Selling for Startups: Be Your Own Rainmaker

By Bernard Lupien

Working closely with early-stage “hard-tech” startups, I routinely hear a myth: that being successful in sales is some kind of black magic best left to back-slapping, charismatic schmoozers that “know how to close”.

“When we raise our Series A, we’ll hire a professional salesperson and our sales will take off!”

“We are engineers and scientists. We’ve been told to get a sales guru who knows how to sell.”

“I’m not in sales. I’ve been doing it because I had to.”

It’s true that the entrepreneurs I meet are mostly engineers and scientists. They’ve completed years of academic training to achieve their expertise. Shouldn’t there be someone with a PhD in sales that’s just right to sell their new cold fusion reactor!

Not so fast—the reality is that selling hard-tech breakthrough technologies is a responsibility shared by all, including engineers. You as a founder are best equipped to do the early selling, and yes, it’s hard— but sales can be broken down into a simple process.

And the great news is that scientifically trained founders are fantastically dispositioned to be great salespeople in complex sales because they bring together impressive technical knowledge, a knack for understanding and connecting different ideas, and an ability to follow through on this process.

To get you on your way, here are two approaches that are powerful and simple to implement.


Use your customers’ buying process to your advantage

A recent “aha” moment—sitting in a meeting with Brendan English, the fantastic co-founder and CEO of RailPod, an autonomous rail inspection robotics startup based in Boston.

Brendan was coaching a partner on an interaction they were having with a large passenger rail company, a potential customer. The partner was having trouble getting the rail company to appreciate the benefits of RailPod’s solution in their context.

Brendan suggested, “Why don’t you ask for the internal specification document they used for their last acquisition process. Then we’ll map our system to their required specs, and we’ll have a clear framework that lays out the attractiveness of our system using their own internal forms.”

Pretty simple right? It’s not hard to do, but really useful, and here’s why:

  • Using your prospect’s documentation as a selling tool makes your value proposition easy to understand

  • You’ve just created a common language between your startup and your prospect. You now have a selling tool that can easily be forwarded internally, deep into the far reaches of your prospect’s company, influencing potential decision-makers that you never even knew existed!

Next time you hit a wall with your marketing deck, think about asking for their specification document and then map your solution directly over it. It will shift the dynamic and get you moving forward.


You’re selling to a jury, not a judge

This one comes from Ken Morse, who used to run the entrepreneurship center at MIT. He’s been preaching this concept for thirty years—and it’s just as valid now as it was then. 

We all make the mistake of thinking we are selling only to the person we are talking to.

The truth is that hidden within your prospect’s company is a jury made of real people, and they are weighing whether or not to buy your product (even if you haven’t talked to them). At some point, the jury will vote up or down, and you’ll have to live with the consequences.

Not Guilty? You win! Guilty? You just got canned and you’ll never even know why.

Your job is to find out who makes up the jury. Companies make it really hard to figure out – but you’ll often find this cast:


The User: “This thing better work like advertised!”

The Technical Evaluator: “Yeah your stuff is great, but does it have a flux capacitor?”

Dr. No (Finance): “There just isn’t any budget for this—No!”

Purchasing: “As long as I can show that I got a discount, that will help with my bonus.”

The Boss: “I make all the decisions around here, but you’ll never meet me because I’m too important for you.” 

Legal: “We’ll take the one that doesn’t carry any risk.”

Once you internalize that you are selling to a jury, not a judge, you’ll remember to move past the people directly in front of you and find ways to influence those that aren’t in the room with you. Unless you work to get them to vote “not guilty”, you’ll find yourself frustrated and disappointed, wondering what went wrong.

In the end, selling your idea or product in startup world isn’t a magical skill­—it’s a process like anything else, and with the right set of instructions, anyone can do it.

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