#fyi: Bootstrappers need Sales First, Not Marketing

Today I'm going to introduce to you a valuable lesson I've learned about how damaging it is to trade Sales for Marketing...

Back in 2016 when I launched Shoppe, the first thing I did after I pressed the launch button was to go reach out to 15 customers in my network that I knew would find tremendous value from my product. I gave them the product for free. I sold and developed partnerships.

Low and behold, 9 months later we were on track for $1M ARR and business was like that scene from the Grinch on the night before Christmas where people are rushing the store to buy their last minute gifts. It was nuts. It was nuts because we had been developing our business by selling and making deals with customers.

Never had I ever had over $10k in a bank account before this time and suddenly, within two months, had amassed more than my annual salary from the job I was currently employed in.

And it clouded my judgement... Big time! It made me comfortable, it made me lazy, and worst of all; it made me stop selling my product.

You see, it was at this time that I stopped going out and selling my products to people, which required lots of hard work and guts. It had required that I put myself out there and allow someone to reject my product, which was my baby! Instead I started to take the easy way out with ads and content marketing, not realizing how valuable it was to continually keep pitching my product to customers.

It was a lot easier to just "post something" to social media, rather than DM a potential customer to pitch them. And I did the easier thing.

As a result of an incredibly weak sales game, our business suffered. Growth began to dip, and our product quickly fell out of relevancy as time went on because I started to take the easy way out.

It took me until 2019 to realize that I had committed a huge no-no with my thinking about growth... I had put marketing first before sales. It must be the other way around! Every successful indie hacker out there will tell you that they first sold.

Now I'm not saying that Ads and Content Marketing are necessarily bad, but using those as a replacement for sales in the beginning stages of your startup can be extremely damaging. Shoppe didn't grow as big as it did with marketing. Marketing is the long game that hopefully gets you some organics in the future. In the beginning sales is what gets you the influx of customers you need to validate your product and pivot to a viable business model.

Having a strong sales game is a huge advantage that you will always have over any other product in the market because it requires you to know exactly who your ideal customer is and what their pain points are. But most critical to your startup is the constant refining of your message (your pitch) to your customers that constantly happens in order for you to remain effective at selling your product. The result of which is a product that rapidly evolves as you continue to learn further about your customer's needs and make changes based on feedback from sales.

You don't get the same short feedback loop from marketing.

When you're just starting out your business, having feedback loops that are short and concise are critical to your success. You need to know as soon as possible where customers are dropping off.

As Makers, we need to force ourselves to diligently get feedback BEFORE we make.

This is now the successful formula I apply to any new ventures:

Step One: Sell to a new ideal customer (and current customers) to learn from what they say. What are their pain points? What objections do they have? Do they have a need for your product?
Step Two: Iterate the plan for your product to continue to fit their needs and then execute that plan until sales tell you otherwise.
Step Three: Repeat and never stop repeating everrrrrr.

It works both before you build widget A or after. The point is that you make sure to put customer feedback central to your business. In a time where most likely your market is hyper competitive, short feedback loops are the key to a successful growth strategy. You can't grow without more customers, and customers won't come to you unless your product fulfills several of their needs. You need to fulfills those needs as quickly as possible.

And so today, I have a couple points to impart on you:

  1. Make the commitment today to do things that are uncomfortable. Be "Extra Ordinary." If this was easy, everyone would be doing it.
  2. Sales & business development come first. Then marketing.
  3. Shorten your feedback loops! Make it easy for customers to tell you something is wrong.

#fyi #growth

  1. 2

    Can you please explain one thing that unfortunately I can't get?
    Why do you separate marketing and sales? In your article, it looks like they are opposite, but in practice, marketing is just a tool for sales. You can do sales without marketing but what's the point? Doing marketing without sales is much, much harder, takes much more time and may be very demotivating and frustrating.
    I agree that some people writing a next blog post think they are doing "marketing" but it's a just one of many ways to find customers (the blog post will appeal right people).
    So, in my opinion:

    • if you just write a blog post and then do nothing AND if it doesn't bring customers it's not marketing.
    • If you write a blog post and then carefully get contacts of interested people it's marketing.
    • If you write a blog post and it brings customers - is it marketing? why not?
    • If you write a blog post, gather contacts and try to do sales - it's sales doing with marketing - why do you think it's wrong?
    1. 2

      Here's my loose definition of sales and marketing:

      Marketing - Focused on growing a brand to be bigger in the marketplace. Marketing is about raising awareness that you exist and driving people to your products through both inbound & outbound methods.

      Sales - Focused on getting in front of a customer and closing them on your product/idea/service. Sales is much more 1-on-1 focused and focused on the "close."

      I agree that they both have a ton of cross-over between the two, but they are distinctly different in that marketing is focused on promotion with the goal of conversions, while sales is focused strictly on the exchange of a commodity for money. In my businesses the exchange of my product for money is exactly what I need in the beginning to get it off the ground.

      When you focus on sales:

      • You seek out customers 1-on-1 and give them individual attention.
      • You worry about your message rather than some flashy campaign or promotional video.
      • You get clear feedback about where your product or message lacks value.
      • You set goals everyday to reach out to x number of potential customers.

      When you focus on marketing:

      • You promote content to a group of people with the goal of driving engagement from a percentage.
      • You have wayyyy less 1-on-1 exchanges of words with potential customers which is a big downfall in the beginning when you are trying to learn exactly what your product needs to look like to make them pay you money. (Your feedback loops are less immediate)

      There has been no faster way for me to iterate my message and my product than when I focused on sales. When you try to close people, especially 1-on-1, you learn sooo fast where your business is lacking in value for them. The feedback from these interactions is invaluable in the beginning, and it leads to much strong marketing campaigns because you learn exactly what you need to say to resonate with your ideal customer.

      1. 1

        I accidentally deleted my comment :((
        @csallen please add undo!
        What I wrote was I still don't think that marketing is bad and there are just 2 approaches - one is focused on the product and feedback about it and the second is focused on the message (ideally we would use both).
        As a true introvert, I prefer the first way - and from the feedback point of view, it doesn't matter how you got the customer - in 1-on-1 sales, or through the funnel. Of course, talking to prospects could help with refining the message, but should it be the main thing to be focused on? I'm not sure.

        1. 2

          I don't think marketing is bad or that you shouldn't do it either. My point is that you should launch with sales because the feedback loops are so much shorter which is vital to the product.

          If you have a strong marketing strategy and you know what the message is you need to spread, then by all means do marketing. Most people aren't at that place early on.

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        This comment was deleted 2 years ago.

  2. 1

    This is an excellent write-up @rlfrahm, thank you! Would love to see more information on how you identified your target market, found out where they hang out, and reached out to them for Shoppe. Site looks slick, by the way :D

    1. 1

      When we first started I was my own customer! 😊 Which was a huge advantage in terms of knowing who my ideal customer is, what pain points I'm solving, where other customers hang out, and also what the product needs to look like. Our particular niche was very word-of-mouth heavy, so we initially reached out to several influencers (via Facebook) to gain their influence, which then spread our brand.

      Most of my business is done through Facebook and Instagram as that is where droves of my customers are located. For every product I've launched since then I have searched for ideal customers through there and then DM'ed them with my "hook" message, or some words that grab their attention and show them immediate value.

      If I had to focus on another niche, I would first identify who the customers are in that niche, what pain points they have (usually by talking one-on-one), search around the internet to figure out where they hang out (Facebook, Reddit, Insta, YouTube, etc), and then ideally DM them if possible. If the platform didn't support DM's, I'd try to DM them some other way. Once I had that setup then I would start testing my messaging to droves of them via DM's and optimize it for response rate.

      Once I started gaining opt-ins I would start testing look-alike audience ads through FB/Google with the messaging that gets the best response rate to double down on influx of customers.

      1. 1

        That is awesome, thank you!

  3. 1

    Hey Ryan, I agree with everything you said. Most of the technical founders are afraid to put themselves in a direct conversation with the customer.

    And not only for sales, that's available for product validation too. Instead of talking to as many potential customers to understand their pains and build a product FOR them, they (we) tend to stick to our comfort zone.

    The latter can be more dangerous for business than leaving money on the table.

    One question: As a founder, when do you think you should stop handling sales yourself and delegate?

    1. 1

      Thanks for reading!

      One question: As a founder, when do you think you should stop handling sales yourself and delegate?

      It depends on what your strengths & interests are. If you're weak at sales and don't want to focus on it, then it makes sense to delegate early. You need to delegate away your weaknesses as early as you can.

  4. 1

    I think that for a technical/product oriented person it's hard. I closed my first customer on sales not marketing, but I still try to find a way to avoid it unconsciously.

    It may be rooted in fear of rejection.

    1. 1


      I am a technical/product oriented person and I have a huge fear of rejection that causes me to self-sabotage A LOT when I focus on reaching out to customers directly.

      For me it's a muscle that I have to constantly exercise to get stronger. I have to continually remind myself that if I am providing value to the customer, they should love what I have to offer!

  5. 1

    I agree!

    First time founders don't spend nearly enough time doing sales, and way too much time thinking about marketing and coding.

    For people reading this who are a bit lost about where to begin with sales, I run a podcast where you can learn actionable sales lessons from great founders and salespeople. Also, the close.io blog is great too :)

    1. 1

      If you're looking for sales courses I recommend Brian G. Burns' courses. He's been doing the Brutal Truth about Sales and Selling for years with hundreds of interviews. 😁

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