A startup company often thinks like the shy kid at the dance. He thinks he’s inferior, so he never goes up to the pretty girl to ask her to dance. He thinks no one will talk to him because he isn’t well known, or established, or popular enough to talk to. At the same time, the pretty girl sits around twiddling her thumbs wondering why no one is asking her to dance.
The irony is that if he had simply mustered the courage to ask, he would have had his dance. It’s rare that a deficit in credentials holds a startup back from landing big clients. More often, startups suffer from the lack of confidence needed to pursue them.
The best way to ask is to just ask
While working at a fledgling interactive ad agency, I remember strategizing with my co-workers about pitching our new digital sales detailing product to pharmaceutical companies. How great it would be, we thought, if we could just get one big pharmaceutical company to listen to our pitch and give us a shot.
We went round and round for hours talking about how we could call on an assistant brand manager, then move up to the senior brand manager and maybe, one day, to the VP of Marketing. We were afraid that if we went too high up the ladder too soon, we would be exposed for the shy kids that we were.
Finally, after even more discussion, I stopped the meeting and said, “Why don’t we just call the CEO of the company directly and tell him we’re going to meet with him face to face?” In the world of outside sales, this is roughly the equivalent of the A/V club president asking a cheerleader to the senior prom.
So I waited until Friday after 5:00 when I knew his assistant would likely have left for the day. I called the main number, asked for the CEO, and guess what? He answered the phone. I didn’t spend much time explaining who we were (because we were nobody), I simply told him that I would be there on Tuesday at 10 AM to show him a product that would drive millions of dollars to the top line of his salesforce.
He told me he’d see me at 10. By 11:00 the following Tuesday we walked out of his door with one of the biggest deals we had ever signed.
Confidence equals Authority
I spent a lot of time thinking about what happened in that exchange. Our initial plan involved almost a year’s worth of politicking through the company to make our way up the ladder. Why then, were we able to get the cheerleader to go to the dance with us?
The answer is that we walked in with confidence which created an air of authority. Startups often have fantastic products, but they lack the self assurance of seasoned veterans with established track records.
When a salesperson from IBM walks in the room to sell a product, they have the confidence of knowing IBM has sold billions of dollars worth of products to the world’s largest companies. That type of confidence resonates with customers. Their perception of the company or products’ credibility is heavily influenced by their perception of the person pitching it.
When you walk into a room to pitch your product, you need to bring that same certainty with you to the table. Pitch your startup like you’re the world’s largest company. Command the reverence and authority of a billion dollar enterprise. If you can’t bring the self-respect of a market-leading company to the table, how can you expect anyone else – especially the customer – to have faith in you?
Get a prom date
Every company has their eye on a cheerleader they would love to ask to the dance but haven’t. In most of the cases I’ve seen, it’s not a matter of not having the product or the credentials, it’s just a matter of not asking. Not asking a key customer for the business hurts you twice.
First, it hurts you by not taking advantage of an opportunity to earn that business. That one is obvious. But second and more importantly, is it leaves the door open for your competitor to ask for and earn that business. When we walked in and landed that pharmaceutical company contract, we didn’t just celebrate that we won the business. We also rejoiced that our competition didn’t.
There’s no magic formula for getting in front of big name clients and asking for their business. It’s as simple as drumming up the confidence and courage to just ask them in first place. The only guarantee in this life is that if you don’t ask the pretty girl to the dance, you’re definitely going to the prom by yourself.