How to Sell in an Open-Source Economy
Saad Ahmed, Former Senior Digital Strategist
One of the reasons why I love our industry is because everything is shared. Code, designs, projects, tips and tricks -- there are no secrets, it seems -- except when it comes to sales. Joe Rinaldi from Happy Cog wrote a great blog post on how sales is about the only topic in the development and design community that doesn’t receive the transparency that design process, development methodologies, and well, source code receives.
I agree, and I want to help change that. First off, the basics. At Viget, along with our CEO, I'm tasked with keeping our talented team of designers, developers, web marketers, and project managers happy and challenged by bringing in new clients and projects.
The first questions I am always asked are “How do you even get in touch with people who want to hire Viget? How do people hear about Viget in the first place?”
In other words, where do “leads” come from?
The answer is quite simple.
Sharing knowledge, building relationships through teaching, and focusing on client success are three key components of our marketing strategy. These build and bolster our reputation and, ultimately, generate inbound referrals.
Share Your Knowledge
Sharing knowledge is a vital aspect of the open source culture, and that’s why we blog often. The most surprising thing about this strategy is how unpredictable it can be (in a good way). Before I came to Viget, I knew that blogging was something “good to do,” but after three years of seeing the amazing results of content marketing, I understand why it is our primary marketing strategy. What’s different, though, is our primary focus on sharing our knowledge and experience with our fellow web developers, designers, and marketers instead of catering to the C-suite.
As a result, over time our peers get to know our culture and capabilities and tend to hire us to help with challenging projects we're well-suited for. In fact, one blog post directly led to a Fortune 10 organization contacting us and eventually hiring us because we blogged about a solution to a problem they were working on.
The other advantage of targeting our blog content to our peers is that it doubles as our primary indirect recruiting platform as well.
Build Strong Relationships Through Teaching
Through our blogging efforts, we also get a fair share of leads that just don’t make sense for Viget, whether because of a technology mismatch (we don’t do .NET development, for instance), client type (though we’re headquartered in DC, we almost never take on government projects), or low budget, among other reasons.
Regardless, we treat all opportunities with the same level of respect and consideration, from a small startup with a limited budget to the VP of eCommerce who has millions to spend. When I’m talking with someone whose business opportunity isn’t a great fit, my goal is for that person to walk away with something learned or gained. Aside from my natural desire to teach and impart knowledge, I know that helping someone now will eventually pay off somehow, some way
Sometimes those payoffs include referrals to a multi-billion dollar company, as was the case when we spent time talking with an underfunded startup company. They were appreciative of Viget’s help, and they vowed to hire us when they were ready. Three months later, the startup CTO remembered us and referred Viget to his friend at the company.
Other times, our help results in a warm “thank you” note and a Starbucks gift card, which we received from a small business owner with whom we shared vendor evaluation and selection tips. I still hold onto the note to remind myself that I’m more than a salesperson -- I’m a steward guiding folks to the right solution, whether it’s with my company or elsewhere.
Focus on Client Success
Once we gain new clients, we focus on producing great work, avoiding bloat, and building real, lasting, individual, relationships. Then, when our clients win awards, generate more revenue, or get promoted, they continue to work with us as their go-to agency. When satisfied clients speak at conferences and expand their own personal networks, we benefit because they refer us new business. They refer us not because we have a big expense account (we don't) or because we'll treat them differently (we won't) but because they know we'll treat the next client the way they were treated from the start. At the end of the day, the best advertisement for your work is your client’s success.
Always Be Authentic
Finally, it’s a mistake when salespeople go out of their way to do things very differently for “big fish” prospects. Whether a “big fish” or a small business, my approach is the same: treat people well, be willing to teach, and ask the difficult questions that will help them find the right outcome -- whatever it may be. This mentality helps keep me level-headed even though hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars may be at stake.
No matter how you do it, generating new business is hard work. With a long-term view, you can build a great book of business, a good reputation, and a strong culture with people who want to work with you. By applying the principles of generosity, respect, and authenticity espoused by the open source community, you can create demand for your product or services, plant seeds, lay the groundwork for referrals, and trust that your generosity will eventually work in your favor.