5 Steps To Crush Your First Startup Pitches

5 Steps To Crush

Your First Startup Pitches

Photo Courtesy of Business Insider

In 2016, 25 million Americans started companies, and I’m proud to have been one of them. By September of that year, I’d left my job as a McKinsey consultant to co-found Beam, an app and integration that empowers users to impact issues they care about for free by visiting retailers they love.

The most common question I get from people considering starting companies is how we secured our first partners. From the outset, it might seem like an impossible task to get early customers onboard without a proven track-record.  

Here are 5 tips I’ve picked up in my experience to crush your first pitches to early customers:

1. Know who to approach

While I initially put a lot of thought into building a target list of brand partners, I quickly learned it’s equally important to identify the right audience within each company–especially early on.

The decision to partner with a brand-new startup is often more of a leap of faith than a performance-based decision that employees at large companies typically make. Your ideal internal champion is therefore someone who’s (a) energized to break the status quo, and (b) in a position to say “yes” without seeking additional approvals from others, who might not have the same risk appetite.

In my case, I realized this meant initially approaching franchisees of major chains like Panera and Pinkberry. Franchisees are inherently entrepreneurial since they own and operate their own set of restaurants. Given their common experience, the franchisees I approached were really supportive of my own startup endeavors, and they also had the autonomy to green-light a pilot without seeking permission from others.

In general, doing some LinkedIn stalking and finding people with titles related to “Innovation” can also help isolate the kind of person who would be excited to get onboard with a new company first.

2. Get in touch

The step that probably seems the most daunting is actually getting in touch with your first potential partners. It’s of course most effective to get a warm intro, but that doesn’t necessarily mean relying on people you already know. Seeking out MeetUps and other events in my field helped me hone my pitch, introduced me to new friends, and also vastly expanded my network.

If a warm intro isn’t an option even after exploring industry events, there’s always the tried and tested cold email/call. It helps to reach out to people with whom you have something in common–from a shared alma mater, to a common hometown or former employer. My first partner was also a Cleveland transplant operating on the East Coast, and we bonded over a common love of the Cavs. However, in the absence of any overlap, there are lots of helpful resources to draft a compelling cold email.

3. Over-prepare, and get creative in building proof for your strategy

Once you’ve secured a call or meeting with your potential internal champion, it’s time to prep your presentation. In addition to knowing your own product inside and out, you can build legitimacy before having demonstrated results by proving yourself as an industry expert, and turning to independent field research to validate your claims.

First, you can prove that you’d be an asset to work with by walking into your first meeting with a deep understanding of recent trends affecting your potential partner’s company and industry. Setting Google Alerts for key terms related to your industry and potential partners makes it easy to stay on top of news even the day of your meeting.

It’s also helpful to seek out unconventional sources of data to prove out your thesis, even if you haven’t had a chance to measure your product’s performance yet. I surveyed over 300 peers on how much they knew about charitable giving programs for brands they support and found that 89 percent had little-to-no knowledge. This datapoint, coupled with several external studies, painted a clear picture that brands needed to empower their customers to drive their charitable giving and created enough FOMO to motivate our first partners to join our mission.
Photo Courtesy of The Balance
4. Raise your own profile

In advance of your initial meeting, your potential partners will be researching you, too. Participating in industry events, conducting media outreach, and building a social media following are effective ways to build legitimacy prior to a meeting. This approach can also help make potential partners feel like they already know you before they’ve met you, and a positive first online impression can help compensate for the untested nature of a new product.

5. . Listen to feedback and follow up

After you meet a potential partner, be sure to press them for feedback on your product and ask about the most pressing problems they’re facing. One of the most valuable ways to improve your product is to listen to your potential customers’ feedback. Internalizing our partners’ stated needs and following up with proposed customizations needs drove immensely valuable evolution in our product.

Additionally, your customers are busy and naturally have competing priorities; I’ve found Chrome extensions like Boomerang are helpful in scheduling follow-ups once per week until hearing back.

While going from zero customers to one can be a challenge, remember that it only gets easier from there. Finding the right audience, building meaningful connections within your industry, doing your homework, and viewing pushback as constructive product feedback can turn a potentially daunting process into the foundation for a company the world needs.

Viveka Hulyalkar

Viveka is the CEO and Cofounder at beam. Prior to founding beam, Viveka was a consultant in McKinsey & Company’s New York headquarters. She decided to leave to focus on Beam full-time when she realized just how acute the need was from her experience with retail and advanced advertising clients.

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