From the November 2001 issue of Startups

"When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it." --Henry Ford

Selling is the small business's dirty little secret. Everyone knows they sell something, but no one wants to do it. If you came from an existing sales position, you are no longer supported by an existing brand and large marketing and public relations support. Even if you are building your business based on a personal skill or passion, you may not have the skills or experience to actually persuade another individual to give you money for your product or service.

So before you leave the comfort of the hanger and take off for your dream business, there is one thing I urge you to consider: How much runway do you have to get your business off the ground? More important, how much of a "sales runway" do you have, and how fast do you need to go before you can actually take off?

As evidenced by the "dotbomb" implosion, getting airborne hinges on the speed you can achieve on your sales runway. Money buys you a long runway. A good product buys you a smooth one. If you're lucky enough to have both a long and smooth sales runway, you're ahead of the game, but it still doesn't guarantee your business taking off. In my case, the first small-business sales runway I was on was long but full of potholes. We secured VC funding and reference accounts but no real product or customers. The second was short but smooth. We built a product that worked and had lots of paying customers--but not enough of them before we ran out of money. In both instances, the business never got off the ground.

The best way to get up to speed quickly is to make mistakes early. You have to learn the hard way: by doing, making mistakes and redoing. It's your ability to fail and fail quickly that lets you make the best use of your runway. The faster you can learn how not to sell your product, service or solution, the greater your chances for reaching takeoff speed before your runway ends or it's too rough to continue.

To manage your sales runway, start by keeping these points in mind:

  • Make sure you're on the right runway! What is it that you're actually selling? Are you absolutely positive about what it is the customer is getting when they do business with you? Do you know what's in it for them and why they would do business with you?
  • Changing the length of the runway doesn't mean you get to take off. It just means you get to taxi for a longer period of time. Getting financing may buy you more time, but you still have to find out how to get customers to pay a fair and sustainable price for what you're providing. Consistently repeating a learned sales process creates momentum and builds speed.
  • Having a perfectly smooth runway isn't required for takeoff. The runway will never be absolutely smooth, and competitors will always seem to have better runways. (Microsoft's runway in the early days wasn't in the best shape, and arguably still isn't.) Begin where you are with what you have, and start making your way to the end of the tarmac. Focus on selling what you have today to those that will buy it, and build up as much speed as you can.
  • At all times, know where you are and how fast you are going. Refining what works for you and your business is what's needed here. It's your unique sales process and sales cycle that must be refined over time. Repeat what works; change what doesn't. Track your success and your failures, and adjust your approach.

As you begin to sell, remember, the cold calls never go that easy, and the customers are rarely busting your door down throwing money at you. The sales that you do make aren't cookie-cutter perfect. The presentation you plan never goes perfectly. The customer always has objections. The specifications of your product and service are never exactly what was needed, and no one pays on time. This kind of firsthand knowledge only comes from doing. The need to get up to speed by making sales is the reality for small and homebased business. This is real-life selling.


James Maduk is one of North America's leading sales speakers. He is the creator and publisher of more than 80 streaming sales training courses and has just released his latest book, When Salespeople Learn to Dance. You can reach James at (613) 825-0651 or view his Web site at www.jamesmaduk.com.