Why I pivoted from SaaS to startup sales consulting
When I started doing solo sales consulting in 2019, my attention was focused on early-stage startups and bootstrapped companies.
There was something I noticed right away—they weren’t using their CRMs. The legacy CRM platforms were too big for them, and these smaller companies just couldn’t keep up.
I spent six months building a simpler CRM, thinking this was the solution my clients really needed.
But they didn't use my CRM either!
So I pivoted once more, this time from SaaS to professional services, and built Intro, a startup sales consultancy where we offer not only advice and help for companies building better sales processes, but our team of highly trained virtual sales assistants actually handle parts of the sales process for our clients.
Here's why this might have been the best business decision I ever made, and the 4 key sales lessons I share with all of our clients.
Turning a side gig into a business that supports my family
Back in 2019, I was working full-time as a head of sales. But my wife and I were about to start a family, and I knew that I needed to have control of my own schedule. I was looking for the freedom and control of running my own business.
I started with the goal of turning my side gig of sales consulting into 50% of my income. When I hit that goal, I quit my job.
At this point, we didn’t have much of a safety net. My wife was getting a Ph.D. in psychology. I had very little margin for error.
This is a moment all entrepreneurs face: at some point, you have to take that risk. And as soon as you make the jump out of a full-time job, your whole week opens up. I was able to take meetings, network, and fill what I needed. Within a month, I was able to recoup my previous income.
Since then, I’ve made sure that I’m adding value month after month to my clients, and the money keeps coming in.
Why I decided to pivot my offering at Intro
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, my consulting business has changed and pivoted several times since its inception in 2019.
After I realized that my own CRM wasn’t working for my clients, I decided to change my offering and fit their actual needs.
My initial pivot was towards outbound sales, and in the early stages of my consulting business I was basically a fractional head of sales for various companies.
The key is that I kept asking my customers what they really needed help with.
And that’s what led to another pivot in February of 2021.
A lot of companies will tell you that they need more leads. But what I’ve found over the past few years is that many companies really need help making more of leads they already have.
Most outbound agencies stop with that initial cold outreach. But a lot of our clients needed more support on the inbound side.
One very technical, product-driven company I was working with showed me exactly where I needed to pivot.
They were all engineers, very good at their job, but they didn’t want to do anything but engineering. I was talking to my point of contact, and he told me:
“We’ve got people signing up through a contact form, and we get at least five or ten per week. I’m sick of not getting back to them in time. And I don’t know which ones are junk and which ones are good. Can you just take this contact form and handle those signups?”
So, we pivoted to supporting the inbound sales process for startups, and we’ve been off to the races since then. Now, we’re more of a tech-enabled service company that supports multiple CRMs, including Close.
Psst… not sure which CRM is right for your team? This CRM buyer’s guide can help:
How our consulting business grew even during a pandemic
I had been burned working in dysfunctional organizations in the past, and I was quite happy to work on my own when I first started. But when I pivoted Intro to focus more on tech-enabled services, it became obvious that I needed a team to support me.
Here was my process to grow my team:
- First, I hired contractors through Upwork, people with professional experience who were up for a challenge
- I paid them to do simulated projects to start
- Later, I started having them do client work, which I later reviewed before sending it off
- Then I reviewed their work less, and eventually not at all
- Gradually, I hired four of these people part-time
- For two of those, I kept increasing their hours
- With the ones that weren’t working out, we wound down their work over time
That’s how I ended up with a talented, international team of sales consultants.
My goal has been to make Intro a place where I would like to work.
One way I did this was by purposely setting up the team in different time zones, forcing us to work asynchronously. Each member of the team has a lot of independence, and we work with async tools to make sure we stay connected and get to know each other on a personal level as well.
This also enables our inbound sales services to work: 71% of the replies we send for our clients are within 15 minutes of receiving a new inbound lead. We can do this because it’s always a reasonable time for someone on the team.
4 essential sales lessons we teach our clients
Through our experiences working with high-ticket startups and bootstrapped companies, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to really succeed in sales.
Here are some of the essential sales lessons we teach our clients:
1. Start with a simple tech stack
Of course, sales starts with your CRM. While we support customers using a variety of CRMs, the majority use Close.
We love Close mainly for three reasons:
- First, pretty much everything is available within the API, which means getting information into and out of Close can be easily automated
- Smart Views are easy to set up and customize so you get automatically populated lists of the leads you need to contact
- Historical lead view allows our customers to see previous interactions we’ve had with a lead, and all historical data is saved
When your organization has implemented a CRM that’s agile and works for your team, the rest can be very simple.
Inbound sales normally start with a form on your website, which can be set up with Wix, Unbounce, Typeform, etc. You could even have new inbound leads directly coming in through an email.
When you have that submission, sync it to your CRM using automation tools such as Zapier or Integromat. In Close, you can even connect your email and sync directly.
Then, all you need to add is a scheduling tool, like SavvyCal or Calendly.
These are the pieces of the sales stack we use to send our clients their final deliverable: booked meetings with qualified leads.
2. Response time is essential to inbound sales
The time it takes to respond to new inbound leads can be the difference between gaining or losing a new customer.
A well-known HBR study stated that businesses that respond to leads within 5 minutes are 100x more likely to convert opportunities.
More recent studies confirm that speed is still a huge factor in converting new inbound leads, even showing that 50% of leads will work with the company that contacts them first.
That’s why the team here at Intro works so hard to respond in 15 minutes or less to our clients’ new inbound leads.
Response time matters. People contacting you for the first time need clear next steps to see how they buy your product or service. They don’t know yet– they’ve never bought it before!
When someone fills out a contact form, that’s not a closed deal. That’s where the work starts.
3. Use automation only when it makes your job easier
Automation can be a powerful way to save yourself time and get the right data from one place to another. But it can’t be used as a replacement for a salesperson.
For example, we help our clients use Smart Views in Close to make the most efficient use of their time. Instead of seeing a bunch of red tasks in the CRM, our clients can head directly to a customized list of leads that are recently untouched and quickly cut through that list with an email or call.
At this point, though, a human needs to get involved. In high-ticket sales especially, conversations must be had to close a deal. An expert needs to come in, answer questions, and move the deal along.
When you’re trying to automate tasks that should be done by a person, you’ll run into trouble. Focus on using sales automation in a way that sets your team up for success.
4. Sales is not for every company
Here’s the flip side: Not every sales process needs a human interaction.
We learned this early on in our consulting efforts at Intro. We tried to work with some companies and failed to establish a valuable sales motion for them because the category simply didn’t allow it.
This might include eCommerce businesses, or low-end SaaS or software products. In these cases, having a salesperson or a whole sales team may not make sense because the product needs to sell itself.
If your product is low-price or your target market doesn’t expect to talk to someone, don’t force it. Instead, focus on making your product better, making your onboarding better, or getting better at SEO and paid ads.
Steli has shared a useful decision making framework on figuring out whether a sales-supported or a self-serve approach is better for your business.
Your sales effort has to pay for itself. If your customer lifetime value isn’t high enough, don’t throw people at the problem. Instead, optimize the rest of your inbound process.
Start simple, grow big
I spend my days strategizing with startups and bootstrapped companies that are trying to grow. And I have personally been through this process (actually, I’m still in it)!
The best startups start small and agile. I learned quickly that pivoting to fit a real market need is more important than sticking to an original dream or idea. When you keep talking to your customers and trying new ways to solve their problems, you’ll eventually find product-market fit for your startup.
Start simple, and you’ll have the agility later on to grow big.
Need some help along the way? Check out what Intro offers for busy founders and sales leaders.
And while you're at it, grab CEO Steli Efti's free ebook: The Startup Sales Playbook.