Category Archives: Startups

Seed-Stage Positioning: Lock and Load

With angel and seed money flowing, and a great environment for company creation, I’ve been talking to a lot of seed-stage and pre-seed stage startups of late.  They often ask me about positioning.  Listening to myself talk, I realized that I didn’t really sound like me, and it made me wonder why.

What I Normally Sound Like on Positioning
When people ask me about positioning and messaging, I usually sound like this:

  • As Fausto Coppi said about cycling, positioning is suffering.  The marketer who suffers the most wins.
  • When challenging a marketer in a positioning meeting, the ideal response to every question is: “yes, we thought of that and ruled it out for these reasons.”  You should never be able to come up with something they haven’t thought about already.  Deeply.
  • Positioning is a labor of love.  You need to examine and re-examine all the messages and how they fit together over and over again [1].
  • Slapdash and positioning don’t belong on the same page, let alone the same paragraph or the same sentence.
  • Get Shit Done is the watchword in marketing, today.  There’s no room for perfectionism, except for one thing:  positioning.

In short, I feel about positioning the way David Ogilvy felt about copywriting.

What I Sound Like Talking to Seed-Stage Startups
Lately, in talking with seed-stage startups, however, I’ve heard myself sounding like this:

  • Perfect is the enemy of good.
  • Put in enough thought and build enough consensus that you can execute without wanting to change it every day — but no more than that.
  • Stop worrying about category creation, and worry about proving product-market fit [2].
  • Analysts name categories, not vendors.  Guiding them to the right name is a problem we’ll hopefully get to have in 2-4 years.
  • Just be clear.  The emphasis needs to be 100% on clarity:  make it clear, make it simple, and don’t let confusion interfere.

Think hard but don’t agonize.  Then lock and load.  Debate it, decide it, train the team on it, and then go execute.  Don’t entertain revisiting the positioning unless you get material new information.  Think:  “I’ll write everyone’s concerns down in a Google Doc that we can revisit in two to four quarters — right now we’re in execution mode.” [3]

Why The Difference?
The positioning challenge is fundamentally different between a seed-stage and a larger company.  Managing this difference can be particularly hard for a larger-company director of product marketing who’s just joined their first seed- or early-stage startup.

At a larger company, the product marketer typically works in an existing category and needs to clearly message what their offering does and how it is different from the competition. That often involves amplification of subtle differences in an effort first to position yourself as different and then as better.  You’re trying to differentiate in a market where, to most buyers, everyone sounds the same.  You’re in a why buy mine situation, in a hot and growing market, fighting for share, and in that situation you literally cannot spend enough time and energy getting the optimal answer to the question:  why buy mine?  Anything less than perfect isn’t good enough.

At a seed-stage company you’re trying to see if anyone wants to buy what you’ve built.  Your founder saw a problem and built a solution to it.  But few people, if any, have actually bought it.  You don’t know if they will.  The number one thing your next-round investors will be looking for is how many people didYou’re selling to technology enthusiasts who want to try it because they try everything or, better yet, visionaries who are more than able to map the potential benefits of the product to their business — provided, of course, they understand what the product is.  So your job is simple:  explain what the product is in the clearest simplest, shortest form possible [4].  Anything more than that is wasted effort, better spent on engaging with more people instead of further honing the message.

When seed-stage companies get confused about this, here’s what I think is happening:

  • Perfectionism is winning over pragmatism.  Believe me, I get the desire to want to make it perfect, but in reality you’re just navel gazing.
  • It’s a form of avoidance.  It’s scary that people might fully understand what you built and then say, “no thanks, I don’t need that.”  But that’s precisely what you need to find out.  Relish these conversations, even if reveal that you built the wrong light bulb.  If that’s true, you’ll find out eventually anyway.  Why not fail fast?
  • It’s a failure to understand marketing.  Founders sometimes think that marketing is supposed to dress up their practical but mundane idea so that people will buy it.  That’s wrong.  All that fancy dress-up just interferes with what you should be doing:  finding the right people to hear your idea and clearly telling them what it is. [5] [6]
  • Large-company people not adapting to required small-company practices.

In short, while at larger companies positioning is indeed suffering, at seed-stage companies, positioning is the quick search for simple clarity.

Get it.  Then lock and load.

# # #

Notes

[1] Certainly in your own mind, but also with other people and groups:  customers, prospects, sales, product, engineering … and via market research.

[2] Resisting the temptation to expound on category creation, let me say that the podcast episode linked with Stephanie McReynolds on category creation was, I believe, outstanding.  Listen to it for a great discussion on the topic.

[3] But we’re not going to spend hours every week — often just arguing with ourselves — wondering if we’re describing it optimally.

[4] One great way to do that is often via an origin story:  explaining why the founder built it.

[5] Companies often put more energy into what they want to say than who they want to say it to, and that’s a mistake.  Pitching an innovation idea to a conservative buyer might result in rejection, but not because the idea is bad but because the buyer is risk averse. In Geoffrey Moore terms, you want to find visionaries — people who understand technology and can envision how a given technology might solve a range of business problems.

[6] Don’t worry, if you’re talking to the right person (see prior endnote) with a good idea, they’ll tell you the business benefits.  Later in market evolution you’ll need to explain business benefits to people.  But early on, when you’re selling to visionaries, they’ll tell you.

Why Execution Matters

Some friends wonder why, as someone who considers himself a strategist, I care so much about execution.  Is it because I’m a perfectionist?  Well yes, but that’s only one reason (and perfectionism is a weakness [1] in business, not a strength).  Is it because I like metrics, measurement, and incremental improvement?  Yes, I do.  Is it because I like improving efficiency and minimizing cash burn?  Yes, even though that doesn’t matter nearly as much as it once did.

But are any of those answers the real, big reason why I care so much about execution?  No.  This quadrant is:

In business, while we all may have strong opinions about what’s going to work and what isn’t, if we have even a trace of humility we must admit that we don’t know.  Therefore, everything we do is an experiment.  When an idea succeeds, great — let’s scale it up.  But it’s also quite important to know, when an idea fails, why.

That’s why execution matters.  Because when an idea doesn’t clearly succeed you need to be able to determine whether you’re in Box 1 or Box 4 of the above quadrant [2].

Saying a new corporate initiative failed because of bad execution is like saying a lab experiment failed because the petri dishes were dirty.  It shouldn’t even be a possible cause of failure.  You should have controlled for that.  You should have hired professionals to run your experiment.

If you’re going to spend $5M of your investors’ money to try an idea, if it doesn’t work you should be able to explain why — and be damn sure that execution is not a probable reason.  The whole Silicon Valley model is about isolating and removing risk from the equation.  That’s why boards want startups to pay high salaries and lure experienced talent with lucrative stock options.  It’s not because VCs like high compensation packages and dilution.  It’s because they want to optimize the chance of something working and, when it doesn’t, they want to be able to say, “we spent $5M and proved that was a bad idea,” as opposed to, “we spent $5M and we’re not sure whether it didn’t work because it was a bad idea or it was just poorly executed.” [3]

If Sartre said, “hell is other people,” I’d say, “hell is not knowing why you failed.”

Let’s take European expansion as an example.  You have a nice US-based $30M SaaS business and you want to expand into Europe.  But you’re not fully committed, the board is split on the decision, you’re worried about the CAC impact of initially unproductive sales investments, and you’re not sure what to do.

You think, if you had the proper budget, you’d:

  • Open in both the UK and Germany to run the experiment in parallel
  • Hire only sellers with experience in your space, with the same profile as the ones you hire in the US.
  • Hire 3 in each country to make sure the outcome isn’t dependent on any one bad hire.
  • Hire 2 SDRs and 2 solutions consultants in each country to support the sellers (the same ratio you use in the US).
  • Hire a few other staff like in functions like customer success, support, and services to support the team.
  • Hire a VP of Europe to lead this — someone experienced but who still enjoyed being close to the action; they’d be expensive but they could scale the operation as it grew.
  • All in all, you’d hire maybe 20 people and spend $4M to get going.

But given the board situation, you decide to do it on the cheap:

  • You hire one seller in UK and one in Germany, who are both junior in their careers and have never worked in the space, but they’re cheap and seem aggressive.  Good sales DNA you convince yourself.
  • You tell them to work primarily through partners because you don’t think you can afford to go direct.
  • You have them share a UK-based solutions consultant who doesn’t speak German.
  • And that’s it.  You spend less than $1M, but at least you’re getting started.

Now, zoom forward to the end of the year.  It didn’t work.  The two sellers both quit and the solutions consultant is trying to support the few customers they sold.  It’s a mess.  And what you have you learned?  That Europeans don’t want software in your category?  That a partner model doesn’t work in Europe?  That it’s hard to find good talent in Europe?

Nope.  You haven’t learned anything — except that bad execution leads to failure.  And you knew that already, didn’t you?

Maybe you think you learned not to hire junior sales reps, that reps need a proper level of supporting staff, and that customers like to get demos in their native language?  But you knew that already, too.  You haven’t learned a thing, but you’ve wasted $1M, damaged your brand, and most importantly, lost a year.

By the way, if you really wanted to know if you could hire junior sellers and make them successful — if that was really the question you were trying to answer — then shouldn’t you have held all the other variables constant and just tested that?  In the US, at perhaps smaller companies but in your same target market.  With your standard support ratios.  With experienced leadership.

Imagine if you ran the other play, the one with the proper budget.  If it worked, you’d be worried about scaling up, not still worried about how to open Europe.  If it didn’t work, then you’d have some really hard questions to answer.  Because we can be pretty sure it’s not the people or the support ratios or the sales model — or execution in general.  We’re probably in Box 1 — there’s likely something about the idea that’s wrong.  Maybe, to pick a trivial example, Europeans don’t want to buy your compliance software because it’s weak on supporting European regulations [4].

The Idea/Execution Quadrant
It’s no secret that I like quadrants.  I made this one because I wanted to separate business outcomes from idea quality and execution quality.  Box 2 and Box 3 were easy to label.  I frankly struggled with the labels of Box 1 and Box 4.  So let’s talk about them in more depth as I’ve lived in both [5].

Box 1:  Bad Idea, Good Execution.  For me, this was MarkLogic, an XML database system [6].  During my six years there we grew the company from $0 to $80M in revenues, so I have trouble labeling that box — as I initially did — “failure” [7].  While I also considered labeling it “partial failure,” in the end I chose “partial success.”  We brought great execution to a hostile environment [8] and had enough success to confuse people — by the numbers we resembled many destined-for-greatness companies, but those who looked beyond the numbers knew we were not [9].  As one very smart VC summarized it, “you’re still pushing” — a great definition, in fact, of partial success.  You’re driving growth and making numbers, but you have no tailwind from the market.  When you’re in Box 2, you’re HODL-ing to stay on top of the market — in Box 1, by comparison, you are fighting for every yard.  That’s why I labeled it “partial success.”

Because if you bring good execution to a bad idea [10], smart people can often figure it out, and you can drive some success.  But it won’t be easy and it won’t scale [11].

Box 4:  Good Idea, Bad Execution.  For me, this was Ingres, my first job out of college.  If I told you I joined a startup after school, stayed there 7 years, and it grew from $30M into a $240M division of a $400M company, you might be tempted to say “success.”  But you’d be wrong.  One clue is obvious:  division.  We grew, but not so much that we were able to stay an independent company.  The other is non-obvious.  During those same 7 years our archrival (a company called Relational Software) grew from $30M to $1B.  During that period Relational Software changed its name to match that of its product:  Oracle.

The idea was clearly good.  In terms of wealth generation, the RDBMS was the second best idea of the 20th century [12].  Did Ingres succeed?  While my quip is that I experienced great success and great failure simultaneously [13], there is no question.  No.  Ingres failed.  It got third place in the race of the century.   Second place (Sybase) was a set of steak knives.  Third place was for our acquiror, ASK, to get acquired by CA for less than 1x revenues.  Was our execution bad?  I think so, not only because of hindsight bias based on the result, but because I worked there.  While I go into considerable depth in this post, I think the simple answer is that Ingres never really understood either the stakes of the game it was playing or the power of increasing returns in software market leadership.

You could argue I should label Box 4 “failure,” but we did manage to grow the company, go public, and achieve other key milestones — so, optimists could argue that we were succeeding.  Semantically, would I argue the partial success is not success and thus failure?  Maybe.  Practically, do I want to label Box 4 “failure” and potential enable misguided optimists to argue that some success equals success and that they’re ergo in Box 2?  No.

That’s why Boxes 1 and 4 are so difficult.  You’re not sure if you’re succeeding or failing and you’re not sure why.  Which, in the end, is why execution matters.  So you succeed when your idea is good and so you can rule out execution as a factor when it’s not.

# # #

Notes

[1]  As it took me way too long to realize, you need to focus on getting what matters right.  It’s one of several points discussed in this deck.

[2]  See the second part of the post for more discussion of the quadrant itself.

[3]  And now they need to decide if we want to spend another $5M to try it again, but this time with professionals.

[4]  And a professional team would likely figure that out and tell you.  The amateurs might offer 100 different excuses and/or forms of hope.

[5]  Happily, I’ve also done plenty of time in Box 2!

[6]  I am not speaking of MarkLogic in its contemporary form (about which I know fairly little), but as it was in the 2004-2010 period when I ran it.  Disclaimer:  I own some residual shares in MarkLogic.

[7]  Though a VC might easily do so.  The investor view on these things is pretty simple:  did I make a lot of money?  The operator view is different.  We grew a business, in an environment as hostile as a sea-floor vent, to $80M and solved plenty of hard problems for plenty of happy customers in the process.

[8]  Something like 15 of the 16 original XML database companies basically went out of business.  I’d call that hostile.

[9]  Specifically that NoSQL was emerging and that those systems (e.g., Hadoop, MongoDB) and their associated open source models, were going to become the mainstream way to solve the problems that our technology solved.

[10]  This begs the question of how to define the idea.  In MarkLogic’s case, what was the idea?  Building a search engine with database parts and using a distributed scale-out architecture were good ideas — very good, in fact.  But the overall business idea was that XQuery would do for MarkLogic what SQL did for Oracle.  That, because XQuery never took off (and was arguably a case of infantcide by the megavendors) was a bad idea, and the one that put us in Box 1.

[11]  Critical thinkers may be wondering if I’ve rationalized the company into Box 1 because (as a non-founder CEO) I was responsible for the execution and not the idea.  Let’s test that.  The team who took over the company was definitionally “better” in the minds of our top-tier VCs who brought them in and who are presumably skilled at evaluating such things.  Ergo, if you were in Box 4 and upgraded the team (and ergo execution), you should move to Box 2 and see improved results.  That didn’t happen.  Similarly, if you look at the idea compared to other companies pursuing the same idea (see endnote [8]) you can’t find any evidence that it was a good idea.  Had 1-2 competitors done materially better than we did in size, growth, or exit value that would suggest the idea was good and our execution bad, but that didn’t happen either.  Hence my belief that we were in Box 1.

[12]  First place was PC operating systems with Microsoft.

[13]  Because we did face the challenges of high growth.

Sorry, But Demo Is Not A Sales Cycle Stage

I think two demo practices are nearly universal these days and I’m not a big fan of either:

I discussed using demo as the primary website CTA in a previous post.  In this post, I’ll cover my objections to using demo as a sales cycle stage.  I know that both of these viewpoints are controversial, so please classify them in the thought-provocation department [2].

What are Sales Cycle Stages?
Companies use stages to decompose the sales process into a series of steps.  For example:

  1. Prospecting
  2. Contacting
  3. Qualifying
  4. Presenting
  5. Objection handling
  6. Closing

Sometimes those steps are phases that you exist within, other times they are milestones that you pass [3].  Companies use stages to track the progress of deals, the aging of deals to ensure they don’t get stuck, and typically weight the pipeline by stage as a way of triangulating the forecast.

Seller-Out or Buyer-In?
When you first learn about sales cycle stages they are typically presented, as they are above, from the seller’s point of view.  Over time, most people realize this is wrong, particularly when they’ve moved to the increasingly popular framing that selling is not a process unto itself, but more the facilitation of a customer’s buying process.

In this paradigm you try (and it’s not always easy) to define stages from the buyer’s viewpoint instead of the seller’s.  For example, using milestone-based stages, this might look like:

  1. Need established.  Buyer a has problem for which they are seeking a solution, typically as verified by an SDR.  [4]
  2. BANT verified.  Buyer has not only a need, but budget, authority to spend it, and a timeframe for purchasing a solution — all as verified by a seller.  [5]
  3. Deep dive completed.  Buyer has performed a deep dive with the seller to fully explain the problem and answer questions about it.  [6]
  4. Solution fit confirmed.  Buyer believes that the seller’s product can basically solve their problem.  [7]
  5. Vendor of choice.   Buyer believes that the seller’s product is the best choice of solution to the problem.
  6. Redline.  Buyer’s legal team has reviewed the contract and submitted a turn of redline markup.
  7. Contracted.  Buyer has completed the contract and other required paperwork.  Also known as closed/won.

Notice that the first word of every stage definition is “buyer” in order to keep us focused on the buyer, not the seller.  There are three other great features of the above style of system:

  • Every stage is verifiable.  In many staging systems, it’s hard to know what stage you’re in [8] and nearly impossible for a sales manager to verify it.
  • Sellers can be pushed for evidence in deal reviews and pipeline scrubs.  Example.  Manager: “You classified this as stage 4, why?”  Seller:  “Because, they said they think we can basically solve their problem.”  Manager:  “Who said that and when?”  Seller:  “Paula the VP said it at the end of the meeting last week.”
  • Management verification can be done by asking the buyer a single question.  Manager:  “So, your seller Joe says you’ve done a deep dive together on the problem you’re looking solve?”  If yes, stage 3.  Manager:  “So, your seller Jane tells me you think we can basically solve your problem?”  If yes, stage 4.

My Problems with Using Demo as a Stage 
Given that I like buyer-in, verifiable staging systems, it’s probably no longer a surprise that I don’t like demo as stage, but here’s the full list of reasons why:

  • Demo is seller-out.  I learned to hate seller-out stages back in the day when “proposal” was also a stage.  You can send a proposal to anyone at any time — what does that actually tell you about the progress of a deal?  Nothing.  The same holds true for demo.
  • Demo is not buyer-in.  It doesn’t tell us anything about where the buyer is in their buying process.  Just that they got a demo.  By the way, which kind of demo did they get?  Did we do a custom demonstration mapped to a precise problem they are desperate to solve or did they just passively watch a 30-minute generic demo?
  • Buyers may want demos at very different phases of their buying cycle.  Gadget people want a demo of everything.  Others may want a demo before making their long list.  Some may want a demo before making their short list.  Others may only want demos of two finalists.  Many will want multiple demos to different people along the way.  Remind me how demo tells you where are you in the sales cycle again?
  • Buyers should be able to get demos when and how they want them.  Could you imagine saying, “you can’t have that white paper until we’ve completed step 3 of our process?”  That’s effectively what you’re doing when you make demo a stage.  Think:  “I’m sorry, demo is our stage 4 and we haven’t completed stage 3 yet; can we get back to what I’m focused on, please?”  In a world where buyers want ever more control over the buying process, that dog don’t hunt.
  • You risk building an expensive custom demo into your sales process.  Once demo is a declared a stage, sellers start focusing on the demo as the big event.  Well, we need to gather requirements for the demo.  Oh, we’ll be showing you how that works as part of the demo.  Yes, we’re working on customizing the demo for your industry and solution.  What if the customer didn’t want or need some big customized demo to buy your software?  What if believing you could basically solve their problem and thinking you were the market leader (i.e., safe choice) were enough?  You risk imposing the demo on the buyer (“well everybody does it”) in the name of process rather than remaining focused on their buyer and their solution.
  • Conceptually, demo is part of confirming solution fit.  The usual reason for a demo is to help the buyer establish if the product can (basically) solve their problem [9].  What we should be focused on is whether they think we can solve their problem [10], and not whether they got the demo.
  • Be careful what you wish for.  If you wish for a lot of demos, you’ll end up doing a lot of demos.  The question is will they lead to sales?  I’d rather focus on convincing a lot of people that we can basically solve their problem or that we’re the best solution to their problem — or that we can basically solve their problem and we’re the clear market leader — than on giving a lot of demos.
  • Demo defaults to the reference point.  Once people start using demo as a stage, it quickly becomes the default mid-funnel checkpoint and two metrics rise to the top of management reporting:  demos/week and demo-to-close rate. If you think demo is effectively meaningless as a stage, this is obviously problematic.  It’s like saying how many schmumbles did we do this week?  50.  How many did we do last week?  30.  Awesome, schmumbles are up this week!!  What’s a schmumble?  I don’t know.

All that said, I understand why people like to use demo as a stage — demos are tangible, you know when they happened, they often do happen at roughly the same place in the sales cycle, and they are indeed often required.

But making demo a sales cycle stage hard-codes demos into your sales process and, like hard-coding in programming, while it may be expedient in short-term, you may well live to regret it in the long.

# # #

Notes

[1]  Except in product-led growth (PLG) models, where it’s trial, which is indeed the point.

[2]  In both cases, I know these practices are entrenched so I’m not asking anyone to blow up their website or their sales pipeline management process.  I am, however, asking you to think twice about how you use demo both on your website and in your sales cycle, with an eye towards potentially changing your approach.

[3]  It’s shocking how many companies can’t answer the question:  are your stages phases or milestones?  That is, does “stage 4” mean you are “in” stage 4 or that you have completed stage 4.  When defined as phases, you will often find “exit criteria” that define what needs to be done to exit the stage.  Either way, it has to be crystal clear when you have exited a stage or not.

[4]  This is typically done after other preliminary qualification has occurred, such as company-size or industry to ensure the buyer is in the target market.

[5]  Also known as a sales-accepted opportunity.  This is the point, in most companies, where the opportunity officially enters the pipeline.

[6]  This may involve a single meeting, or a sequence of them, depending on the complexity of the problem and the potential solution.

[7]  Notwithstanding certain detailed issues that remain open questions, but overall, the buyer has reached the conclusion that the product can basically solve this problem.  This is not to say that it’s the best, the only, or the most cost-effective solution to the problem; merely that it can solve the problem.  Think:  a tank could likely solve my stump-removal problem, but then again so could The Dominator.

[8]  Among other ways, this can happen in a phase-based system where there are lots of exit criteria per stage.  I’ve literally seen systems where you could win the deal before clearing all six of the stage 3 exit criteria!

[9]  Putting aside purely educational demos which I think are best handled by marketing.

[10]  Which can be accomplished through other means as well — e.g., case studies, reference calls.  Believing that someone like me solved a problem very similar to one like mine is often a far more powerful way of confirming solution fit.  As is merely demonstrating deep expertise in the problem to solved by, e.g., completing a few of the customer’s sentences when they’re describing it.

How To Build a Marketing Machine, Presentation from a Balderton Capital Meetup

I hopped over to London a few weeks back to visit my friends at Balderton Capital (where I’m now working as an EIR) and during the visit we decided to host a meetup for portfolio company founders, CEOs, and CMOs to discuss the question of how to build a marketing machine.

We based the meetup on the presentation I recently delivered at SaaStock EMEA of the same title, but in a pretty compressed twenty-minute format.  This time, we took closer to 40 minutes and had some fun conversation and Q&A thereafter.

This is a hot topic today because in this era of high growth, flush funding, and rapid scaling, just about everyone I know is trying to turn their marketing into a machine so they can push the levers forward and grow, grow, grow.  This presentation talks about how to do that.

The slides from the presentation are embedded below.  You can find a video of a private recording of the presentation on the Balderton website.

Should Your Website Drive Prospects to a Demo?

TLDR:  Think twice before you do and three times about how you do it.  While it’s a very common practice, I think it’s often a lazy one, done by default, and without regard for either the buyer or seller downstream.

When I visit enterprise SaaS websites these days, I see two primary calls-to-action (CTAs) in widespread use:

  • Try it:  used by the product-led growth (PLG) crowd, and a great CTA — provided the company is actually executing a PLG strategy [1].  While we won’t drill into this large topic today, know that I am working on a PLG post to go up soon.
  • Get a demo:  in use by most others and typically promising a personal demo, but sometimes offering to watch a video or join a weekly live webinar.

See below for three clipped examples of both demo and trial CTAs from enterprise SaaS websites (read across) [2].

The question:  while it’s certainly a common practice, is it a good one?

My answer:  often, not.  Using a demo as your primary CTA, whether weasel-worded (e.g., “request demo”) or not (e.g., “get demo”), can frequently lead to problems:

  • Double qualification.  Typically, the prospect first speaks to an SDR who does preliminary qualification (e.g., BANT) and then passes the prospect to a seller to deliver the demo.  The buyer thinks:  I didn’t click a button labeled, “speak to two people,” I clicked one labeled, “get demo” [3].
  • Raising expectations.  The SDR often justifies their call by saying, “I’m here to gather some information to ensure we personalize the demo to your needs.”  That’s great if the ensuing demo is actually tailored in some way; it’s criminally bad expectation-setting if it’s not.
  • Horrific second-calls, reminding me of a quote from Fail Safe: “what you’re telling me, I’ve been specifically ordered not to do.”  We tell sellers to do qualification and discovery, understand and solve business problems, and under any circumstances never to spew features — then we walk them in front of a largely unqualified prospect with whom we have set an expectation that they’re going to see a feature demo [4].  It’s a wonder they don’t revolt.
  • Hampering sellers from doing their jobs, which at this point in the sales cycle should be discovery and qualification — i.e., asking a series of open-ended questions to determine if this is a real sales opportunity with a qualified buyer who has a business problem that our product can solve.
  • Super-awkward situations, where the seller thinks they’re having a basic 1-1 demo and the entire buying committee shows up for “the demo” of your product, which will be delivered unprepared and without context.  I’ve seen that happen; it’s cringeworthy.
  • Wasting sellers’ time.  Doing a standardized demo is arguably not selling, but marketing — and your marketing team can likely do it as well as your sellers [5].  If sellers are doing lots of 1-1 demos for lots of semi-qualified prospects, marketing might be generating a lot of activity for sales, but don’t forget the old saying about processionary caterpillars confusing activity with progress.

The root problem here is not that get-demo is somehow inherently an evil CTA [6], but that this may reveal a deeper problem in sales and marketing alignment.  In a siloed company, where sales and marketing are not working together, the above problems can and do develop because marketing is trying to maximize clicks on get-demo without thinking enough about either the seller or the buyer downstream after they do.  Think:  we passed 47 get-demo oppties this month, we’re not the problem.  Buzz off.

There’s an easy way to determine if this is a problem at your company:

  • Listen to Gong recordings of the first-calls with sellers (where they are notionally delivering this demo) and do so from the perspective of both the buyer (e.g., are they getting a demo?  is it good one?) and the seller (e.g., are they doing qualification and discovery?  are they spewing features?)
  • Talk to sales leadership.  Bring your knowledge of the generic problems along with your learnings from the Gong recordings and have a discussion about how you can work together to improve the early sales cycle process for both seller and buyer.

Note that win/loss reporting will likely not catch these problems because this activity typically occurs upstream of opportunity creation, so there are definitionally no lost opportunities due to a bad initial demo [7].

Improvement Ideas for Get-Demo Calls To Action
Here are some ideas on how to mitigate these problems, all offered in the spirit reducing friction in the buyer journey while maximizing efficiency for the seller:

  • Always have an ungated 30-60 second explainer video that explains what your product does so curious people can quickly understand what it is.
  • Publish a 2-3 minute ungated short demo video of what your product does for those who want more information.
  • Publish an as-long-as-necessary deep demo video both on your website (possibly gated) and on your YouTube channel [8].  Remember David Ogilvy:  “long copy sells!”  If you solve an important problem to which I’m seeking a solution, I’ll have plenty of time for a long, well-executed demo.  Just make sure it’s well-executed.
  • Hold a weekly live demo which (1) gets the buyer block time on their calendar to see the solution, (2) gets us the buyer’s contact information, (3) offers the buyer the opportunity to ask live questions during the event, (4) gives us the chance to spot target accounts expressing interest and the chance to engage with them about that, (5) provides SDRs with an alternative CTA to “do you want to speak to a seller?”, (6) provides a broad indicator of interest over time (i.e., weekly demo attendance), and (7) gives us a platform we can easily build upon — think:  on Tuesdays, it’s the product overview; on Wednesdays, it’s the demo for retailers; and on Thursdays it’s the demo for use-case X.

Basically, I’m trying to let the buyer decide what they mean by get demo, potentially let them get that right away, and provide a way to drive interested prospects who don’t want to speak to a seller to a periodic live event where I can deliver a high-quality, in-depth demo while driving scale economies in so doing.

After the weekly live demo, the SDR calls and says, “how did you like the demo?” and “did you see anything relevant to the challenges you’re facing?”  If those answers are positive, then they can pass it to a seller for discovery and qualification.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a huge believer in also having a clear call to action that says, “have a seller contact me.”  I understand that it won’t get pressed very often, but oh, when it does — it’s likely to be a pretty interested prospect [9].

My Three-Point CTA
I’m aware that many marketers today don’t want to paralyze buyers with choice, so there is a general preference for the fewest possible options in a CTA, but that notwithstanding, if I had to solve the problem myself, I’d use this as my default CTA [10]:

When is Get-Demo a Great CTA?
The first revision of this post prompted some questions along the lines of, “I understand you don’t like get-demo as a CTA, but when is it appropriate?” to which my answer is:

  • I’m not against get-demo as a CTA.  I just think we need to put more thought into what it means, the options we offer, and what happens to both the buyer and the seller when someone presses it.
  • For most companies, the vast majority of people who press get-demo are not worth investing in a personalized demo.  If you want them to self-demo, adopt a PLG strategy and let them use the product.  If that’s not possible, then they’ll need to see a demo somehow and my ideas above provide numerous options for doing that.  I like the weekly live demo because it’s cost-effective way to let everyone see the demo while allowing sales to focus on the handful of attendees who are most interesting.
  • If, somehow, you’re in a model where you think it is worth doing a live, personalized demo for everyone who wants one, I’d first remind you about processionary caterpillars, and second say to set up a call center and drive people live into that call center.  The key to velocity sales is friction elimination, so if someone wants a live demo, and you’re willing to give them one without any real qualification, then get ‘er done — don’t let any time lapse in scheduling.

(Revised 11/22/21)

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Notes

[1] And if it’s not, marketing trying to do PLG on their own (because they want to, the investors want to, or the company would like to be PLG but isn’t), with a product that’s not designed to be easily adopted and sell itself, is a bad idea.  In this “PLG is the new black” era, the only thing worse than not doing PLG is trying PLG tactics when you don’t have a PLG company or PLG product.  To mix metaphors, you could likely end up putting your best foot forward into your mouth.

[2]  Note the wasted space by having login in this zone of the page.  I’d put login buttons or icons somewhere else completely (e.g., top right, page footer) so as to make room to have 3 calls to action as presented below.

[3] Sometimes, it’s actually triple qualification:  the SDR does worth-passing qualification, the seller does worth-accepting qualification, and then the seller and a sales engineer do a deeper discovery call — all before the buyer gets their demo.

[4] The results in sellers spinning plates — doing qualification with one hand, demoing with the other, and doing a bad job at both.

[5]  I’d argue generally that doing standardized things is definitionally marketing while doing personalized things is sales.  Think:  given what you’ve told me about your unique situation, here is how our product can help you meet your goals.  That’s selling.  If you just want the White House Tour, then that’s marketing.

[6]  To which many website types were quick to object in my first revision of the post — but it gets clicked all the time.  Well, perhaps that’s because people actually do want demos and also because we give them no real alternative CTA!

[7]  That is, the bad initial demo resulted in no opportunity being created.  That said, you might get wind of it in your win/loss reporting from opportunities that made it into the pipeline if you ask customers about their high-funnel experience through both ratings (e.g., “what was your impression after the initial demo”) and qualitative questioning (e.g., “how was your experience from when you first contacted us until you were put in touch with your seller?” or “how did your first meeting with your seller go?”)

[8]  Which I know makes it semi-gated, but it also enables people to find and watch it directly via Google/YouTube search.  Have some faith that if they like what they see, they’re not going to forget to find our contact-us form and fill it in.  (And you’re going to remind them to do so at the end of the video, of course!)

[9]  When you’ve truly internalized that marketing is about generating sales via the creation of valid sales opportunities you stop caring only about how often something gets clicked (or how many leads we got) and start caring about how fast we can get qualified hand-raisers through the process and off to sales.

[10]  Perhaps more interestingly, if you forced me to drop one, it would be stay-in-touch, not contact-us.  I’d make stay-in-touch a backup offer on the get-demo page.