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January 2, 2017

What Mentoring 18 Startup Founders Taught Me About Growing Sales

The other day I had an incredible experience as a mentor for FocusCon, a conference for early-stage startup founders.

Created by customer development guru Justin Wilcox, the goal of FocusCon is to teach founders how to validate their business idea through customer development, specifically by interviewing customers.

But the best part of FocusCon mentoring wasn’t working with early stage founders.

It’s that I had a realization that blew open everything I assumed I knew about startups and sales.

First you need to know that the goal of FocusCon was all about startup customer development.

What is customer development? It sounds straightforward, but it's a little more nuanced.

Customer development is the practice of understanding customer needs and wants in order to generate, test and refine products and services. Put simply, it’s how you make sure you’re creating the products or services that your customers most want. The goal is to avoid investing time and energy in creating things that your customers either don’t want or won’t pay for.

How do you know what customers needs are? Well, by asking them through a series of thoughtful questions. The best way to do customer development is through customer interviews, and FocusCon taught attendees how to do just that.


Now, as a founder and business owner, I’ve done a ton of customer development to validate, test, and even disprove business ideas (you can read one example of that here).

And I’ve worked with a number of startup founders, helping them validate and build out THEIR business ideas.

But I always felt it was separate from the work I’m doing now, helping consultants and business owners grow their sales. (Like a boss!)

Then I had a total A-HA moment yesterday, as I was mentoring 18 startup founders in a single afternoon.



Picture 18 people from all over the world -- Romania, Luxembourg, Pakistan, Australia, Italy and a dozen cities around the U.S. -- gathered together in an online mentoring room. And each one is trying to answer the same questions:

  • How do I build something that people want?
  • How do I best understand my customers’ problems?
  • Once I find someone who has a problem I can solve, how do I get them to choose my solution?

Sounds a lot like sales, huh?


And that’s when I had my big A-HA moment. THREE A-ha moments, actually.

A-ha moment #1: Early stage customer development, when really done well, isn’t terribly dissimilar from doing great discovery with new clients.

A-ha moment #2: I was ALREADY using my startup experience in the sales process, by using the principles of customer development to understand client needs before pitching any idea.

THAT’S how I'm able to get to the core of what people need and the value they are looking for in their business, so I can propose the absolute best solution for them. It all made sense!

And A-ha moment #3: Anyone can learn how to do great customer discovery, whether they’re working with a potential new client, or developing a new startup.

I’ve spent years working on this, and I highly recommend that business owners and startup founders learn how to great discovery. If you want to learn how, I recommend The Entrepreneur's Guide to Customer Development: A cheat sheet to The Four Steps to the Epiphany and Lean Customer Development: Building Products Your Customers Will Buy.


BUT because you’re a busy business owner who’s juggling selling, growing your business, doing the work, and living your life, here are…


The Shortcuts To Doing Great Customer Development, Whether It’s For a Client or a Startup:

  1. It’s all about discovery. Ask questions that help you uncover the problem your clients are having and the value they’re looking for in their business or life.
  2. Listening is more important than talking. When you ask a question, don’t listen to respond, or listen to insert how your service helps them. Listen just to listen, and you’ll not only hear what prospects are saying, but you’ll start to understand what they mean.
  3. Mentally “put away” your solution. When you put the solution aside, you not only free yourself to truly listen to your clients’ needs, you can also be more creative about crafting the right solution that better achieves your clients’ goals.
  4. Focus on the value you provide. Or, in startup terms, focus on the problem you solve. Either way the end goal is the same: Instead of talking about what you do, focus on the value you provide your clients.


I also had a mini-epiphany when I was talking to these founders. I was reminded of something important: when you’re talking to a lot of potential customers, not everyone is a good fit.

In customer development, the goal is to find your early-adopter customers. And since many people just won’t be a good fit, you have to talk to a lot of people to find the right ones.

It’s the same way in sales: Not everyone will be a good fit, so you have to talk to a lot of people, find the ones that are a good fit, and move on from the ones that aren’t.

That frees you up to eventually find the ones who ARE a good fit, and that’s where the magic happens.

If you're a business owner or early-stage entrepreneur who wants help growing your business, request a call with me here and let's talk about how we can collaborate.

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