Sales for Startups: Building Target Account Lists



So if you are just starting out in a new company with a greenfield territory, where does one start prospecting?  What if you also have an unproven product with only a few reference customers, how do you get things going when you are starting out from such a small base?  Then imagine you are selling a product that does not even have a well-defined value proposition and still miles away from product-market fit?  How about when the product is more wire frames and napkin sketches than usable product?

Obviously when it comes to building out your territory, there are a wide range of situations from the mildly difficult to the seemingly impossible.  But it all entails the same deal; you are starting out from scratch.  So where do you begin and how does that vary based on the context?

One important factor to consider in sales organizations is the maturity of the company.  When I look at growth stage enterprise tech companies, I see four distinct phases of maturity:

  • Pre-product stage – generally one or two customers using a working prototype
  • Product-market fit stage – a handful of customers with an early, market verified product
  • Pre-scale stage – well-defined product and business model, more customers but still early
  • Scaling stage – significant market gains, clear understanding of cost of acquiring customers

In the later stages, the company generally has a pretty well established understanding of their value proposition and target markets.  They are busy executing to rapidly gain market share, so they create dedicated groups to help generate inbound and outbound leads to process through a highly mechanized sales machine.  They are not the companies having questions about who to sell to and how.

What I am discussing here is for the early stage companies or new groups in larger companies that are exploring new lines of business.  In both cases, the market is wide open and you are trying to find the right slice to get a hook into.  By the same token, the company has to at least have a real product and a few customers before going through the effort of targeting, so we are really talking about the product market fit stage companies or groups.

Focus, focus, focus.  I cannot stress how important this is in the early going.  Do not fall into the trap of thinking everyone is your customer.  Let’s face it, you do not have the money, time, or resources to market and sell to “everyone”.  So narrow the focus.

Ask yourself where your product is being used today?  You would be wise to find other similar companies that are in the same industry.  Sometimes this is easy because the product is built for a specific industry like construction or fashion.  But for horizontal products this is not as easy, so look at the use cases of those early customers and determine how it would fit in other areas.

Another thing to consider is the ability to network into a particular industry or focus area.  Do you have an existing network or access to tap into those networks through your professional connections?  That can greatly help in quickly validating the product for the industry and use case.  The best way to find people to contact is to leverage LinkedIn and start mine for relevant contacts that are 1st and 2nd degrees away.  One note is that you may not want to sell head on immediately, but to ask for advice on how your solution might work for the industry and use case.

If you have the areas you are going to focus on and a network of contacts, you have a good start.  What you may find though is that the network quickly dries up after a few deals are closed.  You now need to generate leads outside of that early network, and you need to get a lot of leads.  While it is true there is ever more noise and distractions, the means to reach people has never been wider and easier.

In a post from last year, I dived into the ways of acquiring leads and various sources to collect leads.  The point is that there are numerous ways to find people.  Your job is to find the most effective and least costly options and to be flexible in experimenting different methods.  For example, you may find that industry specific events are valuable whereas paid online acquisition is not.  Or you may find that generating lists from sources like LinkedIn and setting up an outbound process is a best method.  The choice is really a matter of the value and quality the acquisition method yields.

Reprinted by permission.

Image credit: CC by Pete

About the author: Mark Birch

Mark is an early stage technology investor and entrepreneur based in NYC. Through Birch Ventures, he works with a portfolio of early stage B2B SaaS technology startups providing both capital and guidance in the areas of marketing, sales, strategic planning and funding.

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