Top Tips For Startups to Close the First Customer and Master Sales

By Tom Walker, CEO of Rev1Ventures (parent organization of ACA member group Ohio TechAngel Funds)

As every entrepreneur knows, it’s not enough to have a good product—you must also have customers who want it.  In fact, more than four in 10 startups say a lack of market for their product was the reason their company failed, according to a study by CB Insights.

While inking the first deal can be one of the most challenging, gratifying, and defining experiences for a new company, it’s importance is too often minimized during initial first phases of development, compromising future opportunities and even causing avoidable difficulties when the customer relationship and terms aren’t set out right at the start. Having invested in hundreds of early-stage companies, I wish more of them had had more ready opportunities to learn the best ways to approach first customers. That’s why the Rev1 team is sharing its top advice for selling, so that more startups can benefit from this unique approach to closing the first customer and beyond. 

As Greg Pugh, SVP of Customer Acquisition for Rev1 Venture, says, “Sales is all about closing deals, and that’s what really matters in the first years of a startup’s life. In order to be successful, entrepreneurs must believe that in a startup, everyone sells—including the founder. By building selling into the culture of the company from the start, closing the first customer will be easier, and closing the next customer will be second nature.”

Rev1 has used its expertise to help portfolio companies, such as Clarivoy. CEO Steve White says, “Rev1’s First Connect network was an important component of our early success. The program helped us build the foundation to help us scale, including how best to sell. Rev1’s relationships and market insights enabled us to win our first national customer in a relatively short amount of time. That business led to more opportunities with other prospects in the market, and proved we were ready for prime time.” 

My first tip? Never take any meeting with a potential customer for granted. Do your homework. When you’re working on your company’s first sales, you may spend a week studying the customer and the competition just to prepare for a 30-minute call. Over time, your customer and industry knowledge will build, but problem solving and preparation, those will always be the keys to successful sales. Here are some other great tips from our team:

  • Be bold and ask obligating questions of your prospects in order to understand their intentions and your opportunity for working with them and growing with them. It also helps you identify the early adopters – the visionaries and technology enthusiasts. Those are the customers who take a risk when no one else will. They help you make your product what it needs to be. They give you credibility, and often times, they become your friends.  (SVP of Customer Acquisition Greg Pugh)

  • It’s when you really understand your customer’s business that you can sell to them. They will trust you because you demonstrate that you actually recognize that their business is more than the problem that you are trying to solve. When you put it in terms of how your product makes their relationship to their customers better, that will secure them to you as a customer.  (EVP of Investments & Venture Acceleration Wayne Embree)

  • Look for prospective first customers who have a track record of doing business with early-stage companies.  Ask someone who knows you personally to introduce you to someone she or he knows personally at the prospect company.  That removes some of the uncertainty the prospect might feel at doing business with a young company led by an entrepreneur whom they’ve never met. (Managing Director of Ohio TechAngel Funds Parker MacDonell)

  • Your first customer is extra important because you’ll need them as a reference to land your second and third customer. So it’s critical your product or service can provide the value required to ensure they come away from the process as an active advocate for your work. (Chief Marketing Officer Kristy Campbell)

Rev 1 has helped make Ohio a growing hub of startup activity. CB Insights recently named Rev1 Ventures as the most active Venture Capital firm in the state of Ohio. In 2015 alone, Rev1 attracted nearly $100MM in capital to the region. Its portfolio generated $162MM in revenue and created nearly 300 new jobs just last year. For more insights from Rev1 Ventures, visit


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