Building your first growth channel outside of word of mouth/your network is one of the most complex parts of the startup journey. Two key factors determine how easy that first channel will be to set up: ‘How much does the market need what you sell?’ and ‘How are you positioned against everyone else in your market?’.
I’ll focus this post on positioning first. Then we’ll talk about how to leverage your positioning to build a sales forecast for your agency. Why start here? Investing in marketing resources and marketing efforts where your message is, “We do X, just like everyone else!” will not be a good use of your hard-earned cash. Trust me, we’ve seen hundreds of service companies build SDR/Sales teams that they never break even on.
Agencies require considerably less capital than building a software product to get off the ground. This is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it’s easier for you to get to your revenue goals immediately. On the other hand, there’s less of a moat preventing anyone from starting the same business. If anyone can throw up a website and say they do exactly what you do, how can you position yourself against them?
As a services business, you have two options to position yourself against your competitors:
A differentiated business model that would cost your competitors to lose money if they tried to copy you (Counter Positioning).
A smaller and more focused niche (Branding).
These two ideas are from Hamilton Helmer’s book 'The 7 Powers'. I highly recommend picking up a copy if you haven't read it.
This power relies on differentiating your business model to the point where your competition can’t afford to replicate it. Think Netflix’s DVD-by-mail business compared to Blockbuster. Blockbuster certainly could have offered DVDs by mail, but doing so would have lost more money in the short run than they would have made. When Toptal first launched its talent platform, it had a new business model counter-positioned against recruiters and outsourced development shops. Their metrics from outbound were a factor of 5, better than any of their competitors.
Life is much better when you’re a big fish in a small pond. Positioning your company to service a smaller niche means adapting your business to the unique needs of a smaller segment of a broader industry. A successful example is a whiteboard video company repositioning itself from a general digital marketing tool to medical explainer videos. Suddenly, they went from campaigns that could hardly get replies to ones that were consistently filling up their AEs' calendars. This repositioning of their business was so successful that the company created a separate brand focused on servicing that specific niche in the market.
Why spend so much time discussing branding and business models in a post about building a pipeline? A solid offer to a well-defined market is critical in any go-to-market campaign. Some call this product-market fit, positioning, or nailing your niche. Whatever you call it, solving new or old problems in new ways is the best way to give your team the best chance of getting a positive result from your go-to-market efforts.
Now that you have your positioning, what comes next? Here are the steps:
Build out your total addressable market (TAM).
Do the sales math (how does it make sense to invest to convert one customer)
Choose your style (do I want to optimize for efficiency or effectiveness).
Look for signals/intent data in the market (are there any externally facing signals that would imply that an account is more likely to be a good fit right now).
Create your messaging/sequences (write your messaging to speak to what makes you unique for the particular niche you’re reaching out to).
Build Out Your TAM
Step one is identifying the total number of accounts and contacts that represent your market. We’re not just looking for the top-down “the market is this big” kind of data. We are looking for counts of accounts and contacts. Your best approach is to identify all possible accounts using multiple data sources. We usually shoot for LinkedIn + one business data provider (like Apollo.io). The number of reachable accounts and contacts will flow into your outbound sales math equation (next step) and ultimately decide your B2B sales development style choice.
Outbound Sales Math
Step two is working out the profitability of the program. The first year will be the worst year, so we advise companies on calculating profitability on the year 2 and beyond stats. Here’s a sample worksheet that you can play with. It assumes a 90-day ramp to productivity for Sales Reps which might be fast for a new program at a new company. It also assumes a 30-day sequence to booked period which represents the time it takes a potential customer to go from being added to one of your sequences to booking a meeting.
One last thing to note is that most companies do worse in the first year while running into random roadblocks and significantly better in the second year after they’ve worked through them all. It’s common during this period of working out roadblocks that sales leaders assume that difficulty now means difficulty forever. This is not how it goes. The first months are the worst, so be prepared to persevere when obstacles arise.
Remember that a ramped SDR team scales significantly from a cost perspective than most ad-driven demand generation channels at the end of the day. An SDR team also provides a great talent pool from which to hire.
Choose Your B2B Sales Funnel Style
Before you start writing your messaging or creating sequences, you need to make an optimization choice between efficiency (volume approach) and effectiveness (personalized approach). These are the bookends of the spectrum, and there are many steps in between that are a combination of the two. The size of your market and the cost of your product will factor heavily into which style will be most appropriate. Here are some rough guideposts:
Large market / low-cost product-volume approach
Small market / high-cost product - personalized approach
With a large market and a low-cost product, your best bet is to invest as little time into each prospect as possible to get a meeting. Large markets are best suited to a volume email approach because you can skim the most interested potential buyers off the top with an un-personalized email marketing sequence. Just send more sales emails applies here. Your overall conversion rates will be lower, but your total output will improve.
With a smaller market and a higher-cost product, your best bet is investing more time per potential customer because you don’t want to burn through the list of prospects too quickly. A high-volume email marketing campaign would work, but it might only last 1-3 months. Then what? Instead, we recommend personalizing the approach at the personal or account level. This means researching and writing personalizations by hand for each person or account you come across.
Look for signals
Sometimes the best list of target accounts you can work on is just a bunch of names and nothing fancy. Other times, you can identify a few externally facing factors that indicate an account is more or less likely to buy. I’ll give you a few examples I’ve seen, but these will vary widely based on the problem you help companies solve. Here are a few ideas:
Hiring activity - are they attempting to hire, or have they recently hired a related job title
Organizational structure - do they have a specific type of role or a certain number of job titles that indicate your problem space might be more of a priority
Public filings/social/blog content - have they posted content that mentions a related keyword or phrase?
Many of these can be researched by hand and then automated with powerful tools like Clay. I’ve built a whole library of enrichments/signals, so feel free to contact me on LinkedIn if this interests you.
Create your sequence
The job of our sequence messaging is to write/say the fewest words we can and still book the meeting. The sequence structure (calls/emails/etc.) and level of personalization will be dictated by your style. If you could find a trigger or signal, the messaging should introduce it. If not, a great way to start is a short sequence where we introduce the pain/job to be done that our premium solution solves and ask if it’s relevant to the prospect.
The length of the sequence (number of emails/calls) is usually dictated by how confident you are that this market/persona is the right one to target. If you’re exploring early, I recommend using 2 or 3 very lightweight/relevance-based emails. If you have many customers in this exact market, then it’s okay to go a little longer and make more assumptions with your messaging.
Building a predictable agency sales pipeline is not just about aggressive marketing assets or hard sales goals. It's about strategically positioning your agency, understanding your market, and tailoring your approach to meet the unique demands of your target audience. The journey from identifying your TAM to crafting effective sequences is a blend of art and science, requiring a deep understanding of your market and unique strengths.
Ultimately, the key to success lies in persistence and adaptability. As you navigate through the initial challenges and fine-tune your sales strategies, you'll discover that the effort to create a well-defined, efficient pipeline will pay dividends.