How a First-Time Entrepreneur Wooed Corporate Clients in Year One
When you’re a first-time founder, there are a lot of daunting challenges that you might find very difficult to overcome. In most of these scenarios, you often have little credibility among customers and investors. Why should a huge corporation trust you to handle a service need? Why should an investor put money in your company even though you have very little operational experience?
These were some of the most pressing questions that CEO Alykhan Rehmatullah asked himself when he started Altru Labs, a company that helps both large and small businesses create personal connections with would-be candidates by sharing authentic and engaging employee-created videos. As a former associate at Goldman Sachs, Rehmatullah had experience working at a wildly successful company, but of course, that experience would be at a remove from building one of his own.
Now, Altru has more than 50 enterprise clients, over 90 percent of which are in the Fortune 1000. But not too long ago, Altru looked to close Unilever, its first client, before the platform was even finished. Recently, I had the chance to chat with Rehmatullah and pick his brain on how first-time founders can overcome the toughest hurdles they face in running their business. Here are the four key pieces of advice I took away from our time together.
1. Ask for advice and feedback.
After working at Goldman Sachs, Rehmatullah went to work at Wayup, a recruitment platform. When he left, he had an interest in recruiting and experience working at both a household name and a startup. Even so, he had no experience as an entrepreneur. When he started Altru, he understood that he had a lot to learn. The obvious solution was to ask for guidance, though he never anticipated that his openness to asking for help would be the key to landing Altru’s first big client.
Before the platform had even been completed, Rehmatullah says he reached out to Unilever to, as he puts it, “get advice on the solution [we were] building.” Despite only having a prototype and some wireframes, Unilever loved what they were doing, and would ultimately become one of the company’s first clients.
Though it is always good to find mentors and ask them for help, Rehmatullah’s experience shows that it can also be beneficial to connect with your prospective clients and ask for their feedback on what you’re building even while you’re building it. Very few founders (first-time or otherwise) do this, so by doing so, you’ll be able to showcase your customer empathy and attention to detail in a way that will make you stand out.
2. Be receptive to feedback.
Too many entrepreneurs miss market timing by trying far too long to perfect their product, rather than just releasing it. Oftentimes, it is impossible to truly know what a perfect product is without letting users test it out. When you’re looking to disrupt a space, it's particularly important to pay attention to feedback and weigh its believability. Being receptive and open to changing your practices based on input from early clients can allow you to make your platform better for those who come after.
Rehmatullah advocates keeping “potential clients updated on your progress,” and notes that by doing so, his team and co-founder were able to enhance Altru’s product through these short feedback loops.
3. Foster effective collaborations.
Because of the cutthroat competition associated with the startup ecosystem, it can be easy to forget that competing doesn’t mean you can’t work together with others. When there’s complementary value to be added on both sides, there’s no reason why you and other companies in the same industry can’t both gain a larger slice of the pie.
Rehmatullah tells me that in Altru’s first year of operation, teaming up with other players in the industry made all the difference. With a focus on providing complementary solutions, Altru integrated with career sites, CRMs and ATS players in the market. Of the decision, Rehmatullah notes that in the recruiting space, “Clients are starting to understand that they can no longer invest in one solution.”
If your goal is to optimize for creating the best experience for your clients, you might want to borrow some of other companies’s unique value propositions to do so (just like they would want to borrow some of yours). And by partnering with (rather than selling to) other reputable players in the market, you, as a first-time or less known founder, can also establish more of your own credibility when looking to close deals.
4. Leverage deep customer empathy.
Though seasoned entrepreneurs can often outclass first-time entrepreneurs on operational experience and anything contingent upon connections, every founder has the ability to embody a strong sense of customer empathy. Every company can say they care a lot about their users, but few walk the walk. When companies actually do, they find creative ways to navigate their challenges and prioritize their customers’s experiences, not just their financial bottom line.
Rehmatullah told me that he believes “caring about the person on the other side” shaped his attitude and ensured he runs Altru in a way that distinguishes it from many of its competitors. After all, recruiting is a “people’s business,” he reminds, and how pointless would it be to not care about the people you’re looking to onboard?
But having deep customer empathy goes far beyond the scope of recruiting. Even from a financial standpoint, you cannot expect to run a sustainable company without your customers. So if you're thinking about how you can sell better to your customers instead of empathizing with their struggles and figuring out how to solve them, that will be yet another operational hurdle.