I just saw a job listing for “Startup Sales & Marketing Associate…”

I’m not looking, but I was curious, so I clicked.

It was a locally-based startup (we have a lot of them).  There were plenty of details about what they expected from the position.  I tried to read between the lines to understand what they were really looking for.

Now, I’d actually never heard of this company before looking at this help-wanted ad.  And I don’t know how good or bad their sales currently are.  But from what I read, I could draw some conclusions.

The most damning conclusion I can draw?

They haven’t really figured out how to sell their product yet.

Basically, this is one of those “ground floor” opportunities where you’re shown your plot of land and challenged to build a building there.

Is the product potentially a really valuable product?  I think so.

Is there reason to believe it could be incredibly successful?  Absolutely.

But the way the help-wanted ad was written, it was really a call for help…

“We’re building a product that we don’t really know how to sell, and we hope you’ll come in here and figure that out for us!”

No matter how good of an idea your startup is based on, you as the founder of the company have to figure this part out for yourself.  You have to identify the foundational selling proposition and offer that will work to get your business going.  You have to identify your best prospects, make your first sales, and establish a selling process that works.

If you don’t do that, your startup is never really going to get off the ground.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION: Whether this resonates with you or you completely disagree, this advice is consistent with what I believe is one of the most valuable books any business-builder could read, Ready, Fire, Aim by Michael Masterson (the pen name of Mark Ford).  It’s based on Mark’s observation from building dozens of million-dollar-plus businesses, and two businesses to $100 million and beyond.  He’s not from the Silicon Valley startup “scene” but he’s started enough successful businesses to know what he’s talking about on the topic.  Oh, and you and he share something in common — he’s a Breakthrough Marketing Secrets reader, and has said of my essays, “I’m very impressed with your thinking.”

Back to the main topic.

It’s very easy to focus on the wrong things when building a company…

Here are a few common misadventures in Startup City…

And I’ll note: These misadventures apply to the traditional Silicon Valley-style tech startup, but they also apply to any new business, including solopreneur service providers and others.

— Selling to investors:  Many startups care more about their first or next finance round than they actually do making a real sale to a real customer.  This is backwards thinking.  Investment can be an accelerator of a proven product idea, but shouldn’t be a priority until you have proven market traction.

— Creating a brand:  How good does that website need to be when you aren’t selling yet?  There were thousands of failed dot-com “brands” in the dot-com crash that weren’t anything more than that.  The Silicon Valley stars with actual sales and profits struggled through, recovered, and are today’s leaders.  Brand can be an important asset, but is far less important than sales.

— Creating all the systems except sales systems: You have a great accounting system, HR system, customer support system, fulfillment system, and so on — but no sales or customers to use them on.  Oops.  Should’ve done that the other way around!

— Developing trademarks, patents, and other IP protections:  There are very few businesses where intellectual property protection actually matters (medicine being a top one).  There are fewer still where it matters more than getting your first sales.  If you’re absolutely convinced you need protections on your startup’s IP, make your first sale then file your papers within six months.  If you can’t sell it, it doesn’t matter how well you’re protected.

— Building the perfect product:  I once watched as a startup spent more than two years following getting an investment building a software platform for the investment market.  I had a bad feeling all along.  I just searched for it online, and it appears the company doesn’t exist anymore.  More on minimum viable products in a minute, but you have to sell early to establish that there’s somebody with money to spend that actually cares about your product.

— Decorating your office:  This can be representative of all sorts of misadventures, but if you’re spending more time focused on flooring, paint, desks, and curtains in your new office than you are on selling, you’re doing business wrong.  Even if customers come into the office, you need to start your business by establishing the minimum environment for success, not the ideal.  You can upgrade your decor as you go, once you have sales momentum (and profits to pay for it).

#1 job in any new business is to figure out how to consistently acquire customers at acceptable cost…

I know this is redundant, but I feel like beating this dead horse.

If you’re the founder of the business, if you’re the person whose idea is being turned into reality, it’s up to you to make sure there’s market interest in what you’re offering.

You need to be on the ground, selling, gathering feedback, translating that feedback into improvements to your product or service, staying connected with customers to develop relationships and your ability to meet their needs, and creating all the systems so you can hand this off to others as you grow.

If you’re not able to do this, you can’t hire this out.

And as your business grows from startup to empire, you still need to have your finger on the pulse of this all-important function.

For everything a business needs to do to be successful, it’s the value exchange of products or services for money that makes it all work.

Get that right, you have a business.  Get that wrong, you don’t.

Which brings me to that last point about products…

You must have Minimum Viable Product, but beyond that, you should be selling as fast as possible…

One of my readers, Brett Cohrs, wrote in response to my post on “Give me 5-stars or give me death.”

He commented that I was talking about the battle between ‘ship’ and ‘only ship something that doesn’t suck.’

Which is totally right.

The opposite end of the startup culture from “do anything except sell” is “ship it ASAP.”  And from that side of the spectrum came the concept of the Minimum Viable Product — or MVP.  This is the bare-minimum set of features required to have a product that is worth buying.

The risk in going too far to this end of the spectrum is you lose perspective, and don’t include enough to delight your early adopters.

The product must be viable — in the sense of being both salable, and being able to delight early customers and earn you 5-star reviews.

But once you have that in your startup, your next goal is to sell, sell, sell.

And that’s how to truly get your startup going.

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr