3 Key Strategies For Making Sales at a Stealth Mode Startup
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 head 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. Such is life selling for a stealth-mode startup, where the product is unknown and there is no track record of successful sales to follow. 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 six months ago, 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 late February 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. We spoke with him about that process, as well as what any salesperson needs to know about selling as a stealth mode startup.
Closing the Deal From a Stealth Mode Startup
- Your network can be a great tool in sourcing early customers. Levin turned to contacts in his LinkedIn and investors to make introductions.
- Research your market and customer pain points to build your sales pitch, but be willing to change your strategy on calls.
- Find ways to track qualitative feedback after every call to identify patterns and build a sales strategy. Levin ranked each call on a scale of one to five and took notes to find patterns in lieu of traditional sales metrics.
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 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 is 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 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 worry too much about sales metrics. In the beginning, it’s all about the qualitative insights.
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.