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Ask HN: How do you get companies to talk to you about their problems?
258 points by Centigonal on March 3, 2023 | hide | past | favorite | 86 comments
I do product development for a team that's creating solutions for life sciences & pharmaceutical companies that work with real-world data. This is a new industry vertical for us, so we don't have a bunch of existing customers we can go interview to understand what to build.

It's already a reasonably crowded space, but the few pharma teams we've talked to express frustration with the speed and price of existing offerings. That said, I need much, much more information from users of existing offerings in our space to be able to form a product strategy that I have strong conviction in.

I was reading Airbyte's company handbook[1] the other day, and it mentioned the co-founders did 45 discovery calls with customers using existing ELT tools in 3 months! I would kill for that kind of access to teams in our target market.

How did they do that? Is that just the power of the YC network, or is there something I'm overlooking? My background is not in sales or BizDev, but I can pick up that skillset (or hire for it) to get these calls. Should I just start finding people in the pharma space, add them on LinkedIn, and request an informational interview? Are healthcare conferences good for getting these kinds of calls?

Open to any advice or guidance - thank you!

[1] https://handbook.airbyte.com/company/our-story (Fantastic doc, BTW)




You don't go in cold, you go in warm. Building a product in an industry you aren't familiar with is very difficult and even if you can get companies to talk to you, you're not going to be well positioned to truly understand what they're saying. You need to start with the relationships (either by developing them, or hiring people who already have these relationships). Pick any startup in your target industry and look at who they've hired: they'll be filled with industry stalwarts who provide the domain knowledge and relationships required to understand what's needed. If you want to sell into life sciences, time to hire some experienced VPs from your competitors.

Airbyte isn't a great example for you because businesses using ELT tools are radically different to pharmaceutical companies: pharmaceutical companies are working in a very slow moving industry that requires a great deal of careful consideration. As people in technology, we get caught up in the belief that because we can build incredible masterpieces that we're owed the time and expertise of others that we need to realise these incredible masterpieces... We're not. You have to approach this from a much more humble position, you're going cap in hand, you're not a hero, you're begging for scraps.


This is great advice. I’d add that either you have a very strong network with people from the industry that want to work with you or you have a solid idea/hypothesis of how to solve problems that the industry have.

Having the network without a solution to a problem doesn’t work, because big companies have even more access. And everyone is trying to use interviews to try to find new ideas. The experts will just be bored because that’s the nth person trying to interview them.

But it’ll it’s also hard to break into an industry when you don’t know anyone but have a great idea.

It seems that you have access to people that you can discuss about problems. But you have to bring them and a few ideas how to deal with them while listening to their critics.


Yeah it has to be warm, no one is willing to share problems with a stranger be it life or business. At my company, even our inbound leads, where our reps have a good sense of what is wrong, they aren't so forth coming, we teach reps to build rapport and lead with questions to help distill the issue as quickly as possible. This is particularly prevalent in some cultures, some find it super hard to admit they are facing challenges or seem embarrassed to let us know their existing ways of working. They are also often unable to articulate the root of the problem, sharing only symptoms so to speak.


Thank you for the thoughtful advice. It makes sense that building relationships and possibly hiring is where we should be focusing right now.


PS. It is airbyte the OP talks about


Muscle memory. Thank you, fixed.


This is great advice.


Hit up distributors. Pharma has kingmakers.


What do you mean by "pharma has kingmakers"?


Well connected people that VPs in pharma listen to. It’s not an impenetrable network but it’s based on history of working together.

You find one willing to vouch for you and it will at least open doors. I’m not so confident there are king makers so much as “adds a rook to your team-makers” :)


(Airbyte co-founder here, so you can get first-hand feedback on this)

Here's what we did:

- select the 3 top alternative tools

- look at databases of tech stacks (https://stackshare.io/ is one), the company websites where any logos were mentioned, anywhere we could get an info that this company was using one of the alternative tools

- then did 4. 5. 6. 7. in the steps mentioned in this article

- https://airbyte.com/blog/how-to-create-awareness-with-no-tim...

- in the messaging, saying that you are building an open-source version of that alternative tool they're using helps a ton if you're reaching out to a technical audience. also, don't forget to personalize the message you're sending with the tool they're using name, company, etc. so it doesn't seem too automated, but more authentic.

One other thing that helped in our case was that we built a previous product before and asked to be introduced to their data team, but most of the interviews were scheduled by the methodology above.

Hope that helps!


It's really cool to see this response here - thanks for taking the time.

That blog post was really helpful for me - In a previous role, I did some simple email marketing and learned the basics of creating campaigns and getting lead lists, but there's a lot of concepts I wasn't aware of here: ICPs, using tech stacks as a discovery/targeting tool (clever!), using tools to scrape LinkedIn contacts. This is super valuable, thanks!


Happy that was helpful!


> This is a new industry vertical for us

Words of experience: if you want any sort of business from a new vertical, hire some people (even one if you are tiny) from that vertical. These folks will have the vocabulary and the experience with the pain point and hopefully an adequate network so you can talk (with your new hires!) to some people who do or don't (also extremely important to talk wit) have actually experience the pain.

Those first interviews form the root of a tree: if you sounds sensible and like you actually understand their pain, some of your interview subjects can refer you to others to talk with.

If you try to go in cold with zero experience in the new vertical, even if you do talk to someone you won't really understand what they are talking about. You may understand the words they are saying (except for jargon you don't know) but you won't know what they are really saying.

For example "yeah, when we develop a new assay it's a pain getting our regulatory attorneys to sign off on it" but what they really mean is that the cost structure of checking with the regulator is absurd, or the regulators are nonfunctional due to congress, and so the real problem isn't something anything internal could fix. Or maybe all they mean is that the lawyers can't read LaTeX documents :-). While someone in the industry would already know how to parse the answer.


This hits close to home. I've spent a good part of the last two months researching pharma, life sciences, RWD, and related topics, and there's an enormous amount to learn. It's difficult to tell the legitimate opportunities apart from the tarpits (i.e. is X process frustrating because the current solutions are inadequate, or is X process frustrating because of a regulatory/organizational obstacle that we can't meaningfully improve?). That's a big part of why I want to have more conversations.

Your comment and a few others suggest hiring people with industry experience - we are going to seriously consider that.


then the question just becomes recursive doesnt it - if you have no experience or are a nobody, how do you get these experienced senior people to come work for you? why dont they just take your idea and run off with it?


>> why dont they just take your idea and run off with it?

There is a very, very small number of people in the world with the willingness, resources and drive to build something.

This is such a trivial concern it can be dismissed entirely.


Would it surprise you to learn that there are folks with seniority and experience in all manner of fields that have really really good ideas that are never leaving their skulls? Simply because life is sufficiently complex and difficult for them that pursuing such an idea may never even occur to them?

If you think you understand a vertical so well that you have a killer idea, but you need a foot in the door via internal or external expertise because you don’t know the people or the language, your biggest problem is that you are lying to yourself.


I have thoughts about this one!

> why dont they just take your idea and run off with it?

I think the concept of the "million dollar idea" that someone could steal is overplayed.

Disrupting an industry (or even just creating an industry niche) is extremely stressful and usually involves beating long odds. Most of the good ideas are obvious to everyone in the industry, so you'll have to compete with the incumbent giants and newer fast-followers (think Zoom vs. Teams vs. Google Meet, or MySpace vs. Facebook vs Google+). I think execution matters much more than the original idea in these cases.

Most of the remaining ideas are non-obvious, and people won't see the value until you succeed and the value has been realized (e.g. EVs were a stupid idea until they suddenly weren't).

I also think that if a career industry exec wanted to start their own company, they'd have a stack of their own ideas to start with.

Finally, I think it's a misconception that successful products always start with one clear "winning idea." The process of developing a product and reaching product-market fit involves creating a thesis, testing it against the market, and iterating. Your idea can change into something completely different by the time you find a match.

> how do you get these experienced senior people to come work for you?

This is a tougher question, and one that we're thinking about a lot right now, given some of the advice in this thread.

I think hiring a senior industry person as an inexperienced nobody would be extremely difficult, but if you're a team with experience and resources in a separate field (e.g. tech), then there are situations where it could work. An mid-level exec might want to get hands-on again and experience an environment with more excitement and direct autonomy. Someone in a different industry might want the opportunity to teach and learn from software folks. If you have a meaningful mission, I think that can be a real motivator for some people. Finally, if hiring a senior person from another industry will let you break into a lucrative market, you're going to try and compensate them financially for that (to the extent that a smaller company can).


There are already some very good replies in this thread. This is also an absolutely fantastic question.

The book New Sales: Simplified by Mike Weinberg is a decent intro to sales that you would probably get a lot out of. You can only learn sales by doing but this book will help you get your feet wet - there are a lot of absolutely awful sales books out there but this one is good. 45 calls in 3 months is very easily achievable, by the way, even just doing cold calls from LinkedIn.

I'd like to add one thing. It's not a direct response to the questions you asked but I hope it can help you once you figure out how to start making calls. I used to sell engineering software to heavy industry customers. I found out very quickly that if you called a customer on the phone (or were on Google Meet or whatever) and asked "anything wrong? anything I can help with?" they would tell you "oh no, everything's great here!". Go visit them in person though, and ask for a tour of their plant, and all of the sudden they're pointing to all sorts of things saying "oh yeah, that new 10 million dollar unit they just put in won't start, we can't figure out why!" and guess what, the software we sold could help them figure out how to start it. I work remote now and I love it, but for sales? Nothing beats meeting in person.


> I work remote now and I love it, but for sales? Nothing beats meeting in person.

I'm remote, too, and I worry about that being an obstacle sometimes. I saw that Steve Blank article "Be Where Your Business Is"[1] linked here a month ago. I think, in my case, I'll have to start with virtual discovery calls, but at some point it'll make sense to start hopping on trains/planes and making in-person visits. One difference is that we're trying to help analysts, who mostly work at a desk in front of a computer - but I've seen conferences really work to accelerate relationship-building.

[1] https://steveblank.com/2023/01/10/be-where-your-business-is/


For me, selling means traveling, but virtual discovery calls are also the norm - traveling is expensive (both money and time) and I'm not traveling to meet a prospect until I've qualified them. And sure, if you're in financial services, you probably ought to live in NYC... maybe you wouldn't ever even need to leave. But I'd wager that in most other industries which are a bit more distributed geographically, as long as you're willing to hop on a plane at a moments notice, you'll be okay.


I'm not with Airbyte, but in previous companies we interviewed customers, and asked them to refer us to other people they know — "the crankiest, most opinionated, most unfiltered domain expert you can think of, please" was more or less how we phrased it, which often elicited a chuckle and an immediate recognition of who that person is in their life. Those are the best people to talk to — opinionated experts with no reason to sugar coat it for you.

If you don't have customers, you have to prime the pump. If you have a board of directors, or investors, ask them for referrals. If you have a mailing list or newsletter, that's a great place to look too. If you have people who attend conferences, that's another place.

You can also just swallow your pride and "cold-call" (or email, or DM) people, asking if you can have a few minutes of their time. If you are polite and respectful, you get a surprising number of positive responses. If the call goes well, ask them to tell you who their favorite cranks are, and go from there.


You don’t talk to companies about their problems.

You talk to people about theirs.

Decision makers if you want to solve problems people will pay to solve, even though these may not be the important problems.

Spending too much money is not a good problem to try to solve.

You want to solve problems where cost is not an issue.

Good luck.


My (possibly wrong) opinion is that the most inspired products come from people who actually work in the business process that you are trying to improve, somehow teamed up with inspired developers and application designers.

Even this formula isn't enough without magic dust, to create something amazing.

I'm a developer and also worked as a recruiter for many years, and over the source of that time wrote three complete recruiting systems purely to serve my own needs as a recruiter. It took three full rewrites over ten years until I really both understood the problem space properly and hit on the right software design that enabled me to really fly around in my recruiting job.

Hard to imagine a team of people coming to me as a non-developer recruiter asking what my problems are and coming up with an inspired solution.

But maybe an inspired solution isn't your goal - maybe you just want do what management says: "build something".


You are right. We are automating the creation of offer letters, employment contracts and confirmation letters by telling the developer exactly what to do and then testing what he did. And then still we are already working 18 months on this! 3 different developers already on the project. So if you try to create a solution without the directions from someone who actually does the work, good luck to ya!


I used to sell hardware and software for all the brands like hp, cisco etc.

I went from newbie to top performer within 3 months, this includes lead generation and closing the sales, depending on the campaign.

First it depends if you are getting a request by them or if you are cold calling, both have pros and cons. Cold calling is great if youre selling networking devices, you can specifically target hotels, campuses and such.

One thing, generally, do not even try with government entities they have long standing contract and crazy regulations, theres no decisionmaker there , unlike in private companies.

Rule number one: You must get the head of IT on a call, email will not work, and nobody else, you do not need the cfo , cto or such, the it dept head is your target.

You have to get to him via secretary or other workers, you need to find out their numbers, you need to be creative, pretending you know him already "whats his name again?", then save to your crm and next time you call and ask for him by name.

If he has no time to speak, ask for a convenient time, they are chatty if you know your tech.

Now, the head of it has time and you have him on the phone, its showtime!

Do not pitch your stuff, let him speak. Find out his infrastructure, software and such, and the contract renewal times. Ask how frequently they replace servers, ask them if they are happy with the hypervisor ware etc.

We all know that hard and software always has some issues and inconveniences, find their pain points.

Then find out when they could consider a change, contractual obligations.

Now you pitch your product, offer a free trial, convince them how good support will be.

And then you ask them if theynare interested for more info and total cost of overship/implementation when the time comes.

Mention to them that its always a good idea to present 2 or more proposals to the cfo(this means youre doing the work for them, theybappreciate that, believe me, they must justify to cfo).

Price does not matter, support and reliability and ease of integration and use is all.

And them schedule a call when the time comes, follow up with an email, dont bombard them with spam.


> Do not pitch your stuff, let him speak. Find out his infrastructure, software and such, and the contract renewal times. Ask how frequently they replace servers, ask them if they are happy with the hypervisor ware etc.

Do heads of IT really give all this information out to a rando on the phone?


Depends who is calling.

When you have a mandate and say "I am calling on behalf/from/for Citrix, Emc, dell and such, they will often speak.


> pretending you know him already "whats his name again?", then save to your crm and next time you call and ask for him by name.

That's really annoying and sleezy and manipulative. How hard is to call and ask "Who's head of the IT department there"? Simple, and you don't have to go all sociopath-adjacent about it.


It does help with sales rate, though.

Your approach is the first one, sometimes a bit more is needes or you will sell a bunch of nothing.


the primary advice is to use your network. if you don't have one then that's a nigh-insurmountable headwind.

look for architects and solutions people, or CTOS/CEOS of smaller companies. someone who isn't so far up that they don't understand the day to day trouble, but someone far enough up that its part of their job to think about strategy and keep track of what's going on in the market.

market yourself. put up blogs, go to meetups, and hang around on technical forums. if you have a little bit of a rep that opens up a lot of doors. try to use these as opportunities to vet your value prop directly as well as building recognition.

know your vertical. I know you said this isn't something you can do...but this is a major handicap. consider hiring specifically for this. this isn't just product design, but knowing who to talk to, knowing what the workflows and pain points are.

work for people. I have the same issue as you, and am strongly considering taking up contracts with my potential customers to really get into it.

don't believe any single person. people come up with all kind of weird shit. look for patterns.


It's a ton of extremely hard work figuring who you know that knows someone and so on, trying to get someone to intro you to someone else, failing most of the time, and so on. The nice thing is once you get the ball rolling a little bit, it seems to roll a little bit easier.

Now, another difficult thing is that if you are at a company as a product manager(etc), spending a couple months stalking people on linkedin, writing emails, taking fruitless calls etc, and making no discernable progress, it is unlikely to be tolerated by your manager, the CEO (if small company), dev team (if folks are already staffed etc). So, set expectations, figure a way to show work even if it's not "progress", keep reminding people on a day to day basis, pull some people in for random calls and hit them up for folks in their network, and so on.

Good luck. This problem (the org one) is the reason most products don't work. There isn't sufficient work done up front because it's messy work which doesn't yield progress in a predictable way so otherwise good product people write awful PRD's (or equivalent), they know they are awful, but they just aren't given the time to do all the work. On the flip side, if you have domain knowledge and experience in the target industry, you might well be able to write out a doc describing the exact right thing to build in about 3 hours.


I work in a different vertical industry and I can tell the company perspective: they will die for pennies and ignore the value that comes from outside if someone important in the company will not benefit from it, one way or another. Regular people are not allowed to talk to external companies (you can get terminated for that) and the people that are in positions to talk are usually very political, very incompetent and very morally corrupt (sometimes fully corrupt, like taking paybacks or bribes). This is known by others, so external contacts are avoided in general and they try to build stuff inhouse instead, even if it is poor quality because they pay IT poorly so they don't attract and retain good people.

I was a few times in VP level discussion with huge IT companies. Our VP was basically asking for impossible things that he was willing to pay for, otherwise "regular stuff" was just a matter of money, "for free if possible".

I don't know how much it helps you, just telling why it is difficult to penetrate some of these companies and what is the thinking on the other side. Make a VP happy to bring in your solution - that is your chance. I am not telling to bribe anyone because I am completely against it, but be aware that some of your competitors will. It is a cutthroat world.


Almost always, when I tell a manager the truth about what I see, he also answers me with some part of the truth about the company. But you have to be careful with this method, almost any manager is afraid that after realizing the truth, you still have to reconfigure yourself or do something about the unwitting witness.


Your comment feels like a valuable insight but I’m having trouble understanding the second sentence. Would you mind clarifying what you mean? Thanks!


Be careful with this method, lest you learn enough of the truth to be a threat to your manager or the company.


We had a similar problem in terms of engaging with our target audience. This might feel a little silly, and I was initially somewhat skeptical, but our investors pushed us to read and integrate "The Mom Test" into our thinking. It worked.

https://www.momtestbook.com/

You may think that the approach doesn't apply to your market, customers, ideal user, etc., but I assure you that it does.


Came here to post the exact same thing.

I think the Mom Test should be required reading in business school. Absolutely amazing book.


Domain knowledge is the most valuable knowledge. If you have it (or someone in your company) then you understand an industry, how it operates, its problems, its priorities, etc, and very probably you know people in it.

Without it, it would be very difficult to start a successful business.

It's like wanting to start a business to help restaurants without knowing anything about restaurants.


If you don't have existing healthy networks, you're going to have to bootstrap your network. Have you brainstormed ideas about what value you can deliver to them in the conversation? Not promises of future products, but actual insight and ways of thinking about their problems that yield value to them.


The shortcut is to bring in a sales person who's worked in that particular industry for a while. They'll have a network and already have had many many conversations on biggest pain points with customers.


Or just go work in the field for a while and actually build your network, gain experience, look for pain points amongst those in your field, and build a business that actually has a chance to solve problems affecting people


Discovery calls are the initial stage in a selling process. I am biased but "selling" to a customer provides a much more honest picture of the things they truly care about then a generic customer interview. Despite most folks aversion to sales, if you have a compelling story and can narrow in to a general area of pain (which you have already) most people are very willing to hop on a call and tell you exactly the things you need to know. Be sincere, open to their expertise but be willing to challenge and ask prodding questions. This helps test their conviction and set the weights of what will get them to influence internally to purchase - the true kpi of most products. You might feel goofy since they you don't have anything to truly sell yet. Rest assured, your buyers will be very willing to cooperate if you deliver and you will stand out from the crowded majority of those who don't.


This is absolutely true in less regulated/IP-paranoid industries. I work with (a specific vertical of) small business owners who will talk your ear off about their problems, exactly as you said (though then there's the at least tractable problem of filtering through the noise!). But life sciences and pharma... your potential users' livelihoods and even freedom may be on the line if they say too much. You'll need to be seen as trusted, not just someone with a compelling story, no matter how compelling. Which means it's very hard to break in.


There are no companies only groups of individuals temporarily aligned around an abstract entity. Don’t think about what companies what, but rather what to specific individuals or roles in these companies need to achieve their individual goals and help them achieve that


I would recommend that you consider going to conferences, and listen and talk; don't be pushy on sales. You'll find conversations.


If you want to try to scale this beyond just yourself, you can also look at various 'market research' type agencies. Tons out there that will literally do customer/SME surveys/interviews for you.

Everything from online, in person, video call, etc. They summarize all the findings and give you detail too if you want it.

I think most of the outreach/lead gen happens via LinkedIn. I'm fairly knowledgeable in my industry vertical and get hit up by these companies literally every day - usually try to do 1 or 2 live interviews a month. Generally they'll pay in the $800-$1200 per hour range for this type of expertise.


One rule you might want to add to your book: make sure you don't talk to developers, they never pay for anything.


That's funny - and sadly mostly true, but still funny. I think it's hard to get them to pay for anything that they think they * should/could/etc. * build. I think sometimes even CTO can mess up sales. However if you want to learn, rather than pay, developers may not be a bad choice.


Why not work WITH one or more of those companies?

Partner with some firms, and you get the testimonials you need, and the expertise. At the "cost" of less profit upfront.

What does partner mean? It could be as little as telling them they can give input into the new product so it meets their needs better, to some discounts. But I have seen this approach used from the other side of the table, and it CAN work. Just make sure you are ready to back your side.

But I'm just an engineer. What do I know about marketing?


One could write a book on this. In point of fact, there are a lot of books on this topic. I'd suggest you consult The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank, the series by Jeff Thull that begins with Mastering The Complex Sale, and The New Solution Selling by Keith Eades.

As for some specific, tactical gambits you can use, here's one I've gotten some mileage out of: browse LinkedIn for people who used to work for companies you want to find out more about. Cold contact them, explain that you're researching $COMPANY and that you were hoping they could share some insights. I find that this is often better than contacting current employees, because the ex-employees don't get that defensive "guards up" thing from this kind of engagement, since you're not - by definition - trying to sell them anything.

Then, armed with whatever information you glean from these calls (which ideally will include some suggested names of people to contact!) you can make contact with the target $COMPANY.

Even better, if the call with the ex-employee goes really well, they may offer to (or be willing to, if prompted) actually make an introduction to somebody they are still in touch with at the target. This can go a long way towards greasing the wheels and getting an "in" there. It won't always happen, but it does sometimes IME. Or if they aren't willing to actually make an introduction, they may at least agree to let you name-drop their name, as in "Hey, Bob, I was talking to Susy who you used to work with, and she mentioned your name as somebody I should talk to about X..."

Just don't do the "name drop" thing without explicitly getting permission from the person in question first. Doing otherwise is unethical and if the person you ping happens to call their good friend Susy and she says "I did talk to that guy, but I certainly didn't give him permission to use my name" then you're going to find yourself persona non grata real quick.

Anyway, if you read some of the books I mentioned above, one common theme you'll see revolves around doing a lot of research on your target companies before making contact. Doing that takes more effort, but it's also more likely to pay off, since people are more likely to respond to people they perceive as offering legitimate value as opposed to people sending blast spam.

Note: but don't do the generic thing of trying to make it sound like you did your research without actually having done any! Think about how you feel when you get messages that start with something like "Hey, Centigonal, I've been researching Centigonal Inc and I love what you guys are doing in your space, and I think I could help you generate an extra 10,000 high quality leads every month..." Blah, blah, blah. To me, those things are 100% "auto delete on sight" since the person not only obviously didn't do any research, but on top of that they lied about it. Dishonesty is not the best way to initiate a relationship.


Thank you for this detailed response! I'll get started on those books. Steve Blank's The Startup Owner's Manual was actually already on my reading list - would you recommend The Four Steps to the Epiphany over that one?

I appreciate the idea on contacting ex-employees - will give that a try!

The focus on research and honesty makes sense to me. Honestly, researching companies is one of my favorite parts of the job, so no issue there.


Steve Blank's The Startup Owner's Manual was actually already on my reading list - would you recommend The Four Steps to the Epiphany over that one?

Not necessarily. In many ways TSOM is just the newer edition of TFSTTE. But not in every way. There is some content that is unique to each. I usually tell people I'd recommend reading both eventually, but I'm not sure the order matters. And the core essence of what he's saying stays the same in both books.

If there's an easy way to summarize the difference, I'd say TFSTTE is oriented more specifically towards a model where your product is a "enterprise" B2B product and probably is going to be sold in a high-touch fashion. TSOM is more oriented towards Web based SaaS services and the like. So definitely related, but yet different books in the strict sense, IMO.


I’ve used several pathways and got great results. Created several product prototypes of an ML model to see if there was a customer base and business opportunity for it. Ended up with a dozen potential license deals some with multinationals and a pilot expansion to over 100 locations.

Here’s what we explored:

Expert Network Companies - They connect you to the right people for a cost per call, $250-$1000 depending on their level.

I found my own expert (versus going through an expert network company). I paid her $350/hour. Well worth it as she built her network over 30 years and gave me hot introductions (she booked the meetings and was on the call) to first customers.

Leapmotiv - a customer discovery company. They’re great at booking cold leads and conducting high quality interviews. You have to be really clear on your goal. I recommend using them after you’ve done a few calls yourself so you have them working on deeper inquiry. Some of these interviews led to customer conversations.

DIY - LinkedIn

If you want to do it yourself I recommend approaching it like going to a new country. You need to know the lay of the land and be able to speak a bit of the language.

Read your target’s LinkedIn bio and job descriptions to see what matters to them. You’ll start to notice their lingo. Go for volume of calls and try speaking their language. They’ll feel more understood and thus more willing to give referrals for more people to speak with.

For example, I started a new co-founder for hire gig a month ago in a new space, health literacy. I kept seeing in the LinkedIn bios the challenge of getting patients to take responsibility for their own care. They use lingo like “health outcomes.” When I’m on calls, I get nods when I mention wanting to facilitate patient responsibility in their own care to improve health outcomes.

DIY - Online communities

This was where I found non-obvious use cases. Maybe there are forums you can join.

Podcast guest - Be a podcast guest on industry podcasts and let the leads come to you. Not sure if this one is applicable, but there are podcasts for just about everything

All the best! Happy to answer questions


People will give time to people that add value to their lives. If you're targeting a market where you can't add value because you don't understand it, you have to get creative.

What has worked for me in these circumstances is to - no joke - offer jokes. Your initial message has to be witty and fun, and then you need to make sure they have an actual good time in the interview (and also ask some solid questions). If you can do that, they will give you referrals.

Once you get a couple of these calls done, you'll have a general understanding of the space you are targeting and can move on to other methods.


Are you looking for established ones or are startups in your target? If startups are candidates (and life sciences & pharmaceutical are full of people coming from established ones) then you may have a good angle through their investors and you can just hit Crunchbase (or Pitchbook if you can afford) to find who them.

Another way is to talk to the second tier - consulting companies, analytists, integrators, distributors. They have their years, may be open/willing to and could potentially pave the way for warm intros as well.

Note, that whoever you start through, will only lead to more conversations and potential amplification if you have a compelling product/proposal.


Have you tried connecting with local universities first and researchers and professors there?

It's an approach we've been taking in the neurotech space, though there is quite a bit of neurotech in Sydney, Australia, the companies are a bit harder to get in with compared to the universities, but of course, the university graduates end up working for the companies, so it can help expand your network.

You may find the universities also have a need, though not as obvious as the pharma companies.

If this is useful for you, I'd be keen to know, so please follow-up (email in my profile).


I get an email about once a week from someone trying to help me solve problems. They’re all annoying garbage because even though they all pretend to be personal and friendly, they’re just automatic template form letters.

I might consider one if they’ve done some homework about my specific situation and have a manually crafted email.

If you’ve decided you need to send spam, please just don’t try. And certainly don’t send break-up emails just because I’m ignoring your spam: https://ibb.co/n8gQY0d


We're currently working on a Chatbot for PMs and have had roughly 30 discovery calls in the past month. As part of the Upekhha accelerator, we utilized the founder network there and also reached out to our alumni networks and past colleagues. It was a great chance to catch up with everyone! We're now planning on doing some cold email outreach to our target segment.

I'm happy to talk to folks here as well. Please feel free to reach out to me here or via email (in my profile).


Hey, would love to talk to you. Didn't see email on your profile, let me know how can I get in touch?


I think we’re doing the same thing? Want to work together?

Some documentation https://docs.biobricks.ai

A LinkedIn post https://www.linkedin.com/posts/tomluechtefeld_bioinformatics...


Prove that you can do something about their problems

Explaining problems to vendors is work. If you can't give a reasonable assurance that the meeting will be productive, the people who have to take that meeting will naturally assume it will be a waste of time. No matter what my problems are, I'm not going to waste time talking about them with some company that's never done anything for me.


Advice: life science companies will push you towards becoming a solution provider, which is mostly an attempt to outsource their jobs. Winners in this space polarize to 1) non specialized products consumed by specialists 2) specialist CRO like firms. Don't think you do something in between like customize your offering to their space.


Go to tech meetups. Heck, host a tech meetup. Build those connections and work them.

Put another way: Take advantage of the power of free beer.


I absolutely recommend you read Neal Rackham’s SPIN selling, and Major Account Sales Strategy. Additionally, read the Mom Test by Fitzgerald if I remember correctly. These books literally walk you step by step of how to uncover problems and discuss them with your prospects, customers and people in general.


Sounds like The Mom Test could be a good read (although targeted mainly toward start ups) and Deploy Empathy by Michelle Hansen for conducting user interviews.

And yes, speak to everyone and always ask them for a referral to one (ideally two) other people if it went well with them.


I'm partway through The Mom Test right now. I like the approach of starting with the problem space, not with "do you like my solution pretty please?"

I think it's a really good resource for knowing how to talk to possible customers about their problems, but I haven't gotten much from it around how to get in the room with those customers.


Second half of the Mom Test covers this a bit more.


If you have (or can get) budget for it, you could just hire a third party. By day I do B2B product and market research at an agency. This kind of research is bread and butter for lots of people at lots of agencies.


Here is a lifehack, see if they have a related job opening, apply to it and if you are successful ask all your questions during the interview.


Find consultants, systems integrators, and other teams that support the customers you want already; and then make friends :)


>Is that just the power of the YC network.

I recently did this for a company because we got connected by one of their investors.


I’ve been paid $50 multiple times by companies doing this kind of research to do video calls.


Find the people with specific jobs whose lives you are trying to make easier.


Find a group of employees all around the same level, get them drunk, sit back and listen. Now the problem is reduced to the more general case of how to befriend strangers, idk, partner with someone gregarious and attractive


To be honest, if you have hard time companies to talk to you as an established org. You will have a hard time selling too.

When you are creating something like this from scratch, then you have to do outbound just like a sales guys.


Read Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. First you'll have to learn to compel customers to talk with you, then it's all about becoming comfortable with rejection, and grinding out the numbers game.


Added to the reading list! I don't love it when media takes a Machiavellian approach to human interactions and that's the initial impression I got when I looked at the blurb for book, but I should and will give this a chance and absorb the content before passing judgement. I appreciate the recommendation, thank you!


Influence is presented as a kind defense-against-the-dark-arts, but can definitely be used in reverse to inform approaches to sales.


One thing though you need to have some soft skills like good communication skills . Without that you may not be successful using any of the techniques mentioned here.


What’s your budget for this research?


I found the mom test a really helpful book for how to get that conversation and also how to have the conversation: https://www.momtestbook.com/. The TLDR is you do the best you can to outreach and get a cold convo, and if you do it the right way, the cold convo person becomes your lead into warm intros, and you never have to do cold outreach again.


I'd like to know this also!


I'm coming from a different place than most other HN commenters - I now work for a tech startup, but have a graduate degree in biochem where I worked in drug discovery. As a result, and before I decided I was not ethically congruent with working for Big Pharma, I had informational interviews, advisors, peers, and all kinds of honest interactions with people who work for pharmas, biotechs, CROs, research labs of all kinds, and hospitals. Of course, I wasn't trying to sell them anything.

You don't mention what your product or service is. If you're creating solutions on the per-project side, essentially starting a CRO, you should hire scientists with PhDs and talk to other CROs to see if they have more contracts than capacity (yes this is a lot like being a software contractor). If you're doing a product, "life sciences and pharma" is not a vertical, it's about a half-dozen of them. Pharma for instance has different problems in R&D and go-to-market, and it's typically not the same organizations that do pharma R&D and market activities. Smaller pharmas, CROs, academic research labs, and specific innovation departments might do R&D, and larger pharmas have armies of representatives selling different drugs (mostly) to doctors or hospitals, marketing arms that organize and fund studies and clinical trials, M&A specialists that choose compounds to buy and market, subcontractors that produce the drugs in marketable quantities (this is not the same as e.g. the quantity you need for a clinical trial), and regulatory affairs staff, and all those people largely are ignorant of the problems that are not at their specific level of the value chain.

Once you have chosen a specific segment to focus on (e.g. you want to reach an early stage pharma that does have staff and funding and maybe is starting one clinical trial), you can reach them through several channels. One is asking your investors, your company's CEO, your incubator or other startup-adjacent staff for intros to people who are doing or funding companies like your target profile (be specific). You can also go to networking events at incubators, chambers of commerce, or startup-focused conferences for that stage. You will meet executives and investors, so you can ask executive-and-investor generic questions to have insight on market dynamics, funding situations, and growth stage. ("Where do you want the company to be in 3 years?", "What was your last executive hire, and why did you pick their profile?", "Who are your competitors?") This will not help with product but might help with pricing, time-to-market, and other elements of the "sales" side of the product strategy. At small companies where the exec is likely to approve every line item, you can also ask if they are customers of X competitor of yours, which will give you an idea of that competitor's market.

Another option is to look at who they're hiring. Staff at companies in this industry tend to have graduate degrees and their entry level jobs are as laboratory or project management staff, so you can try to find students at the tail end of their PhDs or postdoc at research centers with close industry ties. Calls with them should be easy to get and you can ask them about the technical jobs to be done your product is supposed to help with. Depending on what your product is, they may also have used something like it and talk about competitors, if your product serves a function that also exists in academia. Some professors can also be very good networkers (like investors) and if you can get a warm intro to them, they may spontaneously refer you to people.

Look at competitors' advertising. In this space it will be in trade journals, trade shows or conferences, and Internet-based advertising like AdWords and such. Find the ads themselves, follow the companies on social media to be sure to catch any public posts they make, and do your own ads in the same space to try to get 1) a profile on the kind of people who click them and 2) maybe email addresses of very curious parties.

At conferences (healthcare or otherwise) you're unlikely to have people committed enough to give you contact info for a follow-up call, but targeted conferences are great places to rapidly have 100+ 5-min shallow conversations. Walk on the floor in the dedicated vendor space, ask everyone you see who they work for and if they've heard of $market_leader in your tool space or $problem_you_solve. Half of them will not, that's ok. Ask those who do for a quick sentiment on $problem, if it affects them personally, and why/why not. Only ask (or beg) for a follow-up call if they look very interested and there's a good match between their space and yours, and if you do ask for a call, mention you have nothing to sell and are after information. You need to find the right conference or trade show for this. Things your competitors advertise at (better: sponsor), or even ask your existing customers which they go to. Health conferences specifically are about 50% doctors, so that's why hanging out in the vendor area is usually a better bet. Other vendors will also have downtime and you can talk to them when they look bored.

Cold emails/LinkedIn contacts/phone calls work too, but at like 1/100 the rate of contacts at conferences or warm intros. So, if you have a couple afternoons free and don't mind the occasional very vocal rejection, you can do that, same deal as at conferences with starting with a short intro&question to qualify who they are in the space and asking politely for an info call only if there's a relatively positive response.

I mentioned phone calls. The reason Airbyte's strategy worked for them is software developers live on their computers. Most people in other industries don't. Some are even (gasp) over 50 and don't have a ton of downtime at home due to family and other obligations. If you're doing warm outreach, and your contact gives you both an email and phone number, call. If you get a business card with both an email and phone number, call. The only time you shouldn't at least try calling is if you got the number by paying for a database or otherwise have very unqualified leads. Never hold people on the phone too long unless they're the ones talking: if there's a positive response to outreach, schedule a follow-up call.


Yes as you suggested you want expertise in sales. Sales is all about relationship building, meeting with clients, showing them what you have and discussing what their biggest pain points are.

If you want expertise in this you want expertise in sales. I co-founded a company years ago with myself as the tech lead and my partner in sales. The sales was what actually drove the founding "Hey i speak to so many companies that need tech expertise in Y".

What you're asking is the very basic element of the profession of sales and that's what you seek. Hire away!




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