Text by Robert Blaga, Brainiup Founder

For one week in July, everybody in our startup stopped whatever they were working on and instead focused on sales. This is the story of that week.

But first, a little bit about…

CONTEXT

In 2009 I’ve concluded I’m terrible at sales. Every single step of the sales process made me anxious and depressed. It wasn’t just fear of rejection, but also embarrassment in talking about price and a buzzing thought that what I was selling (language training for companies) was not worth the money. It took my sales manager four months to reach the same conclusion, that working in sales is not for me, and reassign me to a much more comfortable role of a project manager.

Fast forward ten years and now I run Brainiup, a startup that designs learning games for training companies and HR departments. I’ve managed to hide from sales for the better part of 2018. We were lucky enough to have clients come to us, mostly thanks to brave social media and branding.

But our growth was slow and our ambitions to move into the global space were crippled by having everyone focus on product development and nobody on sales. And our own survival as a startup was put into questions when we hit a major cashflow problem in March.

At first, I thought about hiring a salesperson, so that me and the rest of the team could go back to our cave and continue to design and create products. The new salesperson will then take our games and license the hell out of them.

But something was missing from this puzzle and that something was me. How do you lead a salesperson if you have zero confidence in your own ability to sell? Not having the specific competence it’s fine for a manager. Not having confidence in the process is a different demon altogether.

But more importantly, how do you know what kind of products to create, with what features, when you don’t really know your customers? And how could the team help the new guy (or in our case “the new girl”) sell if none of us had any idea what she is going to go through?

We are very proud of our learning culture, the way we approach every moment in the life of the company with a “what can we learn from this” mentality, so I saw an opportunity to learn, both for myself and for everybody else.

THE IDEA

Just two weeks before our new colleague would start I’ve decided to invite our team of four to spend five days doing something I called “Our Before Mars Sales Hackathon”. All our focus for these days would be to get out of our comfort zone and promote one of our flagship games to 400 companies all over the globe.

The team responded to my announcement cautiously. Even I responded to my own announcement in the same way, like a deer caught crossing the street in the headlights of a pick-up truck. But lo and behold, I started organizing our sales hackathon.

LOGISTICS

Schedule

First, I determined that to really make it a hackathon, we need to put in more hours than usual. So we extended the working schedule to 8:30 AM — 19:30 PM, making it two hours longer normal.

We would start the day by having breakfast together and conducting a short “war room meeting”, where we would plan the day ahead.

Space

To make sure everybody was in the same boat, we moved all our desks together, so that we were close to each other and feel that we make it or break it together.

Somebody suggested we move our red fridge next to the tables, so it’s easier to grab a soda, and I think that was a sign the team got what we are trying to do.

I also bought a pirate flag and printed a quote from Steve Jobs on the wall next to our hackathon space.

It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy — Steve Jobs

Next, I also printed some pictures of business owners that we work with and target, so that the team can put a face on some of those cold emails.

Tools

We used Google Sheets to keep a record of all the companies we contact and we split the entire world into regions and amongst ourselves.

We also used mailtrack to get notified when our emails were opened and did this for three reasons:

  1. To measure our open rate and effectively see what kind of subject lines work
  2. To give the team some quick wins, as I correctly predicted that people would be happy to see that their emails are opened
  3. To be more precise when we follow-up a few days later, by writing more personalized emails

The mail tracker did the trick and it helped not just in the learning and planning department, but also it boosted morale in the first couple of days (although it became a bit depressing in the last three days, as emails were opened but not answered).

We chose to contact companies from Europe on the first day because we wanted to be on the same timezone and quickly see the emails being open.

We considered using docsend to also monitor what our recipients were looking at when we sent them the sales deck, but we canceled the idea as we found it a bit too intrusive for the time being.

We also used Linkedin Sales Navigator a bit, but we didn’t find it very useful for the process we designed.

Other than these tools, we initially used a flip chart to track our progress at the end of the day. The whole point was to take our eyes out of the monitor and switch to analog, making the day a bit more personal and connecting with each other on a more personal level. However, after two days it became too difficult to monitor things on paper and we switched back to writing things in a spreadsheet.

And then there was the objective.

OBJECTIVE

We designed the whole experience with one thing in mind: learning. And to make learning become inevitable, two things had to happen:

  1. We needed the right mindset.
  2. We needed to treat the hackathon like a scientific experiment.

For the mindset part, we had the advantage of already being a learning-oriented company. For example, we called our first year in business “The Learning Year” and we’ve asked the same question over 100 times in 2018:

What have we learned from this?

For this week, we’ve made the primary goal clear from the start: we need to learn as much as possible so that when our new salesperson arrives she will spend as little time as possible trying to figure things out.

To make sure this happens, we’ve designed a process where we were able to test, through A/B testing:

  • email subject lines
  • email body text
  • sales decks with different keywords
  • business model
  • pricing range

Also, a secondary learning objective was to figure out what the international market wants so that we know what to develop next.

For this, we were interested to arrange skype calls with possible clients, so we get to understand their businesses better and what type of products they most desire.

The third learning goal was just for the team: show them they are capable of things beyond their belief and help them incorporate a truly international mindset: we were to stop thinking locally, as a small Romanian company, and start thinking and acting at a global level.

To achieve this, it was important that each and every one of us experienced talking to people from as far away as possible. That’s why every team member was also assigned to at least two faraway regions or cultures, like India, New Zeeland, Japan, Africa, Canada or Uruguay.

The final objective was just for me: just build confidence in the sales process, the company, and the products and move past the fears and embarrassments that ended my sales career a decade ago.

For this to happen, going through with the sales hackathon and having a big win was mandatory. And the big win came.

PROCESS

The step by step process was designed to test multiple hypotheses and also learn about our potential clients:

Step 1: Google potential clients in a specific country

Step 2: Pick one of the search results and take a deep dive inside the website

Step 3: Find the owner/CEO of the company and get his email address (or the email of somebody close to the CEO)

Step 4: Write a personalized subject line (egg: “I found x on your website” or “Could this be a good fit for {company name} )

Step 5: Write a very personalized email, mentioning something you found on their website that was connected to what we sell

Step 6: End the email by asking a question: “Would it be ok for me to send you a short PDF with our product?”

Step 7: If they say “Yes, send me the PDF”, then we send Version A to all the odd responses and Version B to all the even responses

Step 8: If they come back after seeing the presentation and ask for pricing, we send them Option A or Option B and propose a Skype call

Step 9: Follow-up

The process was adjusted on the move, every time we had new ideas or insights and we tweaked the PDF file eleven times because of this.

At the end of the day, part of the process, we asked ourselves not only what we’ve achieved (how many companies, how many Skype calls, etc.), but also what’s the morale on a scale from one to five.

And the morale was low on Monday evening. Very low.

Monday

Our target for the whole week was 400 contacted companies. In the first day, we’ve only managed to contact 45. It was incredibly time-consuming to research and write customized emails to every one of them and we definitely needed to work faster.

Morale was 2,25 out of 5 as none of us anticipated the effort and how tiring this can be.

However, our open rate was through the roof: 66% of the emails we sent on Monday were opened in the first 24 hours, so our Subject Lines seemed to be working.

Of the people who saw the first email, 26% wanted to see the presentation. We got two rejections and two companies that were OK with the price and wanted to continue the conversation (we are currently discussing further steps).

It wasn’t a bad start, but our morale was so low that we had to take some measures the next day.

Tuesday

To boost morale a bit, we bought beer, pretzels, fruits, and chocolate and placed everything on the tables we were working on. Except for the beer, that went straight to the red fridge.

Also, we gave one of our team members (the one with the lowest moral) a break from all of this and reassigned her temporarily to a role that was supporting the process: tweak the presentation and the pricing structure. It helped her move from 1 to 4 on the Moral scale.

By the end of the day, morale was 3.25 for the team, a better score than on Monday.

Maybe the chocolate helped, or maybe the numbers.

The second day we did worse in terms of productivity: we only managed to contact 37 companies (being one man short did not help).

However, our open rate was still high at 62% and we had a response rate of 39%, which was well above what we’ve expected.

We also managed to confirm four Skype calls, which did make us feel pretty good about ourselves.

Wednesday

During the morning briefing, everybody was exhausted and morale was low again. Looking at a computer screen for hours and hours was not something we were used to. Going through hundreds of websites and opening multiple tabs at once took a toll not just on us, but on the wifi network as well.

So Wednesday we did two things to help with this: we decided to go to lunch outside the office and we upgraded our internet speed to a better data plan.

Because we started to get more replies, I stopped researching and contacting new companies and just focused on interacting with the ones that wanted to know more about us.

Having one person out of the process for the second consecutive day and the team being so tired, we only managed to contact 28 companies and had an open rate of “only” 30%. However, all the companies that saw the email wanted to know more, so that was a small victory we enjoyed.

We’ve also set up two Skype calls and had our first truly positive responses on the pricing.

By the end of the day, encouraged by the responses (and probably the fact that we bought match tickets to go together and see the national football team play Spain) our morale went higher, to 3.75.

Thursday

This was the big day: our first Skype call with a potential client from outside Romania. Everybody was excited and were wearing t-shirts with our flagship game’s logo. It was a joyful atmosphere.

The call went well above our expectations and team morale skyrocketed to 4.5 that day.

Responses were coming from all over the globe, each of them praising our approach, our product and our sales deck. We were shocked by the feedback and we couldn’t focus on anything for hours.

We only contacted 23 companies that day, and had a modest reply rate, but who cared?! We were making waves in India, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Greece, Ireland, Argentina, New Zealand, Thailand and The Netherlands. And we were just amateur salespeople, trying things up and testing ideas.

Friday

The last day of our sales hackathon found us dead tired. It wasn’t just the effort, it was also the excitement. We had some more Skype calls and the first companies that said: “Yes, we want it and we will buy it”. One company even called us on Saturday morning to arrange for a visit to Romania in the next couple of days. Our minds were blown away by what we had achieved.

We didn’t manage to contact 400 companies (that’s for our new colleague to do), but out of the 156 companies we’ve cold emailed, 37 of them were impressed, wanted more info, skyped with us, wanted to meet us or do a deal.

That’s 23%, a huge rate not just for some guys who have never done sales, but also well above the 7% response rate that the average email campaign gets. And the replies continue to arrive at a steady pace.

The numbers were great from our perspective, but the learning was more valuable than the contracts we got.

LEARNING

From the simplest to the most important ones, here are the lessons we are most fond of:

  1. Personalized works! When contacting people out of the blue, the subject lines and texts that were most personalized got the highest response rate. Making an effort to understand the potential client before contacting him was worth it.
  2. Test each step of the process. There are no certainties, but only hypothesis to be validated or not. We’ve modified our approach and our sales pitch at least 25 times in five days and each time we’ve learned something useful that got us closer to perfection.
  3. Team morale is more important than team competence, take care of that. Constantly measuring and trying to improve this aspect did two important things for us: we became more empathetic towards our new colleague’s mission and we stayed in touch with the human side of business and sales. We are better team members and friends because of this.
  4. Mindset is key to sales (and startups). By being so focused on learning, failure was not possible: when something didn’t work or when someone did a mistake (like a colleague sending our presentation to the competition by accident), we laughed about it and moved on with one more lesson learned. Everybody was pitching ideas, offering feedback and being helpful.
  5. It’s a numbers game. If you don’t keep track of the numbers, you never know how well you are doing. And if you keep adding to your game while contacting as many people as possible, the sale will come.

Last, but definitely not least, I learned that I am not terrible at sales. What I am terrible at is giving myself a break from time to time, but just the way this sales hackathon helped me learn and improve, my hypothesis is that every skill can be improved with the right mindset, the right plan and the right people around you.

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