it sucks? What about it didn’t I think about?”
And the beautiful thing about that interaction is that they’re going to be a lot more open to you with their feedback. They’ll tell you because they don’t feel like they have to keep their guard up. They don’t feel like this is a sales call. They’re just going to tell you the harsh, brutal truth.
“I get why you wanted to build this but let me tell you something about this industry. Nobody can buy this type of software because my company is not allowing X, Y, Z if you don’t do this, this, and that to the other.”
Wow. That might not feel good to you, but you’ll get the truth. People will give you unfiltered advice. You don’t want to ask for advice from investors or experts. You want to ask for advice from potential customers, the type of people that you want to purchase the product.
Now there’s a couple of potential ways this call could go. If they are hyper critical, they hate everything you did. They think you suck. They think the software sucks. They think it has no future. Nobody would ever buy it. They just crush you. There’s no sense in trying to get their credit card. There’s no sense in even pitching. You’ve heard all these things, why they wouldn’t want to buy it. Now you can ask them, “What would I have to change? Is there anything you could ever imagine me changing that would make you interested?” That’s an important question to ask.
But let’s say that they are so critical they can’t see anything they could ever find value in what you’re doing. Cool. Just keep it moving. Tell them if it’s cool to keep in touch with them as you change what you’re doing to see if their mind changes about this. And see if everybody you talk about has the same opinion.
Now if they talk to you and they like some things that you’re doing and maybe find that you have to change some things, take that into account. But now start changing the conversation a little bit and ask them, “Hey, if I added these features that you told me about or made these changes, would you truly believe this is a compelling product?”
“Yeah, I think you’d be amazing then.” “Cool. Would you be willing to buy? Would that be enough? If I built these things and do these things that you just told me about, would you want to be a customer?”
That now takes the conversation from a theoretical thing to very concrete proposition for them. It’s going to change how they’re going to respond, and now there’s going to be a new layer of learning. They might go, “Yeah, I would buy if you do this. I would love to be the first customer.” Now that’s amazing. Now we’ve got something.
They might also though tell you, “No, if I’m honest, even if you do these things I couldn’t buy.” And now we’re in the world of harsh truth again. Why? “Why? You just told me if I did these things it would be amazing?” “Yeah, but I don’t have the budget. Yeah, but whatever. I already bought software for three years.”
Now I can ask and learn about the buying process. “Do you find that everybody like you buys software for three, four years at a time?” Could this be a problem I will encounter all the time when I’m trying to get customers? Just try to learn more about that.
Then lastly, some calls, hopefully, once in a while you get somebody that gets really excited and enthusiastic about what you do. You could ask them, “Hey, it seems like you really love what I do and what I have today. What would it take for you to become one of my earliest customers, somebody that might help me build out the roadmap, give me feedback, be an advisor?”
They might just go, “Yeah, we’re ready to go. I want to buy this. I want to be a customer. I want to be an advocate. I want to be a champion for this,” and that’s incredible. But the conversation starts with advice and turns into sales if it makes sense, and when it makes sense, versus going so harsh and cold into the, “You’ve never heard from me. I’ve built something that nobody has ever bought or used, but do you want to give me your time, your valuable time, so I can try to get your money?” That just doesn’t sound that sexy or that cool or that fun to people, and rightfully so probably.
Yeah, it’s a very easy email to just mark as spam or delete from your inbox.
How much of this is quantity versus quality? If I’m an early-stage founder, so I’d be sending hundreds of emails and talking to hundreds of people, or should I just try to have amazing conversations, go as deep as I can and learn as much as I can about selling so that my conversations are just better?
In general, the answer’s always, it depends. There’s a lot of variety. But 99% of the time I would tell you, you try to find a balance between both things. It’s a flawed idea to think all I’m going to do is I’m going to email a million people and then surely those numbers are so high a few hundred people will buy and will jump on a call and it’s going to be all amazing. It’s not. You’re just going to get your email and domain blacklisted and spammed and nothing really good will come out of it.
The flip side is a flawed idea as well though. “Oh, I’m just going to do so much research and I’m going to find the three perfect humans on this planet, and if I talk to these three, everything will fall into place because they’re just perfect.” No, it’s not going to happen, either. You just want to mess around and feel safety through research and time wasted before you jump on a call with just too few people.
You want to find a good balance between both. I typically advice people, sales is both a quantity and quality game, but in the early days I would advise you, commit to sending 50 emails a day. You can research 25 to 50 emails a day from people that are good quality. That’s not an insane amount. But you want to do that and commit to that for at least a month or two, where you’re doing it five days a week.
And the reason why you’re doing that is if you send 25 to 50 people a message you can do a good message to good people. You’ll get three, four, five, six of them to respond. If your first email sucks and you get nobody to respond, now you just wasted one day and twenty-five or fifty emails. Now you can experiment and change the email.
If you’re too successful and everybody wants to talk to you, awesome. Stop. Have your first 25, 30 conversations and then decide if you want to hire somebody to keep doing emails since it’s so successful. But you want to do consistent action as a certain level of activity, because usually there is going to be a funnel, and the funnel is not going to be converting 90% of people you’re reaching out to. That’s not going to happen. It’s going to be a much smaller percentage.
But you want to do it daily so you can adjust. You can improve. You can tweak. You want to find a nice enough balance where you do quality work but you don’t just rely on quality and think you can just email three people and these three people will become each a million dollar contract for you. And if you just spend a year researching those people, you’re never going to have to do a quantity game. It’s going to be a balance of both, I think.
So I’m searching my inbox right now for some sales emails that I sent when I was running Indie Hackers as a for-profit business back in 2017. I was a total sales amateur. Still am, so I had really no idea what I was doing. But the goal was to try to line sponsors for my podcasts, for my mailing list, and for my website.
Here’s one that I sent to a company called Spark Post. They’re an email marketing company. I sent this to somebody in their marketing department. We’ll just call her Jennifer. I said “Hi, Jennifer. I run the Indie Hackers blog/newsletter/podcast, and I recently came across Spark Post while looking into sending email notifications from my community forum. After seeing your for developers, by developers features, I would love to find a way to work together to get Spark Posts in front of the Indie Hackers audience, which consists almost entirely of developers and entrepreneurs. Let me know if you are interested.”
She responded, “Hi, Courtland. Thanks for reaching out. I’d love to chat with you more about this to see how we could work together. Do you have time for a call on Thursday or Friday?” and she sent me some times. So instantly it worked out, but I sent almost that same email but slightly tailored to pertain to the different companies to a bunch of other people, and I’d say I only got success maybe one out of every four or five times. So what are your thoughts, Steli, on that email? What could I have done better? What did I do well?
Well first, let me ask you, what was the subject line? What did you say in the subject line?
The subject was literally just Spark Post + Indie Hackers, so their company name plus my company name.
Plus your company name. All right. Well it’s not a bad subject line. First of all, I always focus on the subject line first, because if people don’t open your email based on the subject line, it doesn’t really matter what the email says. It doesn’t exist.
What you did is industry standard. It’s not bad, but by now I think it’s overused so I would assume that the open rates are much lower for your company name plus my company name. What I would suggest in this case where it’s a sponsorship, in subject lines what I have found to work well is something that raises curiosity without lying. You make a little bit of a promise that makes somebody curious and then you’re delivering on that promise in the text.
So maybe it would be something like the Indie Hackers community at that point is a thousand people. A thousand people are downloading the podcast episodes. That’s early days, or 500 people even. Say I have 500 developers that might be interested in your software. “500 Developers?” For me if I have a subject line in my inbox that says, “1,000 salespeople?” I’m opening that. I’m not sure what it is but I am curious right now. I want to know a little bit more.
Then it can say, “Hey, I have a community of these people, highly engaged, highly smart. They’re all building something and they’re all building email lists. I’m looking for one partner to recommend to my community that is growing that they should use to build their business and build their email list around. I’ve heard some good things about you guys. I’d love to jump on a call and explore if this is going to be the right fit for my community, and if my community is the right fit for you, if you guys would want to be in front of my community.” Something along those lines. I haven’t thought this through too carefully.
But the subject line would be something around maybe the number of audience that you have with a question mark that means, “Is this interesting to you? Do you want to talk to these people?” The value proposition would be, “Here’s an audience that could be great buyers and your product might be great for them. At this point we both don’t know if that’s true but I want to find the answer to this. Do you want to talk to explore and get to a decision if this could be the right audience for you guys and if your tool is the right tool for my audience?”
Ok. So your call to action in your email is very specific. It’s “Do you want to hop on a call?” You’re driving them to get on the phone with you as fast as possible. Why is that important and is that something you need to do in your first email as opposed to several emails later?
I would go for one call to action in the first email. In this specific case I would want to jump on a call. And the reason I would want to jump on a call, again, is because I want to learn more than just yes or no at this stage.
So if start a podcast and I want to do sponsorships, I don't know anything about sponsorships. I don't know how marketing departments decide how much to sponsor. Where is the budget coming from? How do they do the math internally? I want to learn all these things. I don’t just want to hear yes or no.
In our conversation, I can ask so many more questions and learn so many more things that will help shape the next email that I will send or who I’m going to send the next email to. A conversation can be an amazing tool for me to learn. Maybe they’ll even volunteer answers or information I would have never asked. And I go, “Oh, this is how you - oh, interesting! Ok.”
It can be a very powerful tool if you encounter it with curiosity. In the earliest, I would always try to talk to people, in person if possible or on a call in this case, and I would make the call to action very simple. I would not ask open-ended questions. You respond to let me know your thoughts. Now that’s very open-ended.
They have to respond and write out thoughts. What are their thoughts? How do they want to articulate those? That’s a lot of questions they need to figure out on their own, which usually leads to postponing this to later, which then means never.
I like things that are simple decisions. “I’d like to jump on a call. I think 15 minutes is plenty. How about Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. or Thursday at 1:00 p.m. Pacific Time,” so that they know which of these two choices works.
The beauty of the alternative oftentimes is that I can just look at my calendar these two spots and see if one is free, versus if you tell me, “Tell me any time next week that works for you.” Now I have to look at my calendar and decide, where out of all these three spots do I really want to have this conversation? We can just introduce a little more friction so oftentimes they’ll get less response rates.
If you reach out to a highly technical crowd, giving them your calendar link or something, your scheduling link, could be good. But sometimes people don’t like that, so it depends on who you’re reaching out to, but one call to action at the end that’s very specific, where people have to make a decision.
Sometimes when people don’t respond, one little hack that I’ll share here, and I have a lot more hacks. There’s a book that we just released, the Startup Sales Handbook, that has these email templates, these call scripts, all that stuff for free for everybody that’s listening that wants to have that just send me an email at [email protected] Just say “Book” or “Indie Hackers Book” or something, and I’ll know who you are, how you’ve gotten into my inbox and what you want, and I’ll send you a link that has that book with all that information.
One beautiful little hack that fits on this is the 1-2-3 hack, where sometimes when I try to reach somebody multiple times and I don’t get a response, I will send them an email and give them three choices and just ask them to hit reply and give me a number, 1, 2 or 3.
I did this recently, not even in a sales context. I had a person, a really important position that we wanted to hire for. That person had worked with somebody I admire, a founder, a YC founder, that has built a billion dollar business. I wanted to jump on a reference call with that founder and go, “Hey, you worked with this person really closely. Would you recommend me working with him?”
I emailed that founder again and again and again, not getting any response. Eventually, the founder responded to me and said, “Sorry, I don’t have time right now.” And then I replied to that response, “I get it. Just please give me one more reply with 1, 2 or 3. One means you’ve worked with this person. She is amazing. You would hire her for any position, any company. You love her. Number 2 is you worked with her. The relationship was good. Depending on position, depending on context, you might want to work with her again. And number 3 is you’d rather not say.” And he replied with 3.
Just sent me a 3.
And that’s all you needed to hear.
That’s all I needed to hear. Thank you so much. This 1, 2, 3 thing, I’ve used this in a lot of sales situations. A lot of people have now stolen this little idea from me. Such an effective tool, because you can write out a scenario that they don’t have to write out anymore, which is a big point of friction. They can just go, hit reply, “It’s 4.” Like, four is it.
A lot of times in sales it could be, “You’re really interested but need more time. You’re not interested at all, or you didn’t have the time to check this out and right now’s really bad, but you want to hear from me again in a month, in a quarter, whatever.” People really appreciate that. Many people have sent me replies where people wrote out a whole thing that was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the greatest email I’ve ever gotten.”
I would love to get one like that.
It’s so awesome.
Cause when you’re checking your email, no one wants to be checking their email. You always have more important stuff to do. Someone sends you something. If they put a bunch of work on your plate, you don’t want to take 20 minutes of your day to respond because some random person decided to put that work on your plate. But if they did that, it’s so much easier just to be like, “Oh, thank you. It’s 3. I would love to respond but I don’t have the time. Send me more information, or something like that.”
Okay. Back to talking about this cold outreach process, one of the things that I found talking to people and through my own experiences is that it’s much more lucrative to sell to bigger companies, usually. They have more money to spend. They have better processes in place for agreeing to deals and spending their cash.
But as an Indie Hacker, it’s intimidating to sell to big companies. What are your thoughts on that Steli? Is it a misconception that if you’re just starting out you shouldn’t sell to the enterprise, and if you want to sell to bigger companies, are there any special techniques you should keep in mind?
Again, the answer truly is it depends. I do think that as a founder you should not be afraid of any potential customer. You should be open minded, open hearted, and always confident especially in the early days, which is hard because you’re like, “I’m nobody. Nobody knows me. I’m not even a startup. It’s just me in my pajamas. I have nothing really to show for. Where do I get confidence from? I don't know.”
You have to find something in yourself that tells you, “I am valuable. I am building something I believe will create value, and yes, there’s weaknesses that I have, in the sense that I’m an Indie Hacker but there’s great strengths that I have that I need to focus on as well. I can move so much faster. They’re talking to the most knowledgeable person in the world around my product.”
Right. You’re the founder.
You’re the founder. And most likely once you’ve worked on something for even just three, four, five months, you know so much more about this little niche thing than the potential buyers. They don’t think about this all day long. They don’t build these solutions. They’re not experts in this field. So you can really bring something great to the table. You need to know that, and you need to feel that, especially if you ever get a meeting.
A lot of times people are so nervous. They’re like, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to this huge headquarters in this billion dollar business, and here I am, this nothing of a person.” You go all deflated into the meeting, just like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m nobody and these people are so important.”
No, no. There’s a reason they took the meeting. When somebody’s at the table - at the table can be on a phone call, it can be replying to your emails - they’re at the table. It means you have something of interest to them. You bring something of value to them. You might be able to move faster. You might be more knowledgeable, more creative, more flexible. You have value.
You need to feel that and you need to act with that confidence to make big companies and big buyers also confident in doing business with you. Nobody’s going to buy from you because you’re so humble. Nobody’s going to buy from you because they feel a little bad for you because you’re lacking confidence. They’re like, “Let’s buy from this good person to boost up their confidence and their self-esteem.” Nobody wants to do that.
They want to feel like, “Wow, this person knows what they’re doing and we want to be in business with him.” So that’s important to know. I think at times it depends on what you’re selling and what the buying cycle is. If I would recommend you to do that from day one, in year one, or in year five, it depends on how complicated it is.
Here’s the big thing. I talked a little bit about how you should be confident and you should look at even big companies on an equal level, like, “We could be equal partners. Nobody is worth more than me. I bring different things to the table than they do. But they are slow, and they are outdated and they are lazy in some ways. They can’t move fast. These are negatives that they have. You should be aware of them as well,” so that’s important.
The other thing that’s important to understand is it honestly does make a difference if you sell to IBM or to Mary around the corner. IBM doesn’t exist as a single unit entity. IBM is not some kind of a logo with hands and feet and a credit card that make decisions.
IBM is nothing else than a collection of Marys and Johns and Bobs. It’s just a bunch of humans. It doesn’t make that much of a difference. There’s no completely different beast that you’re dealing with. No, it’s humans.
Now the difference is, if you go and sell to Mary, you’re dealing with one human being. If you sell to IBM, you might have to deal with 40 human beings. The problem with human beings is that in and of themselves one human being is a complex organism with opposing ideas and thoughts and feelings and desires and fears. If you have to deal with 40 people, it’s much more complicated, because a lot of these people want very different things.
A lot of these people want things that are in complete opposite, in conflict with each other. So you have to work so much harder. This is why enterprise sales takes so much longer because you have to navigate through the sea of different humans.
The person has different needs. Maybe I just care about my promotion or I care about not losing my job. My department has certain needs. Our department needs to hit certain quarterly numbers and we need to be better than this other department. And then the business has certain needs.
A lot of times Indie Hackers or startup founders go and pitch larges organizations with this flawed idea as if it’s one entity. “Here’s why my product is going to save IBM 5%.” Well I don’t care. I’m Bob. Tell me how this is going to make Bob’s life better. Tell me how this is going to make Bob’s career better. Tell me how this is going to not risk my life, my salary, my mortgage. Address my needs first. Then address my department’s needs, my team’s needs. And then, if it’s also good for the whole organization around the world, cool. Thumbs up. That’s nice. But that’s at the end of what I care about.
I think we as founders or Indie Hackers, you’re so associated with the product and the company that we only think, “Is this good for our company? Is this good for my company, for my startup? Is this good for my product?”
We are so associated with we do that we don’t differentiate between our career, our needs, our department, and the business but in large organizations, people make that differentiation. You need to be aware of it, so you need to just sell on more levels and to more people, so it usually takes a lot more time.
Now there’s certain departments and certain purchases that can go quick, and they have budget and it’s easy for them to give you. A couple thousand bucks is like nothing to them. It doesn’t even show up on anybody’s radar. So you get somebody to give you a $4k payment where if you wanted to go to individuals it would take you forever to get that much money from people.
But I would always make it dependent on how it will typically take for me, and to how many people would I have to talk to get this big so to purchase something from me. If it’s too long, it just might be something you cannot finance in the early days, even if the return is really great.
But you should never not approach a big company because you think you’re too small, you think you’re not important enough or because you think that it’s going to be fundamentally different to sell to them because it’s an organization of complexity. No. It’s just going to be a bunch of people. They are just like you and not any other bunch of people. It’s just going to be a few more people you have to deal with, so that might complicate things.
One of the things that I found weird when selling is that I never really knew if I was doing it the right way. I’d be on a call with somebody and I’m like, “Did I bring the right materials to this call? Am I asking the right questions? How do I sound compared to somebody else they’ve dealt with, because this is my first time?”
I think that hurts your ability to be confident and be persuasive. Steli, how do you prep for a sales call? What kind of materials did you bring to the table? What kind of research did you do? How do you make sure that you can be persuasive and be confident?
Two things. One, don’t worry about it too much. You don’t have to be perfect. If you misspeak once or if you say something that’s a bit weird, don’t get over self-critical. “Oh my gosh, I’m not as charismatic as I could be. I don’t sound like the perfect salesperson.” None of this matters at the end of the day.
I think that what you should bring as preparation into the call is, you should have clarity on what the purpose of the call is and what the outcome should be at the end. What is the conversion? What is the decision we want to make? What is the thing we want to learn?
You should structure a beginning, a middle and an end. You should have some level of clarity. How do you start the call so you have some safety there? What should happen during the middle of the call typically? And how do we end the call. Because if you have clarity on these three steps, it’s going to give you a guiding post if you’re progressing in the right way.
Or if the conversation goes completely off track, it’s going to give you a reminder of, wait a second, we’re talking about the weather for 30 minutes right now. I just got 15 more minutes and I didn’t address any of these things I want to accomplish. I need to steer the conversation back to this.
You should have clarity on these things and never get to a point in the call where you’re like, “Well, huh. What should we talk about now? I don’t really know.” You should design an experience and design a call with a purpose in mind.
Then at the end of the call, you had a goal. You wanted to learn certain things. You wanted to share certain things, and you wanted to get to some kind of a decision at the end. Just ask yourself, “Did we learn these things? Did we talk about these things, and did we make a decision, yes or no? Were they ready to get to that next step in the process?”
If they’re not ready to get to the next step or if you didn’t learn these things, then the next call there’s room for improvement. You need to improve what you do, your focus, the way you communicate, whatever else it is. You can always ask your prospect and customers for feedback on that.
Listen. You don’t need a sales guru in your life to teach you the dark arts of selling. Your customers can teach you everything you need to know. Just use them, not just as pocketbooks and credit card holders, but use them as people that can teach you how to do what you do better.
Ask somebody at the end of a sales conversation, especially if it doesn’t go well. There’s nothing to lose. They tell you no, I don’t want the next step. I’m not interested. There’s nothing worse that can happen. It already was a failure of a call.
Ask them, “Hey, real quick, if I could get your honest advice for two minutes. I’m a founder. I’m an engineer, I’m a developer, I’m a designer in background. I don’t feel like I’m good at these presentation meetings, conversations. Could you give me advice? Help me out here. What could I have done better? What was bad about this conversation? What was bad about my presentation or demo? What would you advise me to improve?”
You’d be surprised. If you make yourself vulnerable, if you open up and if you ask for help, people will trip over themselves to run to your rescue and to give you feedback. So when they go, “Oh, no, no, no. You did well.” And then they're going to say, “Honestly, you shouldn’t talk about this. When you sell to buyers like us, you need to have this prepared and that prepared.”
They’ll tell you. They will tell you.
So sales is a learning experience, not just for what kind of product you should build, but for how you should even sell. They’ll help you become a better salesperson if you just ask.
Think about selling just like another product. You start with an MVP and if you just learn enough and are open enough, you’re going to iterate, iterate, iterate until you have a sales process that works and that sales-process-buyer fit if you want to call it that.
It’s not anything else than a product. It needs experimentation. Nobody knows these things right out of the gate. Obviously if you’re an experienced developer you’re going to build an MVP maybe faster, think about certain things already, not make certain mistakes that you’ve made in the past.
But even if you do something for the very first time, if you move fast and if you’re willing to make mistakes and if you’re willing to learn, you’ll iterate, iterate, iterate and eventually you’re going to land somewhere where people find value in what you're doing and where you find some success. It’s the same thing with sales calls, sales presentations, sales negotiations.
Well listen, Steli. It’s been awesome talking to you. You've given us just a tidbit of your vast wealth of sales knowledge. I know you mentioned an e-book early on, a link for that. Can you tell listeners where they can go to find that and also where they can go to find more about what you’re up to and information about sales in general?
The simplest way to find me is just send me an email, [email protected] Just put in “indie book, startup book,” and I’ll send you a link with all that information. And if you have any questions after this episode, “Hey, I’m an Indie Hacker and this is my number one problem right now,” or, “I really messed this negotiation up,” or “I tried to pitch and this terrible thing happen where I had this lack of clarity or challenger around that.”
Just let me know about these things.
If you just want the book, just send me “book” in the subject line. I’ll know who you are, st[email protected], and I’ll send you the book. But if you have any questions, feedback, or if anything you heard didn’t make sense or you need more, just let me know and I’ll send you all the resources and try to help as much as I can.
All right. Thanks so much, Steli.
Thank you so much.
Listeners, Steli is a super-generous guy, so I encourage you to take him up on his word and email him to get a copy of his e-book or sales advice whenever you need it. Also, if you want to give back to the podcast, I think that’s probably the best thing you can do, reach out to the guest that I’ve had on. Hit them up on Twitter or over email. Just tell them that you heard them on the show, that you learned a lot, and thank them for coming on.
I am also on Twitter. I’m at @csallen, C-S-A-L-L-E-N, and I appreciate hearing from you guys as well. So if you learned something useful for the podcast let me know, or if you have any suggestions at all for guests I should bring on, topics that I could cover, ways that I could make the show better, I’m all ears. It’s hard to get feedback on a podcast, so I love it when you guys reach out to me on Twitter. As always, thank you so much for listening and I will see you next time.
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