A young man walked past a hotel entrance, peering in to see who was in the vibrant, yet rustic lobby. He had been walking back and forth and those observing were already wondering what the slightly unkempt man in the odd-fitted blazer was doing pacing in front of a hotel on that cloudy, San Francisco afternoon.
That man was me, and I was planning to pitch the hotel on a sale. Akia had been under development for a little while now and I had managed to patch enough things together for a respectable demo that would impress people. And up until I was standing at the doors of my first prospective customer, I had believed that.
Why was I nervous? Why was this so hard? I had spent so much time building already. I reminded myself that it was all time wasted if no one uses it. I further debated with myself: what if the product wasn't ready? That must be it, I could, no, should add a couple more features before it's ready.
I would later learn this is a common pitfall in sales. In sales, the absolute, most important activity to focus on is identifying, talking to, and qualifying potential customers (prospecting). Commonly, those in sales will avoid this activity by telling themselves other kinds of activities are more important (e.g. building some deck, or checking on existing customers, or following up with some emails). As a technical founder, you can dig the hole even deeper by telling yourself certain parts of the product are not ready yet or you really need to be building something critical for the business. But in all honesty, when you're starting a company, nothing is more critical than getting someone to love your product. And any steps you take that deviate away from identifying someone to love your product is, well, a fucking waste of time.
Another 30 seconds went by.
I took a deep breath, gave myself one more quick pep talk, walked up to the hotel front desk, and asked to see the hotel's General Manager.
"He's not in today," was the reply. I tried not to look too defeated.
"Well, I'm building this product for hotels, can you provide me some feedback?" I asked the lady at the front desk. In hindsight, I was trying to disguise this feedback session as a way to weasel my way into a sales discussion. Rookie mistake. Be clear about your intentions to sell and move on. People who can tell you no to your face are a blessing.
"Sure," she replied. It wasn't that busy at the hotel.
Nonetheless, I was elated. Someone was willing to talk to me. She even seemed excited about the product and gave me their General Manager's business card. Now I knew his name and had his contact information. Sales was so easy, or so I was now telling myself.
I ended the day with similar stories at probably a dozen other hotels. I had a handful of business cards, a few people who told me to get lost, and a some good conversations with excited "prospects."
Someone who doesn't want your product, but doesn't flat out tell you "no" is probably the number one way to waste your time as an early founder trying to approach sales. Targeting (or identifying the right person to talk to) is so critically important to avoiding this mistake. People are nice, they want to help, some even want to feel important, but at the end of the day, if you're not talking to the guy who's eventually writing the check, you may as well be talking to yourself.
You read this a thousand times in sales and startup literature– I know I did, but it wasn't until I called the number on those business cards later that week only to hit voicemail after voicemail and turn up with nothing, did I realize how little I had actually accomplished that afternoon. And while I learned later this was a problem of volume and not persistence, nobody was really there to teach me this.
For early technical founders, this realization can be defeating. And figuring this out can be a daunting bridge to cross, but don't make excuses for why you shouldn't do it yet. There is a small percentage of your potential customer-base who will try your product out now. Brush it off, get up, and go find them. It works out in the end.