The founder’s guide to win enterprise deals
As young professionals, Ronald Kouvelt, co-founder and CEO of StuComm, and his co-founder William Viveen, spotted a new and somewhat challenging opportunity: could they build a mobile tool for communication between universities and students. And maybe even more important, would they be able to convince these slow and immense institutions to partner up?
As often happens with startups, StuComm’s founders said “let’s do it” first, planning to figure out how along the way. Fast forward to today, and StuComm is used by over 600.000 students from 34 universities. Not only does StuComm offer communication tools, but universities rely on its platform to offer all of its information to students in one place, including their timetable, study results, or the latest news.
Luckily, they had a few strong ingredients, including Kouvelt’s enthusiasm for sales. Core to establishing steady customer acquisition and StuComm’s growth. He and his team have been responsible for deals with some of the largest institutions in Europe, like Reading University, Radboud University, Utrecht University and more.
Kouvelt willingly admits success did not happen overnight. It took many, many conversations, mistakes, iterations, and a few miss hires to get to a formula that works in rooms packed with institutional stakeholders. Today, Kouvelt supports his sales team – he visits long-term clients and pushes team members to achieve bigger results. And his most impactful discovery over the last several years is this: Enterprise sales just takes a lot of time. It takes a ton of coffee, or tea in some countries, to get institutions to work with you. As a result, most of the hires and tweaks to StuComm’s sales strategy drove toward local presence and personal connections. And they learned a lot along the way.
In this exclusive interview, Kouvelt shares the exact tactics that helped StuComm achieve sustainable growth that helped them nail deals with huge institutions in slow markets – and how other startups can do the same.
The four steps to get started
Get your foot in the door
“Too many startups don’t pick up the phone. And I don’t mean massively cold calling Wolf of Wall Street style. Realize that all you have to do, is ask people if they are open for a cup of coffee. That’s it. As a startup one cup of coffee doesn’t get you a client, so your goal should be to learn from them. Are they on board for a pilot, always ask for a fee. That will show commitment. And they know you need to eat.”
“Expect to get ‘no’ a lot. Then just ask for what reasons they might consider switching. As long as your offer is strong enough and timed right, they will at least be interested in receiving a proposal.”
How to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘not now’
“When you’re just starting out and have few customers, it’s hard to stay motivated when large numbers of prospects say ‘no’. But it’s at precisely this point where the great distinguish themselves from the bad. Most buyers at large companies have a ton of reasons to say no to you. Right now. Sometimes, they have long term contracts with competitors that continue for two more years. Others don’t have a budget right now, because the year just started and every penny is allocated. More often buyers don’t want to be the first. They need social proof.”
How to find out? “Just ask,” Kouvelt says. “We have a lead time of six to nine months. Sometimes even longer. We organize events for our clients, for which we invite prospects who might become customers years from now. Some have ten year contracts. You can’t expect them to throw these contracts out the door, so you have to build relationships before the buyers decide who to work with for their next term.”
Ok, so those two themes might make sense, but what if things actually take off?
“People tend to mirror to like-minded others. This isn’t great for a remote sales team. People will have more confidence in your ability when talking to a native or when you, as a founder, meet them in person. Even if this means having to fly over. For example, StuComm’s sales team used to be from Utrecht in The Netherlands, but for our UK market we now work with someone from the UK who takes her time to drink a lot of tea with prospects. This person knows people and they like her. Which massively influences the probability of closing deals.”
“As you get more experienced, you can offer several models of operations for sales leads. And once they get it, repeat it over and over again. Keep people on their toes. We have a team meeting every month, in which the first four slides are basically the same. Every single time.”
“For employees who aren’t in touch with customers or users directly, we send them to places where there are a lot of users, and have them interact with them. The excitement on their faces when they see people use the apps they’re building every single day, is priceless.”
Build a team for sales that scales
If all goes well and you list all the ways you spend your time, you’re sure to spot opportunities. If you cut steps for the sake of cutting, you could end up pushing for efficiency at small scale, failing to grow. Below are two reminders to make sure your company scales with your sales targets.
Do what you’re good at
“As you grow, you simply cannot do everything by yourself anymore. The endless restless nights scouting for valuable additions to your team, are interchanged with working with a trusted HR employee. Someone who not only feels more at ease with recruitment, but who also brings her own network of potential team members.”
Then when your team scales, ideally, all you have to do is set things up for sustainable growth – and let your team run with it. “We offer means for personal development, a great office, and transparency, because we believe our team has amazing ideas. And as your team is increasingly able to operate on your terms, it frees you up to work on the greater picture.”
Learn what works… and what doesn’t
Speeding up the hiring process shortens the feedback loops, which adds the extra benefit of figuring out what fits your company.
“When you’re recruiting these amounts of people, it’s extremely useful to consider the possibility of a wrong hire. This helps you to open up for feedback on your recruitment process and your selection criteria. And when things don’t work out, end things quickly, and in a constructive manner. I’ve had an employee who thought he was done learning with us. Instead of fighting him, I collaborated in finding him a new position. This builds trust and grows our network for potential employees. Plus, people will leave anyway. No one stays with a company for 20 to 30 years anymore.”
Uplevel your sales with these retention tactics
Great sales teams understand that the best results come from those close to you – they are usually willing or likely to buy as they’ve already shown interest.
Get in touch
“First, identify your current customers’ biggest additional problems. How long will it take to solve them? How long will it take your customer to be ready for this solution? What features are necessary for their approval? You should map out a timeline together.”
“As sellers, you should never forget that buyers have their own opinion. All you need to do is ask. Using the milestones you identify, outline your ideal journey. Rather than trying to rush through the development and sales process, remember you’re there to help your client. Reality will eventually differ from the stages, but our job as sales leaders is to own and align the mistakes and successes To come up with a plan and fix any mishaps.”
“The best features to retain customers will be the ones your team believes in and which users actually use,” says Kouvelt. “Managers or founders who come up with ideal features and push it out top-down are always met with skepticism or apathy.”
“Assign groups to do their homework and get everyone together to evaluate opportunities. You want to make sure the process seems continuous and smooth. And if you do see an opportunity your team doesn’t, keep pushing, and most of all, get your team excited.”
The founder’s perspective
Getting your sales on track and implementing processes can be daunting. So here are three simplest, most actionable things you, as a founder, can do next week to start seeing the impact of some of these approaches to sales.
Draw your circle of control
“Running a fast growing company means being able to focus on the right things. It starts with accepting there are things you do not have influence over. Put those as far away as possible. The next step is to recognize what indirectly influences your mood and energy. Who are your prospects? What worries your team privately? Stay close to those who influence you positively and stay away from what repeatedly drains your energy. Lastly, be proactive about what you control. At worst, you will fall and learn to get up repeatedly. Only strengthening your learning muscles.”
“Reflect on who you are and what you do. Realize you are in charge of your results. You cannot wait for someone else to make the call. Then live with the calls you make. Don’t try to please others and don’t feel guilty. This is easier for some, so if this does not come naturally, strive for it. Things can still go wrong, but at least you will have made the decisions. As famous football player Johan Cruyff once said: ‘It’s better to go down with your vision then with someone else’s.’”
Enjoy the ride
“There’s nothing like the startup life to make you feel alive. One day everything sucks, the next you can take on anyone. Your mood switches from shear panic about customer acquisition to the exhilaration of finally attracting that team member, investor or board member you’ve always wanted. And most important the excitement you get because of your team members spending 8 hours per day, 40 hours per week, on your dream.”
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