ICPs: The important first step in a founder’s sales strategy

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As a founder, you can’t develop a sales strategy until you are absolutely clear on what type of business you want to create. Is it a lifestyle business, an ambitious startup aiming for fast growth, or a profitable solo project? 

You need to be clear on this from the outset as it will shape your whole strategy, including your sales methods. Not every company is right for VC funding, so it’s essential to match your objectives with the approach that fits your vision. 

And once your business model is clear, your next step needs to be to identify your ideal customer profiles.

Detailing your Ideal Customer Profiles (ICP)

The goal isn’t to attract just any customers; it’s to attract the ideal ones for your product and your business. 

Building a sustainable sales process requires identifying the segment of customers who consistently purchase your product for the same motivations and use it in a similar way. This is where having a precisely defined ICP is so valuable.

To do this, take the time to analyse and interview some of your early adopters. Really dig into why they selected your offering, what benefits they’ve seen from using it, and learn how they are utilising it. 

That insight becomes the basis for creating a persuasive sales approach and messaging that strongly resonates with your intended audience.

The art of defining characteristics

The qualities and characteristics of your ideal customers will obviously vary slightly but you should be looking to define them by company size, industry, location, annual revenue, and budget. The more granular and specific you can get in defining your ICP, the better. 

Early on, segment and analyse your data to find patterns and then adjust your approach accordingly. For example, your messaging might connect well with HR directors in companies with 1,000 to 5,000 employees in the UK, but not work for smaller businesses in Europe. Understanding who your audience is and what resonates with them is key. 

Challenges in defining an ICP

For early stage businesses, defining your ICPs is an evolving process and and I often speak to companies that are pre-Series A who are still fine-tuning their ICPs. However, from working with founders across SaaS, it’s clear to see that those who invest the time and effort in understanding their ideal customers, even before having a fully-fledged sales team, are much better positioned for success.

Importance of interviews and adaptability

Interviewing potential customers, including those who aren’t yet customers, is a valuable exercise. These “friendly friendlies,” as I like to call them, yield insights that can guide product development and refine your ICP. 

A real-world example is how we, at Cosmic Partners, discovered a gap in the recruitment industry by conducting interviews with founders and sales leads who shared their negative experiences. These insights helped us shape our business and provide a new solution to the SaaS businesses. 

Evolving ICPs and staying focused

ICPs can evolve, especially in the early days, but once you achieve repeatability — where a substantial number of customers buy for the same reasons and use the product in the same way — it’s time to hone in and double down. 

This doesn’t mean abandoning flexibility altogether; we see lots of SaaS businesses introduce new features that open up new markets for example. But that’s only possible through effective discovery and being genuinely curious at every interaction to identify other opportunities that could be used to develop use cases for the product team to create a new feature or function that can help drive revenue growth.

Transitioning from building to selling

Shifting from building a product to promoting it poses challenges, especially for founders with technical backgrounds. However, just as architects meticulously plan before construction, founders must thoroughly understand their ideal customer profile (ICP) before beginning sales. 

Otherwise, and I see this all the time, you can end up becoming an order taker for scattered customer requests.

The process of defining your business identity, crafting a compelling ICP, and transitioning to effective selling isn’t easy. It requires resilience, research, and adaptability. But dedicating time to understanding your ideal customers early on gives your startup the foundation for successful, sustainable growth.

I can’t recommend this enough to every founder I speak to – knowing your ICP inside out isn’t just a key part of the sales strategy, it’s the key to business success.

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