When you have a brilliant business idea, it’s easy to want to jump right into the sales and marketing stage.
But according to Jen Abel, that’s typically a colossal waste of money - and an early failing point for many startups.
Jen’s work at JJELLYFISH revolves around helping B2B founders validate their business models and achieve go-to-market success.
As part of our Wynter Games virtual event, Jen shared that the very first thing founders need to do is collect insights on their target market.
Early founders should purse founder-led sales
There’s a common error that Jen sees new founders make often: delegating work to others too quickly.
It’s understandable why founders whose wheelhouse is engineering or product would want to delegate.
There are multiple reasons why delegating early on is a big mistake
The first reason is that if a founder doesn’t have enough vision to do things like navigate early sales or design the company logo, a brand new hire certainly won’t be able to either.
In the earliest days, a founder should have their hand on every piece, both large and small.
The next reason is that successful startups are often driven by the charismatic vision and energy of their founders.
As the person who had the great business idea in the first place, who better than the founder to get out there and excite early adopters?
“If a founder cannot do it first cold, a non-founder will never be able to."
"And what we mean by that is the vision and the value coming from the founder is what is going to get an early adopter excited by working with an early-stage startup,” said Jen.
When is the right time to bring on additional bodies?
Jen recommends waiting to build out a sales team until you have 2-3 early adopting customers and some level of incoming revenue.
Because before you reach the critical point where customers are willing to pay for your product.
It’s going to be very difficult to outline your vision in a way that a sales team can successfully reference and leverage.
That’s not to say that as a founder you have to go it alone, without any help at all.
It just means that you need to be the one with your hands on the steering wheel.
“Have a commercial copilot alongside you, but do not delegate this,” said Jen. “That's why most startups fail.”
Identify an urgent problem
Apart from delegating, the secondary reason that many startups fail is neglecting to identify a good product-market fit.
And the key to doing that is to identify an urgent and specific problem.
“It first comes down to what is the specific problem you are solving in the marketplace, right?” said Jen.
“And then the hypothesis becomes who do we believe is facing that problem with a high sense of frequency or a high sense of intensity.”
Casting a wide net wastes valuable time and money.
Instead, startups should identify a pressing problem first, then find out which user groups are suffering the most from that problem.
As you navigate and answer this question, you’ll be able to zero in on the key group of people you should be marketing to.
Reach out using a problem statement
Once you identify who you will reach out to, how you do so is equally important.
Jen said that when you present your product or service to potential customers, you should be reaching out with a “problem statement.”
“You're reaching out with a problem statement, not a solution statement.
‘Here is a problem we are passionate about solving. Is this something that you are facing as well?’ You can inspire someone through a problem statement,” said Jen.
“That's a pretty powerful indicator that this is someone that you are going to want to learn from and potentially build a partnership with.”
Test your problem theory with cold outreach
How do you know that the problem you’ve identified is a big enough problem to get results?
According to Jen, the test is whether you are successful with cold outreach to executives and target customers.
“If you can inspire someone cold regarding a problem statement, that is a leading indicator that you might be targeting the right person,” said Jen.
“And what we mean by that is if, you know, if I reached out to you and I said, Hey, would you be open to a chat? I'm deeply passionate about solving X.
And you respond, but you have no idea who I am. And you're going to give me 30 minutes of your time as an executive.
That, to me says a lot about the potential implications you might be facing.”
Many startups make the mistake of exploring only “warm” introductions in the early days.
But those introductions can often be misleading.
A friend of a friend might only be taking a call as a favor to their friend, and not out of a genuine interest in your work.
“Someone taking an intro call on behalf of someone else doesn't do you any benefits in terms of validating the problem and the messaging,” said Jen.
“What you want to do is understand if you can inspire someone cold first.”
That cold outreach can take place through LinkedIn, email, or phone calls. Jen recommends prioritizing LinkedIn to reach out to people like HR executives and sales contacts.
Save email for reaching out to executives, or do both simultaneously and see what works.
Save phone calls for people whose number you already have, as modern spam filters will make it difficult to reach cold prospects.
Avoid a “nice-to-have” product
What is your product isn’t solving a critical problem? Is it still worth pursuing a “nice to have” problem?
Jen said that the short answer is no - it’s not worth moving forward if your problem is not urgent.
Jen used the example of vitamins.
They’re nice to have, and they are supposedly good for you. But many people don’t take a daily vitamin, and if they do they may or may not see visible results.
But if someone has a migraine, they reach for Tylenol immediately. They have a literal, pressing pain that they know the pain medication will solve.
A headache is an example of physical pain, and business pains operate in the same way. Businesses with an urgent pain will seek out and be attentive to solutions.
“When you're coming to the table with a vitamin, I would really, really strongly suggest looking at repositioning yourself because no one's going to go through either the switching costs or just the pain of re-training the team on how to do a process if it's just a nice to have,” said Jen.
Pain points are what drives change.
Successful startups are those who can identify those pain points and solve them in a meaningful way.
A “nice to have” vitamin solution typically just won’t cut it.
Invest in sales first, marketing second
Once you are ready to to-to-market, that means it’s time to invest in scaling your team.
While many startups pour early resources into marketing, Jen’s experience is that sales outreach is more valuable early on.
“You need to be spearfishing in the early days. You need to be really learning and going deep and narrow on a very specific target market,” said Jen.
If you want to learn about your market and build up convincing messaging, sales is the way to do that.
“What we say is, listen, don't spend too much time, you know, trying to figure out marketing and trying to scale it because we still don't even know what the problem statement is that's going to excite this market,” said Jen.
More importantly, sales conversations can illuminate the harsh realities of your market.
Feedback from those one-on-one sales discussions may be positive or negative, and both types of feedback are valuable.
“You're going to get that harsh reality and feedback like, Hey, this is not something that we're interested in. Hey, I'm not really interested in a second call." You're not going to get that from marketing,” Jen said.
“So sales is really where you should be spending your time on in the early days. Once you get that insight and that evidence you can now then spend that money appropriately in marketing.”
Once you have 4-5 paying customers and you feel confident about your problem statement and the resulting revenue, then it’s time to spend money on marketing initiatives.
The momentum of having several happy, excited customers using your product is important.
“Beforehand boy, there's also a lot of marketing waste,” said Jen. “And I think that's why conversions are so low in the early days, especially on the marketing front, because the messaging you're using might not even be relevant.”
How Zoom found success in a crowded market
To wrap up, we’ll end with one of Jen’s favorite examples of a success story: Zoom.
Before Zoom, there was already a thriving market for video call services. And compared to existing video technology, Zoom’s technology is not markedly superior.
So how did they come to dominate the market?
“They weren't market creating. They weren't doing anything super special. In fact, I don't even know if their technology is even better,” said Jen.
“What they did was they actually spoke one-on-one to users, and let people log in to the interview through Zoom.
And what they realized was the pain point they were solving for was that people spent 15 minutes trying to log into their video conferencing service.”
What Zoom did was uncover a major pain point to video conferencing: the ability to quickly join a call from any device.
Before Zooms, attendees on a call would struggle with software downloads and device compatibility. This struggle wasted valuable time.
With Zoom, a single URL allowed universal access to any person, using any device. By doubling down on this pain point and solving it, Zoom was able to find dominance in an existing market.
“They were solving a secondary pain point. The primary job to be done was how do I connect with someone video through video conferencing, which there was a lot of solutions out there,” said Jen.
“The secondary job to be done was how do I do it effectively as possible so that I'm not wasting any time.”
Now, everyone from business executives to grandmothers can easily enjoy the power of video conferencing with Zoom.
Don’t create inside a vacuum
The moral of this story is that you can’t create a useful product in a vacuum. Without talking to your target market, you can’t identify their pain point.
And without identifying their pain point, you can’t offer a problem-based statement that will successfully sell your product.
And if you aren’t able to start selling your product, then scaling your sales and marketing initiatives prematurely will be a waste of time and money.
“So many people spend so much time developing a product in a vacuum without talking to the market,” said Jen.
“Having an idea and testing that idea by just mentioning a problem statement out into the market can be a very interesting way to collect some leading indicators of are you on right track?”
The value of a dozen productive conversations cannot be underestimated.
Because once you start identifying recurring themes, you know you’re onto something.
“Try and inspire 10 executives, 10 buyers,” Jen challenged.
“Get 10 conversations under your belt.Maybe even record them just to relisten and play back to yourself. You're going to start to pick up themes.”
Soon, those conversations will lead to the “aha” moments that will power the future of your business.
You can watch Jen's talk about the topic here.