3 Tips For Your Startup To Gain Traction

An idea can be disruptive, which is why the great Steve Jobs sold vaporware. At the inception of your company - even if you are in stealth mode - you should always be selling, or your startup may become moribund.
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An idea can be disruptive, which is why the great Steve Jobs sold vaporware. At the inception of your company - even if you are in stealth mode - you should always be selling, or your startup may become moribund.

In a Harvard Business Review article "What Entrepreneurs Get Wrong"," the author(s) wrote: "Salesmanship is central to the success of any young company, and entrepreneurs ignore this at their peril. Yet many do ignore it, in large part because they have little sales experience and have probably not taken classes in how to sell, even if they have formal business education." So: sell, sell, SELL! But there's no need to become the cheesy, disingenuous car salesmen.

MIT graduate Kevin Rustagi, whom I heard speak at TEDxYouth@CharlesRiver, wrote in his senior thesis: "Sharing. An intensely freeform sharing -- espousing the idea to anyone, anywhere, at any time." To me, Rustagi's definition of sharing is synonymous to selling in the innovation economy.

During "Asian Pacific Heritage Week," the co-founders of Mei Mei, a Boston food truck and restaurant, discussed how they gained traction. Mei said, "While seemingly egotistical and somewhat vain, entrepreneurs need to talk about what they're doing in order to get people to help them." By talking about themselves to whomever would listen, Mei Mei made connections that led to their features in the Boston Magazine, New York Times, TV Dinner on NECN, and numerous other media outlets. They are also supporting small businesses by buying produce from local farms. Mei Mei's meat-filled beef dumplings are made with grass-fed cow - savory, delicious, and awesome if you ask me. Evidently, everyone from the executives to the interns of a startup must always be selling, meaning that your message must be easily digestible to a layperson. So here are three tips on how to effectively gain traction for your startup by always selling:

1. Sell people on a characteristic from your product or service.
What is the wow-factor of your product or service? What makes it different? There is magic in the novelty of differentiation. Pizzerias are product-focused companies. I have been to many great pizza shops, but il Panino has the best white spinach pizza and il Mondo has the best buffalo chicken pizza I have ever eaten; they both sell the same type of food, but I like them for their different specific pizzas. These establishments convert customers with their amazing concoctions; then (ideally) customers spread the word. On the other hand, law firms are service-oriented businesses. Most law firms can provide a varying range of legal services, but many have specialties. For example, Gunderson Dettmer is known for venture capital law, whereas Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen, and Katz is known for specializing in Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A) law. Point in case: sell something specific to you and your startup.

2. Sell people on consumer behavior and groupthink.
Celebrity product placement and telling new customers about the brand name client/supporter/partner you converted can help gain market traction very fast. Daymond John, an investor on the ABC reality series Shark Tank, had me ponder a question: "What is more important: market demand or marketing?" I immediately thought market demand, but then realized that great marketing actually increases market demand. Everyone has been unconsciously influenced by advertisement media. Ever seen a Cheerios commercial and then craved a bowl of cereal? Exactly.

During the 2013 NBA Playoffs pre-game show, I saw Lebron James reading the Hunger Games. Later I walked to the library and borrowed the books. In high school, my friends purchased Nike's Air Jordan sneakers every time a new pair were released. That was years ago, and Air Jordans only keep getting more popular and more expensive. Interestingly, Michael Jordan once favored Converse over Nike. However, Nike spent their entire marketing budget (an estimated $500,000) to secure Jordan's endorsement. Now, Jordan makes $60 million dollars annually from Nike royalties. However, Nike created the subsidiary company Air Jordan that funds Jordan's royalties, which are based only on sales converted from his own brand, rather than overall company earnings. Try to imagine how much money Nike must be generating in sales from Air Jordan.

As a consultant with Wayfair, I pitched cool TV segments with HGTV Celebrities to prestigious media outlets (Fox, Rachel Ray, KCAL, KTLA). After securing TV spots, I convinced our suppliers to give us their products for free to use on TV segments. Our celebrities - Justin Cave, as well as John Gidding, Tanya Nayak, and Angelo Surmelis - would say, "These products come from [Wayfair, formerly CSN Stores]." As a result, our sales increased. Point in case: sell people on what others think of your products, services, partners, founders and startup.

3. Sell people on your vision of the future.
How will your startup change the world? Many companies are gaining customers with their ability to market their values. You don't want to be like Chick-fil-A and oppose the freedoms of the LGBTQ community, but rather like TOMS who believes that "commerce can be about more than just profits."

At the 2013 INBOUND Conference, I had the pleasure of listening to the amazing Nancy Duarte give a talk. She said, "When presenting to people on how you plan to change the world, use the Hero's Journey as a storytelling device. Also, like Martin Luther King Jr., talk about 'What is' ...and sell people on 'What could be...'" Point in case: Sell how your startup is challenging the status quo and/or making the lives of many people better.

During her World Humanitarian Day performance, Beyonce sang: "I want to say I lived each day, until I died. And know that I meant something in, somebody's life. The hearts I have touched, will be the proof that I leave. That I made a difference, and this world will see." She sold me on the fact that, like her, even if narcissistic in some weird way, I want to change the world. But I am only one person. My hope is that, in your own way, you use my tips to sell others on the change you want to see in the world.

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