Aaron Ross is the author of Predictable Revenue, often termed the ‘Sales Bible of Silicon Valley.’ His recent book From Impossible to Inevitable (co-written with Jason Lemkin) primes companies to achieve hyper growth.
In an interview, Aaron gave us his take on one of the most common obstacles that early stage companies face: being unable to hone in on a specific segment of the market. He calls this ‘nailing a niche’ and explains that in doing so, companies have a better chance at landing bigger deals and growing quicker.
L-SPARK: How do you know that you haven’t nailed your niche?
Aaron Ross: The main mistake that companies make is thinking they’ve nailed a niche but really haven’t.
A main indicator of this is if all of your leads are inbound, but are coming through some sort of word-of-mouth. Word-of-mouth is great, but it’s not something that’s going to help you drive the growth that you want.
You have to find a way to market to people who don’t know you. Companies vastly underestimate how hard it is to sell to people where there’s no trust established.
Another problem is when you think you’ve nailed a niche but most of your customers are small ones - for instance, they’re paying you between $10 to $100/month. It’s really hard to build a business off of small deals.
When you nail your niche, you’ll be able to find companies that don’t know about you, and you’ll also be able to close bigger deals.
L-SPARK: How can companies begin to nail their niche?
AR: The best place to start is to discern whether you’re a ‘need to have,’ or whether you’re a ‘nice to have.’
I know everyone in your target market can use what you’ve got, but the more that you can focus on understanding when you’re a ‘need to have’ (i.e. what kind of companies, what kind of situations) versus when you’re a ‘nice to have,’ the easier it will be for you to figure out how to nail that niche and where you can really grow.
L-SPARK: Is outbound prospecting the optimal strategy for every company?
AR: The book Predictable Revenue was largely about outbound prospecting and the process and team that helped create an extra $100M at Salesforce.com years ago.
There are lots of pros and cons about different ways of lead generation.
Outbound prospecting comes with many pros - it can be very predictable, it can get you into bigger companies and help you land bigger deals. It’s a great complement to inbound marketing, but it’s not for everybody.
There’s not an automatic way to tell you whether outbound prospecting is a good fit for you, but it’s generally harder if you’re a services company, or you’re in a really crowded market without a clear way to differentiate.
Of course, if leadership isn’t totally committed to it, it’s not going to work, just like anything else.
With outbound prospecting, you’re interacting with people who are only going to give you a little bit of attention. The more that you can make what you’re selling concrete and easy to understand, the easier it will be.
L-SPARK: Any other advice for early stage companies?
AR: Something that companies don’t do often enough is interview their customers.
Jason [Lemkin’s] 20 interview rule is to get out from behind their desks and visit prospects and customers in person.
You’re not meant to do the 20 interviews at once, but over the course of developing your product and your pitch. I think there’s a lot of companies with the mindset of: ‘I’m too busy selling to people who won’t buy.’
If something is important, you can figure out how to do it. It’s easy to think, ‘Interviews are a nice to have.’ But if you’re struggling as most early stage companies are, don’t forget to get in front of people in person or over the phone. This will help you really understand what they’re going through and what they care about. As a result, your sales and marketing process and customer success approach is going to work faster for you, and better.