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Startup Growth 101: Building a Sales Pipeline That Doesn’t Suck

The problem almost every seed-stage SaaS startup faces is finding qualified sales leads.  Setting up a solid sales pipeline for your startup can be like riding an exploding hoverboard – they’re expensive, they’re all over the place and there’s no quality standard.  On top of mostly being inaccurate and having fragmented demographics, sales pipelines demand seemingly endless hours to research, vet and send cold emails, secretly, hoping that your 8-hour emailing frenzy does not bounce back for nothing.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

For the past decade, I’ve observed and studied underdog startups perform incredible feats by growth-hacking their sales pipeline to produce healthy low-hanging fruits.  Qualified leads are streaming in at all times, and sales members are solely focused on closing deals.  However, most startups will go through great lengths only to repeat the same costly mistakes over and over again.

Building a sales pipeline that doesn’t suck is a company-wide effort.  The most harmful myth that can drive your startup to the ground is by assigning this task only to your sales team (or first sales hire).

Hack #1: If marketing wins battles, product wins wars

When building a pipeline, you most likely separate your product team from your sales efforts. I believe this is a mistake. It’s tough to find great leads when your sales team is not collaborating with your engineers. Vice versa, your engineers will not build products people will want to buy because they have no user intel.

Your product should have tools built in that will help you generate more leads.  One example, is the ‘viral loop waiting-list’ tactic where a company promotes their product by creating a virtually exclusive VIP line, that incentivises a person to share the promotion with other friends.  While this might not fit some businesses, I’ve seen this strategy increase Robinhood App’s user list to more than 700,000 people in a few months.

If viral loops do not suit your product, think of other product features to improve your company’s sales pipeline.  For instance, Yelp’s product was built with local business pages that track every activity a customer makes on the website.  As a salesperson, we had intel on how many people clicked on a business listing, how many people called them and how many people asked for directions to their business.  The more data we could share with our leads, the higher the chances of closing an account.

There are many creative ways to integrate your product in building a healthy pipeline. Here are three of the most talked about strategies:

  1. Building website widgets that point links to your website will increase your SEO rank.
  2. Iterating contextual landing pages that increase conversion will get more lead contacts.
  3. Testing CTA optimizations that decrease bounce rates.

Hack #2: Proper introductions – You had me at hello.

Contrary to SEO, the most effective and underrated way to build your pipeline is from warm introductions.  Check out your friends’ networks and ask to be introduced (email or in person) to the decision maker in their company.

Investors of your company are likely chosen for their expertise, track record and most of all, rolodex.  Your success is their success, which means they will be even more willing to help you than your friends.  They invested their money in you, so working together to talk about who your product can help will provide value for everyone.

Early customers and beta testers are your best solutions to getting the best pipeline.  As your product ambassadors, offer something nice to get some help on warm introductions.  If they are already using your product simply ask if they would recommend it to others.  If the answer is “Yes.” Then, simply make an offer like $100 for warm intros that signup or give a free month for every new email intro that sign up.  This concept is effectively used everywhere including talent recruitment, AirBnB’s host referrals, Hotel Tonight’s app booking — why not use it with warm introductions?

Consideration is key to a successful ‘ask’ and being mindful of their time should be your top priority. This is a tricky situation with very high success rates, so think twice before you approach.  Make sure you have a fool-proof strategy that is beneficial for everyone.

Hack #3: Blog about it’ and then reblog 5 days later.

According to InternetLiveStats.com, “Google now processes over 40,000 search queries every second on average, which translates to over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide.” If your website is not found on Google, when people are intentionally (sometimes urgently) looking for your type of product, you are S.O.L. (for now) unless you push your team to blog awesome content, religiously.

The truth is that the most intelligent way to get more leads is actually sticking to the daily boring routine of producing quality content that your audience and customers want to read.  Everything you try from press releases to publicity stunts, to email marketing, to advertising will provide temporary spikes that will bring your traffic back to low levels within the next few days.

There’s a reason why there are over 3.3 million blogs written each day; discovery, reflection and  of course, bloggers are building a pipeline of audiences that convert into something (ie. first time visitor, subscription, click to add, downloads, social shares, commenting, demo requests).  

According to Hubspot, “B2B marketers that use blogs receive 67% more leads than those that do not.”  Instead of using PPC to get new leads, or emailing people who do not care about you, try blogging instead – it’s free and has long-term rewards.

How to do it right:

  1. Find relevant bloggers and influencers, show them how your product works and ask them to publish a post about you or if you can post a guest blog on their site.
  1. Blog about lessons, useful and valuable content, daily – make sure it’s a team effort.  
  2. Increase the lifespan of your blog by re-blogging it 5 days later on Linkedin, Medium, etc.

Hack #4: Quid Pro Quo Programs

If blogging got you leads on the front end of your website, quid pro quo programs will get you even better leads on the back end of your sales process.  Give and take relationships with your happy clients is the most satisfying method, out of all the lead generation growth hacks.  To me, this is the only way to build a strong army of advocates.  

On-going referral programs are good to have in place in case your clients ask about them.  If you have a mobile app, you should have a referral page in place to automatically grow user acquisition.  If you have a web software like Dropbox’s famous referral program, you would let them use your product for free if they invite their Gmail contacts.

Promotions like free ebooks, webinar entries, coupons, gift certificates or a day with famous person are all great programs to generate leads. Of course, it is all dependent on who your target is and how many people actually see your promotion.  If you have a great promo and only 50 people see it, then it does not make sense to give out $100 gift card.  Before any promotions, make sure you have an email subscription list that you’ve built out of visitors who opted-in to your blog.  

Contests that involve sweepstakes, votes for best photo, video or essays are always the most fun programs.  At the end of the contest you will have a very good idea of the type of engaged customers that support you.  Giving them the autonomy to generate their own content while providing some great some awesome rewards are a sure way of generating more leads for your sales teams.

Newsletter swaps are underused but a surprisingly effective strategy.  This is basically offering some newsletter shoutouts to your most valuable clients in order to get some space in their newsletter as a form of barter.  When I was at TINT in the early days of our startup, whenever our clients would ask for a big discount ($300 or more), we would ask them to write about us in their newsletter, or blog about us and then tweet @tint.  

The result, well you can check that out here.  It was exciting to see our clients blogging about how they viewed our company and in turn, we were super grateful.  We’d even give them notebooks and chromecasts as appreciation gifts.  Our relationship went full circle.

Hack #5: If you build external channels, they will come, quickly.

Here’s the thing — building a long-term strategy is more fulfilling both in time-management and cost-efficiency.  For any seed tech startup company trying to generate sustainable revenue, a diverse selection of inbound lead generation is more powerful than spending 8 hours per day, cold-calling and cold-emailing leads who have absolutely no idea who you are.

Building a profitable sales pipeline is hard work.  It requires team effort that is a marathon punctuated by sprints.  It can be the difference between life and death for a startup if all possibilities are not tested.  Below are 10 more areas of external channels to build your brand. Each channel has an industry ready for you to take.  So have at it!

Channel 1: Participate in relevant Forums – Gitomer’s Sales Forums

Channel 2: Set up a Youtube channel – here’s a successful sales example.

Channel 3: Build Slideshare traffic – McKinsey’s presentation on sales

Channel 4: Linkedin Sales Navigator, Groups and Pulse allow you to build more communities

Channel 5: Ask or answer questions about on sales Quora to engage potential clients

Channel 6: Submit your links on Reddit and double your traffic instantly

Channel 7: Follow sales folks on Twitter and check out the latest conversation through hashtags

Channel 8: Get more likes on Facebook and promote company updates

Channel 9: Build your community and share your company culture on Instagram

Channel 10: Get ranked higher on google and generate more leads on Google+