You can build it, but can you sell it?

I’m not an engineer, scientist or technologist, nor have I every played one on TV. But I’ve found after many years of mentoring technology startups, it’s not about the technology.

In fact what I fell my mentees is I certainly believe that they can build what they say they plan to build (Though I haven’t run into invisibility cloak or perpetual motion machine inventors, yet.)

But the big question is: can you (or some 3rd party) sell it?

Too many entrepreneurs focus totally on the supply side, creating the product and seem to have an “If I will build it, they will come” attitude. Where I find most startups need help is almost always in a non-technical area: customer acquisition, team building, raising capital, creating partnerships, and other, what have been called “soft skills.”

There are always a few exceptions where the product or service is either something I am very familiar with or pretty straightforward, where I can add value in advice about features or functions – usually suggesting how to cut some to get to market sooner. But mainly I confine myself to recommendations for usability testing, A/B testing, minimal path implementation (presentation, demo, prototype, beta, MVP), tech support, feature/function prioritization, and similar issues.

And the time to start finding out if you or a third party can sell your product or service needs to be done in parallel with product development, not after you have developed your product. See Steve Blank on customer development.

Hunters & Skinners

As one of my investors once told me, there are two types of people in startups: hunters and skinners. I usually put it another way: there are two jobs in a startup, build the product and sell it. That’s it. Everything else is overhead, or if a must-have, like legal services, is outsourced.

Know yourself, and know your team. Nothing worse than having someone playing out of position. Personally, I’m not a hunter. My only sales experience has been selling equity. I’m a skinner, back at the office, building products and the organization.

As another VC told me, the highest paid person in a startup should be your VP of Sales. Because if that person is hitting or exceeding their quota and pulling down big incentive bonuses then the value of your company is going to rise as is its chances of success. As a founder you should be focused on building lasting value, not on what your salary is, or where you rank on the salary scale.

Of course, these days with the intense battle for engineering talent and the focus on ecommerce the skinners are catching up or surpassing the hunters in compensation.

Just like a football team needs both an offense and defense, every startup needs sales and product development. But as they say about football, defense wins championships and in startups sales (and the business model) may well do the same.

Validating your business concept

Obviously the best way to validate your business concept is to build your product or service and acquire paying, profitable customers for it.

But going from concept to a revenue-generating product can take a long time and a lot of resources. Are there any leading indicators that can tell you that you’re on to something of value?

Here’s two, that are related.

One, can you find a partner? Doing a startup is very, very hard work. Having a partner or partners to share that work can help improve the odds of your success and be more fun and rewarding as well. If you are having trouble finding anyone who expresses interest in working with you that can be a red flag. Conversely, if you do find people who are interested in joining your venture that can tell you that you’re on to something, especially if they are veterans of startups.

Second, sales people by their nature have a nose for rewarding opportunities. They tend to be more short-term focused than marketing people. Good sales people are very hard to find, are in very short supply, and can be very choosy about what company they join. So if your venture can attract a sales person early on that’s a promising sign that your venture has potential to make money.