5 Sales Mistakes Startups Make

Dana Publicover

The investors loved it. The future was bright. You were like Uber for Airbnb. And then the sales numbers were…a little disappointing. 

There are tons of reasons why product businesses might not meet their sales goals, but there are a few common issues among startups in this space that can be solved with little to no investment (as long as you’re willing to work). 

We’ve found again and again that most sales problems in most businesses—product, service, bouncy house rentals—come from communication challenges. Something is not being communicated properly, or something is not being understood. And, honestly, I think you want it to be a communication challenge, because the alternative is that your product sucks. (OK, maybe there are more than 2 options, but I’m willing to say it’s rare). 

So, do you have a bad product? Or is it possibly just a communication challenge? Let’s find out:

Mistake 1: Using the investor pitch to sell to customers

So, you’re Uber for Airbnb. Time to drop the market-centering comparisons. Your customer doesn’t care and they don’t connect with that language. They’re not interested in your business model. In fact, most of the key messaging you worked on for your deck and conversations with investors is nearly useless to the people who will actually buy from you. 

And yet most companies don’t change the way they talk about their product when making this important audience transition from investor to buyer. Many companies don’t even update the website copy. 

Once you’re ready for customers, examine every external-facing word about your company. Does it tell customers what they need to know? I can’t tell you how many sales calls I’ve taken where, when I research the company trying to pitch me, I can’t find any information written for me, the customer. 

Overhaul the pitch, the tagline, the summary and anything else to make sure you’re speaking to the right people (more on that later).

Mistake 2: Trying to create a new category

I know I say a lot of things will go on my tombstone but I think I really mean this one. Stop trying to create a new category. Or invent a new word. Do you really want to spend 80% of your precious pitch time explaining what it is you do?! Call it the thing that it is.

This is a hill I will die on. So just throw the tombstone up there. This is a conversation I have with clients nearly monthly. Here is the harshest truth I can deliver, my dear: you are not famous enough to invent a new thing. Your customers aren’t clever enough to know what you mean. If you were famous, you could call it whatever you want and everyone would still buy it. But you aren’t, and they won’t, so call it what it is.

One really notable example of this is a client we had last year who created an interactive learning documentary (the world’s first, in fact). It was hard to sell because no one knew what it was. We interviewed 10-15 people and asked them what they thought an interactive learning documentary was. Not one single person said ‘online course.’ Which is what it was. When we started calling it what customers called it, the page retested extremely well. 100% of the test group understood what they were buying (and found it super exciting).

Yes, you may be the most exceptional version of the boring thing everyone knows what to call. Yes, you may be in a ‘category all on your own.’ But would you rather call it what you want to call it, or would you rather sell it? (That’s what I thought.)

Mistake 3: Using your language and not the customers 

You’ve been talking about this company since it was just a twinkle in your eye. You’re even possibly tired of talking about it (your partner is definitely tired of hearing it). But customers are like one of those special groups that has their own vocabulary. Like vegans or crossfit people. It’s possible that you, as the founder, were your own customer when you built this company. 

But as you received coaching and input and grooming to become ‘investor-ready’, you became distanced from the customer side of things and transitioned to company leader. The product also went from hypothetical to very much alive, and I’m so sorry to say that these successes rendered you useless as a real customer. 

That means you're not able to represent “the people” anymore. Which means you need to find new people to run things by. It’s important to check the language with the customers themselves. Explain it the way they explain it. Use their words. 

We say (at P&Co) we “treat language like a product” and this is exactly how: we run usability studies to test the language in situ with target customers. It’s the only way to know for sure that you’ve eliminated any communication challenges that will prevent sales.  

Mistake 4: Ignoring the sales & buying experience 

Product people are focused on creating an amazing product experience. You may have an entire team dedicated to this and are most likely running usability tests and performance metrics on how quickly and easily people move through and interact with the product. Have you done the same for the actual sales experience? 

Beyond just the payment portal, think of all the touchpoints a potential customer engages with before they even become a customer. How do they receive information? How do they request more? Are there potential snags, hiccups or barriers that make it more difficult or unpleasant to become a customer or research becoming one? My recommendation would be to map this entire experience screen by screen (and touchpoint by touchpoint) to look for opportunities for unexpected delight—and if that’s too much, ways to make it ‘not suck.’

Run a usability test here as well (and look beyond the payroll for test users, please). 

Mistake 5: Selling to the wrong audience

Maybe you’re speaking the right language, but you’re speaking to the wrong set of people. This is something we’ve seen happen a few times, especially in circumstances where the customer is not the buyer—meaning the person who uses the product doesn't have purchasing power and needs buy-in from someone else. Or, as we found with one client this year, it’s possible your language alienates your target audience instead of welcomes them.

Here’s what we found. Our client, a product built for freelancers in their first two years of work, was reaching more later-stage freelancers with their messaging. These later-stage freelancers felt the product wasn’t advanced enough for their needs, and weren’t buying. Yet, this audience continued to engage through content and enter top of funnel.

After our research, we found the language to be the culprit (it usually is!): by using freelance industry terminology, early stage freelancers were intimidated and assumed the learning curve for the product would be too steep. They felt it wasn’t for them. 

By solving their communications challenges, we increased this company’s sales page conversion rate by nearly 1000%. Is it worth checking into your own communications to see what might be improved?

Dana Publicover

Dana is the founder of P&Co, the editor-in-chief of &ideas and a lifelong lover of reading & writing.

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