Silicon Valley’s Top Sales Influencer On How Atlantic Canada Can Succeed With Sales

Steli Efti speaking at Amplify Atlantic 2018. (Image: Ryan Williams from Atlantic Live Stream)

Like much of the rest of North America, Atlantic Canadian startups are struggling with sales. But one of Silicon Valley’s top sales influencer says businesses can up their game by changing their mindset and take what many view as its weaknesses and frame them into advantages.

Steli Efti, founder of Close.io was in Halifax last week to take part in Amplify Atlantic, an event that gives Atlantic Canadian companies the change to learn for the world’s top growth marketing experts. Efti also held an additional workshop the day after the event where he worked face-to-face with some of the region’s startups. He told Huddle he was “pleasantly surprised” at what he saw.

“I feel that the people that I’ve met are super passionate and truth-seeking, which is not always the case,” said Efti. “By my definition, that means these people want to know how to make their startups succeed, how to make these businesses work, more so than they want to protect their egos or pretend everything is going amazing, which sometimes can happen in different parts of the world when you go to startup events.”

Efti said he also noticed that many startups in Atlantic Canada had a focus on traditional industries, something you don’t often find in major startup centres like Silicon Valley.

“Some of these companies are working on really helping older industries, helping ‘real world’ versus being affected by buzzword bingo or trying to jump on the latest trend,” he said. “I found that some of the startups are really working on real problems even if they’re not glamorous.”

Yet, like many companies in North America, startups in the region are struggling with sales. The good news is that, at least based on the companies who attended Amplify, there’s an awareness around that and a willingness to learn and change.

“I have definitely seen an honest desire to learn more about sales,” said Efti. “There’s a general sense that ‘we are probably not the best salespeople in the world. We probably have to learn a lot more about selling, but that’s why we’re here. We’re willing to learn. We’re willing to grow and improve on this important topic.’”

Efti said the sales troubles Atlantic Canadian startups have are similar to those elsewhere. It usually comes down understanding the fundamentals, such as who your customer is.

“In the early days it’s truly deciding and understanding who is your ideal customer, or who isn’t, and who is your ideal customer today, versus tomorrow, versus a year from now and being very disciplined about that,” he said. “I think understanding that if you want to sell others about your solution, you need to be both what I call ‘friendly and strong.’ ”

It’s safe to say the Atlantic Canadians have the “friendly” part on lock. But it’s the being “strong” and sure of your offering part that they struggle with.

” ‘Friendly’ means we’re not just selfishly trying to rob customers of their money and bully people into giving us their money, but we really want to create value. We really want to offer solutions, we really want to make a positive difference,” said Efti.

“But at the same time, you need to come to the table from a position of strength, clarity and confidence. Because we can’t approach customers with a certain insecurity saying, ‘You know what? We’re such a tiny startup, we’ve only been doing this for a few months and we do think we might have something good but who knows?’ ”

That insecurity translates into weakness and people not trusting and feeling confident in the solutions your business is offering. This often leads to failure.

So how does a startup overcome this? Efti’s number one piece of advice is to sell yourself first on your value before you go out in the market and sell others.

“This is very fundamental human psychology. You need to find the reasons why you’re great and why you’re valuable. Both you as a person and you as a startup,” he said. “Understand that anything that you might look at as a disadvantage can also be an advantage.”

One of those big disadvantages often cited is location. Atlantic Canada is small and far away from the big metropolitan centres where both capital and potential customers are. There’s obviously challenges with that, but Efti says you also need to sell the positives, both to yourself and your customers.

“Instead of thinking, ‘we’re not as cool as the people in Silicon Valley’ or ‘We’re not raising as much money as the startups in Silicon Valley.’ Instead of thinking about your region as a weakness, think about it as a strength,” he said.

“Tell yourself, ‘we’re proud that we’re here because it means we’re less distracted by fads and buzzwords. We’re more committed to building real businesses for real customers. We have access to talent much more affordably and in much more committed ways … We can build real companies with amazing talent and do this with a long-term approach, instead of erratically trying to get to some unicorn outcome that 99.9 per cent of all startups will not get.’”

Once you sell yourself on your business and where you’re from, you’ve laid the groundwork for success.

“Sell yourself on all the benefits of that so you can go out there and talk to customers, talk to investors, talk to the press,” Efti said. “Learning to sell yourself first on all the things that are good about you will then help you go out there in the world and approach it from a point of strength and of confidence in a way that will then attract all the right people and all the right resources to really help you create a successful startup.”