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Humanizing the Art of Sales: How to Build on Your Network and Find Your Early Adopters

Like most start-ups, Botkeeper began as a way to solve a problem. The idea was set in motion in 2012, when I met my would-be partner, Enrico Palmerino. He had just sold a company that he built from the ground up, and we had a lot in common. Although we didn’t yet know where the future would take us, we were able to start a good referral network, since we were in the same financial services space.

Almost right away our conversations led to us recognizing something we had both experienced in our careers, which was the gap between the importance of bookkeeping and the fact that no one actually seemed to understand how to do it correctly.

  • Tech founders know how their product excels, but cultivating the sales skills to get started can be a barrier.
  • At the end of the day, making a sale is all about connections. If you can do that, people will pick up on your authenticity, and there’s no telling where that can take you.
  • Here are five things to keep in mind when it comes to selling during the early stages of your company.

In 2015, we began kicking around the idea of starting our own company to fix the problem, and by fall of that year, we were in full-on planning mode.

Five years after we launched, a lot of hard work and perseverance helped Botkeeper raise a $25 million Series B round in 2020, all during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In my current role at First Republic Bank, I work closely with founders and the Boston tech community, sharing the insights I’ve learned from co-founding Botkeeper.

Although our business — like every start-up — had a unique beginning, many of our initial moves, and the lessons we learned along the way, are applicable to any entrepreneur. Tech founders are often great at knowing how their product excels, but cultivating the sales skills to get started can be a barrier. Here are some things we learned that might help.

Developing a strategic sales approach: Start with what you know

In our early days, my background in sales and my reputation as the “Mayor of Boston” (or so my partner called me, because of my connections in the area) came in handy. With no funding to back us, we start doing what we could do best to raise awareness about our solution — networking. Some of the best practices for networking, we found:

  • Find likeminded people. To help get early adopters on board, which is key in the beginning, focus first on building out your community with a network of like-minded entrepreneurs. For example, when we were first starting out, we would go to WeWork and just start talking to people, seeing where we could connect organically.
  • Build your brand. Most people don’t want to be the first to try something, and attracting people with that early adoption mindset requires a lot of trial and error, hearing a lot of “no,” and going out and talking to as many people as possible. Once you’ve found your community of like-minded people, work on building your brand. Get your name out there by doing good and being open-minded; you’ll set yourself apart as entrepreneurs, rather than typical salespeople seeking a transaction.
  • Be flexible. When a person says ‘no’ to trying your product, consider if there are other ways to stay connected. Keeping that person in your network — and helping connect them with someone else who might be more of a fit whenever you can — could lead to a spider web of folks that, eventually, want to help you whenever they can.

Keeping momentum moving forward: Think outside the box

Keeping an open mind in your early days of sales might mean focusing on how you can grow awareness for your product, rather than just getting new users or increasing cash flow. For entrepreneurs, that could look like a number of different things, such as:

  • Don’t be afraid to barter. In Botkeeper’s early days, we would bargain with other companies, swapping goods and services where we saw there could be potential. One of Botkeeper’s earliest connections was with Mighty Squirrel Brewing Co. For years our two companies networked through events that we would co-host, which helped us both grow. Botkeeper also hosted small founder get-togethers, gathering four or five entrepreneurs over some beers to connect without talking about business, unless it came up organically. Being flexible in this way early on can help you build traction and form a solid network of people to stay in touch with and rely on down the road.
  • Keep connected, even virtually. Since COVID-19 has forced many of us to work from home these days, networking has become a little bit harder to do in the traditional sense. Still, you never know when one conversation might lead to a chance to present at an online conference or event. In that way, every little exchange counts as much now as it ever did, so be thoughtful before turning down opportunities.

Cultivating early adopters: Shift your focus from perfection to growth

Founders often get stuck on the idea of trying to build a perfect product before they get it out the door, but perfection is subjective. The way to figure out what people actually want is by getting it into their hands. This is where early adopters come in. Some ways to cultivate that early adopter atmosphere include:

  • Be honest: Early on, it’s important to be clear about the fact that you know the technology you’re offering might not be perfect, but that you’re willing to listen and incorporate feedback.
  • Meet consistently: Check in on a regular basis — perhaps quarterly — with these people to have candid conversations about what they like and don’t like about your product, how you could help and what problems need solving. Having a board of about five individuals can provide a fresh perspective on challenges you’re facing.
  • Incorporate their advice: Don’t ignore your early advisors’ suggestions; actually take their comments to heart. Based on their feedback, you may even end up reshuffling your priorities for goals moving forward. That feeling of inclusion for early adopters is key when you’re trying to sell a product in its early stages.

Understanding clients vs. investors: Pivot your strategy to sell to both

Investors and clients may be two separate entities, but there is actually a lot of overlap when dealing with the two. Two key factors to keep in mind when dealing with both include:

  • Stay down to earth. For both investors and early adopters, being empathetic and understanding is a big part of gaining a solid sales base. Keeping a human touch is essential.
  • Know your numbers: be nimble, but keep track of what you’re changing. As far as investors go, empathy should be combined with another important aspect when you’re trying to sell your product, and that’s metrics. Keeping track of the metrics that are essential to your company — whether that’s new users, growth over a certain amount of time, downloads, cashflow, etc. — not only gives you something to talk about with investors, but it’s also one of the easiest ways to keep tabs on what’s working overall for your company. Setting lofty goals is one thing, but it’s important to then follow up with the metrics on a weekly, quarterly and annual basis to see if your actions are helping you actually achieve those goals. If following the metrics isn’t something you’re good at, hire someone to help keep tabs on those things for you. In fact, who you hire as you start building out your team will be essential to the overall growth of your company.

When to reinvent your strategy: Take on a mentor or two

Depending on the size of your initial sales (whether it’s enterprise or smaller deals), consider formalizing your sales plan after your first five clients. It’s also a good idea to formalize your sales plan before you begin building your team — that way you can clue new hires into the plan as they start working for you.

However, you might come to discover that what works in the beginning doesn’t work down the road; that’s common for start-ups. Being able to quickly shift your thinking and modify your formal sales plan can make all the difference.

Whether you’re working alone or with partners, having mentors along for the ride is key to deciding when to make company shifts. You might be surprised how much people will want to help, and having someone with an outside perspective that you can pull from for a half hour each month can be crucial. These people will help you look more critically at your data, and can point out holes in your strategy that you might not otherwise see.

At the end of the day, making any kind of sale is all about the connections. If you can do that, other people will pick up on your authenticity, and there’s no telling where that can take you.

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