Landing Early Pilots and POCs
They won't come from warm intros… but from targeted, simple, actionable, scalable messaging.
You are a founder. You need POC or Pilot deployments to refine your product-market-fit, and build references, results, reputation, and revenue.
You will get hundreds of leads for them by following the advice in this post instead of asking for warm intros to potential clients.
You only need to spend 10 minutes reading this post.
The cost, like everything in Art of the Start, is $0.
Intrigued? Read on!
In this article, I’m going to suggest a playbook for getting your precise value proposition in front of hundreds of qualified customers in a way that makes their next steps obvious and actionable.
Pilot and “Proof of Concept” Deployments
In every young company’s life it comes to a stage in which it has a robust MVP and an incipient target customer profile and value proposition. The company will then seek initial customer deployments and sales to shake out their solution in the field, build a reputation, and get accounts to reference with success metrics they can quote—to establish reputation and results, references and revenue.
The “4 R’s” are critical steps towards scaling up your business and raising financing.
As and advisor and investor I get many many requests for “warm intros” from startups at this stage. The founders reason, “If I can just get the ear of my highly-positioned, perfect client, I can talk them into buying my product.”
Warm intros are not a great tool for early sales, though they are a great tool for other stages of your startup journey:
Insider introductions are key during your early product/customer validation, when you are evaluating possible businesses for your solution, vetting the value propositions (which will contribute to your business model), identifying your target customers (the market), and understanding the intricacies of their problems.
Your conversations with insiders, before you’re selling anything, test your ideas (not your actual product) on experts who have agreed to briefly help you as a favor to the introducer.
Warm intros also carry a lot of weight with investors, and are key to successful fundraising.
But a warm intro is not going to work efficiently getting you POCs. Why not?
Let’s Play Out the Warm-Intro Scenario
There are a lot of cascading possibilities in the narrative, so bear with me as I walk you through it. The take-away at the end of this section, in case you want to skip ahead, is that it scales and performs really poorly.
The script starts with you finding that I’m directly Linkedin to a potential client you’re interested in:
You: “Marc, Will you introduce me to JB Zorg at Zorg Industries so I can pitch him on our SAAS world-killing AI-enabled automation platform?”
Or, you: “Marc, please introduce me to anyone you know who you think might be interested in our product.”
Maybe, you’ll be thorough enough to include a description of what your product does, and if you’re really diligent (maybe you’ve read How to Win Influence and Friend People) you’ll customize your pitch to Jean Baptiste Emanuelle Zorg. Chances are though, your blurb will include a page of painstakingly precise and complete detail.
Me (most of the time): “I have 2400 Linkedin connections; I didn’t even know Zorg was one of them.” Occasionally: “Sure, I’ll send Zorg a note.”
Best case, I craft an email to Zorg describing why I think your product will help him get the Stones for Mr. Shadow. I will do a terrible job of that because I, unlike you who have been thinking about your startup 24x7 for months, have thought about it for 3 minutes, and have at best a hazy, high-altitude notion of what your product maybe does. If you sent me a blurb, I’ll attach it.
What you wanted me to do was to study and internalize your blurb, then re-phrase it to precisely suit Zorg’s needs, which I’d also have had to study, and then to leverage my precise relationship with him and call in a favor. Realistically, I’m unlikely to make that effort unless I am truly motivated, perhaps as a board member, advisor or investor, and I am confident I’m not putting my future access to Zorg at risk if the match doesn’t work out.
So, instead, Zorg gets my somewhat generic e-mail. Maybe he doesn’t remember me and never gets past the Subject: line. That’s a fail. Or, he remembers me vaguely and reads the first sentences of our pitch but it doesn’t motivate him to make his way through the whole thing. Fail. Or, he reads the material we’ve enclosed and decides to investigate further when he has time for something of this low a priority, which, as he’s busy destroying the Earth and your company has only recently moved out of a garage and is unlikely to be able to relieve his pains in the immediate future, will be never. Fail. Or, he is a good friend of mine and is willing to pass the email on to the people in his org who actually deal with this kind of problem with a strong direction that they drop their priorities and talk to you, and they actually find the time to do it—also unlikely, so fail again.
Just maybe, he is a really close, long-time friend, and he actually takes a call with you. When you talk, he asks you pointed questions about your product, reliability, results, pricing, effort required to integrate it into his operations and next steps. Probably you’ll have to get back to him at a later date when you have actually done enough deployments and homework that you have answers. Fail.
Least likely of all, my pal JBEZ, as a personal favor to me, will short-circuit his professional and established processes and priorities to make the time to deeply understand your offering, and agree to buy your product in major part on the basis of my recommendation. Success.
My point should be obvious: an outreach like this is fragile and likely to fail at every step of the way. It requires large effort and investment of time and reputation on everyone’s part. Success is not impossible, but it is highly improbable. And, even if it does succeed, all that effort is for just a single opportunity.
We Can Fix That
How can you avoid the failure scenarios above? We need to defuse the reasons for each of them. You’ll need:
A very short message
A very targeted audience
A very obvious benefit
A very palatable expenditure to your customer in effort and money
A very easy next step
Now, if you have all these, you can put your appeal in front of not only the warm intros I can make (and will be more likely to, as the messaging demands so little of the recipient), but of everyone, so long as you insert at the top:
A 1-sentence filter that lets the reader decide: This is either for me or I can skip it altogether.
A Template for Landing your Pilots
This leads us to a formula for your outreach messaging, the one I used at the top of this article in fact, expressing to your ideal, target customer (the you in this template):
Who you [the customer] are and your needs. (This qualifies the lead. If this isn’t a match they can stop reading.)
What we do for you/what you get from us.
Your effort. What you need to put in.
What it will cost you.
The next step and where to find answers to your obvious questions.
Breaking this down to get the actual content:
Precisely Target the Industry, Goal, Size, and Job Function
- What’s your target’s job?
- In what vertical? How big is their company? What’s their pain point?
- Keep in mind what size of organization, ask, and need you can reasonably expect to appeal to at this point of your product and company development.
See Practice To Perfect below.
Quantify the Concrete Benefit
- “We will save you x % of money, effort or time.”
Ask for precise, minimal, Effort
- It’s more important to request as little effort as possible, even if it doesn’t render the maximum benefit that a larger ask would produce. Avoiding risking losing a prospect now is worth having to upsell later.
Put the Cost upfront
- Make this as simple as possible. You probably need to lowball or spitball the price; see Revenue below.
Make the Next Steps Easy and Obvious
- Include a contact. But also…
- Prepare materials addressing the 1st ten obvious questions or points of resistance a prospect is likely to raise, and point them to these. As an added benefit, this collateral will be your first Sales Playbook and allow your startup to scale sales beyond your own individual interactions.
When crafting your message and the agreements you’ll put in place, you need to consider:
What do you need to get out of the Pilot/POC?
Results, References and Reputation:
You should come out of a POC with concrete metrics on your performance and value to your customer. You will want to be able to quote the results and identify your customer, and use their testimonial with future prospects.
These requirements for references should be explicit in your POC agreement; it makes little sense to go to the trouble of delivering results for your customer without being able to leverage them in future sales materials.
Make sure that when you state your results you do it so it reflects well on your customer, rather than pointing out all the flaws you found in their processes.
See the next item.
How much should you charge?
You may want to consider not charging at all for limited, early engagements. Once you’ve proven yourself even a bit, though, it is important to start to charge even a small amount.
If you don’t charge, if there is no cost and time pressure, customers will prioritize your POC below everything with a price tag—it’s human nature to categorize things into free and not-free and the actual price is secondary. Investors (and even you) think in the same way (see Dan Ariely’s entertaining The Pain of Paying: The Psychology of Money).
You need to have a simple, hard-to-resist price; you’re not optimizing for revenue in these pilots.
You should charge something as soon as you possible can.
If your pricing is scenario-dependent, make simple, special POC or time-sensitive pricing, like “Starting At Just $X,” or use a freemium model, or sell an easier-to-price, lower-tier product, then upsell into your more nuanced pricing model.
Which potential customers should you approach?
Do NOT go after your ideal, perfect, forever customer just yet!
You are practicing. You will have failures while you practice, and you don’t want a mistake to lose you your future perfect customer forever.
Practice To Perfect: Learn to dance with a practice partner, and only then go into professional competition. Your first POCs will help you learn what you don’t know, improve your product and messaging, and prepare you for your perfect customer in the future.
Don’t hook a fish you can’t land.
Engage with customers whose needs you can expect to satisfy, and will significantly exercise your product. If your customer is above your weight class, they will ignore you or waste your precious time kicking your tires just in case you someday get big enough for them to trust you, which is bad, or, worse, to use your expertise to solve their problem in-house or by buying from a more established company.
Apples to Apples.
The opportunity needs to be replicable. Make sure your POC customer is typical of a broader class and not an idiosyncratic one-off which you closed through unscalable personal channels.
Make sure the size of the pilot is suggestive of your ability to engage a larger customer and sufficiently large to be significant without being so large as to overwhelm you in fulfilling it.
Ideally, you’ll need 3-5 B2B or hundreds/thousands of B2C engagements to effectively show investors you have a viable market.
How do you disseminate your message?
Warm-intros. Now that you’ve targeted and honed your message, you can use your network! Identify individuals you want to target, based on the criteria above, and find common contacts who will forward your message with a one-line preamble, like:
“Hi Zorg, I think this company might just be able to help you be even meaner! Best, Marc”
Viral and Social Channels.
Because your outbound requires so little of your reader, you can push it out to all your contacts on whatever channels you have—FB, Linkedin, Slack and accelerator communities, etc. Reading just the first sentence will be enough for a recipient to decide whether or not they’re interested.
Your advisors, colleagues, collaborators, and members of your communities will be much more likely to agree to post/like/share this spearhead-sharp message, multiplying your reach a hundred-fold.
From Hail-Mary to Scalable and Actionable
Startups often try to land their first engagements and build proof points by getting insider access to their customers from well-placed individuals. That’s akin to a Hail-Mary pass in American football:
A last-gasp, desperation heave thrown into a crowded end zone where the chance of conversion is so improbable the successful version is named after a prayer.
Your startup can do better. By targeting precisely and concisely, scaling your offering to be appealing and easily obtainable, and crafting an easy-to-consume message, you can improve your outreach’s scalability and effectiveness by orders of magnitude.
Let me know how this works for you in the comments!
Marc Meyer is a Silicon Valley technologist, founder (6 startups, 4 exits, 1 IPO), engineer, executive, investor, advisor, teacher and coach. He has invested in or advised over 140 companies. He advises and works with accelerators and funds including Alchemist, 500 Startups, HBS Alumni Angels and Berkeley SkyDeck, where he chairs the Advisor Committee. He is also an Executive Coach, accompanying leaders in their challenges and helping them achieve their greatest potential.