For some reason, startup advice has always been about tips for non-technical founders — or how they could scoop one of us up. But what about us technical founders?
Yeah, we’re creative. But that creativity doesn’t automatically translate to sales and marketing. A number of fellow “nerds” have developed kick-ass products that led to no more than a swift ass kicking once they hit the market. My first venture is no exception.
I tried (and failed) to launch my first software company from my home in the Dominican Republic, without recognizing that it’s not only about building a great product: it’s about building the right product in the right market, at the right time. It took a number of years — with the help of hard-earned lessons from experience, some books, webinars and conferences — to finally learn the non-technical keys to success. But, now that I have, here’s how you other technical founders should approach sales and marketing:
Fill an existing market need; don’t create one.
Most technical founders have it backwards; they build a product and then figure out how to market it. However, successful marketing of a tech product actually begins well before any product development takes place. The first step is to identify an existing — and painful — problem or need in the market, and assess how you can meet those needs far better than the current solutions.
Building your product for an existing market need is so important, in fact, that not doing so was found to be the No. 1 reason startups fail in an astonishing 42 percent of cases, according to CB Insights. This analysis highlights the fact that, ultimately, building a need for your product is a losing proposition. So, scrap the idea that you can find success by chance, and that one of your ideas will magically stick; instead, take the time to first figure out what the market wants, and how you can serve it better than the existing solutions.
In his book, Breakthrough Advertising, author and legendary copywriter Eugene M. Schwartz taught me best: “Let me repeat. This mass desire must already be there. It must already exist. You cannot create it. And you cannot fight it. But, you can — and must — direct it, channel it. focus it onto your particular product.”
As Schwartz suggests, marketing is all about knowing the customers, and building products that specifically address their desires. So how do you come up with that right solution and guide product development accordingly? Start by mapping out the best experience that exists for customers right now, and think about how it differs from their ideal experience. Then use this mental map to pinpoint each of the pain points along the customer journey, and imagine how they currently go about relieving that pain — and how you could eliminate those pain points altogether.
Identifying customer pain points is a crucial step, as it gives you deep insight into the shortcomings of current solutions. Accordingly, a deep understanding of what customers want creates various opportunities to drive your product development. For example, looking at negative reviews of competitors’ products is an easy way to quickly recognize potential business opportunities. Additionally, by mining information from websites like Quora related to your topic, you can get a feel for certain problems that exist in the current market and gauge your ability to solve them.
Design around a pain point; validate by getting paid for it.
Even after recognizing existing opportunities in the market, you shouldn’t jump straight to product development. Instead, you must first identify the one pain point that is sharpest for customers and validate that they would find your potential solution valuable.
Identifying the right pain point is not a mental exercise, though. You need to ask customers directly — but not in the traditional sense of surveys. Customers speak loudest with their wallets, and you will know you’ve found a winning business opportunity when they have a pain they’re willing to pay you to alleviate — even without a product to offer them up front. For this reason, never offer your service to early customers for free; the feedback you receive by getting paid is the exact validation you need to begin developing your product.
“[I]t is about helping to shape the largest and strongest market possible, and then intensifying that market’s reaction to its basic need or problem, and to the ‘exclusive’ solution you have to offer it,” writes Schwartz in his book. Translating this to startups: It is less about building a better product, and more about exploiting an intense need, where your job is to build a product that is the ideal solution.
This approach draws on design thinking in the sense that you have to care about the customer experience, and design a solution specifically with their biggest frustrations in mind. If you’re able to do this, and have confirmed the need for your solution already exists, you have already won half the battle of selling your product.
Drum up demand with a loss leader.
Selling a new invention is never easy. People who need your product don’t even know a solution exists, so they might not be looking for it. So how do you make people aware that you have a solution to their problem?
Start by understanding how the market currently goes about satisfying its needs and solving its problems, and then piggyback off that to market your own solution. The goal is to tap into the existing demand of the market and use it as demand generation for your product. Sometimes this requires you to introduce a loss leader that you can give away at cost or for free. In our case with RankSense, for example, people were already searching for free SEO assessments, so we built a free tool for that as a way to reach customers and make them aware of our true offering.
Providing a solution that already exists in the market at cost or for free is the most effective way to generate demand for what you are actually trying to sell. You can find potential customers using lots of criteria in your ideal customer profile, but the best ones to sell to are the ones who have already purchased from you. Therefore, using a loss leader allows you to hook customers early in their buyer’s journey and drum up demand for your other offerings.
Ultimately, a key thing to keep in mind is that marketing and sales for a tech product can and should happen well before any product development takes place. So, even for us founders who have more technical skills than soft skills, there are plenty of ways to build a successful business through this strategic approach to sales and marketing.