The following are notes from a Shuttleworth Foundation Virtual Gathering held on 22 April 2020, thanks to all who participated and shared their advice and experience! In line with the Chatham House rules of the Gathering, I have included some non-attributed quotes below as well as a summary of the discussion and written input from the collaborative notes.

Problem Statement: I have recently set up a not-for-profit company in the UK (Beneficial Bio Ltd) with a social franchising model, we are partnering with a startup in Cameroon to sell molecular biology chemicals and tools to local researchers. We're selling a mixture of imported and locally manufactured goods, trying to move more to the latter over time. We are all from academic/research backgrounds with limited sales and marketing experience so we're learning!

The positives currently are:

  • we know our customers because we are them!
  • we have a good idea how to get onto university supplier lists and the other administrative things we need to start selling
  • we have stock arriving soon
  • we have basic marketing materials e.g. brochures and a webpage ready to go

I have the usual founder worries that we won't sell enough to make a profit (which would not be a killer in the very short term while we are gaining recognition but we have to ramp up quickly) and that our projections are too optimistic and so I won't rest until we have sales data. We need to make sales and construct a sales strategy - tell me what has worked for you and who has been your sales person!

Note: I know sales and marketing are different (typically marketing is the process of getting people interested in the goods and services being sold and sales is when you’re "face-to-face" with a customer, convincing a person to buy your product) but I'm OK that we mix the terms in this session as they're part of the same pipeline so don't feel constrained.

Q1: What are your top tactics for selling that have worked for you in the past?

1. Target your marketing, particularly if time and funds are tight as this will get you higher value prospects

  • Focus your marketing costs on advertising in online/published areas dedicated to the target audience
  • Take a look at what your competitors are doing - check out their marketing strategies and see if you have something different to offer or offer enhancements
  • Focus in on one pain point as much as possible for each of the products
  • Ask for referrals - this is the ultimate targeted marketing  and you could add financial benefit for the referrer. There are online systems to do this with minimal overhead e.g. Refersion.

2. Keep your online presence fresh and responsive

  • Don't 'set and forget' your website - update as information rolls in from salespeople. It should look very different in 6 months.
  • Think about ways of engagement that are lightweight but help you manage customer queries e.g. chatbot systems are getting a lot better.

3. Get your pipeline set up - it’s all about a good process

  • Begin thinking very early on about marketing as the first half of the process - queue them up for the salesperson to follow up.
  • Build lists - capture contact information as early as possible in the sales process

4. Build alliances - think about organisations that complement your offering, use the same marketing approaches or share values and could join forces

  • Are you making values-based sales? This can be common in the social enterprise/not-for-profit space so think creatively in terms of who you share a market with and could collaborate on marketing and distribution.
  • Some participants felt that their organisations struggled because they didn’t build alliances with others operating their own independent stores.
  • Collective broader reach through linking open, might get past the comparative disadvantage of the larger distributors.
  • Could enable targeted bulk buys for specific products that are more expensive, this could also be a sales strategy for customers e.g. GroupGets.

5. If your customers might want to identify with your organisations, feel like they are joining a community or could get on-going value/services/perks, strongly consider offering subscriptions and membership models

  • Subscription services have the virtue of creating a predictable income stream
  • Repeat customers are the best customers
  • From a branding perspective in that being a subscriber gives a sense of identity and, if done well, even community
  • Subscription + form of membership (i.e. a type of community of practice/research created around these products and the expertise behind them) could be a USP that other competitors don't have.

6. Consider after-sales strategies early

  • This is very important to get good reviews and repeat custom, particularly in the tech market.
  • Set up appropriate customer support based on your market research e.g. Twitter is a good place in some countries, Telegram or WhatsApp in others.

Q2: Who in your organisation does the selling and why?

1. Find people with experience, particularly if there is little already in your organisation already.

  • Most important lesson we have learned from >7 years of selling in the academic sector) is: go find someone who currently sells for a traditional competitor but is unhappy there (probably for all the reasons you're unhappy with the current system) and hire them away. They know all the tips, tricks, and processes for selling. They can bring all that expertise to your org overnight.
  • Consider shared values, otherwise this will introduce another set of tensions, particularly if they are moving from for-profit to social-enterprise space.
  • When you are getting started, find people who are used to selling new products, this is different to selling a long established product range and may need a different mindset.
  • Sales is a unique skill. “One of my biggest insights was recognising what a terrible salesperson I am”.

2. Recognise that marketing and sales are specific roles and may require thinking through your organisational chart

  • Don’t try to hire a unicorn! “For years we tried to make one staff position that had technical expertise to troubleshoot and do sales but linking technical + sales didn't work (we went through several individuals and it just wasn't an easy fit). So I'd consider splitting apart the different needs and not try to fit them into one person. E.g. if you have a communications staff member they might be the person responsible for creative advertising, general comms outreach, etc (with support from the sales and tech team)”.
  • Consider pairing up complementary team members. “We've found creating pairs for complex roles work nicely (each could be part time if resources don't permit, where one does the sales and the other the tech trouble-shooting, but work well together).”
  • Consider having a product manager and a sales specialist as separate roles.

3. Understand sales compensation and targets - this might be different to management and remuneration for the rest of your team.

  • Anyone who's serious about sales will expect to have a variable compensation setup. That means they have a low base salary, and the rest of their salary is a percentage of what they sell. This gives you lower fixed cost in your budget and gives them incentive to sell more.
  • Sales people need specific sales targets and should be measured against and held accountable to them.

Deeper Discussion - what kind of organisation are you and how will that influence your strategy?

A bigger point emerged about understanding what kind of organisation we are and what we think of ourselves as being. Are we a business or a non-profit? “The way you approach operations is quite different based on what you think you are. If you're a business, your willingness to pivot is significant, but if a non-profit, your willingness to pivot (for profit) is very low. It's difficult to reconcile those tensions.

However, there are some commonalities “while you won't pivot from your mission - the problem you're trying to solve - you will likely pivot radically in your approach to solving the problem. Your first best guess about how to solve the problem likely won't be correct.

Beneficial Bio is a not-for-profit supporting other entities, including a for-profit organisation in Cameroon, which operates as a mission-driven but also profit-driven organisation and will constantly have to tread the boundaries of that potentia dichotomy. Being a non-profit does not excuse not making sales if that is your revenue stream, as one founder put it “my non-profit lives or dies based on how much money I bring in”. You can have an organisation that has mission and profit combined and there are initiatives like B-Corps and other social entrepreneurship models to draw on. Ashoka was specifically mentioned as a good place to look for resources and references.

Beneficial Bio is experimenting with a social franchise model, which operates like a commercial franchise but with social good aims. See Spring Impact and Social Enterprise UK for a starting point on further information about that model.

We’ll be putting to use the advice above in developing our overall strategy and especially the sales strategy and tactics.

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