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Three Ways Your Startup Can Secure Its First Enterprise Customer

Whether you are a first-time entrepreneur or a veteran of multiple startups, you likely have one lofty goal in mind for your business: landing a big enterprise customer. Why? Because having a large customer means more than just larger order sizes. It represents validation and massive growth opportunities for your business. But how do you actually go about meeting, let alone selling to such a potential customer?

It’s actually a basic three-step process:

1. Get a warm intro

Getting a meeting with senior management within a large organization can be a daunting task for any startup. But it doesn’t always have to be the case. There are a couple of potential short cuts that could help you land your first meeting in no time. The first is relatively obvious: use your existing network to get an intro at the most senior level of your target company.

This is similar to pitching to venture capital firms, where the goal is to get a meeting with either the general partner or one of the partners who is ultimately a decision maker. But if you struggle to get access at these levels, don’t give up.

Another potential source to identify contacts, especially when you do not have a large network, is to monitor the company’s website as well as its social media platforms (think Twitter and LinkedIn) of the firm’s executives. Focus on individuals with Innovation or something similar in their titles as these individuals are the ones generally looking to further his or her career by bringing creative ideas into the company. As a general rule, you should treat these people with an enormous of amount of respect, but you also need to recognize that these people are rarely the decision makers. Your longer-term goal should continue to focus on developing relationships with the business unit leaders who would ultimately be responsible for launching any new product or service.

2. Listen, listen, listen

Unfortunately, most startups that are fortunate enough to land that first meeting tend to overlook a key objective: to probe for as much information as possible about the customer’s big or shark bite problems before going into pitch mode. These meetings tend to follow a standard format with 10 minutes allocated to introductions, 30-40 minutes for the sales pitch, and the remaining 10 minutes for questions and answers.

Too often we see founders get caught up in the moment, rush through their presentation, and spend at least 20 minutes trying to convince the customer that theirs is the best solution or technology out there compared with competitors. As such, they spend very little time asking more specific or detailed questions that could give the startup a greater understanding of just how deep the pain goes or how their product could help the customer get leg up on their competitors.

Our recommendation then is to flip the traditional format as outlined above. After allocating the customary 10 minutes for introductions, spend the next 30 minutes looking for possible shared connection points that could be relevant to the customer’s pain point. Ask open-ended questions such as: “What are some reactions you get from employees and/or customers who regularly use your product/service? How many people use it and how frequently do they use it? What part of the process is manual and how long does this take? What part of the process is the most time- and cost-consuming?”

Getting answers to questions like these will help accomplish two important things. One, it will demonstrate your willingness to listen, which will lay the foundation for any future relationship and ultimate success. Henry Ford once said that, “If there is one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” The other benefit you can reap from listening effectively is that you can build trust with your customer, which will make them more willing to open up and share some of their experiences.

Remember that the people you are talking to are much more interested in their own needs and problems than they are in you and your startup. So let them talk and keep asking for more information to ensure that you really understand the problem from every possible point of view. It’s only once you feel you have collected sufficient information that you can then start to establish how your solution can make their lives better.

In short, if you follow the old adage: “….you have two ears and one mouth so use them in proportion” there is a good chance you are well on your way to getting the next meeting.

3. Getting to the next meeting

Because large enterprise customers rarely switch out solutions on an annual basis, so most successful pilots will transition into multi-year recurring revenues agreements. It’s worth noting that the average enterprise sales cycle varies between six and nine months. That means patience is warranted – and is also rewarded.

Also consider the insights we can pull from this discussion between Fred Wilson and Mark Suster about how it is not necessarily the best product or technology that will help you land a big customer. Rather, it’s often using sales meetings to build relationships that win over the long haul.

Think about the enterprise sales process as if it were like dating. Maybe both sides have shown interest in each other after the first date. But they also aren’t ready to settle down before they have a few more dates to learn as much about the other party. Each party wants to know with some degree of assurance that the other party will be a true business partner during both good and bad times and therefore honor its commitments.

It’s also worth mentioning that most enterprise customer budgets are already committed by September for the following year. Many companies also employ a zero-based budgeting approach, which means than any pilot program has to be either for free (which requires an implementation plan) or, alternatively, the budget owner has to reallocate funding from an existing project.

Either outcome will likely only materialize if the startup has been able to build up trust over the course of a number of interactions. Remember, you’re trying to build a long-term relationship and not have a one-night stand.


If you want to sell to enterprise customers, you should first understand that the enterprise sales process follows a number of natural steps. Begin by building relationships at several levels of the organization as a way to connect with decision-makers and senior leaders. Make sure you listen attentively when you’re at those meetings as a way to establish shared connections. And then last, but not least, realize that this process helps establish trust – which is the foundation for any future partnership. If you can understand and master these three steps, you’ll be on your way to securing your first enterprise customer.

This article was written by Marius Swart from Coca-Cola Founders and was licensed with permission.

The information contained in this article is provided to you “AS IS”, does not constitute legal advice, is governed by our Terms and Conditions of Use, and we are not acting as your attorney. We make no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained in or linked to this web site and its associated sites.

The views of the author of this article do not necessarily represent the views of First Republic Bank.

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