Pitching your big idea to potential investors is hard enough, but imagine trying to make a sale to leads without providing much detail about your company. That’s the reality salespeople have to navigate at stealth mode startups, where the product is unknown and there is no track record of successful sales to follow.
What Is a Stealth Mode Startup?
A stealth mode startup refers to a new company that tries to keep secret the development of a new product, service or project. A company may choose to withhold information about its aims, team members or name.
Stealth Mode Startup Definition
Keeping the product development process under wraps allows stealth startups to conduct tests, make fixes and polish off a product before its release without the pressure of customer expectations. Stealth mode also gives startups more time to secure a patent on intellectual property and get a head start on larger companies with more resources, as well as the ability to control their own narratives and release details to media outlets on their own timetable.
Stealth mode startups rely on private investors and venture capitalists for funding. If a company has a vague website but shows up on the portfolios of VCs, there’s a good chance they’re in stealth mode.
The element of surprise lets a stealth mode startup stay one step ahead of the competition when breaking into a field. But there may still be pressure to make sales in stealth mode, which can be tricky.
3 Sales Tips for Stealth Mode Startups
While beginning in stealth mode may be necessary for some startups, it’s fair to wonder how a company can make sales while keeping key details shrouded in secrecy.
When J.T. Levin finished ChartHop’s first sales deck, he told the two other people who worked at the stealth startup that if all goes well, they’d look back at his original sales pitch fondly and think, “Boy, that was crap.”
They didn’t have to wait long.
“I used it on the call, and I immediately was like, ‘I think that moment is actually right now,’” said Levin, ChartHop’s VP of sales.
His sales deck bombed, but he still made the sale and gained some valuable feedback he used to build his next sales deck. Each pitch is an experiment to see what sticks and what doesn’t.
Levin isn’t new to this experience. He had also worked with ChartHop founder Ian White on his startup SailThru during its early stages. When Levin signed on at ChartHop, the company was testing its product, an HR management software platform, in private beta. He has since helped the startup expand its customer base fivefold, he said.
The company announced in February 2020 that it had raised $5 million in seed funding and was exiting stealth mode.
To get to this point, Levin had to build a sales strategy from scratch. Below are his tips for selling at a stealth mode startup.
Stealth Mode Startup Sales Tips
- Build out a customer base from your existing network.
- Establish a sales hypothesis and be willing to scrap it.
- Focus on qualitative insights to start.
Build Out a Customer Base From Your Network
In the beginning, no one knows your company. There are no inbound leads, and cold calls and emails often go ignored. For customers, there’s a risk in purchasing a product from a company in stealth, Levin said.
“People are generally risk-averse, and they don’t necessarily want to be the first ones to jump into the deep end,” Levin said. “But you do have to find some people who are willing to, and the way you do that is through networks and introductions.”
In order to build up that initial customer base, Levin and White had to figure out what companies had the biggest need for their services. They homed in on fast-growing companies that had either just raised funding or were about to complete a funding round.
“If you treat people the right way and you’re polite and conscientious of creating value ... they’ll steer you toward other people.”
Levin used LinkedIn as a primary source to set up calls with prospective customers, but he found that investors were also great contacts for introductions. Since people management and scaling are often discussed at the board level, most investors could point him in the direction of companies to reach out to and set up introductions. Once he did get on the phone with companies, he found most contacts were willing to connect him with others in need of their services.
“If you treat people the right way and you’re polite and conscientious of creating value ... they’ll steer you toward other people,” Levin said.
Establish a Sales Hypothesis, Scrap It and Then Do It Again
Without a track record of successful sales to rely on, Levin approached those early sales pitches like a scientist testing out hypotheses.
He started with research, collecting background from ChartHop’s earliest customers about their budget cycles, pain points, internal structures and experiences. From there, he listed the potential and opportunities that he thought the customer would want solved in his sales deck. While that first pitch didn’t end up resonating with the customer, it served as a starting point for him to build his next deck.
“You have to have a hypothesis as a starting point, but you have to be willing to upend that hypothesis,” Levin said.
“If you realize that what you’re saying isn’t the exact right thing in the moment, you can be a little vulnerable to the buyer and have them guide you toward something that is more applicable to them.”
Since he didn’t have a slide of logos or customer quotes to rely on to establish credibility, Levin said it was important to have some idea of the pain points that the company can solve. However, it’s just as important to listen and ask the customer questions as it is to pitch the product. He often asked questions like:
How are you tackling “x” problem?
If you could build a tool to solve problems like this, what’s the first thing it would solve?
If you could change three things tomorrow, what would they be?
Sometimes, Levin found that his company’s product could solve a problem he wasn’t even aware of; other times, conversations provided valuable feedback for future sales or the product’s evolution.
“People want to help,” Levin said. “If you realize that what you’re saying isn’t the exact right thing in the moment, you can be a little vulnerable to the buyer and have them guide you toward something that is more applicable to them.”
Don’t Overthink Sales Metrics. Qualitative Insights Matter Most (at First).
After each sales call, Levin would score how it went on a scale of one to five and write down three sentences on why the customer would buy ChartHop and three sentences on why they wouldn’t. Over time, patterns and themes started to emerge that he used to tweak his strategy.
Sure, that data wouldn’t pass scientific muster, but those notes provided more valuable feedback to Levin than any other sales metric or tool would have offered him, he said.
That’s because, in the early stages, there aren’t enough sales opportunities to make analyzing data on inbound leads or conversion rates worth it, Levin said. Sometimes, just getting on the phone was good enough.
“It’s about calibrating the pitch, understanding the pain points and whether the pitch resonated.”
Instead, feedback from those calls, notes on how the conversation went and whether or not the customer was open to a second call are all that matters. Well, that and closing a deal, of course.
“Ultimately, it’s about some of the things that you can’t quantify,” Levin said. “It’s about calibrating the pitch, understanding the pain points and whether the pitch resonated. These are tough things to quantify. I would say make notes after every call and keep track because you will find common themes.”
It’s not easy selling a product in stealth mode without any marketing or name recognition to lean on. The only way forward is to experiment, see what works and be ready to change, Levin said.
“It’s about flexibility and open-mindedness,” Levin said. “You have to be ready to adjust and experiment as you go. It’s hard and it’s frustrating, but there is success to be found as long as you’ve built a really good product.”