But if I wanted to grow and build a successful company, I knew I had to get this part of the job right.
For many entrepreneurs, the most difficult aspect of starting and growing a business is finding customers. This can be exponentially challenging when the only way you plan to fund your business is through revenue. Back in 2002, I founded Haneke Design by leveraging the experiences I had working with companies of all sizes and industries to help improve their customers’ and prospects’ end-user experiences (You can read more about my history here.) I had the design skills necessary to provide high value to customers, but I quickly learned that as a solopreneur, I needed to fill not only the role of designer but also that of business developer in order to succeed.
Early in my career, I worked on a project to help build software for some sales training programs. During this time I met Al Hoffman who became more than a client to me, teaching me the ins and outs of the enterprise sales process. I’ve always had the belief that when it comes to software development, immersing yourself in the subject matter and having a complete understanding of it will result in a good product, so that’s exactly what I did. The knowledge and skills that I acquired in that experience as well as my relationship with “Uncle” Al Hoffman gave me the ability to comfortably fill the roles of both designer and business developer and is one of the reasons that Haneke Design has seen such successful growth.
In the years since, I’ve come to understand the importance of opportunity management. More often than not, most leads will fall out of the pipeline. Because of this, it is extremely important to keep it full at all times. How do you do that? By having A LOT of conversations. As a business owner, one of the most important pieces of advice I can give to other entrepreneurs is to take the blinders off and say yes to conversations. These conversations don’t always need to be sales driven; in fact, I’ve never really actively tried to sell anything. Instead, I view these conversations as ways to educate people about our business by telling stories about challenging and fun projects and speaking about trends and the future of our industry. Taking the time to connect with people to have meaningful exchanges with them creates a foundation of trust in both you and your company, making them more likely to do business with you even if it’s months or years down the road. Building productive relationships and listening to the unique needs of businesspeople will lead to long-term success. It’s easy for me to do this because I love what I do and treat these interactions as opportunities to meet interesting people and build relationships. It seems like the business always follows at some point.
When it comes to nurturing opportunities within this approach, it is important that you understand the decision-making process within the organization to ensure you are connecting with key decision-makers. Al Hoffman always used to say, “Stop trying to ride that dead pony.” The idea behind this is to stop utilizing all of your resources to nurture a prospect who won’t ever convert. I think about this a lot and have found it to be especially true when not enough research is done to understand the real decision-making process in place on any given opportunity.
I’ve also noticed that a lot of salespeople will use a prospect’s position within the sales funnel to determine how likely they are to close on a deal, but in my experience, those things are not necessarily correlated. Being overly optimistic and not applying a proper percent chance of closing will not yield successful results. I’ve learned that the only accurate way of determining a prospect’s likelihood to close is to do your research, don’t just rely on one’s position within the pipeline. Often, you may be moving a prospect closer to closing, but in the end, they aren’t the key decision-maker, the deal isn’t even funded, or the CEO’s brother has already been awarded the deal behind the scenes.
Don’t expect immediate gratification for your efforts. It takes time to move prospects through this process, and my advice to you is this: stop selling, have conversations, do more listening, put yourself out there, and educate people about what it is you do. Not everyone you talk to will have a need for your products or services at the time you talk to them. However, if you make a good impression and show that you are passionate about what you do, the business will follow. Once the business starts rolling in, do the work and ask the questions that will help you evaluate a prospects’ chance of doing business. Take the time to understand all the factors involved in winning a sales opportunity so you’re not surprised when leads don’t convert. This is how I have built and maintained the business development practice within my own company, and I hope that I have provided some insight for anyone who may be on a similar path.