Take 5: How to Sell Your Startup from the Start
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Entrepreneurship Sep 6, 2023

Take 5: How to Sell Your Startup from the Start

Advice from our experts on pitching your idea—and yourself.

entrepreneurs pitch to venture capitalists for funding

Katie Lukes

If you decide to take the plunge into entrepreneurship, you’re going to have a lot on your plate. You may spend your early days conjuring a compelling new product concept, iterating on your idea until you feel you are ready to go to market, and building a trusted team to help you test and launch.

But one thing that you’re going to have to do very early on—perhaps earlier than you would expect—is prepare to sell your startup.

No, this does not mean writing an exit strategy (though you may eventually want to do that, too). It does mean coming up with a plan to sell a variety of audiences on your idea and yourself.

Here are five things to keep in mind.

1. It’s never too early to develop your brand identity

No matter how busy you are as you are getting your startup off the ground, branding still needs to be prioritized.

One strategy that Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, recommends is to give your brand a “personality.”

This means developing a clear sense of who your target customers are, both in terms of their demographic characteristics and their purchasing habits. This information can help to create a psychological profile of your customer, enabling you to determine which benefits you can provide them.

“For example, is your customer a person who is adventurous, and if so, are you going to satisfy their thirst for exploration?” Roese says.

This is what allows you to define your brand’s “personality”—in short, how it would behave if it were a person.

From its start in the late 1990s, Lululemon has defined its brand personality as fit, calm, and spiritually balanced. The strength of that personality has come to help the brand define the athleisure category, despite strong competition from established athletic apparel brands such as Nike and Under Armour.

“Establishing your brand’s personality allows you to cultivate a vision of where the brand is going in terms of what it is and what it is not,” Roese says. “This helps startups anticipate future growth into other product categories.”

2. It’s never too early to start selling

With a clear sense of who your future customer is, you can begin honing your sales pitch and attracting customers—even before you have a product.

What? Sell your idea before you even know what you’re selling? If that seems impossible, know that Craig Wortmann, a clinical professor of marketing at Kellogg and head of the Kellogg Sales Institute, thought so too when he started his first venture after a career in sales.

But he learned quickly that it’s never too early to hone the language you use in your pitch.

“You’re trying to describe what you’re trying to do, the change you’re trying to make in the world, why that’s important, why you’re the one to do it,” Wortmann says. “As you do that, find the stories that you can tell that resonate with people, that land on them, that recruit them to your mission, to your vision.”

Essentially, Wortmann is recommending using sales conversations to take your potential customers’ temperature. If your idea is not resonating with them, you are early enough in the game to adapt your product with the feedback you gather.

3. You will need to sell yourself as well

Still, as great as your idea may be, success often comes down to how you present yourself.

This means selling everyone around you—from friends and family to future employees to potential funders—that you have the personality to be an entrepreneur.

“Find the stories that you can tell that resonate with people ... that recruit them to your mission, to your vision.”

Craig Wortmann

“Can you convince your significant other or your family to take this big leap into the world of entrepreneurship?” asks Rick Desai, a venture capitalist and adjunct lecturer of innovation and entrepreneurship. “To give up your 401(k), your health plans, and jump into the non-sexy ramen diet? That takes a lot of conviction.”

As a venture capitalist, says Desai, “the ability to inspire belief is the number-one quality I’m looking for.”

4. Investors are a tough crowd, so bring your “A” game

Speaking of investors. If you do decide to get outside investment, you are definitely going to have to have your pitch finely honed. Venture capitalists hear a lot of pitches—and most investors can tell very quickly whether or not they are interested in a startup.

Carter Cast, an operating partner of the Pritzker Group Venture Capital team and clinical professor of entrepreneurship at Kellogg, encourages founders to convince funders within the first 30 seconds they are in the room.

“Investors will pigeonhole you so they don’t have cognitive dissonance as they listen to you. They want congruency,” he says.

This means that you have to resist the urge to provide context up front. Instead, your pitch has to cut straight to the chase. All that great research you have gathered about marketplace size and dynamics? Save it for after you have told the funders your big idea.

“It has to be something that gets investors to lean in right away, wanting to hear more,” Cast says. “Don’t wander into the pitch and take forever to get to the point.”

5. Go into your venture humbly

Whether you choose to approach funders or commit to bootstrapping your venture, you are going to need a large dose of humility to help you weather the setbacks inherent in trying something new. Because regardless of the creativity of your sales pitch, it may take time for your market to materialize.

This is especially important for entrepreneurs looking to make their mark in nascent—or even non-existent—markets.

Efosa Ojomo, an adjunct lecturer in entrepreneurship at Kellogg, describes this humility as “having a beginner’s mind.”

“If you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, you’re more likely to fail than succeed,” he says. “If you pilot a new product and it doesn’t work, you have to be humble enough to believe the innovation process is more important than your original idea and keep learning.”

Featured Faculty

SC Johnson Chair in Global Marketing; Professor of Marketing; Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences (Courtesy)

Michael S. and Mary Sue Shannon Clinical Endowed Professor; Clinical Professor of Strategy

Clinical Professor of Marketing, Founder and Academic Director of the Kellogg Sales Institute

Adjunct Lecturer in Entrepreneurship; Faculty Associate in the Zell Fellows Program

Adjunct Lecturer in Entrepreneurship

About the Writer

Fred Schmalz is the Business and Art Editor of Kellogg Insight.

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