Lean sales: How to get people's attention to validate your idea?

by Steli Efti

I just spoke at Eric Ries’ Lean Startup Conference, and I can tell you it was a great event with lots of amazing people. If you’re familiar with the Lean Startup framework, or with Steve Blank’s customer development, you know that validated learnings are a crucial element of their method to building a successful startup.

One problem that many founders struggle with when trying to practice lean methodologies is to get first feedback from the market on their startup idea.

What’s the best way to get initial validation for a business idea?

Talk to prospective customers for the solution you want to offer them! (I've written about this lean sales approach before).

But how do you get them to actually talk with you? Especially if you reached out to potential prospects and didn’t get a response? What if they aren’t even telling you that your idea isn’t a good one, but they don’t even take the time to listen to your idea in the first place?

Let’s say you’re sending cold emails to people whom you want to sell to, and ask them for a few minutes of their time to discuss an idea. And nobody is willing to do this. What do you do then?

Tap into your network first

I suggest you first try to tap into your own network. Try to get an introduction to somebody who is a member of the group you want to sell to.

Even if you think there’s nobody in your network - spend some time exploring second or third degree connections. Somebody you know that knows somebody that knows somebody:

  • a friend
  • an acqaintance
  • a family member
  • a co-worker
  • an ex-colleague
  • a former class-mate
  • a former employer …

Reach out to people in your network and tell them:

“Hey, I’m working on this business idea I have, and I’d like to speak with someone in the XYZ industry about this. All I need is 10 minutes of their time on the phone. Do you know somebody who works in that industry? Or somebody who could know somebody?”

If you do this with some persistence, you’ll often find that there are indeed people just two or three degrees away from you that are working in the market you want to sell into.

But if you’ve completely exhausted your network and there’s absolutely nobody, there’s still something else you can do...

Send cold emails (the right way)

Start sending out cold emails to people working in industry XYZ. However, a lot of people are too generic in their cold email approach.

It’s important that you get the message just right: specific and succinct.

Let’s look at this email:

Hi Steli,

I see you're working in the sales industry, and I have a great idea for a product that could be very valuable to companies in this field. 

When would be a good time to do a 10-minute call to talk about this?

Ben

Now what I like about this email is that it’s succinct. What I don’t like about it is that it’s too broad, too generic; I don’t have any idea what this is about and whether it’ll be worth my time.

I don’t even know whether you’re an entrepreneur who wants advice. Looking at that email, you could be an sales rep for a PR agency trying to play some BS game to get me on a sales call.

So what’s missing in this email?

A clear, specific value proposition. Tell me exactly: what’s in it for me?

A better way to convey value would be:

Hi Steli, 

I noticed you're doing a lot of content marketing to drive leads into your sales funnel for Close.io. 

I have some ideas on how to take content marketing and promote it in a much more powerful way and I think that your content would be awesome for that.

Can you take five minutes to bounce off these ideas and validate whether what I have in mind could be really valuable to you and your business?

Ben

Now that addresses more clearly what this is about. It’s still succinct, but it’s also specific enough for me to decide whether I want to respond or not.

Problem-focused cold email

Another approach for an email could be to focus on a specific problem and basically offer people an opportunity to vent their grievances.

Nobody likes problems, but most people like to talk about their problems and get something off their chest.

Hi Steli,

I’m working on fixing Problem X, and I’d like to talk five minutes with you about the causes and effects of this, and how to best solve it. 

Could we talk about this Wednesday or Thursday 11am pacific?

Ben

If you’ve actually identified a valid problem, a lot of people will actually respond to an email like this.

But let’s say even this doesn’t get you responses. What’s the next thing you can try?

Have them participate in a survey

Another approach that often works is to frame this differently. Tell them you’re conducting a survey or creating a whitepaper on their particular industry, or for people in their particular position. 

So it could be “The 2015 B2B Sales Development Reps’ Guide to LinkedIn Prospecting” - and every participant will receive a free copy of this $150 whitepaper.

It’ll contain valuable industry insights, and you’ll gain a better understanding of what’s working well for others in the same position or industry, and what problems they have.

whitepaper

This is a true value exchange - you now have something intrinsically desirable to offer them, instead of just asking them to pick their brains for a business idea of yours.

I’ve seen this approach succeed for quite a few people to validate their ideas and learn more about the market.

Cold call until your phone gets hot

If you’re not getting responses to your cold emails and you’ve already experimented with different messaging approaches, it’s time to pick up the phone.

I’m not going to share a lot of advice on cold calling here - you can browse the blog archive and there are a ton of posts on that topic.

But what I do want to point out here is: depending upon who you want to reach, different media will be more effective. 

Selling to enterprise? Cold emails are probably the way to go. 

But selling to restaurant owners? Good luck getting their attention with emails… 

So you want to find out what the best medium for your market is: email, phone or even showing up in person at their workplace. Heck, there are even markets where direct mail or fax work best.

But in general, it’s best to get started with emails and phone calls.

No responses?

If you’ve tried different approaches to email people, call them and show up at their door… and they’re still not willing to take the time to really engage in a 10 minute conversation with you. Maybe that’s all you need to know about that market.

Your idea is probably not as valuable to them as you imagined it to be. It can be a painful realization, but the faster you get the insight the better. It’s time to close that chapter and move on to the next thing.

If you do get positive feedback though, then it's time to climb on top of the validation pyramid and ask for their money...

A photo posted by Close.io (@startuphustler) on

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