Startup Selling 101

February 11, 2015 Ryan Kurt

Our sales organization was recently invited by the Startup Institute of Chicago (SIC) to teach a series of classes on ‘Selling at Startups’.  If you are not familiar with the Startup Institute, it is an organization focused on providing students with hands-on experiences and networking opportunities through eight-week immersive programs featuring curriculum shaped and delivered by expert practitioners from a global network of hiring partner companies.  Students choose from a variety of technical tracks, including Web Development, Web Design, Technical Marketing and, my favorite, Sales & Account Management.

The sessions were at a minimum extremely productive, and at best enlightening for both the teacher (me) and the students (a group of 9 motivated individuals seeking a new sales career for a Chicago-based start-up).

Within the first five minutes of teaching the class, it was clear everyone had done their homework and was eager to download as much information out of my salesperson brain as possible.

Q: “Can an engineer learn how to become a sales person? (A: Trick question, everyone at a startup is a sales person… but yes, for sure)

Q: “Do the core fundamentals of selling at a large company still apply in a startup? (A: Yes, but I’ve found there are additional rules that apply in companies with new innovative products)

Q: “Are you hiring?” (A: YES!)

The irony of teaching is the teacher often learns just as much as the student.  Below are the key takeaways that my students learned (in their own words) about selling at a startup and that I learned about being the best salesperson I can be.

Lessons Learned:

Inbound leads are essential to rapid growth

Inbound leads and inbound interest, i.e. prospects approaching your company, are critical to success.  In order for qualified leads to seek you out, sales and marketing must work together to identify the right types of prospects for your product (company type, business problems, roles and responsibilities, etc.) and to craft the right message, at the right time, in the right way, to maximize the number of prospects coming to you.  This probably sounds intuitive, but in my experience it is painstaking work to ensure the correct tailored message is reaching the right audience in exactly the right way.

Every interaction is a representation of your company

Every conversation and communication with an inbound lead is an opportunity to educate people about your product.  While many prospects won’t end up becoming customers, if they have a positive experience with your organization and find your product interesting, there’s a good chance they will talk about your product with their colleagues and friends/ family.  Many of our existing customers came to know Narrative Science through positive reinforcement from individuals inside their network, or company, that had also interacted with our sales team.

There’s no comparison to learning through real-world experiences

We put a lot of energy into finding the most inspiring and pragmatic practitioners in the Chicago ecosystem to mentor our students. It makes all the difference for both the students and the companies that hire them. – Lisa Schumacher, Program Director, Startup Institute Chicago

What separates the Startup Institute from other educational opportunities is the immersive experience provided by the instructors.  It’s one thing to hear an instructor preach about the benefits of expanding your prospecting funnel.  It’s quite another to have someone who is currently in the field explain the tips, trials and successes of actually qualifying prospects and identifying business opportunities.

I was able to teach the students in my class the ins-and-outs of startup selling, however during class breaks, the students taught me a great deal through their experiences as well.  For example, I learned intelligent and creative ways to analyze a prospect database by creating personas based on demographic and behavioral information.  Acting upon these insights had a positive impact in the quality of my initial ‘pitch’ to customers, as I could tailor the appropriate message to that persona.

Idea sharing and networking with talented and motivated people creates a fertile environment for great ideas and unearths beneficial relationships.  A big thank you to the Startup Institute for giving me the opportunity!

Ryan didn’t just teach students in our sales track, he gave them an insider’s look into inbound sales from his daily experiences at Narrative Science. From qualifying prospects to identifying business opportunities, Ryan led insightful discussions and hands-on engagements, sharing key tips on what to expect working in sales at a high-growth company. – Carlin Thomas, Program Manager and Fall ‘14 Sales Track Alumna, Startup Institute Chicago


Ryan works on the Business Development team at Narrative Science. Connect with Ryan on Google + and Twitter.

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