The burden of initial success in an early stage company sits on the shoulders of the CEO. Beyond your domain expertise, leadership and financial savvy, you must be able to pitch and close – that is, sell. You must sell your vision for your company and its future success, and you must sell your early marquee accounts on your product or service. No matter what expertise brought you to your CEO position in your entrepreneurial venture, this skill is essential to your early success.
Entrepreneurs start companies from many beginnings – you may be a technologist, or a marketer, an attorney, a CPA or a sales executive. From your perspective, you have found an empty space in the market for which you have a unique solution (see The Investors’ Checklist http://bit.ly/d8hKpN )
Passion for your idea, product, service or company is not enough. One client with no experience in selling or closing was certain his passion and clarity were enough to raise his initial capital. Although I packaged a dynamite presentation for him, he refused to let me train him in pitching and closing, and refused to find training elsewhere. He insisted on going to these investor presentations on his own. In the end, he closed his immediate family, no outside angel groups or private investors, and ultimately couldn’t close his cousins. The problem: he couldn’t bring himself to make the 3rd phone call to continue the pitch and he couldn’t ask for the close. In his embarrassment, he busied himself with operational issues, avoiding his capital raising duties.
Another client was a premier deal maker in his industry, and knew plenty of colleagues with money to invest. In spite of a well-timed good idea, and his own initial capital, and our excellent pitch presentation, he couldn’t raise any capital. This puzzled me, as he was great at pitching. Finally I figured out the problem: in his deal making days, he had the checkbook. When we needed to ask someone else to write a check, he couldn’t close.
Now, if you have a successful background in sales, you will need to fortify your team with the other expertise in finance, technology and so on. Then you can sell your vision to investors to gain capital, and your initial products to create market traction.
But if you do not have sales in your background or in your nature, you must gain some of these skills, and also find this expertise in a key hire or a partner who understands how to pitch and close, and take this person with you. If you are dependent on this person, be sure to compensate him or her well for success.
But you must do more. You must learn the basics of selling, even if you have had no experience or interest in this before – especially if you have had no interest in this before. And I mean you should go through an intensive, professional training program in selling. It may be only a few days’ training, but you need to understand the context of selling, and the tactics of closing. There are a surprising number of folks who can pitch, and not so many who can carry the sale through to the close.
This training will not make you a sales professional, but it will let you understand how to overcome objections, refuse to take “no” for an answer (more times than you can imagine), and strengthen your resolve to keep moving forward in the sales cycle to get to the close (even if you have a sales executive with you). It should help you overcome any shyness or embarrassment when closing.
I remember learning early in my career that the Xerox Sales Training Manual (a bible of training in its time, and now http://bit.ly/ca23IT ) taught that you had not heard the word “no” until after the 8th time it was said. Until that point, everything was simply an objection to be overcome. And then there was a new strategy to handle the 8th “no.” When I explain this to some of my CEO clients, they can not imagine hearing a refusal 8 times and continuing to sell.
So, I don’t mean you have to spend months at Xerox (and they won’t take you anyway). But you must involve yourself deeply in this context and its basic strategies and tactics for these reasons:
- Investors and buyers look to the CEO as the foundation for the future success of the business and its product line. You need capital and revenue from sales as early as possible. You must project the assurance of selling and closing to represent this foundation of success.
- You must not be totally dependent on another person (key employee or partner) to do all the heavy lifting in your company for generating the capital and revenue that is its lifeblood. It weakens your position in the company and your control of your future. Even if that partner is loyal and committed to you and the company, someday the bus runs us over when we are not looking. Loss of that person for any reason can cost you your company if you cannot carry your own weight in closing.
A major U.S. Fund asked me to conduct the due diligence on an investment in a new technology company they were considering. “We like this company but we don’t have the right “next questions” to ask, or the depth of industry expertise to truly understand the risk profile of this investment. Visit the company, conduct your own diligence, and tell us what you think of our risk assessment.” The plan was good and the technology was sound. What was missing was a key sales executive who knew this technology, its market space, and distribution channel development (not an easy set of qualifications to find). The CEO, the Operations and Marketing executives had none of this experience. I reported that the Fund’s risk assessment did not take into account how critical this employee would be, and that the company did not yet have a significant candidate for this role. And so we didn’t know if the company could find one, incent one or keep one. Therefore the risk of the investment was higher than the Fund had considered. This was the key issue that made the Fund pass on the deal.
If anyone on the management team had had this missing experience, and could have established at least initial market traction in sales, the Fund would have invested the $5 million dollars.
Pitching and closing capital and revenue is critical to early stage ventures, and as CEO, you need to be able to support your vision with this skill.