Founder-led sales and an introduction to the staircase model (part 1)

“I hate doing that.”  

“I need to focus on other areas."

“It feels awkward to sell to strangers, and I don’t know how to do it.”

These are a few reasons founders give to explain why they avoid founder-led sales.

What is “founder-led sales”? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like: when founders actively sell their product/services in the early stages of the company.

“But why do I have to sell? I can hire someone to do it,” I hear you arguing.

Three reasons why founder-led sales are so critical:

  • At this early stage, no one will know more about the paint points you're tackling or your solutions better than you. So, you have an opportunity to set the bar for how you tell your story and sell your product.
  • As a founder, you have an in-depth understanding of your industry and product’s competitive advantage. Most salespeople won’t have this. Use your insights to address customer concerns.
  • By being close to the customer early on, you’ll know who your potential customers are and who are not. You’ll also understand what features your target customers need the most. Based on their feedback, you can then iterate your product (and pitch).

So, how do you get started with founder-led sales? We did a webinar with Pete Kazanjy on the topic.

He co-founded Atrium, a B2B SaaS business that provides data-driven sales solutions. He’s also the author of Founding Sales and the founder of Modern Sales Pro, an invite-only peer learning community with 35K+ members.

Pete spent an hour deep-diving into the fundamentals of founder-led selling. He shared:

  • What the staircase model is (how value creation happens in startups)
  • The 8 steps in the staircase model

In this article (part 1), we’ll explain the first step and cover the next steps in the upcoming two articles (part 2 and part 3).

Let’s dive in.

The staircase model

Most people expect company growth charts to look like this:

sameer founder led sales part 1

This is a smooth, linear line. But this almost never happens in startups.

Pete explains (quoting Steve Blank) that startups aren’t small or big companies. They’re at a totally different part of their life cycle, figuring out if they even deserve to exist.

And so, if you zoom in at the bottom …

Creating value in startups is less of a line and more of a staircase.

Basically, it’s “grind-grind-grind” with little progress … then (hopefully) you unlock some new insight that propels you to the next step.

sameer founder led sales part 1_4

The first step is knowing what problem you’re solving.

Solving the right problem

Here’s the usual product-building exercise:  

You start out with a specific problem in mind.

You go up a few stairs trying to solve that problem. But eventually, you realize that people won’t pay for this — probably because it’s not a big enough problem, or there’s a different problem that needs to be solved first.

So you go back down the staircase and figure everything out again. Then, you go up, and this process continues.

Throughout, you're struggling with a lack of market need and wasting capital — the top two reasons startups fail.

To avoid this misstep, go to the places (online or offline) where your potential customers hang out and interview them.

For example, if you’re selling a B2B solution to help founders hire remote talent, start at LinkedIn. If you’re selling to veterinarians, look at the Yellow Pages. Most of our portfolio founders literally show up where their customers are: restaurants, gas stations, universities, etc.

When interviewing your customers, ask them about their pain points, current solutions, and what they’ll pay.

Once done, review the interviews. It’s only by talking to your customers and looking at all the data together that you’ll know if you’re attacking the right problem.

To confirm it, let your customers pre-buy your product. If most of them pay you, you’re on the right path.

Next, build an MVP that’s better than the current alternative. It should have the minimum features that will solve your customers’ problems … and it should delight them.

If people repeatedly use the MVP, love it, and recommend it, you’re sitting on a gold mine.

This is how you know you’re solving the right problem.

Coming soon: steps 2, 3, and 4 on Pete’s staircase for founder-led sales.

This article was written by Sameer Ansari. Sameer has 4+ years of experience writing for technology startups, VC funds, and founders. You can find him on Twitter here.