By Geoff Watson | April 2018
If you’re an entrepreneur, have you ever found yourself thinking (or saying): “I’m the only one who can sell my product.” The same narrative exists with investors, who ask themselves “why is the founder the only one who can sell this?” Thus lies the “founder sales conundrum”: if the founder is the only one who can sell the company’s offering, how can you possibly scale the business?
Here’s the bad news: founder cloning technology is not yet commercially available (though apparently, Elon Musk is working on it!). Here’s the good news, there are few, if any, companies where the founder truly is the only one who can sell the product or service. That said, you have to set the right conditions so that other people can sell successfully.
Here are a few of the ways to create a scalable approach to selling that gets early-stage ed and learning tech companies beyond the “founder-only” sales stage:
Simplify the story
Founders embed their origin story into their pitch and often tap their own experiences (e.g., a former instructor who has created a learning technology solution). As told by the entrepreneur, these stories can sound simple but, often, they are deceptively complicated for a new salesperson to replicate. So, it’s incumbent on the founder (and the head of marketing) to analyze the story from the eyes of the prospect and focus on the pieces of the story that are repeatable (see next point on UVP!).
Clarify the Unique Value Proposition (UVP)
Founder-driven sales often rely on outsized vision and charisma (which is extraordinarily powerful, by the way) to secure the early adopter customers. But, what does the first Account Executive or Head of Sales do when the founder is not “in the room”? It’s absolutely critical to keep the DNA of the founder’s story in the pitch, but complement that with absolute clarity on the Unique Value Proposition (UVP) for the company. The UVP requires a distillation of the company and product positioning that anyone in the company – but especially the sales team – can articulate. The UVP takes into account the client need, the product’s unique capabilities, the competition, etc.
Create a disciplined sales process
The founder-driven sales process is usually relationship-oriented and informal. It also often eschews typical steps in the sales process, like “research” and “discovery” in favor of visionary evangelism. This can work for the founder but rarely works for anyone else. In order to scale, the company needs to implement a structured and documented sales process that can be followed by Salesperson #1, #2……#100, etc. While you don’t want to design the sales process around the founder’s unique approach, you can leverage the founder to powerful effect (see next point on the Chief Evangelist).
Let the Chief Evangelist evangelize
The power of the founder’s story – as delivered by the founder – cannot be replicated (this is why they’re the founder!). As more and more organizations want to understand the values and mission of companies they do business with, this personal story can be a real differentiator in a well-designed sales process. Best-in-class companies like Degreed have incorporated the founder into the sales process at the right time and in the right role. As David Blake, founder of Degreed, commented: “I recognized that in order to achieve our mission at scale, we needed to get past me being in every sales meeting. We figured out a way to train our team to tell the Degreed story, and I’m always available to help at key points in the process.” One tip: if you’re a professional salesperson navigating an opportunity, don’t offer the founder up at the drop of a hat. Inviting the founder to a meeting is a big “give,” and should happen after a deal is qualified and only when the decision-maker(s) are in the room. Importantly, founders also play the Chief Evangelist role at larger venues – conferences, webinars, etc. – where many people hear their message (who may later become prospects).
Companies are often the extension of a founders beliefs, values, and ideas – they are unique and typically talented evangelists. What differentiates the “early stage company” from the “scaling company” is the ability to translate the founder’s story into a message and process that all sales and marketing team members can execute on (and improve over time).