If your startup is selling a product to another business, the key to acquiring customers is sales and marketing.
For many of us just beginning in startups, sales and marketing can be confusing and unknown. It sure was for me when I first started.
Startups Customers is a guide to sales and marketing for B2B technical startup founders and employees. It explains the fundamentals so you can understand what the business people are actually doing. Enjoy!
The Customer Journey
Sales and marketing are simply the tools and strategies that we use to help people become customers.
Imagine the journey that a person takes to becoming our customer.
They have a problem that needs to be solved.
They discover our product as a solution.
They research, ask questions and test our product.
They make a decision to become a customer.
To help visualize this journey, we are going to use a handy diagram known as the sales & marketing funnel. The funnel illustrates the process of a person finding out about our product and all of the steps they take to become a customer.
In the funnel, the person’s journey happens in 4 steps: Targets > Leads > Opportunities > Customers. The further a person gets through the funnel, the more likely they are to become a customer. Let's dig in to the first step of the journey.
The sales and marketing funnel is the holy grail of customer acquisition. See how it works at startupsheartcustomers.com.
Let’s pretend that we have an imaginary example startup called Crazy Cookies, and we offer a cookie delivery subscription service. Our customers can pay a monthly fee and have fresh, delicious cookies delivered to their offices. I know… it’s genius!
Our goal is to bake the best cookies in town and sell as many monthly subscriptions as we can.
You may think to yourself, “We make these awesome cookies… everyone is going to want one. No scratch that, they are going to want a hundred!”
Well... not quite. There are definitely some people that will want to buy our cookies, but the question is, who are they?
To figure out who they are, we need to do some marketing. We can break down marketing into four parts:
Understanding our targets
Finding targets (and making them leads)
Showing leads our product
Converting leads to opportunities
Let's start with the Part 1 of Marketing: we need to understand our target's demographics, behavior and preferences. That information combined makes up a Customer Persona: an outline describing our target customer in detail.
In the case of Crazy Cookies, companies could become our customers if they:
Have employees that like the taste of cookies (hey, some people prefer salad...)
Have enough employees where it makes sense to provide office snacks
Have enough budget for office snacks
If we talk to 100 potential customers that fit those requirements, suppose we find that the majority of them are companies that more specifically:
Have between 10 and 50 employees
Have raised at least $500K in funding
Already use a subscription food delivery service for other grocery items
Everyone that fits that criteria has the potential to become a customer. That makes them a Target and they are in the first step of the customer journey (the first step in our funnel). All of these targets combined make up a startup’s Target Market.
We now understand generally who our targets are, but we don't know them specifically (i.e. we don't have their names, emails or phone numbers). We need to now get their contact information so we can engage with them further. Each target that we identify with contact information becomes a lead.
In the next section, we'll explore the next three parts of marketing: how to find targets and make them leads, how to show them our product and how to move them forward to the next step of the journey.
If you’re a good marketing person, you have to be a little crazy.
Now that we understand our targets, we need to actually find them. Remember, each target that we find automatically moves to the next step of the journey and becomes a lead. Finding leads is Part 2 of marketing.
We can find leads a couple of different ways:
Purchase a list of leads (well that sounds easy...)
Find leads ourselves using marketing tactics
We can easily buy a huge list of leads (i.e. all of our targets with their names, email addresses and phone numbers). Services like Data.com offer these lists for sale.
Beware, this can be expensive and the lists are not always accurate. While it provides instant gratification, purchasing these lists is not the recommended way to find leads.
The better way: finding leads ourselves.
We can use marketing tactics to find leads and tell them about our product. There are a couple of different tactics that we can use:
Outbound is often known as "old marketing" and refers to our team pushing our product to a big group of targets. For example, outbound marketing may involve:
Advertising (TV, radio, billboards, etc)
The goal of Outbound marketing is for targets to respond to our advertisements, walk up to our booth at a tradeshow or click our banner ad. If they do, and they meet the criteria of a target, they become leads.
Not surprisingly, outbound marketing is not the most effective way to get leads. People are more likely than ever to tune out "old" marketing. On top of that, this type of marketing is notoriously expensive and it is difficult to measure its success.
The best way: inbound marketing.
Inbound marketing is a set of strategies that help targets find us.
While outbound marketing is interruptive and "pushes" unwanted content, like a commercial, to our targets, inbound marketing "pulls" our targets to us by providing interesting, useful content and resources for them. For example:
Free ebooks & whitepapers
All of these items are considered content. With Inbound marketing, we create useful content, share it on social media and "pull" people to our website, where they will eventually provide us with their contact information in order to access our content. When they do, they become leads.
For Crazy Cookies, people that are interested in our product might type into google “cookie delivery" or “top 5 best cookies in the U.S.” To help get people to find our website, we may also place Google ads or sponsored social media ads.
If we are using Inbound marketing, when our targets search those topics on Google, they will find links to our blog that has several interesting cookie recipes. They will even find a beautiful ebook filled with pictures of hot, fresh cookies. This content is a delight to read for anyone that loves cookies (a perfect potential customer for us!)
To access that ebook, people need to first provide us with their names and email addresses. They are willing to do this because the ebook is so interesting to them.
Once we have that contact information, we can begin sending them email marketing with more content or call them to see if we can answer any questions they have about cookies.
Most importantly, we can share information that relates to Crazy Cookies and convince them to proceed in the journey towards becoming customers. Sharing this information about Crazy Cookies is part 3 of marketing: showing leads our product.
Infrastructure: the tools for success.
Imagine if we start a blog with cookie recipes and soon enough, we have 1,000 leads reading our articles and signing up for our newsletter. Every week, we share more articles and videos and ebooks, and soon, we have 10,000 leads to talk to.
How do we keep track of all 10,000 leads? Do you remember who you emailed last week? Didn’t you tell another lead that you were going to follow up on Tuesday?
In order to stay sane and keep track of our leads, we need infrastructure (software and tools) to make our jobs easier. There are a few items that are most important:
Marketing automation software
Reliable phone system
The mothership: CRM software.
Imagine the CRM (Customer Relationship Management software) as the brain or "mothership" of your sales and marketing team. The CRM is used to track every person that enters our funnel and that we interact with.
Every time a lead downloads an ebook, or speaks to us on the phone, that action is tracked in the CRM. Each time we engage with that lead, we have a record of what we have told them so far and what we need to do to move them along in the journey.
Below are some of the popular CRMs available:
Salesforce is often regarded as the top CRM, esspecially as your startup grows.
A Marketing automation system is software that we use to carry out our marketing tactics, from writing a blog to sharing on social media to creating our website. It is the ultimate all-in-one marketing tool and a requirement for succesful marketing.
HubSpot inbound software helps attract visitors, convert leads, and close customers.
If we are building an inside sales team, we are going to need a reliable phone system. Trying to do sales with only cell phones gets chaotic quickly. Plus, we never want to have a dropped call in the middle of a sales demo.
Most of these solutions are VOIP (voice over IP), which means the phone connects to the Internet instead of a jack. This makes it easy to scale more phones as needed.
Grasshopper is great for the early stage with a forwarding 1-800 number.
For successful sales and marketing, the CRM, marketing automation system and phones are tightly integrated and share data between themselves. This ensures that everyone on the team can see the most up-to-date information about a lead.
Measuring success: marketing metrics.
Now that we are doing all of this fantastic marketing, how do we know if it is working? We must constantly measure our progress and track if we are effective. Below are a few metrics that we will want to track (hover for details).
Leads per day
Number of leads we get each day. Remember, that is the amount of targets that we identify contact information for.
Leads per channel
Number of leads we get from each channel, such as our blog vs. social media vs. ebook downloads. We then focus on the best channels.
How many people visit our website. The more visitors, the more people to see our content and potentially become leads.
Email open rate
How many people open our emails. If they open the email and read the content, they are more likely to move forward in the journey.
How many people provide their contact information to download content, like an ebook. Each one that does becomes a lead.
Cost per channel
The amount of money we spend on a channel (i.e. social media) divided by the number of leads we get from that channel.
We’ve now covered the basic marketing tactics to engage targets, identify the ones that are most likely to become customers, use inbound marketing content to capture their contact information and convert them to leads.
That next step of the journey is big... it’s where we start to bring sales into the mix.
Which sales and marketing metrics are most important for startups? Learn the fundamentals at startupsheartcustomers.com.
We have arrived at the Opportunities step of the funnel. To get here, leads must meet criteria that indicate they are ready, willing and able to become customers in a given period of time.
To move to the opportunities step, a lead for Crazy Cookies must:
Have a budget to subscribe to cookie delivery
Have the authority to make a purchase decision
Be looking to begin their subscription in the next 60 days
Be considering Crazy Cookies (and perhaps other vendors) to get cookies from
By meeting this criteria, a lead becomes qualified. The process of qualifying a lead is critical because we want to make sure we are using our sales resources to talk to people who can actually become customers.
Once someone moves to the Opportunities step, it’s time to involve marketing’s partner in crime: sales. We only want to leverage sales tactics for people that have made it to this step since they are most likely to become customers.
Sales tactics are different than marketing tactics. They often involve a sales representative engaging directly with a person in the opportunity stage. There are a few ways that we can use sales to interact with people in our funnel:
Some products are simple enough that a person can go to our website and become a customer without talking to a sales representative. These are automated sales.
Many SaaS products can be purchased online, and of course ecommerce sites fall into this category. Often startups that are B2C (sell directly to consumers) use this model.
The big and expensive way: outside sales.
With outside sales, in-person meetings are often a requirement, and our sales team needs to be on the road meeting with people who are in the opportunity step of the funnel. Needless to say, this is expensive and time-consuming.
Outside sales is often necessary when our product is:
Extremely complex and requires an in-person demo
Highly relationship driven and requires many meetings
Used by a C-level executive (i.e. CEO)
There are many exceptions where inside sales will also work in those situations.
The B2B startup way: inside sales.
With inside sales, the selling happens over the phone. Thus, our sales team stays “inside” our office and rarely needs to travel to an opportunity’s location.
For many software companies, this model makes the most sense because it is far more cost effective and scalable than having our sales team travel to meetings.
A product with a lower price is often best fit for the inside sales model. However, there are many successful companies that sell million dollar products over the phone. Often, startups will use a mix of inside and outside sales strategies.
Because so many startups use an inside sales model primarily, let’s dig into how it works. Converting opportunities to customers using sales happens in a few steps:
Demo & discover
Engage & solidify
Qualifying leads involves speaking to people at the lead stage, determining if they meet our criteria to become opportunities, and if so, scheduling time for them to learn about our product in a sales meeting.
The person who makes this happen is a:
Sales Development Rep (SDR)
The SDR is an entry-level sales person who interacts with leads, confirms that they are qualified, shares basic information about our product, and schedules meetings (often a phone call and online demo). More specifically, the SDR:
Cold calls leads that have downloaded our ebooks
Follows up with leads that have recently visited our website
Sends our content to people in their network or on social media
Keeps track of every interaction in our CRM
SDRs can often be recent graduates with minimal sales experience. The right SDR is incredibly persistent, aggressive, not afraid of rejection and methodically organized.
"I focus on lead generation and strategic prospecting. It's a super fast-paced environment... my goal is to schedule a ton of meetings with qualifed leads."
Now that our SDRs have scheduled meetings with qualified leads, we need someone more experienced to speak to qualified leads, understand their problems and demonstrate how our product will provide a solution.
The person responsible for making this part happen is a:
Account Executive (AE)
The Account Executive is a more experienced sales-person who only engages with qualified leads. Often, Account Executives are former SDRs who were promoted. Their role involves:
Discovering an opportunity's problems and finding a solution with our product
Sharing information about our product by doing a live, online demo
Answering questions about how the product works
Navigating legal or bureaucratic red-tape that could slow down a sale
AE’s need to be exceptional at dealing with people, reading emotions and answering product questions. They also need to aggressively follow up in a respectful manner.
An important aspect of the AE’s role is consultative selling. This involves the AE approaching customers not as a sales-person, but as a consultant. AE’s serve as subject matter experts and help people find effective solutions to their problems.
Much of this happens during the sales meeting. For software startups, this is typically a demo where the opportunity can see an AE's screen and walk through the product. Throughout, the AE answers questions and simulates how the product is used.
"Identify pains. Show how life will be better. Consult and enable. It’s all about building trust and helping people taste success."
Note that in an outside sales model, the AE is the person that goes out to meet opportunities at sales meetings. For early startups, one person might play both the role of SDR and AE. This is okay in the beginning, but quickly becomes unsustainable.
Closing: the final step to become a customer.
We can't start talking about closing without watching Alec Baldwin's epic and NSFW speech from the 1994 movie Glengarry Glen Ross.
Closing is converting an opportunity to a customer and concluding the journey.
Hopefully most modern sales teams are not as aggressive as depicted in the video.
Closing is an art that requires practice, patience, and some serious people skills. More specifically, the AE that closes needs to:
Reiterate solutions to the person's problems
Here, an AE practices consultative selling to ensure people at the opportunity step understand how our product will address their needs effectively. This is the key that moves them to the final step of the funnel.
Squash sales objections
People at the opportunity step will always come up with reasons why they can’t proceed to becoming a customer. For example:
The product is too expensive
The product is missing a key feature
The decision maker isn’t ready to become a customer yet
Our goal is to address those sales objections and demonstrate why they are not valid.
Quickly handle contracts
For a higher priced product (or software that is paid annually), the Account Executive often needs to send a contract to people at the opportunity stage and ensure they sign it to officially become a customer.
Sometimes, there will be questions from their legal department and changes requested for the contract. We want to minimize this since it often prolongs closing.
Follow up and follow up again
Throughout the closing process, the AE serves as a cheerleader, reassuring an opportunity that our product will solve their problems. This means following up regularly and providing additional information, speaking to a boss, etc to close.
Close and get a new customer
Once we squash any sales objections, get the product approved, and send a contract (or have the person pay online and sign digitally), we have a new customer!
Tying it together: management and operations.
Closing takes a team. Behind great Sales Development Reps (SDRs) and Account Executives (AEs), there are people supporting them in management and operations.
The role of the sales manager is to keep SDRs and AEs organized and on-task. He or she is often a more experienced sales-person (who was promoted from an AE) who can coach younger people on the sales team.
The ideal sales manager is a player-coach: someone who is willing to teach and also roll up their sleeves and assist in closing deals. The Sales Manager might initially be the founder, then a Senior Account Executive and then perhaps a VP of Sales.
Along with the sales manager, there are people handing sales operations. They are responsible for:
Managing the CRM and ensuring it is up-to-date
Documenting process and training SDRs and AEs on best practices
Analyzing data and analytics to improve the sales process
As the team grows, sales operations becomes more important to keep everyone efficient and productive.
Sales tools: eliminating the tedious.
When we are sending out tons of emails and dialing the phones many times each day, we need tools that can make tedious processes, like data entry, easier. Luckily, there are a wealth of tools available to help our sales team perform. Just a few include:
Sidekick gives your email superpowers with contact insights, tracking & scheduling.
Just as we did for marketing, we also need to carefully measure our performance in sales. Tools like InsightSquared, featured above, make it easy to track these metrics. Below are a few metrics that we should track (hover for details).
The amount of deals that we close in a period of time. Many of our goals will be based on the total dollar value of these closes.
It is insightful to analyze the deals that walked away from becoming a customer. The reasons they said "no" help us make future decisions.
The length of time from when we find a lead to when they become a customer. We want this duration to be as short as possible.
Average sales price
The average dollar value of each deal we close. Our goal is to make that value as high as possible by optimizing the price and upselling.
The amount of customers that renew their contract. It's hard to close new customers, so we want to keep the ones we have.
Closes per rep
The amount of closes from each sales rep. This metric helps us predict growth and can guide us on how many new sales reps to hire.
Alignment: syncing sales and marketing.
Now that we understand how to measure sales, it's important to see how connected it is to marketing. Therefore, we need to make sure that the tactics that marketing uses are tightly aligned with the tactics that sales uses.
If marketing converts 100 targets to leads and then 50 become opportunities, is sales ready to speak with each one and move them closer to subscribing to Crazy Cookies? Does the sales team have the collateral (i.e. FAQs, brochures, etc) it needs?
This is referred to as sales-marketing alignment. To do it effectively, we need to:
Have joint, connected goals
Our sales and marketing goals should be planned together. The sales team relies on marketing to bring in qualified leads and the marketing team relies on sales to engage and close. Each needs to do its part to succeed.
Open a clear line of communication
The leaders of sales and marketing on our team should be meeting regularly, reviewing progress and discussing any challenges.
Develop a Sales-Marketing Agreement
This is simply a clear outline (with measurable goals) that defines what marketing and sales are each responsible for. The agreement might dictate that each month, marketing will generate 100 leads, and sales will reach out to them within 24 hours.
Building a sales team? Check out the guide to sales and marketing basics for tech founders/employees: startupsheartcustomers.com
Now that we have closed new customers, we need to continue to engage them to ensure that they are happy. Customers that are happy will renew their contracts and maybe even spend more. That makes sales and marketing easier.
We've reached the end of the journey... the "bottom" of our funnel.
Throughout Startups Customers, we covered everything from defining our targets to acquiring leads to closing customers.
You now understand the basics of sales and marketing for a B2B startup. Well done!
My name is Greg Skloot and I'm an entrepreneur, obsessed with tech and early stage operations. Previously, I was co-founder and CEO of Attend.com ($3M VC funding, 30 employees) and COO of influencers@ (bootstrapped, 15 employees). I'd love your feedback! Feel free to Tweet @GregSkloot or shoot me an email.