I have a great idea, but I'm not great at marketing or sales. How do I approach this?

I'm a programmer by profession, and I've come up with an idea for a product that I think will do well on the market. The problem is, whilst I'm not shy or anything, I'm not a salesperson either.

I don't feel that I have the skill or ability to market things well, but I'm not sure that my budget will stretch to a full time marketing executive. What are my options, beyond reading up in sales and marketing tactics myself?

There are 2 steps:

  • Step One: Start engaging with a nearby startup incubator. They will help you with the fundamentals and often help with investor and customer introductions. You don't need to apply yet. I'd recommend emailing/calling them and asking to drop in. Or, going to their events.

  • Step Two: Start looking for a partner who is interested in managing the business side.

This should be someone you have known for a long time, who has a passion for business. They might be a programmer who is interested in the business end. They must be someone you feel comfortable with.

There are a few reason:

  • History: There are far more success stories from partnerships than from single founders. Think Apple, Microsoft, Twitter.
  • A startup is tons of work. Tons. Fundraising alone can be a full time job until you close a round. Unless the plan is to take years to launch, you need someone to manage the load.
  • Even in terms of programming, you will need to focus 100% on that. Programming is an insanely time consuming task.
  • Incubators: Due to failure and success statistics, most top incubators like YCombinator and TechStars generally do not consider single founder companies.

In terms of protecting your idea: I am not a lawyer, so please confirm these facts yourself. Laws change all the time. But so far as I know, you have 1 year to patent an idea in the USA after public disclosure. I personally know many founders of multimillion dollar companies who either did not patent until they raised money, never patented, or wasted money on a patent that was not used or strong enough to enforce. Patent enforcement is a whole subject on itself and you can search here for more on it. Personally, I would wait until I had momentum to patent. A lot of people new to business lose tons of money on patents. I made this mistake myself. Lawyers will paint scary pictures. I'd speak to someone at an incubator about your concerns before spending tons of money on patents right away. If you feel you must patent, I would get a provisional patent first which protects you for a short period of time while you develop the idea.

You can find incubators and like minded people on angel.co. Meetup.com is also a great place to find events for startups. Sometimes people there can make introductions.

There's much more to a startup than idea and sales. Like Matthew pointed out, you will likely find people who will help you out in exchange for equity. Beyond that, there's an important startup mantra to remember summarized brilliantly in this Quora post:

An idea is not a design

A design is not a prototype

A prototype is not a program

A program is not a product

A product is not a business

A business is not profits

Profits are not an exit

And an exit is not happiness.

I other words, worrying about sales at this point may be a bit premature.

The absolute first thing you should do is protect your intellectual property. Speak with an attorney (or patent agent, even) about even just getting a provisional to get yourself started.

Beyond that, you can just start talking to people. For a lot of startups, you might be able to find a part-time professional to work for you for equity (a percentage ownership in the company), and that'll be enough to build up the business so you have cash-flow to pay someone full-time. Just make sure you're up front about what you expect of the person and what you can give them (equity, as I said). People are excited, especially these days, about start-ups because we've all seen superpowers like Facebook spark up out of thin air, so I'm sure you could find someone willing to spare some free time here or there as an investment, especially if your idea is good enough.

But again, I can't stress enough, make sure you have your IP covered if you're disclosing your ideas to people.

You might look for a co-founder that can compliment your technical skills. For example, check out CoFounders Lab.

The thread of answers is really good and stressing important points. I would suggest to answer a few questions, before engaging any option:

  • Who is your target audience?
  • How "easy" is it to reproduce your technology?

The answers may give some insight on the next steps. Here are some ideas assuming you are offering a piece of software or online service.

Who is your target audience?

If the idea serves individuals (B2C), sales can first be purely technical. An informative web-site together with Facebook / Twitter / banners / blog / newsletter may well be enough to take off. This is relatively slow procedure in my experience, but easy to setup by techies, affordable, and under full control (stop anytime, optimize, etc). The question of support rises then!

If the idea targets businesses (B2B), I distinguish two cases, roughly small/medium customers and large customers. Small & medium-sized customers can be reached with the same approach as B2C. There are many examples in this category: most online service providers work that way, such as Github, Atlassian, New Relic, etc (and some of them add a sales team as well, usually later on in their life).

Large companies usually require a dedicated sales person, because they demand attention (not that others do not require attention---large companies in my experience just demand availability).

Note that the target country matters too. I live in Japan, and most customers (from individuals to large companies) here require quite some attention. Sales become quickly necessary in this culture.

How "easy" is it to reproduce your technology?

If it is relatively easy, it will happen, and probably fast when the idea is good. In this case, speed is really of the essence, and a dedicated sales person / team can alleviate your load and let you focus on technology and support. It may be worth waiting for the market to measurably expand, before hiring anyone, though---a partnership is better.

If the technology is really advanced or really different (e.g. addressing a problem people are not aware of), the first question is then more important.

A reminder: Sales take time and require specific skills. So if the technology requires constant, full-time care (e.g. an online service), delegating sales may be the best option. I would then follow SilentSteel's suggestions.

And a final note: "More organizations die of indigestion than starvation" --- David Packard. I consider this citation from the co-founder of HP, each time I consider adding someone to my team (whether or not I make the final decision), even if we are just starting up and the team is 1.

You can also look for online collaborators through services like freelancer.com, guru.com, etc to help to complete parts of your business that you need. These services are covered by a Non-Disclosure Agreement between the buyer and the service provider.

If you are looking for tips and ideas for engaging these services, please ask another question on the site and we can address it as well.

You have a million dollar idea and you have already planned what to do, when you become a rock star entrepreneur whose story inspires a million others. But there is a small problem – there are tens of thousands budding entrepreneurs who think quite the same way as you do and have their own million dollar ideas! Nonetheless selling your ‘million dollar idea’ isn’t going to be a cakewalk and you will have to break loose from the crowd of young entrepreneurs and create your own separate space. The moment you differentiate yourself from others you gain a much needed competitive edge.

If you were to ask seasoned investors what they look for most in an idea, the reply would invariably be a Team and the Execution with a capital T & E! An average idea (if we have the liberty to call it so) can be turned into a great business with proper execution while a great idea can bite dust if there is no proper execution plan. The moment you have launched your product or have started looking for investment, the ‘idea’ is then a mere starting point for the business. Now you need to solely focus on execution of the idea and start looking for solutions to all challenges that you are likely to come across. So here is how you can go about executing your idea –

The Initial Preparation

Is There Something Similar In The Market?

Before patting your own back and your genius idea you need to figure out if there is something similar in the market? A lot of StartUps’ have heartbreaks when their potential investor makes them aware of the similar idea and this also makes you appear like an idiot. You need to look beyond your vicinity for similar ideas. This doesn’t mean that you can’t work on something that is already there if you have an idea that offers more incentives than what is existing in the market.

Is There A Market For The Idea?

An idea is as good as the revenue it would be able to generate. Let’s say you have conceptualised sending people to space and plan to charge $100k for a trip from your clients, do you have the market for it? Will you be able to grow your market in the future? You will have to take note of the local factors that dictate your target market. A $100k space ticket may find few takers in the developed world but not so easily in the developing countries. Irrespective of how good your idea is it should have a decent market to be explored.

Do I Have a Viable Business Plan?

Have you developed a viable business plan for your idea? No, we aren’t talking about nicely prepared PPT, Spreadsheets and Word Files but something that defines the trajectory of your business. How do you plan to launch your products or service? How do you plan to price it? How will you acquire new customers? How would you retain your customers after the honeymoon is over? You need to know all these before you meet a potential investor who would ask you the trickiest of questions that actually matter more than the idea.

The Funding Stage

Get The Facts & Figures Right

Your rich uncle or a friend may be willing to invest money on your idea but before you reach the next stage of Angel or VC funding you should get your facts and figures right. What they would look for is the practicality of your idea, the intellectual property behind it, the size of the market, demand such an idea and if the timing is right. Investors also take note of the competence of management and the team. They won’t necessarily see your idea on paper as a ‘million dollar idea’ like you do but will judge it purely on the ROI perspective.

Team & Commitment

Do you have an enthusiastic and well-groomed team who share the same vision as you do? If you don’t have the right team or no team at all you aren’t likely to attract investments. You may be a genius in your own right and have the most impressive CV, but that’s not enough. You can neither run the show all by yourself nor can pull off something spectacular even if you micromanage every aspect of your business. So even before you look for large-scale funding you need to build a team where the top management complements each other. Strike the perfect balance between youthful energy and experience.

Show Them The Dream

Going by the trends in the startup ecosystem you won’t be able to raise huge sums at the idea stage as most Angels and VCs would like to have a look at your products, service offerings or at least a prototype that you may have designed to show them the potentiality of the idea. This is one stage where you will have to sell them the dream that you are living. You need to demonstrate your uniqueness, the potential of profitability, scalability and also the fact that you have made the right moves in every aspect so far. Angels and VCs won’t babysit you and they expect you to be rational in managing your business and most importantly have your feet on the accelerator pedal.

To sum up there are thousands of million dollar ideas taking shape in the minds of entrepreneurs. But to encash the idea and earn your millions you will need to approach it strategically, and even more importantly, methodically.

Hope these key points will help you. Good luck for your startup.