Your first clients - how to win over the 'cool kids'

In my last post, I wrote about a very important question I often get asked by entrepreneurs, "how do I win my first clients?". My answer to this isn't just "how" but critically includes "who". I suggest you start with that post before continuing. In this post, I'll cover how you win over what I call the 'cool kids' - the people that are the most respected in whatever industry you are trying to win.

First, you need to realize that not everyone is a born salesperson. It sure makes it easier if you are that type of CEO because it makes it easier to identify people that can sell like you can. But this is rare - Steve Jobs was certainly one of the best examples. I highly recommend you read the book Selling The Wheel to get familiar with the type of salespeople you need to hire at different stages of your company. This book is steeped in the knowledge of how to scale your sales team, written by people that constantly consult in this area (and thank you to Bijoy Goswami, founder of Bootstrap Austin, for the recommendation to read this book eight years ago). If you are just beginning, you need to hire someone like "Cassius the Closer", who in the fable of the book invented different uses of the wheel for his clients (e.g., Egyptians building the pyramids) because the entrepreneur/inventor couldn't himself sell his own creation. Salespeople are a very unique breed of people, and I love them for it. They will bring you revenue, delight your clients (the right salespeople care about the ultimate value delivered - not just the sale), and ultimately increase the valuation of your company and your ability to create jobs and realize your entrepreneurial dreams. Respecting them deeply is a must.

Second, on that point of respect you need to create a sales-driven culture. I cannot emphasize this enough. It is another aspect of the mindset I described in my post on the five critical ingredients to build a large company. At Coremetrics, I built more of an engineering-driven culture. As the founder, that was more of my personality at that time, having grown up as a programmer. The engineer assumes that the product "will sell itself", and this mindset couldn't be more wrong. Omniture, by contrast, built a sales-driven culture. Omniture turned into the market leader and blew past Coremetrics. Coremetrics had a good outcome by most entrepreneurial standards but not nearly as good as Omniture's, which was acquired for $1.8 billion by Adobe. I wasn't about to make the same mistake at Bazaarvoice, and I'm proud to say that Michael Osborne, our first VP of Sales, and I worked hard to create a sales-driven culture. Brant Barton, my co-founder, also played a major role as did Sam Decker, our founding CMO. It helped that me, Michael, and Brant had all come from Coremetrics and learned that lesson - and it helped that Sam Decker was also a natural born salesperson. How do you create a sales-driven culture? First, you hire truly passionate and convincing sales people. I describe how to do that in my post on recruiting, which is the most important thing you can focus on to build a great culture. And then, second, you emphasize the importance of selling across the company. Sales is an incredibly difficult job where you are constantly facing rejection and you are ultimately winning the revenue that allows all of the other functions to get funded - so sales deserves the ultimate respect. You create traditions where you celebrate new client wins. At Bazaarvoice, we celebrate new client wins with our gong, where we all gather around and discuss the win. This tradition extended to our clients where we send them mini-gongs and they celebrate the win with us over the phone or sometimes in person. The bond this creates between Bazaarvoice and its clients is truly unique. Another way to emphasize the importance of selling is to recognize the heroes - the largest quota winners - at events, such as an annual sales club or a quarterly off-site. When Bazaarvoice was smaller, we had these off-sites every quarter at the Alamo Drafthouse, where everyone could let down their hair versus the stuffiness of a typical corporate venue. When the sales team beat a major stretch goal, they all dressed up as Elvis and stormed into the Alamo Drafthouse, surprising us all, to celebrate their trip to Vegas. Here is a photo of Michael Osborne that I'll never forget from that day. The energy was electric. It was a bonding moment for Bazaarvoice almost like no other.

Yet another way to emphasize sales across the company is to create a mythology around it. For us, this was the color green and our SellStrong bands. On the final days of the quarter, everyone at Bazaarvoice dressed in green to emphasize company unity - that we were all in this together and we would win as a team. SellStrong deserves another post and I'll write that later - it helped define our culture and is worthy of writing about how it evolved.

Third, you need a really great demo. When you start your company, you have no credibility other than your background. Some backgrounds are better than others. When I started Coremetrics, I was relatively unknown even though I had already started three small companies prior. When I started Bazaarvoice, I had a reputation due to my success with Coremetrics and also my status as a member of the Board (again, read my prior post to understand this). So at Coremetrics, it was imperative to focus on creating an amazing demo. Coremetrics invented the enterprise-scale Web beacon (or data tags) data collection for Web analytics. Prior to Coremetrics, enterprise solutions like Accrue or Net.Genesis used log files or sniffed network packets - and these enterprise software solutions were both inaccurate and required a massive investment of implementation time. To make the point about how different the Coremetrics approach was as one of the first Software as a Service companies back in 1999, I would show a demo of my eCommerce site, BodyMatrix, and have someone click around, looking at different products and putting some in their shopping cart. I was then able to show a client the real-time view of their data and essentially replay the actions they just took. I would then explain how I could collect this data from tens of thousands of individuals - all in real-time - and build a lifetime profile of all of their customers' interactions. That lifetime profile would allow you to track the behavior of customers across many sessions and ultimately the data could be used to later personalize email campaigns and on-site campaigns, among other things. This demo blew people away and it was revolutionary for the industry at that point in time. I'm now working with two companies that have revolutionary demos like this and you should see clients' reactions to it. Later on, your credibility comes from the fact that you won the cool kids in the space and they are raving about the impact you are having on their business. But at the beginning, it is all about the demo. So invest in it and make it sizzle.

Fourth, build a great Board of Advisors of people from that industry. You can give your advisors anywhere from 0.05% to 0.25% of equity in your company, depending on who they are, and then turn them into an action network to win your initial clients or enter a new market vertical. It is easier to do this than it may sound. The entrepreneurial spirit is very much alive in our country - our founding fathers had it in 1776 - and we are used to helping each other achieve our dreams as we are a country of mostly self-made entrepreneurs. And these advisors will not only help you with introductions to potential clients, they can also be valuable at helping you shape your solution. With your initial clients and advisors, you need to listen carefully to their recommendations. At Coremetrics, our demo blew people away because we actually listened to what their needs were. We built the solution that they wanted. But, importantly, we applied our own lens to not go down ratholes and create one-off functionality. We focused on the needs they had that the majority of the market shared. I followed this same formula throughout Bazaarvoice's history too.

So there you have it. Both who to win and how to win them. At the holiday party a few months ago, the Bazaarvoice team was kind enough to give me this gong, signed by all of them, and proudly on display at our home. This represents years of SellingStrong together, and changing the world in the process.