Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sell What You Have Today

From my first tech business through the last one, I cared about serving customers. Some people call that sales, but to me it was matching the customer's needs with something affordable that would serve them well. 

There were nights when I didn't get home until 11, because I was at a PC customer's house trying to fix a computer I sold them that was running on the highly unreliable Windows 3.1, on top of hardware that might have been unreliable. 

I cared about the outcome. The money mattered, but my customers deserved stuff that just worked, and I was selling stuff that at the time didn't just work. 

With ChiliSoft, I was dying to get the first sale. Saloman Brothers bought Chili!Reports when it was still in beta. It was so satisfying--a large company wanted our stuff, we had made the right call, we were getting paid for it, and the customer was forgiving enough to pay during beta. 

And that wasn't even the product that would change everything. 

With Mission Research, we spent a few years researching while selling software services to the United Way of New York City, and used that to build out our framework. 

There was always another deal around the corner if we could find the interest and try to match the need with a solution. 

It's basic stuff. 

Then we released GiftWorks 2005 in fall of 2004 (using the auto-industry naming cycle). The product wasn't great--not really ready for primetime. But we were running out of investment and services cash, and it was time to show that we could attract customers and prove the theory.

We sold what we had to sell, and worked toward a better product. 

It was slow going the first year; we ended with maybe 250 customers, some of which actually paid. Since we were the low-cost alternative to much more expensive, poorly designed crap, we didn't really make very much. 

But we sold what we could at that time. 

Then we came out with a much better product based on feedback from those early customers and jumped to close to 2000 customers over the following 18 months. I can't remember the numbers exactly. 

The point is, sell what you have today. 

I'm looking around my apartment and thinking about that. I haven't finished writing the book. I haven't finished the software; two years ago I was way ahead of the curve, and now I'm slightly behind it with that. 

So what can I sell today?  

Well, we'll see. Sometimes you have to sell people on the promise, and then work like hell to over-deliver. Sometimes you just sell yourself. 

This came up for me because one of the founders I've been talking with has this crazy notion that he should turn down investment, which is pretty much on the table, from known investors no less. Few startups have the luxury to have their R&D funded.

But he has some nutty ethic that he should sell what he has today. And I disagreed with him, and still do to some extent. I think you should do both. If you can take the heat off by taking investment at a reasonable valuation, and build a small team to kick ass faster, you say yes. Make it happen. At least get the commitments in writing.

But either way, start selling what you have today, and if you don't quite have it, see if you can sell the promise of it. There are ways to structure selling promises so that it's almost a no-brainer for your customer, helpful to you, and not an impediment to selling to other customers down the road. 

That early revenue and customer is really key for creating a foundation for your business. 

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