I was only 21 when I co-founded my first real company.

Prior to that, I had been working for a bit more than three years at two different companies. My jobs were mainly technical (as an engineer), but I also happened to meet prospects and customers with salesmen.

On this first entrepreneurial adventure, we weren't exactly sure about everyone's role. I can't recall exactly how it happened, but I ended up being in charge of what we called business development. Back in the day, it essentially meant making phone calls, visiting people who accepted to meet after said phone calls and attending entrepreneur meet-ups at the Chamber of Commerce or at the French union of employers.

I had really no idea what I was doing.

We didn't have any process and the goals were unclear. We made tons of phone calls to numbers we found in a business directory. We weren't targeting a specific market, convinced that all kind of companies needed our services.

I also didn't have a clear pitch to declaim to potentials customers. I was fishing for interest and positive feedback because I thought these were what would make the sale.

It changed a bit when someone undertook to teach me the basics.

He gave me a process that I could understand and follow, and after a few weeks I wasn't feeling as overwhelmed.

That's what I offer you to work on together. Let's take some time to elaborate a plan with two goals: reducing the feeling of being overwhelmed and kick starting your selling adventure.

Of course, what I'll develop in a while is not (at all?) what I learnt and used 8 years ago. But using experience and what I read from experts since then, I can suggest some efficient information and tricks to rely on.

It took me quite some time to understand how important the preparation work is for selling. We can't just throw ourselves out into the wild and start talking to anybody with the hope of selling something.

Before engaging with people, we need to figure out certain crucial information about our environment. I call this process mapping your ecosystem.

Mapping your ecosystem basically consists in asking questions about your customers and the way they behave.

I'll guide you through the whole process.

Who are the primary customers?

That seems so obvious.
So obvious I couldn't say how many times I skipped answering it. What a mistake!

This is the first and probably most important question we, as entrepreneurs, have to answer. Yet a lot of us assume we don't need to waste our time thinking about it and even less writing it down. After all, we know who we are targeting with our product.

Please let me say it for us one more time. Big mistake.

Here's a way to proceed: pretend you are writing it for someone else.

For example, even though this website is not selling anything per se:

Entrepreneur Loop primarily focuses on first-time entrepreneurs, starting or running B2B companies that sell digital products or related services.

If you have several (two, ideally, not more than three) kinds of customers, write the same type of description for every one of them.

Be specific: if you look at my example, I don't just say "entrepreneurs", but specify their experience (first time entrepreneurs), the kind of company they are growing (B2B) and even what they sell (digital products or related services).

Where do they hangout? How could I meet them?

I used to work on a project of a company that would have addressed a known pain for health professionals (and their patients): the planning management.

During the validation phase, my associate would take appointments with dentists and doctors, in an attempt to pre-sell the product by showing them the proof of concept (basically interfaces printed on laminated A3 and two videos for the most curious).

These would take place directly at their facilities. In clear: between two patients' rendez-vous.

Now that I'm writing it, I realise how naive we were.

How could they possibly be interested in something disrupting their working habits, introduced in 10 minutes in the middle of a workday?

In such a short allocated time, you can't properly introduce yourself, discuss with the prospects about their problems AND offer your solution.

I know what you're thinking: sometimes we don't have a better option than scheduling a formal appointment. After all, sales are also supposed to be governed by conventions.

Although, when possible, try to find another way to meet your potential customers out of their direct work environment.

More concretely, it means you should attend conferences, workshops or conventions to establish the first contact.

So, second zone on our map: events and places to frequent in order to establish first contact.

For example, Entrepreneur Loop's audience can hangout:

  • At the Chamber of commerce
  • in dedicated meet-ups
  • Business school associations for alumni usually have an entrepreneurs group
  • at digital related events / conventions

Something worth mentioning here: in some cases, the user or department your product (or service) is destined for, isn't the one buying it.

For instance, a product that helps developers to be more productive wouldn't necessarily be bought directly by the developers themselves. They probably have to follow a buying process that involves their manager, and even the CFO if the budget is high enough.

You should take time to meet both the typical user and the typical decider. Determine how you will present your product to both stake holders. The idea is, a financial officer will probably take a more careful look at the cost, whereas a manager will more likely put her focus on the productivity.

Which brings us to the buying process of your typical customer.

How do they buy?

We now know who our customers are and where we'll meet them. But before rushing there, we need a better understanding of how they buy.

A way to do it is by interviewing (link to conduct an interview blog post) a bunch of customers. It doesn't have to be formal at all: inviting them for a coffee is a perfectly acceptable option.

Be honest and explain you are studying their industry to improve your marketing. Don't be selling. Really focus on getting to know the person in front of you.

The plus of this non-selling meeting? You might have established a relationship with a future customer.

I jotted down some relevant questions to ask during this appointment.

Where do they find new products or services?

Do they read industry-related magazines? do they hire consultants?

If they are already using a substitue to your product, try and find out how and from whom they bought it.

Who do they take advice from?

Who do they consult? Find influencers and prescribers.

You might also want to understand how important the recommendations are in the process of buying the kind of services you offer.

This can vary from one industry to another and it could be a good cheat code to spot precisely those prescribers that can introduce you to your target customers.

Another hack: Competition study

When lost, remember you are not alone on the market you are addressing. And even if you are, chances are that there are companies already selling painkillers for the identified problem you are solving.

That's why I highly recommend that you study your competitors. Observe what conferences they go to, how they communicate on social networks, the kind of advertisement they publish.

Be a real investigator.

This work will also help you to highlight the differences (to your advantage) between your product and the existing ones.
That's really precious information to possess when you want to pitch investors, partners or even customers.

And if you really can't find any competitor, study a similar industry and its ecosystem.

Here's an example applied to a catering business.

Last year, I did some advising for a Japanese restaurant.
When discussing a way to develop his turnover without increasing the size of the restaurant, two potential solutions emerged: raise the price (possible but not quite easy) or offer complementary services.

One of these services could have been office deliveries.
But then, how could they evaluate if it was a viable idea in a medium French town where workers usually use their lunch breaks to go to the restaurant.

Instead of just publishing an ad and giving away flyers to random companies, a solution could have been to do some competition research.

Finding out if other restaurants were doing it, during a few days follow one of their delivery men to see the kind of companies that have workers ordering food for lunch.

All these questions should help you prepare for the big jump: selling.

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