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Ask HN - What is the best way to reach out to Enterprise/SMB customers?
28 points by nns1212 on June 21, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 21 comments
Let's say we are working on an application for small businesses & enterprises.

Now we want to approach various businesses to sign them up as our customers.

What is the best way to do so?

Which forums are the best place to get in touch with them?

I am sure many entrepreneurs here must have done a lot of leg work. Any advice/help will be very helpful.

Here are my 2 cents:

When you have product/market fit -> you'd do the 'traditional' thing - ie Gartner reviews, trade shows, marketing etc - All that requires big money - significant investment

The interesting part though is when you are in the early/seed stages - and that's the hard problem to solve for. You are iterating, trying different things - perhaps testing different verticals.

The way we've solved that at Kormox is doing it through 'insiders' - we'd build a spreadsheet of target companies (say 300, focused on a specific vertical), then identify who we'd want to talk to (say, Johnnh Smith, CIO) - then, identify internal people in the company that have nothing to do with the CIO but you have a good change in getting 10 minutes of their time. We particularly used alumni networks - e.g. Wharton, McKinsey, Stanford GSB, etc etc.

Then you reach out to those insiders asking for 10 minutes of their time - not to sell anything, rather to get their advice/pick their brain on how you can reach out to relevant person to get opinions on your startup (you can mention you think Johnny Smith would be the right person).

It has worked really well for us. Typically those insiders would do an intro - and Johnny Smith would be happy to meet with you in that way.

We've been able to do this at scale pretty successfully.

@PabloOsinaga - thanks. Getting connections via alumni is a cool advice. I wish there was a social network to connect with Alumni.

Also, do you think that contacting Fortune 500 companies will be a better way to go. If not, do you know where to find a list of SMBs that we can target?

Not sure - it really depends what you are trying to do. The problem we are attacking at Kormox is really a 'Fortune 500' one - which requires an enterprise sales cycle. But I am not sure what you guys are up to...

We are building a knowledge management platform that complements Box.com. Box.com is providing solutions to SMBs as well as Fortune 500.

I am not sure where to get a list of SMBs that we can talk to - to get initial reviews & feedback. Will look around.

Again - thanks a lot for your advice.

Just a thought, might Box.com have an SMB list they share with their partners/add-on developers?

you need to ask yourself who cares about knowledge management the most

Patio11 had a sort of talk on this recently, but I'll recap what I think is perhaps the most relevant to this situation:

Start with 'small enterprise'. If you have even one smallish company that you can get in the door in, use that as a resume booster for a slightly larger company, and keep parlaying that success, each time seeking a slightly bigger customer than the one you just landed.

As ams6110 mentioned, don't expect a short sales cycle, and factor that into the cost of your product. Also, the sales process if VERY high touch. If it's an expensive product, expect to have to schmooze clients with dinner and repeated meetings with growing audiences. Don't mistake progressive meetings and schmoozing for progress. Do understand the cost of buying dinners and hiring sales people to chase one big customer for 6 months at a time with the expectation of not landing the customer.

Simply put, it's elephant hunting. You have to be very patient, invest in very expensive tools, and will likely come home empty with each expedition. This is also why Enterprise software tends to be so expensive, in that it has to recoup all the costs from failed sales on every successful sale.

Lastly, expect to be nickeled and dimed (especially if you're talking federal enterprise), and don't expect to be paid promptly.

@bmelton - I agree. We are going to first target the small enterprises. Thanks for you advice.

Let's say we are working on an application for small businesses & enterprises.

If that's what you're saying, then you've already failed. The fact that your application is for both SMB and enterprise customers means you lack customer-based focus and probably don't know who your customer is. Pick a smaller sub-set of customers and focus on that.

The app we are trying to build is a complement to Box.com (that offers solutions to SMBs as well as enterprises)

You've probably looked already but I think there is a lot of good advice on enterprise sales on the smart bear blog


From what I know (mostly reading rather than personal experience) selling the Small business and selling to enterprise are very different and require different approaches. Ie, SEO and a landing page with pricing and sign up vs. a sales team, no pricing anywhere on your site and long sales cycles. You may need to pick whichever one you think you can be most successful with at first and concentrate on that.

@robinwarren thanks a lot for the link!

I agree that selling to SMBs and Enterprises are very different approaches.

We are still in the customer development phase (http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/2008/11/what-is-custome...) and really want to "get out of the building" to start learning about whether our assumptions are right.

I am not really sure how to approach the organizations. Is face-to-face a better option or online networking is better?

I don't think it's hard. Have a think about the kinds of customers you would like and then make a list of companies that match your assumptions. Phone them up and say you have a new product that might be of interest and could you come and show it. Maybe 10% will be interested. Go and visit them and listen hard to what they do/don't like about your ideas.

You'll learn one of three things: a) your product could be a good fit for them with some iteration or b) your assumptions about the types of customers you want is wrong or c) your idea stinks.

Deciding between these is up to you :)

Cool, great advice.

However, phoning them up generally connects us to their customer helpline. What is the best way to reach the right person within that organization of >50 people?

Don't phone customer support, phone the main switchboard and ask the name of the person in the relevant department. If you're building a sales tool then ask for the head of sales. Depending on the size of the organisation you might get batted down to a lower level but it's up to you to hustle upwards once you're there. The main thing is if you're looking for validation then get the product in front of the people who will be using it, not their procurement or IT department. Get the target users emotionally engaged and then they will help you run the gauntlet of pricing and tech with the other departments.

@iand - great, thanks for your advice.

Find businesses you think meet your customer profile in your geo, and then call them and ask if you could borrow a little of their time.

Frankly you should have done this before you started building anything

I suppose there is a reason they suggest you 'get out of the building'. But I can't really advise you from personal experience, you probably know what you need to do. Good luck!

If you have a product that fits on a Gartner "magic quadrant", figure out what analyst writes it and get real friendly with that person.

Otherwise, you need a way to sell to the Executive level folks (ie. sell like IBM and Oracle). If you operate in or have access to the social stratum of corporate bigwigs, use that. Otherwise, you can hire $$$ salesfolk who have that access, or target mid-level managers and play the procurement game.

If you are interested in government... Find a lobbyist with a clue.

It's hard to give a blanket answer.

Some organizations have had very good success with marketing channels such as SEO, cold calls and trade shows. I can also tell you stories of people who are very disappointed with the investments they've made in all of those channels.

Enterprise... try to get a positive review by Gartner or CIO Today. Expect sales cycles measured in months if not years. There's a reason not a lot of small startups sell to the enterprise, it's like trying to pick the apples at the top of the tree. You're just starting out, go for the low hanging fruit and establish some good customers/references.

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