GTM and Sales

Direct Sales 101 for Early Stage B2B SaaS Founders

Nov 18, 2020
min read

While the amount of focus you give to direct sales will eventually depend on your average customer size, every early stage B2B SaaS founder must do direct sales to start. Not only does direct sales help you build relationships with your prospects, it opens the door to learning new things about them that you couldn’t identify in an outsourced or automated campaign.  

At Forum Ventures, we’ve had hundreds of startups go through our 16-week long accelerator program and coached all of them on direct sales 101. In this article, we’re digging into the real reason why direct sales is critical for early stage B2B SaaS founders, the three elements of a good direct sales strategy, and practical tips on how to build your lead list. If you’re curious to learn more about each of these topics, they are covered in-depth in our B2B SaaS Marketing Playbook. Or better yet, get hands on guidance and 1:1 mentorship for early stage sales and marketing by applying to our Accelerator.

The point of direct sales isn’t to sell

It may sound ironic, but closing sales is just a happy side effect of direct sales for early stage B2B SaaS founders. While of course all companies need to bring in revenue and keep profit to survive, at the earliest stages direct sales is intended to do three things for you as a founder and for your founding team: 

  1. Learn more about your prospects more quickly by doing it yourself instead of outsourcing.
  2. Open the opportunity for new insights about how your prospect behaves or how they answer questions / object to purchasing that you’d have missed in an automated sales process. 
  3. Get way closer to your ideal customer profile (ICP) and build more personal relationships with them. 

This is all part of the secret sauce of B2B SaaS growth: ignore total addressable market (TAM) and focus on your ICP. So when we say that direct sales is critical, we don’t mean that you will only ever sell directly – or even that direct sales is a good long term strategy (unless you have an enterprise solution). But it is critical in the earliest stages to deeply understand your customer’s problems so you can build the right solution. 

The 3 components of direct sales in early stage B2B SaaS

Direct sales consists of three different avenues: 

  1. Warm introductions
  2. Cold outreach
  3. A marketing qualified lead (MQL) strategy

Warm introductions

When you first start selling, your network is gold. Every founder needs to leverage direct connections and be willing to boldly ask for introductions from your network.

The key to successfully asking for a referral, beyond the boldness to make the ask, is to ensure the ask is genuine and legitimate. How? Show that you can help the person you’d be introduced to. Everyone likes to help their friends solve problems.

Timeline: Immediately and ongoing. Never turn down a warm introduction to a lead within your ICP. 

Cold outreach

Even the most well-networked people will run dry on warm introductions. That’s when cold outreach comes in, which is something that every B2B SaaS founder will need to get used to. The world runs on sales, and a lot of sales is based on cold outreach. Similar to asking for warm introductions, the cold outreach process is about solving someone’s problems. The more you structure your message to be about solving problems, the more you increase your chance of getting a response to your cold outreaches. 

Timeline: You should be planning for cold email outreach from day one and begin when warm intros start to run dry.

A marketing qualified lead strategy

After giving warm introductions and cold outreach a try, the MQL route can help you get more operational about direct sales. A good MQL strategy starts with a clear definition of your ICP. From there, the goal is to identify where your ICP lives online, connect with them via great content that addresses their needs (like an eBook like ours!), source their contact information by asking them to fill out a lead form in order to access that content, and then from there you can build a lead list that you can reach out directly to.  

Remember this is still direct sales, not marketing. The process leverages a marketing strategy in order to get you a lead list, but then you have to follow up with every single lead that comes down the pipeline. That’s why it’s critical to have a clear ICP definition – so you can widdle down the leads into a list that qualifies; otherwise you’ll be calling a lot of leads that turn out to be duds. 

Timeline: When you have a clearly defined ICP and want to beef up direct sales. 

Building your lead list

Whether you’re going to ask for warm intros, reach out cold, or build an MQL list, you’ll need a lead list strategy. This all starts with having an understanding of your ICP so that you can guide your research. From there, you’ll be more able to target the right people or ask for relevant introductions. 

A lead list strategy includes two elements: search parameters and how you’ll identify contact information. 

Search parameters include

  • Number of employees in the organization
  • Number of employees in a specific department
  • What funding round they are on (Pre-Seed, Seed, Series A, B, C, etc)
  • Tech stack or specific platform they use
  • Geography

… And more. You can have nearly any search parameter, as long as they make sense for your ICP and speak to what your product is capable of solving for. 

Identifying contact information: 

  • The person’s title (to find them on LinkedIn)
  • Email nomenclature for the company (is it first.last@ or is it firstname.lastinitial@?)
  • Avoiding dummy emails (don’t email hello@. It won’t go anywhere)

A note about executive assistants (EA) and administrative staff: In your cold outreach process, you are likely to encounter EAs and other admin staff. Treat them with the utmost respect. First and foremost, they are humans and deserve respect. But second, they are also gatekeepers and occasionally decision influencers. 

Tools and resources to help you build a lead list: 

Never discount direct sales

As an early stage B2B SaaS founder, you cannot discount the importance of direct sales. From the moment you think you have a solution until you become the elusive “industry standard” (and even beyond), direct sales is a critical way to get to know your customers, learn new insights, and keep your ear to the ground for problems to solve. Even if you plan to have an entirely digital sales funnel at scale, direct sales is a good practice from a learning perspective. 

Founders have limited time and resources – we know that – so our recommendation to focus on direct sales is not made lightly. It could even be the best possible use of time as an early stage founder. 

Want more practical tips on growing your SaaS business? Download our SaaS Marketing Playbook now.

More startup sales tips:

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