Successful Selling Tips for the Technically Gifted

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Successful Selling Tips for the Technically Gifted


Disclaimer:  I’m not a sales person – and I don’t play one on TV.  So, in case you’re wondering what qualifies a technology guy like me to offer advice on sales, my only response is this:  The fact that I’m not a sales person is precisely why you might benefit from some of these tips, given that chances are, you’re not a sales person either.  If it makes you feel any better, and gives you some more confidence in what I have to say, it might help to know that I’ve sold over $20 million dollars worth of software for my startups.   This may not sound like a lot to some of you, but for bootstrapped software startups that haven’t raised outside capital, its not bad.
There is a widely held belief that technology people make terrible sales people.  This is probably true.  But, its also true that you don’t have to be a great sales person to sell.  
My motivation for the title of this article is to focus on technology founders of startups and what they can do to drive early sales of the product.  Many of these tips apply to higher price-point products (as the tips assume that you’re actually selling).  The tips also are geared towards “early stage” software startups (where the product is not in Version 4.0 and you don’t already have a ton of customers).
For purposes of this discussion, I’m going to assume that sales means you’re actually conversing with a customer and trying to get them to part with money for your product.  Though this is a somewhat simplistic definition, it does what we need to put the sales tips below in context.  If your startup can drive revenue without actually talking to customers and having to close deals, more power to you.  You can then focus on marketing (a topic for another article) and not have to worry about the whole ugly “sales” business.  For the rest of you, read on.
Software Sales Tips For The Tecnically Talented
  1. You Don’t Need Sales People, You Need Sales.  This is going to sound obvious, but its an important distinction.  The reason startup founders go out and hire sales people is to…wait for it…make sales!  However, this assumes that the only (or best) way to make early software sales is to hire sales people.  This is simply not true.  If you’ve raised venture capital, have a mostly working product and truly want to “rise to the next level”, that’s great.  Find a great VP of Sales and let them do their thing.  However, if you don’t have the capital, then remember that sales people are simply a “means to an end” and there are other ways to get to that end.  In every successful startup I’ve ever seen, one or more (and ideally all) of the founders were selling. So, what if you as technology founder are not good at selling?  Buddy, you’ve got a long, uphill battle.  My advice to you would be to learn how to sell.  Life will get much easier.  The remaining tips assume that you, as the technology founder, are doing the sales.

  1. Reveal Your Geekiness:  As a general rule, whenever I went on sales meetings for my software startup, I’d begin the meeting with a simple disclaimer:  “I’m not a sales guy, I’m a programmer.  My apologies in advance for not having any PowerPoint slides or a polished sales pitch.  That’s just not my thing.”  Obviously, you shouldn’t say this if it isn’t true.  But, for this article, I’m going to assume it is true and that your primary calling in life and what gets you excited is developing software – not selling.  In my experience, making this kind of disclaimer upfront works wonders.  Customers relax.  You get instant credibility as they (rightfully) assume that you actually know something useful.  You’re not there to just push them to buy whatever whiz-bang product your company happens to have built.  Most customers I’ve met would much rather talk to a programmer than a sales person.

  1. Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood:  Selling software as a startup is very different from the classic stereotypes we have in our heads of what sales is like.  Your focus should be to attempt to understand the customer, not have them understand your offering.  Don’t start a sales conversation by trying to “pitch” the customer on all the features and benefits of your product (as tempting as it may be).  Try to have a semi-structured conversation about their problem.  Understand it. 

  1. Pretend Like You Don’t Already Have A Product:  If you’re anything like me, as the customer is trying to explain their problem, you’re thinking about all the different ways your existing product solves their problem.  Try not to do this too early (you’ll need to do it eventually).  If you start pushing your product too early, you reduce your chances of understanding what the real customer problem is.  You’re looking at the problem through the lens of your existing solution.  That’s not a good thing.  Mentally, see if you can get through most of the meeting pretending like you’re going to take the knowledge the customer is giving you and then you’re going to go back and write the code for the product they want.  Pretend like you need enough information to actually build a product for this customer.  Of course, this is hypothetical, because you already have a product, but it helps to tell yourself you don’t.

  1. Treat The Demo As Evidence Of A “Head Start”:  Chances are, sometime during the course of the sales meeting, you’re going to need to do a demo.  (On a side note, once I got really good at sales, I actually stopped doing demos, but we’ll save that idea for a different article).  When doing the demo, remember that the purpose of the demo is not to demonstrate all (or even most) of the product features.  The purpose of the demo is to provide evidence that you have already developed something that is reasonably close to what the customer thinks she wants.  If you did your job right so far, you have a pretty good idea of what the perfect product would be for the customer (at least in her mind).  Your goal is to demonstrate enough functionality so that the customer gets a sense that you’re “ahead of the game” in giving them what they want.  Key point here:  Customers don’t expect for you to have built the perfect product for their needs already (even if you have), and you lose credibility if you try to convince them of it.   A more effective path is to recognize that the problem they are trying to solve is non-trivial, that they have brilliantly articulated their needs and that you’d like some time to think through if your product might be a good fit.  

  1. Try To Get The Customer To Sell YouThis is not easy and takes a fair amount of finesse, but when it works, it works really well.  I’m not suggesting you try some contrived “reverse psychology” thing like parents might try on their kids or that you’d learn from a Psychology 101 class.  I’m talking about something much more nuanced.  In a healthy customer relationship, there should be a degree of balance.  Sure, the burden is on you to sell the customer, but there should be some reason why the customer would rather buy from you than their other alternatives.  It shouldn’t completely be a case of trying to move a two ton ball uphill on your own.  The customer has to want to buy from you at some level.  My most successful sales calls have been when I worked towards getting the customer to convince me that the relationship was a good fit and we should work together for mutual benefit.  You might think that this is very hard, and you’d be right.  But, if you think its impossible, you may have the wrong product or overestimated the needs of the market (which is a different problem).

  1. Improve The Product Immediately:  When I say immediately, I mean as soon as you can get some quality time with your compiler.  The plan ride back, that very night back at the hotel, whatever.  As a rule, I would be writing code to improve the product and add features after every sales call.  The reason is actually pretty simple.  There is a strong commonality amongst customers and what their needs are (though they may use different words sometimes).  Oddly, if you try to build the same feature yourself its not the same as when you do it in response to a customer meeting.  It just turns out differently.  Trust me on this one.  If you can keep improving the product based on sales meetings, you will increase sales.  Period.  (Obviously, I’m not advocating adding features to your product willy-nilly.  Hopefully, you’re too smart for that and are not going to take me too literally).

Notice that nowhere in these tips do I provide the standard cliché of ABC (“Always Be Closing”).  In today’s market, I just don’t think that works (if it ever did, for the kinds of sales we’re talking about).  Sure, you may ultimately need to ask for the sale, but in more cases than not, the process, if moving smoothly, just naturally progresses into a sale closing.  The best sales calls are when you’re solving a problem together with the customer and have a sense of objectivity about you that the customer trusts.  
On  a final note, I’ll share with you one additional thought:  In my first company, we never called one of these meetings a sales call.  We never asked for a sales call, and customers never brought us in to do a sales call.  Sometimes they were “strategy meetings”, and if we had a pre-existing relationship, they were “technology/product update meetings”.  Our message to our customers were clear:  “We’re not here to sell you, we’re here to help you solve a problem…”
Quick Summary and Wrap-Up:  As a founder, your ability to sell your own product (and not rely on others to do it for you) is one of the biggest predictors of future success.  As the lead developer/architect/designer, nobody knows the product better than you do and this is an immense advantage.  If you are passionate about what you’ve built (and why shouldn’t you be?), then you will get deals done as long as you are honest, committed and focused on the customer.  
How about you?  Any sales tips for the technically gifted that you’ve found particularly effective?

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Wed, May 03, 2006


Nice thoughts...well written.


posted on Wednesday, May 03, 2006 at 1:46 AM by JDoe

My perception is, lots of tech entrepreneurs can handle a customer meeting (these are great tips, though).

The bigger challenge is generating leads, and converting weak phone call leads to in-person meetings where you actually have a chance of establishing a relationship.

I'd love to get your thoughts on how a 7-person startup without a marketing budget or an inside sales team cultivates leads.

posted on Wednesday, May 03, 2006 at 10:01 AM by Thomas H. Ptacek

I think your article was well written. When we are contacted by a client, they either fit into 2 categories. New client or a A client switching from another provider, however they all have one thing in common, a problem. We start out all conversations with our clients with: What are your needs or what problems are you looking to solve?

posted on Wednesday, May 03, 2006 at 10:54 AM by LBurroughs

We, as technical people, would always balk at someone applying a political solution to a technical problem.... however we often fall for the attempt to solve a political problem with a technical solution.

We need to steer clear of all attempts to resolve a customer internal political conflict with a technical solution. Political conflicts require political solutions. If we try to engineer a technical solution to a political problem we only wind up making the technical solution an arbiter of the political problem which makes the 'loser' in that arbitration hate the technical solution.

Almost all customer problems will have both a technical problem as well as a political one. When you propose the technical solution to the technical problem you also have to be able to provide the political solution to the political problem otherwise the technical solution will be viewed as inadequate and will not be implemented.

posted on Wednesday, May 03, 2006 at 1:58 PM by KeyStroke

Great article; I'm exactly in this boat (technical startup founder selling to companies), and it was a terrific read.

Could you talk a bit more (or dedicate a separate post) to how to et these meetings in the first place?

Many people, wheterh contacted "cold" or introduced by others, just don't want to talk to a startup.

posted on Wednesday, May 03, 2006 at 4:35 PM by Denis

To give you a little background... I have been developing POS/business management software for repair shops for 15 years. I was in the auto repair business for nearly 20 years before that. I am the only "sales person" selling my products. I am "semi-retired" but still work at my software development and sales business pretty much full time. <g> I only sell from my web sites using "contact us" and "evaluation request" forms. You can go there and see what I sell and how I sell my software using those forms. I get about 20-30 leads a month that way.

I have had many, many years of pure outside (cold call) sales experience calling on, and selling mostly high tech stuff to, businesses both very large (John Deere) and very small (various repair shops) before I went into business for myself in the auto repair business in 1971.

My strategy has always been, "Show me a problem you are having difficulty solving and I will see if I can show you how I can solve that problem for you.". I sold welding equipment and supplies and the maintenance personnel would take me out into the factory and show me their problems right away. <g> I myself am an accomplished welder so I could usually show them, or at least tell them, how to solve their problem(s) and then the sale was fort of "automatic".

I actually have considerable more difficulty in selling my software even though I pretty much use the same approach. There seems to be two primary reasons for that difficulty. One is that my business management software can be use for several business "niches" and needs some fairly simple "initial setup" work before it can be used. Another one is that potential customers have no realization that most any database type system needs some setup work and then some ongoing maintenance work and when they find out about it they shy away. IOW, in my estimation, most small business owners are NOT knowledgeable and/or sophisticated managers of their businesses and just "run" their business "helter skelter" off the top of their head as the saying goes. They do not have any "formal" way "set up" to conduct or run their business. This usually turns out to be a big problem when they want to get some software to "computerize" their business. IOW, they don't have any historical experience to call upon to do the "initial setup" in a new computerized system for their business. It is far and away the most common "sale stopper" for selling the type of software I develop and sell. <g>

I have found that my potential customers must already be pretty knowledgeable in how to manage ANY business along with also being fairly "computer literate" or they are very poor prospects.

I also subscribe to a couple of lead generating services and get about 20 leads a month from them. I have been getting those leads for a little over a year and have yet to sell anything to one of those leads. The main reason seems to be the lack of "sophistication" and general knowledge of how to go about managing their business using business management sortware as a TOOL for managing their business instead of a MAGIC BULLET for getting their business "back on track" so they can get back to being "competitive".

So I have listed my sales lead generation and selling problems in the way I see them. I hope you can interpolate them into something usefull in your own sales efforts.

Earl Raymond

posted on Thursday, May 04, 2006 at 5:41 PM by Earl Raymond

This is to reply to Mr. Thomas H. Ptacek:

I had exactly the same problem and found that there are actually people who LIKE to generate leads. I hired a small company which does exactly that. I pay them per generated "good" lead, and we agreed on what a "good" lead is. They also support our sales efforts somewhat but essentially, they do the list generation, cold calling and first contact.

Of course, we trained them quite a bit, they have some science background (as ours is a biomedical application) and we focused a lot of attention on the initial leads they generated. We even listened in to several calls etc.

For this to work, you will need to spend time preparing, but I find it much more useful than having an in-house sales person. We're so small that large volume of "sales calls" would kill our R&D, so 2-4 a week are perfect for us.

Good luck,


posted on Thursday, May 04, 2006 at 8:06 PM by Olga

Well, it took my software startup several years to achieve $10m sales, so perhaps I'm less qualified. We sold shrink-wrap with possible customisation, and my selling was mostly around the customisation. On the other hand, once I sold out of that business I made a decent living selling fixed-price consultancy service (not specially related to my former software products).
My perception is that startups typically lack the confidence to demand committment from the customer.
It doesn't have to be a sale- that will come later. Just a two way commitment- "You will do this by then, and then we will do that".
Something like "You will feed back on your current product by month end, then we will respond to your comments by a week later and aim to deliver an updated evaluation copy by this time next month".
Or "You will list your top 3 business issues by mid month and we will mock up a potential solution to at least one by mid next month".
The important feature sof this agreement are: they have to take the next step (your current prouct) and deadlines, both ways.
Look your customer in the eye, state the agreement and get at least a nod back, leave immediately (shake hands on the way out) then write them a letter (as well as an email) confirmiing it when you get back home. It doesn't matter whether they reply.
If they fail to meet their modest target, forget them and move on.
If they meet their target, ramp up your approach to them.

posted on Wednesday, May 10, 2006 at 8:41 AM by Graham Harris

l need several topic

posted on Saturday, July 14, 2007 at 3:29 PM by oussou-accrah roger

I found this mail especially useful.Its fabulos to find them here,even as i already knew of some i still found them insightful.Thanks

posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 10:18 AM by John Orafa,Esq

Wow. Got funneled here after reading your piece re: Google Page Rank on Hubspot. 
Remarkably well explained and well written. Thanks for the way you craft your words, as well as the message. 
Jeff Yablon 
President & CEO 
Answer Guy Computer Care, Business Coaching and Virtual Assistant Services

posted on Friday, September 04, 2009 at 10:31 PM by Jeff Yablon

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