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Don't neglect sales

We all want to believe that if we build it, they will come. We also want to believe that if they see it, they will want it, and you can completely avoid a sales process because your product will be good enough to sell itself. You may not need a sales force, but sales will still be critical.

Products rarely fail because they don’t ship. They fail because they don’t sell. It requires a combination of marketing to generate awareness, and sales to help people understand whether the product is right for them. Your website may be your primary salesperson at launch, but that doesn’t mean you can avoid being the secondary salesperson.

Your product and website might become capable of selling themselves eventually, but it won’t be on day one. It likely won’t even be in year one. The way to get there is by giving demos and doing sales. This is when you’ll begin to understand your customers’ needs and priorities. Then you can turn those into a product backlog and marketing site. But until you’re talking with real customers using a real application, everything else is guesswork.

Giving demos is a skill. You must learn how to give good demos. You should speak 20% of the time, mainly by asking questions, and your potential customer should speak the other 80% of the time, describing their current pain points and their goals. You’ll gain a better understanding of their specific needs and can customize your demo on the fly for them. It also means you’ll constantly be learning what’s truly important to your audience.

The most common question I hear is “How did you get your first customers?” The simple answer is that it didn’t matter what I or anyone else did. The absolute best way to get customers is to get on the phone and sell to them. That’s easier said than done, but it’s the best way. At first, your product and marketing site are going to be so bad that you can’t rely on them to close the deal. You have to actively sell your product. Talk to people. Understand what resonates. Then use that.

With just a website, people will tell you no every day, but they don’t tell you why–they just leave. With in-person sales, people might say no, but then they’ll tell you why. Then you can address those weaknesses. That’s how you eventually get to a product and message that sell themselves. It’s hard work, to be sure, but it’s the surefire way to a successful product.

Another great option for sales is to prominently display a phone number on your website. Not everyone will call, and there’s even a good chance you’ll get too many phone calls. But in the early days there are few things more important than having real conversations with customers and potential customers. With Sifter, I made the mistake of thinking that email was enough, but it wasn’t. People will make significant feature requests via email, but they won’t share the less obvious things. The only way to understand those problems is through casual conversations with people.

And finally, don’t think that sales has to be sleazy. It certainly can be, with high-pressure sales tactics and the like, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re genuinely trying to help people, even if that means your product isn’t right for them, sales works. It’s just research. It’s about understanding and serving your customers. That’s not sales. It’s just good business.

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