Note: This post was originally written for Business Insider.
At Topguest, we’ve signed many deals with very large companies such as Hilton Worldwide, IHG, Virgin America, Wyndham, and others despite being in business under a year and not having prior experience in our industry. People assume we have a massive sales force and killer connections.
In fact, we have no sales force, and certainly did not have any connections in our industry when we started last summer. Surprisingly, the question I’m asked most by other entrepreneurs is not “How do you get these deals done?” but rather “How do you even get your foot in the door?” Indeed, getting an initial meeting with the right person at a prospective partner is an arduous task for an unknown startup Through lots of trial and error, we’ve come up with a sequence at Topguest that works really well. And I’m sharing all our secrets with you.
First, before you even start trying to get a meeting, these 2 things must both be true:
- You have a strong hypothesis of what Company X’s specific pain point is, informed by research
- If your hypothesis is right, there is a >50% chance that your product can actually solve their pain point
If both of the above are not true, do not proceed. You will waste your time and theirs.
If both are true, you’re in luck. The sequence I propose assumes that you are starting from scratch, just like we were. No flashy connections at the target Company, no warm intro, no impressive track record. This sequence will not result in a meeting every time, but in my experience it has had about a 75% success rate:
1. CEOs, take the driver’s seat. All emails to the prospective partner should be sent by someone with a very impressive sounding title, ideally the CEO. This is annoying, since generally titles are cheesy and can be really problematic at startups. But unfortunately titles are important for business development. If nothing else, the email coming from the CEO could make BigCo Manager Y think “Oh well, even though this will likely be a waste of 30 minutes, I will get to meet the CEO of Cool Startup Z which could possibly help me somehow in the future”. A hack for busy CEOs who don’t want to do sales: The CEO does not necessarily have to write the emails he or she sends.
2. Don’t use agencies as a crutch. Do not try to get to Company X through their advertising agency, social media consultant, hairdresser, or other service provider. Your goal is to get a meeting with a decision maker as fast as possible. Going through an Agency will put your starting point far away from a decision maker, and will 2X your timeline, at minimum. Don’t get me wrong, there are some kick-ass agencies out there doing great work, but as an unknown startup trying to get your foot in the door, an agency is not the best starting point for you.
3. Identify Prospects. An unhealthy addiction to LinkedIn is your best friend here. Use its Advanced Search function to find people at Company X that can serve as entry points for your quest. You’re looking for these characteristics:
- Have a common thread with you that you can use as an anchor. Same college, used to work at same company, played same sport in college, were at same conference X years ago, etc. Use Google to augment their LinkedIn profile to help identify a common thread. Note, LinkedIn connections in common does not = common thread. Generally I never use weak LinkedIn connections to get an intro because a. odds are that your in-common connection does not have influence with your prospect, so you’ll just get jerked around, and b. I personally have far more respect for ambitious people that smartly reach out to me directly vs. having intermediaries I don’t know well facilitate introductions.
- Are likely in a “Decision Making” role. Guess what? Very few jobs at big companies are actually “Decision Making” roles! It is hard to tell who can make decisions and who can’t, and even titles can be very misleading. But generally, Vice President of X, or Sr. Director of Y have at least some decision making power.
- Work in the department who would most likely be purchasing (or testing) your product. Use your sleuthing powers to figure out what the right department is. If you have researched your market this should not be that hard.
- Their online footprint indicates they are ambitious. Beyond LinkedIn, check Twitter, Quora, blogs, news articles, Facebook, etc. and make a judgment call on whether the person appears to be ambitious or not. Ambitious people become champions of new ideas and introduce them to organizations. Un-ambitious people do not.
4. Get email addresses for prospects. Obtain the email address of anyone you’ve identified at Company X who meets at least 2 of the 4 criteria above. Do not message prospects over LinkedIn, that’s amateur. If you can’t find the email address of a prospect, find the email address for someone else at the company and insert your prospect’s name into that format. Works every time.
5. Email only the best prospect based on the Criteria from Step 3 above, your prime prospect. Crafting this email is an art, and you must get it just right. There are many great blog posts on how to cold email people, I suggest reading them. For the purposes of this sequence, here is what I suggest:
- The subject line must contain the single most impressive thing about your Company to Random person X. Not the most impressive thing to you or your team who know about all the goodies under the hood, but the must impressive thing to a random person from the street. If you have backing from ‘top tier’ investors or a star advisor that your prospect will have heard of, use in your subject line
- The first sentence of the email must establish your credibility. E.g. “I am the CEO of Startup Q, recently featured in The Wall Street Journal [link]. We are building X for Y”
- The next sentences must exploit your common thread, or subtly hint as to how you could help this person get ahead; preferably both. Here is an example: “I am also a graduate of Georgia Tech (Sci ‘08!), and am reaching out to you since our Product is delivering 200% ROI for Vaguely Competitive Company Z.”
- The next sentences must illustrate that you get what is important to the Company and have an idea of how you could help. Here is an example: “I’m impressed by your efforts to grow Brand Z’s Facebook fan base. I read about Initiative X in AdAge and it seems like you’re at the cutting edge. That’s why I believe a simple tool that lets Company X sell products to Facebook Fans could be useful and interesting for you.
- Close the deal with a specific request for an “introductory conversation” and suggest a few dates. End your last sentence with a question mark. After all, you’re looking for an answer.
6. Meet! If your prime prospect gets back to you within 5 business days, awesome. Prepare a brief presentation, and try your hardest to have the meeting in person. Real connections between people are developed in person not over the phone. And the hardest part of selling is a developing a real connection with the prospect.
7. Most likely, your first email attempt will not elicit a response after 5 business days. Do not despair! Rather, repeat Step 5 with each of your additional prospects.
8. Email your prime prospect with a quick follow up: Attach a new and interesting relevant news article, a statement to the effect of “I know how busy you are”, and a new meeting request with your updated availability
9. If you have one person willing to meet with you by now, awesome. Proceed with Step 6. Most likely, you’ll still have no response. So follow up with each of the additional prospects you emailed in Step 7 with the same follow up suggested in Step 8
10. Throw your Hail Mary pass: If still no luck about 15 business days from when you started, email your initial “best” prospect and “second best” prospect together in the same email. Say something to the effect of “touched base with each of you and wanted to follow up. Do either of you have availability to connect? We have made progress X, Y, Z since my initial note and I’d love to update you.” Emailing both prospects together puts a competitive dynamic at play where neither person wants to look like a slacker to the other person, therefore making at least one of them more likely to write you back. Note: This tactic can also backfire, that’s why it’s your Hail Mary.
So that’s our secret sauce at Topguest to go from “0” to initial meeting. But the real work is in getting from initial meeting to sale or partnership. It is a process that will likely take months… Some tips on that in my next post!