If you are going to sell then commit 100% – don’t waste your time “cleaning your apartment”

Adding the job of sales to the CEO or founder’s role is common for startups that are exiting the gates of customer discovery. Now they’ll sell the product for 50% of their time and continue with their other responsibilities for the remainder of the time.  

This almost never works. If you are going sell, then sell with 100% of your time and effort and find someone else to deal with your other responsibilities. Anything less than this requires a mythical level of willpower and dooms most people to failure.

It’s like that time you were meant to be studying for exams and you found yourself cleaning your bedroom, then doing the dishes. Studying was hard and uncomfortable and you’d search for any reason to avoid starting. You’d search for any activity that you could define as ‘productive’.  You wouldn’t play video games, or go to the pub. You’d clean your bedroom because you could fool yourself into thinking you were still being productive and therefore feel like less of a waster.

It’s the same thing with sales. Sales is uncomfortable and full of rejection. If the “salesperson” can do anything else and still feel like they are being productive then they will do that instead of selling. This is particularly the case with non commissioned salespeople such as founders.

Almost no one wants to pick up the phone and start to navigate a large organization, dealing with rejection every step of the way.  Good sales people do it because there is no other way to achieve their goals. As soon as you give them multiple goals then you’ve given them a way out.

Remove all other activities and responsibilities from your salesperson – even if that’s you.  Give them exactly one way in which they can feel good about themselves. Selling, not cleaning their bedroom.

Increase your Pricing to Increase Your Sales Volume

Spoiler: Because you can spend dramatically more on Sales and Marketing

As I explored in the previous post – very frequently your price is only a very small aspect of the total cost to your customer. For many IT solution is can be as little as 10%. Therefore a increase in your price may not make a noticeable effect on your customer’s cost and therefore the Law of Demand may have a negligible effect in reducing demand for your product, however it can have a dramatic positive impact on your business.

Worked Example

Startup AAA is selling a product for €10,000 and makes 5 sales a month. Startup AAA has a sales and marketing budget of €3,000 for each sale – so they can spend €15,000 a month on acquiring new customers. Startup AAA’s price is 20% of the total cost of ownership for the customer.

If Startup AAA increase their price by a modest 20% to €12,000. This only increases the total cost to the customer by 4% (since price is only 20% of the cost). While unlikely, this small increase in cost may impact on minorly on demand, however the impact of this extra funds has on sales and marketing can be dramatic. In this example the amount spent on sales and marketing can be as much doubled to €6,000 per sale. With the additional resources that this spend allows, sales and marketing should easily be able to increase the total volume of sales.

So price increases disproportionately positively affect your sales and marketing budget (or alternatively profit) while disproportionately minimally impacts on the total cost for your customer.

It should go without saying that price increases like this only apply if your competitive advantage is not price, but then again if you are a startup competing on price then you’ve got bigger problems.

Your Price Does not Equal Your Cost

Its economics 101 that when you increase the price of something the demand goes down (The Law of Demand). Unfortunately, like most 101 courses, this is a partial truth that needs either further study or practical experience to be useful and as the old adage goes – ‘a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing’.

No doubt you’ve all seen the law of demand used to justify low prices. It is particularly dangerous to a startup as it can be used as logical proof to an emotional decision to have rock bottom prices. We all fear rejection and we emotionally want to do everything we can to minimise our chances of it. So we tend to lower our price to a level where it can no longer be an issue.  

However for startups your price, no matter what you set it at, is almost never the issue. The problem is your total cost to the customer and price is just one small element of this.  Your total cost is a long list but for most startups the largest cost to the customer is the personal risk to their career of doing business with an startup as opposed a known quantity.

“Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM’. While obnoxious, this 1980’s slogan this hit upon a core business truth – not only are we, as sellers, ruled by emotion (fear of rejection) so is the buyer (fear that their purchasing decision will be perceived as a failure). If the project fails because they chose a startup rather than an established player, even if vastly more expensive, their choice will look unjustified and unnecessarily risky to their boss (and everyone has a boss).

There are many other costs that go into the total cost born by the customer and I won’t go into them at length, but they include evaluation, training, support, change control, hardware etc.. For IT solutions these costs can frequently outweigh the actual price 10 to 1.  A 50% reduction in your price may only represent a 5% reduction in the total cost of ownership. Similarly a 50% increase in your price may only represent a 5% increase in the customer’s total cost.

Remember, as a startup, if you are going to be rejected, it is almost a certainty that it’s not your price that’s the problem – it’s your cost. Even if you are told by the lost customer that its your price, it still probably isn’t. Most people shy away from hard conversations and a potential customer telling you that you are rejected is a hard conversation. In these circumstances people tend to use the easiest way to end the conversation quickly – saying your price is too high is nearly always the easiest.

A final thought: unless you are a commodity, you either have a lot of value or no value. Unless you have a lot of value, your solution will never overcome the other costs that have to be borne by the customer, and you effectively have no value. It’s not a linear scale, its binary.

Next Blog Post I’ll explore how high pricing can increase demand rather than reducing it.

Rule of Thumb for the Direct Sales Channels that are Viable for Different Revenue Levels

So these are very general rules of thumb: there are loads of exceptions and as always context is king. That said, I find these rules a useful shortcut when analysing possible direct sales models for companies. The rules are based on the annual average net revenue that your typical customer is responsible for:

  • Below €500 annually you can’t afford to call a customer and you must have a 100% automated sales channel
  • Below €5,000 annually you can’t physically meet a customer and you must either have an automated or inside sales channel
  • Below €50,000 you can’t get on a short haul flight to meet a customer
  • Below €500,000 and you can’t get on a long haul flight to meet a customer

Each of the different direct sales channels has radically different costs, and companies need to structure their sales operation so that they can expect to recover the cost of making a sale in well under a year.  

A typical inside sales rep will have an OTE between €40K and €70K and a fully loaded cost of roughly 150% of that. If they close 10 deals a month then the cost of making the sale is going to be somewhere between €550 and €950. Clearly if the resulting customers are only going to bring in €500 in net revenue it’s going to take a long time to cover the cost of making the sale.

A typical field sales rep will have an OTE of €60K to €100K with a fully loaded cost of double that due to the cost of travel. They should be closing about 7 deals a month, but they typically require a full time inside sales rep to source the leads and set up the appointments, taking the total cost of making the sale to somewhere between €2,300 and €3,500. So while it’s possible to run a field sales channel at under €5k net revenue, it’s difficult.

Once you have to get on a plane the whole dynamic and cost base changes dramatically. Now we are realistically starting to look at enterprise based selling. OTEs range from €70K to €150K (and up) with a fully loaded cost of about 250%. You can expect a maximum of a deal a month. Typically one meeting a week is reasonable – more can be done if you have particularly high customer density, but in that case you should probably be considering a local field sales force. So your total cost of making a sales ranges between €15K and €34K although it likely to be higher as a deal a month is on the high estimate.

Inter-continental travel makes everything even slower and even though OTEs aren’t much different, the number of meetings possible in a month shrinks to about 1 a month and resulting sales to maybe three a year. This results in an cost of sale ranging between €60K and €130K.

I find this a useful ready reckoner to quickly evaluate the available direct sales channels when analysing a company. It’s a shortcut, and I know that if something is anywhere close to the boundary it merits further in depth analysis as the peculiarities of a particular business or context may make a sales channel that initially seems implausible possible.  

A Great ROI is Not Enough

It’s easy to think that all you have to do is provide a big enough ROI to your customer. However this is not enough on its own – you also have to move the needle for the customer’s business. Your ROI might be fabulous but if you don’t move the needle for your customer then it’s going to worth your customer’s effort dealing with with you.

For example let’s say you are selling sales leads for second hand cars. You are selling the leads for €25 euros each and you expect 10% to convert to sales, so it costs about €250 for each car sold. The dealership makes about €750 per car, so the ROI of 300% is great. You’d naturally think that you could sell these leads to anyone, after all you are effectively selling €750 for €250.  But there is another dimension – volume.

Let’s say you only have 20 leads a month to sell. A small regional dealership that only sells 20 cars a month will happily do business with you because you are likely to boost their sales by 10%. However for a large chain dealership that sells 1,000 cars a month you are only going to grow sales by 2%. You don’t move the needle for them, and it’ll be hard to get them to do business with you because the potential upside isn’t interesting enough.

So how much do you need to move the needle by? I’m sure this varies a lot from industry to industry but in my experience it needs to be about 5%. That’s not necessarily 5% of the whole businesses revenue or cost – it’s the individual’s personal target. So if you are selling into a sales manager then it’s 5% of their new business, if it’s the facilities manager it’s 5% of the cost that they are trying to reduce, etc.

Below 5% you simply don’t move the needle enough to warrant their attention. However, your importance increases the more you move the needle.  I have found that at 20% you can even insist on fundamental changes to the customer business, such as changing their procedures or even business model. Simply put, at 20% you are so important that they can’t afford to lose you.

Monthly SAAS Contracts Suck

The appeal is obvious – anything that lowers the barrier for a potential customer to sign up has to be a good thing, right? It’s attractive when you are scrambling for sales, any sales, that month to month subscription without a long term contract has become the default business model for young B2B SAAS businesses.  Unfortunately it’s the wrong model for nearly all of them.  Personally I blame the Signal 37 guys at Basecamp for embedding this in start-up culture, but that’s another story.

Why is it such a Bad Model?

  • No upfront cash means as sales scale so does the level of investment required to fund the sales channel
  • Lack of customer validation creates an onboarding bottleneck and high early churn rates
  • The customer is not invested in your mutual success leading to more failed customers
  • Commission modelling and payment become messy leading to salesperson disatisfaction
  • Revenue modelling is more uncertain meaning that financing becomes more difficult especially debt

Caveat – Month to month contracts can work well if there is a purely automated sales channel.

Fund the Sales Channel with Sales or Investment

Imagine it costs you €1,200 to make a sale, i.e. it costs you €1,200 to find a potential customer and complete a sale. Now imagine that you only have €1,200 and your monthly subscription is €100. On Day 1 you spend your €1,200 and make your first sale. When do you make your second sale?

You make your second sale in Month 13, when you have collected the €1,200 to fund it from your first sale

Now think about the exactly the same scenario, except this time you charge a €1,200 annual subscription upfront. On Day 1 you spend your €1,200 to make your first sale. When do you make your second sale?

You make your second sale on Day 2 using the subscription collected on your Day 1 sale. By the time month 13 rolls along you’ve made about 230 sales – a 23,000% improvement over the first example.

I accept this is contrived, however the core message is valid – you either finance your sales channel with investment cash or your customers’ cash and it’s nearly always preferable to do it with your customers’. After all, earning money from customers should be your company’s core competence, not getting investment.

Lack of Customer Validation

If a salesperson closes a month to month subscription, then what exactly have they sold? Maybe they sold a three year revenue stream or maybe just one month’s fee that won’t even pay the sales person comp.  The only thing that’s definitely validated is that the customer is willing to pay for the first month. Should you even regard them as a customer at all? Maybe it would be best to think of them as being on a trial until they have paid a certain number of invoices and are actively using the product. This makes a difference because your customer success and onboarding teams will get frustrated and will rightfully demand that they not be handed half completed sales.

The Customer is not Invested in your Mutual Success

Okay, I’ll admit that getting a months subscription off of a customer isn’t nothing. It’s a lot better than a free trial. But what proof do you have that they are committed to your mutual success? The first month fee is a trivial amount and there is no long term commitment.  No wonder your onboarding team have difficulty getting them on the phone and engagement is weak.

Contrast this to the customer that signed up to a one, two or three year contract – there’s a committed customer. There’s a customer that will call you angry when things aren’t working. There’s a customer that will fight to make sure they receive value. There’s a customer that you want.  

Comp Models Become Messy

What are you going to comp a salesperson selling month to month subs on and what money are your going to use to pay them their comp? If you comp them just on the month’s sub then you’re incentivising them to find customers who are willing to pay a one month sub – not customers that will be with you for the long term.  If you comp them on revenue from the customer as it comes in then the reward is disconnected from the actions you want to incentivise. If you advance comp on the basis of future revenue you create a cash flow issue and de-motivational claw backs when the customer cancels.

Comping on an annual contract is easy, and paying the comp is easy if the customer pays upfront.

Revenue Models and Investment Become Difficult

Month to month contracts have no committed revenue stream by definition. Revenue models have to use average churn rates to calculate the following month’s revenue with ever increasing levels of uncertainty the further out you go. In contrast annual contract business only have to use average churn rates for revenue a year out. Having this contracted revenue stream makes financing, especially debt financing, easy when compared to month to month contract. This is all the more important as month to month contracting needs more financing to fund the sales channel.

So why do start-ups almost invariably opt for the month to month sub? Its because they are afraid to ask for the sale, so they attempt to minimise it. They don’t charge what they’re worth (more on this in a later blog post) and then they split the sale into the smallest segment possible in an attempt to make their pricing irrelevant to the customer – I’ve even seen companies split it into a weekly fee.

What if customers won’t sign up for an annual contract?

If you’re a B2B company with a manual sales process then there is a good chance that you just have to accept that you’ve got a longer sales cycle than you think you have. If you are sure that your potential customer will only sign up to month to month then accept that this is a trial period and after the trial period ends they move onto an annual plan. This division makes it very clear that during the trial period the sales process is still ongoing and you don’t count the client as a customer until they sign up to the annual plan. In this way your customer numbers stay clean and responsibility for the sales cycle is clearly defined.   

Usual disclaimer: Context is king, actual results may vary, etc.