I remember watching Jack do sales in the early days of Lattice. It felt like he basically networked his way into making Lattice happen. He was always talking to a potential customer or meeting with someone who could introduce him to a potential customer. He would then take the insights from these conversations back to the Lattice team. He would talk to the product team about what we would need to build next. And then I’d work with him on how these insights would inform our positioning and go-to-market strategy. This formative experience was extremely helpful when I started to do sales for Dock.
Over the last six months, I’ve been doing sales for my new company, Dock. I’ve learned a ton about founder sales and wanted to share my experience so far. I’m still figuring this all out myself, but hopefully this is helpful for other startup founders.
The biggest thing that makes founder-led sales different is that you’re trying to get to product-market fit and have to build a sales process from scratch.
In post-product-market fit sales, you have a solidified pitch, formal pricing, qualification questions and process you’re trying to run. You’re confident in the product and the pitch because it’s been battle tested. You and the salespeople on your team have done it a hundred times. You know what resonates and you know what to look for as a red flag.
When it comes to early stage sales, you’re still figuring everything out. You have a barebones process, a pitch you’re not sure will work, a product that’s still being developed and likely no formal pricing proposal. This makes the sales process very different. It needs to be a creative process that you’re constantly iterating on the fly. After every call, you need to look and think about how you can evolve the pitch. This is one of the many reasons why a founder needs to do sales themselves.
A major difference with founder-led sales is the positioning of calls with prospects. All of my early calls were positioned as a “feedback call.” My main objective was figuring out how to make our product better, not generate revenue. I was mainly asking myself the question - what are the features we needed to build in order to get the customer excited about the product?
This “feedback” positioning is also a lot easier to get sales conversations with folks. This is where the Silicon Valley culture of helping each other is incredibly valuable. Many people in SV have been in your shoes before and they want to help out. People are very willing to jump on a call and share feedback. It’s what makes the SV ethos so special.
Of course, during these feedback calls, I would try to read the situation and see how they felt about Dock. If it felt like they were interested in using Dock, then I would guide the conversation towards action items around them starting to use the product. But if it didn’t feel like they would be a user, I would just stick with in-depth product research. I’d ask questions about their business model to better understand their pain points and how we can help them (or someone like them) in the future. This is another reason why it’s so important for a founder to do sales themselves. Founders can have a number of calls under this premise, but it gets a lot harder for a sales rep to do this. By the time you hire sales reps, you should have a good sense of what resonates and you’ll want to start positioning it as more of a sales call.
While on demo calls and between calls, I was trying to find patterns across these calls. I wanted to answer questions like…
I would take notes on calls, but these questions were just constantly floating through my head as I talked to people and reflected on the calls. When patterns emerged across features (multiple people asking for the same thing), then that helped to inform what we needed to build and in what order.
While the tactical features were important, what I was really looking for on all of these calls (especially in the super early days) was the level of enthusiasm the person I was talking to had for the idea and our vision. I could generally tell when someone was suspicious of what we were building vs. when someone was excited about the concept, even though it didn’t have all the features they really needed to use it. The enthusiastic folks quickly become our ICP and who we would build for. When we started to have more “enthusiastic'' conversations, I started to feel more confident in our vision and the product we were building.
As I did more demo calls and we built more features, the calls got easier over time. We started to have more features to meet customer needs and I started to learn what I could say on a call to better explain what we’re building and our value proposition to our customers. This constant iteration over the last six months between product and customer calls has helped us to build a much stronger company.
Now for the tactics. This section will walk through exactly what my b2b sales process looks like at the current stage of Dock.
When I first started to do demo calls, I had a grand vision of using a pitch deck and running a process similar to what we ended up building at Lattice. But I quickly realized that this didn’t work well for our current stage startup. It felt a bit awkward to pull up slides and run through a robotic pitch…especially when I was still figuring out the pitch. Instead, I would open up the conversation by giving a quick shpiel on the founding story of Dock and the problem we were trying to solve. From there, I’d usually ask a few questions to better understand their current business process. I’d take this information to tailor my demo accordingly.
After about 5-10min of talking, I’d start to share my screen and run through a product demo. Over time, I crafted a ~10min product demo pitch and had built in breaks to make sure they would feel comfortable asking questions. The last 5-10min were reserved for talking about next steps and answering any remaining questions. For folks where it didn’t seem like there was any potential to be a customer (at least in the short term), I’d usually use the last part of the demo to ask more questions about the business and try to better understand why they might not be a good fit and how they approach this challenge today.
Beyond learning, my goal for demo calls was to get the customer to set up a pilot program. I wanted to get people starting to use the product, so it would turn into a more proven commodity and they could see how Dock would work for their business and fit into their workflow.
Pilot programs are a classic tactic for B2B SaaS companies in order to prove out their product. It feels lower risk for customers. Instead of a full-company rollout, the customers can start to use the product with a couple users to make sure it works and provides value. And for us, this also gave us the ability to slowly ramp up our product and make sure that we worked out any kinks before growing the user base.
When running your demo calls, you want to have a very clear goal / action item. Importantly, this doesn’t just mean buying your product. You need to have the steps along the way in order to move them throughout the sales process step by step.
Demo Follow up
One huge advantage we have is that we can actually use our own product throughout the sales process. It created a very meta experience. We’re able to dog food our own product and show customers how it works in an active sales cycle.
In running this process, this was the first time I personally had an aha moment with Dock and started to realize it’s value for sales teams. I set up a Dock space for follow ups.
The space had everything from a product video to next steps. When I would meet with a new person, I would simply duplicate this template and send it over. This saved me a ton of time and helped us to feel professional and buttoned up. After a long day of demo calls, it was remarkably easy to follow up with everyone.
When talking about action items and following up with demos, my goal was to make it easy for the user to get started. I figured if they can see how Dock would work for them then it would have the highest chance of turning the prospect into an active user.
When thinking about how to do this, an obvious solution emerged - we should build Dock spaces for customers. Every founder has heard the startup lore around doing things that don’t scale, and this felt like the perfect thing we could do to jumpstart product usage and get our users sharing Dock spaces with their customers.
As a result, at the end of every demo call and follow ups, I’d offer to build a Dock space for customers. I tried to make it incredibly easy. Here’s what I would say….
“In terms of next steps, I'd be happy to set up a template to help you get started. Can you send over what you typically share with customers? Forward your demo follow up email, marketing collateral, pitch decks, etc. and we'll turn it into a Dock space.”
For anyone interested in Dock, this made it hard to say no to getting started. They literally can forward us their existing collateral and we’ll put it into a Dock space. And to make it a no brainer, we haven’t started charging for Dock users yet. We’ve prioritized getting a bunch of active users who use the product and share feedback over trying to get initial revenue. This approach has pros/cons, but it’s worked well for us so far. It will be interesting to see once we turn on monetization how many of our initial cohort of customers will pay for the product. By figuring out this process, we also have created a customer success onboarding playbook for when we start to bring on additional folks to the team.
This might sound pretty unique to the Dock product but I bet there’s a way you can do something similar with your product. By doing some of the setup grunt-work yourself, you can really jumpstart the process.
As I ran the above process, I quickly realized that I was sending the same type of email over and over again. I set up a few templates in Mixmax to make this process easier, so I could just drop in pre-set copy and then customize it in gmail. I had a few templates:
For anyone in sales, setting up email templates is an obvious thing to do to save time, but I see many non-sales founders still handwriting emails. This simple tactic will save you tons of time as you follow up with customers.
When I first started Dock, I had all the time in the world. My calendar was wide-open. But as we scaled, calendar management quickly became a struggle. When doing demo calls all day, it’s really hard for me to get into the mindset of focused work like writing a blog post or working on product designs. As a result, I did my best to timebox demo calls to Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. This gave me a dedicated time period to get into the sales groove, while giving me plenty of other time to work on other projects for Dock.
Also, Calendly became my best friend. It helped me save so much time and energy on scheduling calls with different folks.
I’ve used Airtable for my early CRM. It’s worked well so far, but I’ve also kept it really simple and probably violated every sales ops rule. When I first set it up, I had a grand vision of creating the perfect CRM, but as I got into the grind of sales, I quickly simplified things to make it really easy. I’m optimizing for speed and my own mental health over the perfect sales data funnel.
We have a really simple setup with four sheets in Airtable:
I’ve mainly focused my energy on keeping the opportunity tab up to date. This gives us the ability to understand what our general sales pipeline looks like and provides a reminder for me to follow up with different folks. I built out unique opportunity stages that fit our current process. Here’s what it looks like…
I review this every day to see where people are in the funnel and then I ask myself how I can move them to the next stage. We also review this pipeline in our team meeting each week, so everyone is on the same page about how customer conversations are going along.
My conversations came from a few different sources:
And then on our beta launch day, we got a ton of inbound demo requests (using the above tactics), which has kept me busy the past couple of weeks.
I always knew I wanted to be a founder, so I spent years slowly building my network to help folks with random marketing advice, product feedback, etc. I leveraged a lot of these relationships in order to get the ball moving with founder-led sales. If you want to be a founder, take a bunch of other calls with folks to help them out and you’ll have a huge network of folks to reach out to when the time comes.
I definitely prefer to be a “behind the scenes guy” so this experience has really pushed me outside my comfort zone, but has been incredibly rewarding. I’ve learned so much about what we need to build and have met so many interesting people from a group of guys building telecom companies in Sierra Leone to folks building robots to clean up children’s hospitals. It’s been amazing to see all of these incredible use cases emerge for Dock and learn so much about the product. This learning experience has been the best part of building Dock so far.
I plan to continue to do sales (and CX) for the coming months in order to refine our messaging and product. Our goal is to have a big group of early users who really love the product. We’re getting there, but we know there’s more features we need to build. Once we hit this stage, we’ll start the process of scaling outside of just founder-led sales and add account executives to the team. Eventually, we’ll hire sales managers and a VP of sales to run the entire process, but we’re not ready yet.
I hope this post is helpful for other founders who are going through the founder-led sales motion. Another resource I'd highly recommend is the book Pete Kazanjy wrote, Founding Sales.
Also, if you want to use Dock for your founder-sales motion… please let me know! We have a number of templates to help you get started.