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One of the major barriers that startups face is making the leap from the standard-sized sales phase to a larger and more consequential sales phase. According to data published by Startup Nation, between 700 and 800 startups are established every year in Israel, and about 400 close every year. Some startups manage to overcome this initial challenge and break through, but only a few of those manage to obtain enough customers to continue existing independently without selling the company to one of the tech giants. How is this done? How do you succeed in establishing a startup and selling the products and services you've developed to companies that can use them?
"You need to be in the right place at the right time with the right product," says Adam Ikar, CEO of EqualWeb - a company that provides automated accessibility solutions for websites. Ikar demonstrates this principle from EqualWeb’s success story: in its first year, the company sold its services to over 100 global enterprise customers, among them Kimberly Clark, AIG, Fivver, McDonald's, Budget, Coca-Cola, and others.
For the most part, enterprise companies provide their computerized services in closed systems to all parts of the organization, making it difficult to sell them external services. "Today, after being active for three years, we have thousands of paying customers," says Ikar, emphasizing three things he's found to be the most important factors in selling to enterprise companies: using market research to better understand the problem they need to solve, quick customer feedback, and developing case studies.
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1. For big, fundamental problems - sell "painkillers"
"EqualWeb is a SaaS (Software as a Service) company that helps websites become more accessible to people with disabilities," Ikar tells us. "15% of the global population are defined as having disabilities of some kind or another: visual, motor, mental, etc. Besides the fact that this is a demographic that is interested in surfing the web, we knew to jump on the opportunity that arose out of new industry regulations which created more demand for the web services we provide," he added.
Ikar is referring to the global shift three years ago regarding website accessibility; chiefly, the implementation of accessibility-related regulations in Israel and similar directives implemented worldwide. While these regulations initially only applied to government and public websites, they paved the way forward, and the private sector soon followed suit.
"We created a product that provides technological solutions for websites which helps them reach more users while also adhering to the requirements posed by the new regulations," he explains. Using a short line of code embedded into the site, EqualWeb’s solution makes it possible to apply the accessibility process automatically. Some examples include making the site accessible to visually impaired surfers by adapting it for text-to-speech software, adjusting the color palette, moderating screen flicker to avoid inducing seizures in persons with epilepsy, adjusting font size, etc. This process is done automatically without the need for programmers and relies on artificial intelligence. It is verified by human accessibility experts who inspect the results of the automated system and apply final tweaks if necessary.
"This solution provides companies with an approach to addressing social and regulatory limitations - it’s a growth engine that has been an important part of our business strategy," says Ikar. "The regulations came into effect, companies were forced to comply with them, and we were in the right place at the right time, ready to provide the right product", Ikar explains, describing the environment and conditions under which his company began to grow in Israel, and later in the US and Europe as well.
Although in the case of EqualWeb, it was a regulatory requirement that launched the incentive, Ikar believes that similar opportunities exist in every field and for any given startup. "One has to consider the problem that the startup is attempting to solve - every company, whether enterprise, small, or medium-sized, faces obstacles and problems. Usually, the development resource of a company is its most valuable resource and is always at full capacity. Therefore, it's worth focusing on a fundamental problem that enough companies are struggling with to produce a startup that has a lot of growth potential. If we only provide a solution to a marginal problem, eventually the organization will be able to develop the solution itself, or competitors will quickly provide the same solution that you are offering. Also, if we provide a solution to a fundamental problem, but the market that needs this solution is not big enough, then we won't have good growth potential either," says Ikar. He adds: "The next step after understanding the problem and providing a solution for it is making contact with potential customers - the companies dealing with that same problem - and presenting them with the product that is the solution to that problem."
2. Customers that are also partners
After the initial phase of presenting the solution to the customer, we reach the feedback phase: "When we offer a solution to a company, we understand how they view the problem. In the B2B world, it’s best to find a few big customers for them to be our Design Partners. In other words, they give us feedback about the product we've implemented with them. This feedback," explains Ikar, "helps to continually improve the product, ensuring that we don't get stuck in place. Also, through this process, our product eventually becomes embedded in the organization. If the organization is happy with the product, they will also pay us for it. A customer will not be interested in continuing to use a product that has no value for them, let alone pay for it."
3. Knowing how to tell the story
At this point, Ikar explains, the startup already has a product that has been implemented in several companies. "Now, after we have several customers and sufficient data to work with, we need to create an organized case study for each customer, outlying the general numbers and successes achieved. For example, we increased the number of customers by 12%, saved on cloud usage by 20%, increased the number of interactions by 17%, increased downloads by 22%, and so on. The various benefits of the product should be demonstrated by using accurate numbers, and those numbers should be wrapped in a good marketing narrative."
In his words, every startup needs to know how to tell a story - to combine a good product with value and a narrative: "We must create a marketing strategy that envelopes the product we're trying to sell, including your customers and the data from your case studies. You then create a brochure, a marketing email, a website, landing pages, video content, etc. Everything needs to speak the same language, and everything needs to be big and impressive."
"Also, when you get to an enterprise company, there will usually be more than one person involved in the decision-making process, and you need to know how to tell a different story to each one of these components. For example, there's no need to try and impress the salespeople in the organization with the high level of security that your system has - because that wouldn't interest them. Instead, this impressive presentation should be directed at the IT people in the organization. The salespeople will be interested in how you can improve the sales process for them, get them more quality leads, and so on. It's worthwhile to address every component in the organization in its own language, presenting only the specific benefits that are relevant to them."
In conclusion, Ikar gives some tips that you should use before trying to pitch to an enterprise organization: "Be honest about what you have and don't have, about what you are and are not capable of. Use your advantage as a startup, and be flexible. Also, to differentiate your product, you should highlight your strengths and the advantages you have over your competitors. Do not underestimate the importance of collecting preliminary information about the potential customer. For example, check if you happen to share common acquaintances, hobbies, etc. Any information could help bring you closer to your target customer. And finally, remember that first and foremost you are giving advice, not trying to sell something - in other words, approach the customer initially to help them solve their problems, not to try and sell a product or make a deal."