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The What, Why, How & When Of “Founder-led Sales”

Last updated on September 28, 2022

As a startup founder, your job is to sell.

And when you think about it, it’s not that weird—every startup starts with an idea and a promise. And the only one willing to put their neck out there for that promise is its founder. Because no one knows your product better than you do. No one understands the potential of your product the way you do. You are its most passionate evangelist and believer in its success.

However, we see many founders shying away from sales activities: hiring experienced salespeople or agencies to replace them.

We don’t recommend this approach, especially in the early days of your startup when you’re working on proving product-market fit and are still cash-strapped. Because when you think about it, who’s going to be able to pitch better? You or a salesperson you hire 6 months into running your company?

Definitely not the person who has just joined (yet another) early stage startup and has been told her job is to get $100k worth of annual recurring revenue in 3 months’ time.

What Is Founder-Led Sales?

Founder-led sales is when the founder is responsible for reaching out to leads they have identified and getting them to trial the product.

The reason founder-led sales strategies work so well is because founders have unique insights into their own company that non-founders don’t. Most importantly, founders are the only ones with the ability to evangelize their own product in a way that’s authentic and immediate.

When potential customers hear from a founder, they’re hearing directly from the source—and they know it. Founders’ presentations tend to be filled with a mix of personal passion, knowledge of the industry, and confidence in their own product that can be contagious for prospects. In addition to impassioned sales pitches, many founders are also able to provide examples of how they used their own company’s products successfully.

This can help demonstrate what’s possible for prospective customers and build trust around the product’s value.

Why Is Founder-Led Sales Important to Get Your Startup off the Ground?

You may very well ask “Why is getting your first customers important?”.

Founder-led sales is important because founders often get trapped into building the “perfect product”. In the startup world, you don’t need your “perfect product.” Learn from real feedback from real users — it will help you iterate and improve.

Talking to potential customers about your idea has many benefits, including:

  • You’ll learn more about what the key problem is that you’re trying to solve. Maybe people aren’t even interested in solving the problem with technology, or maybe they’ve already moved on!
  • And if they are still interested in your solution, talking to them early will help uncover how they would use it and how often they could see themselves using it. This information can guide you as you build out product roadmap!
  • Finally, understanding why your potential customers want a solution can help inform what kind of marketing copy resonates best with them. When was the last time a marketing email piqued your interest? What made it so compelling?

Benefits of Founder-Led Sales

Let’s take a look at the benefits of founder-led sales:

  • You’ll get your first customers. Selling is the only way you’re going to start generating revenue, which is the lifeblood of any business. And who better to sell your product than actually knowing its creator? No one can tell the story of why they created it and why people need it more than you.
  • You’ll validate your assumptions about your customers & learn about them. Learning about your customers directly from them will allow you to see what works and doesn’t work with your product or service, enabling you to make changes or improvements as needed.
  • You’ll refine your product or service. As a result of speaking with potential customers, you can tweak aspects of what you’re offering so that it better meets their needs and provides more value for them. This results in happier customers and higher retention rates (which means recurring revenue).
  • You’ll refine how you describe your product or service. When talking with potential customers about what problem(s) they’re trying to solve—and how—you gain insight into how best to market yourself and communicate that message effectively in order to attract more people like them (i.e., prospective buyers).

How to Kickstart Founder-Led Sales?

Here are a few things you can do to jumpstart the process:

  • Make an assumption on who your ideal customer is. The best place to start is to understand the problem you’re trying to solve and who your customers are. If you don’t know the customer, then you can’t sell. Get out of your office and talk to people who need your product.
  • Use your network. If you’re a founder who has experience in sales and marketing, you already have a network of people who are likely to use your product or service. Make a list of those within your network who would benefit from the products or services provided by your startup. Reach out to these individuals with an email and invite them for a one-on-one demo to learn more about their situation and how they could benefit from your product or service. Reinforce why they should spend some time with you by expressing how using this product could solve certain challenges they may be facing that also exist within their industry overall.
  • Ask for introductions from your investors.
  • Listen closely. If you get someone on the phone or in person and are able to give them a demo, pay attention when they ask questions, raise concerns, and make comments about what they liked and didn’t like about the demo itself as well as features within it. This will help inform what resonates with prospects so that if others ask similar questions later on, you’ll have an idea of how best to address them (assuming there haven’t been changes made since).
  • Prepare well for the demo. You have a brief window of opportunity (if any) to capture their attention and sell them on why they should use your product, so don’t waste time telling your customer about every feature of your product. Instead, focus on what problem you’re solving for them and why they should care about that problem.
  • Rinse & repeat until a prospect becomes a customer.

When Does Founder-Led Sales End? When to Hire a Sales Team?

That’s up to you! Hire a sales team when it makes sense for you, but remember — it still matters what your customers think, so don’t be afraid to listen and learn from them.

  • Founder-led sales can (and should) be phased out in favor of a dedicated sales team when it makes sense for you, but that could be years down the road.
  • You still need to listen to your customers! It’s important to understand why they decided to use your product so your company can make improvements.

Founder-Led Sales Isn’t Easy, but It’s Essential for Growing Your Startup From 0 to 1

You can’t rely on inbound traffic to get your startup off the ground. We’ve heard this message over and over. People are busy, and they aren’t always coming back to check on you or your product. It’s your job as a founder to be proactive about getting customers and showing them why your product is incredible for them.

Founder-led sales isn’t just about selling, either. The goal is to use your unique position as founder of a startup in order to build a strong relationship with customers that will help you build better products and propel growth in the long term. Founder-led sales is also not just about getting first customers: it’s an essential step at each stage of growth that helps you figure out what matters most as you’re building value for users over time.

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