“In a lot of Startup Programs you can see a lot of entrepreneurs who have trouble getting into the field!”

“Lately, I’ve noticed a change in the entrepreneurs I meet and more generally, in the startup ecosystem: I feel that they are less relentless on sales and less pressed than before.” says Stéphane Paillard, Head of Entrepreneurship at Schoolab. “The ecosystem has changed – when I entered the startup world in Paris around 2013, people were entrepreneurs out of passion. Today, of course, this is still the case for some, but I also meet many entrepreneurs who seem less ‘ready to do anything’ to get their box off the ground.” 

Throughout his career, Stéphane has had the opportunity to meet and accompany a large number of founders, but also to see the market evolve. His memory of his early years is marked by heavy financial and temporal constraints: “When I met my partner Vincent, we were both students at Epitech. Our profiles were complementary, but our ambitions and desires were aligned. I was rather connected to the topics Business, Sales, Legal, … while Vincent was interested in financial modeling and the technical side. In 2013, we noticed that the ‘tech for equity’ market was missing and we launched our startup studio and our ‘CTO as a service’ offering.” At that time, the two co-founders had already built their vision in the medium and long term, but were also caught up in the reality of their situation: “I had a loan of 40,000 euros to repay on my shoulders”, stéphane says, “so I quickly had to make odd jobs next to my studies and in parallel with the launch of our startup.” The two co-founders therefore learn that it is necessary to arbitrate between a long-term vision for their project, and the short-term needs to sustain their business.

The project is taking off, opportunities are increasing, and the two entrepreneurs have since worked on several new projects together, including Startup Sesame and the launch of an investment fund. Stéphane’s main return on the reasons for the success of each adventure? “You have to want it and put yourself in ‘sales mode’ from day one. Sales are the nerve of war for entrepreneurs.” 

Following these experiences, Stéphane began to collaborate with various structures (NUMA, The Family) and to meet more and more entrepreneurs to whom he provides informal advice. He eventually joined Schoolab, to work on the structuring of support programs dedicated to startups. In it, he repeats to all program participants his mantra: “Being an entrepreneur means being a good salesman.”

Sales are no longer the priority of entrepreneurs, and it’s a mistake

“The main problem, in my opinion, is that in recent years there has been a lot of communication about entrepreneurship and attraction to the subject. That is a good thing on principle, of course, but there has been a lot of communication around fundraising and what is it to be an entrepreneur. The media has sanctifyed a handful of individuals who lifted millions with a shovel, without valuing the boxes that work well but are not so ‘sexy’. Whereas in reality, being an entrepreneur means making a turnover. If your startup is just a succession of fundraisers, you’ll be caught up in reality at some point!” explains Stéphane. 

Being an entrepreneur is a complicated role: you don’t have to be excellent in a field, but you have to be at a minimum average in everything! Because the founder of a startup has to manage a varied prism of responsibilities. “Unfortunately, many young founders fall into the trap of a misunderstanding of the real issues related to starting a business,” says Stéphane. “They launch themselves less out of passion than because of some kind of sacralization of the status of the entrepreneur, and they focus on the bad things in the beginning, because the media have valued aspects of the startup that are not the right ones.” 

Often influenced by poor sources of information, aspiring entrepreneurs tend to fall into traditional traps when they get started.

The pitfalls to avoid to sell more and better

Look your Business Plan in the face and set realistic goals

“I see a lot of entrepreneurs who, at the beginning of their business, proudly brandish a business plan that covers their estimates over the next 5 years, when they have neither produced nor customer. The problem is that their estimates are made with information that doesn’t exist! They forget half of the expenses and expenses that the company will have to suffer, and finally, the business plan doesn’t mean much anymore…”, observes Stéphane. The business plan begins to be useful from the moment a startup creates different services, there is a history of sales and commercial pipeline. Without this data, estimates can quickly be completely off the plate. “When you start, you don’t know how many incoming leads you need to sign a contract!” recalls Stéphane.

Instead of focusing on modeling and estimating via a business plan, Stéphane advises any startup starting to set goals, within a fixed time limit (a monthly sales target for example). Once the goals are set, entrepreneurs to be creative and experiment quickly to achieve those goals!

“Stop doing Business Plans, focus on your Sales Pipeline!”

Avoid the annuity trap – you don’t have as much time as you think

Creating a startup is above all a race for profitability, and a race against time. “Many entrepreneurs today have the chance to benefit from a rescue net when they embark, such as a conventional break that guarantees them a salary paid by Pôle Emploi for 2 years,” explains Stéphane. “The problem is that as a result, their view of time is distorted, they do not necessarily understand that even 2 years is very short to get a startup off the ground! There are a thousand things to do before you can afford a salary. I saw a lot of people wasting time because they thought they had time, and realized too late that it wasn’t.”

As time passes, the pressure becomes more and more before the deadline if the entrepreneur fails to generate revenue. To avoid this situation, it is important to set ambitious but achievable goals from the beginning, but also (and above all) to surround yourself well – whether it is a team, mentors, or an incubation or acceleration structure that can put to provided entrepreneurs with the right tools and advice to move quickly and efficiently.

“The first thing an entrepreneur should ask is ‘how to make sales without having a finished product? How do I validate my POC (Proof of Concept)?’ – to be able to create a finished and optimized product, you must have conquered its first customers and have unlocked budget! This is what I try to teach the founders we accompany with Schoolab – not to put the cart before the oxen,” concludes Stéphane.

“Stop wasting time, join an accompaniment structure from the start!”

Know your values, but be prepared to compromise them in the short term

“I see more entrepreneurs who carry strong values through their startup, whether it’s around ecology, tech for good, social business, … and I think that’s a very good thing! However, at some point, every entrepreneur is faced with a choice to make in relation to his values,”warns Stéphane. 

Indeed, putting its values first risks eventually blocking the startup in its realization of turnover. “There is a real trade-off to be made between values and opportunism, you have to be aware of it when you start your project!” comments Stéphane. “I think you have to be able to tell yourself that you are going to have to compromise your values at a moment’s notice, but that this sacrifice will be able to accomplish something bigger, in the longer term. It all relates to the founders’ ability to reconcile a short-term and long-term vision.”

The three biggest fears of sales entrepreneurs

“Generally, I have three major objections to selling when I mentor startups,” explains Stéphane. 

“The customer is too big for our stadium”

Often, when dealing with large accounts, entrepreneurs become discouraged and tend to think that they will not be able to sell their products and services. However, these customers have a lot of money and many problems to solve! Saying, “I’m not going to contact them until I’m ready” might cost you a great opportunity. “Finally, it’s better to take a refusal or a potential yes, than nothing at all! Entrepreneurs need to break free from blocking: contact people, see what works, … don’t be afraid to contact big companies, they need you as much as you need them!” advises Stéphane. His tips for daring to get started:

  • Tell yourself you have nothing to lose!
  • Don’t hesitate to seek the advice of entrepreneurs who have been there before
  • Find people who could introduce you, to make contact and first impression easier
  • Surround yourself with the right people (Stephane testifies: “I surrounded myself with a very good law firm that allowed me to make good negotiations”)

“The customer may say we’re too expensive”

Sometimes, young startups seek to sell primarily to prove their legitimacy in a market and agree to lower their prices, without thinking about their margin. It’s a mistake that can quickly cost you a lot of money! Entrepreneurs who fall into this trap risk losing money and spending time on opportunities that will not go anywhere, when they could have invested their energy elsewhere. 

Stéphane’s advice? “Don’t degrade your fare for fear of displeasing your prospects. Instead, take the time to explain what justifies such a price, and to demonstrate your worth. Customers who understand it will not hesitate to pay the price if your product actually solves one of their problems. If you can’t sell, ask yourself the question of your value proposition!” F
or more information, read our article on the Sales Toolbox in startup!

“The customer may compare us to the competitors”

“Often, in the canvassing phase, entrepreneurs are confronted with their competitors. Sometimes, in their argument, some choose to sacrifice their price rather than defend the intrinsic qualities of their product or service. Don’t fall into this trap! Although price is an important factor in negotiating with your future customers, the best way to sacrifice as little as possible margins, is to present the customer with an argument about the added value of the product, and why the customer would gain more in value versus a competing solution. When you buy, the price factor has an impact but it is less than the added value,” advises Stéphane. “I’ve already heard an entrepreneur say to me “I put this price there on my product because my competitor had put the same price” – he hadn’t even done the exercise of comparing the value of his offer, and the differentiating factors!” 

Don’t waste time aligning yourself with your competitors – on the contrary, it’s important to keep an eye on their activities and understand their distinctive elements, but it’s even more important to be clear about your strengths and what makes you unique.