Applying Lean Startup Principles to Your Sales Model

Book cover - Lean StartupCertain startups can only guess what type of sales model they will end up with once their ready-for-primetime product is released. We are now conditioned to use the Lean Startup (order book here) concept of a minimum viable product (MVP) when it comes to our offering. But why not extend this to the sales model as well?

Lean Startup principles can extend to many aspects of your business plan, but few use it beyond the product they’re building. If you think about it, the last thing you want to do in the early days of your company is overshoot your sales model with expensive hiring, tools and travel. Of course, companies with mobile apps or other offerings that clearly leverage an e-commerce model don’t need to worry about this, unless they later identify extensions of their offering that carry a more traditional sales requirement.

I’ll use a crawl-walk-run analogy to demonstrate a Lean approach to initially defining, and then refining, your sales model. All steps along the way assume you are doing as much as efficiently possible to first drive interested prospects to your website and making sure your site is properly enabling sales.  Let’s explore further.

Crawl (Very Light Touch)

The very light touch phase of selling involves the use of Website Chat tools. Enable a chat feature for your website using one of the more popular tools. If visitors are on your site for more than __ seconds, they are presented with a chat window as an opportunity to engage with the company. You can having someone from the company login when available to multitask a bit and only then is the chat function enabled.

The questions and objections you get from chat participants will reflect the real world and this can help you with product feature priorities, pricing optimization, website design (to answer the common questions) and marketing items (messaging, positioning). If the web chat feature seems to be sufficient to convert most of your interested prospects into a sale, you’re in a very fortunate position. If, instead, your conversion rate is lower than needed, move to the next step in this list as soon as you can afford to. In the meantime, you can still leverage web chat to initially qualify prospects that the founder(s) engage to close.

Walk (Light Touch)

If web chat isn’t sufficient to address your sales needs for enough of the interested prospects, you’ll know. The chat sessions will go longer than a couple of minutes and truly interested prospects will ask to actually speak with someone. At this stage, you should add an inside sales rep. The good news is they can also help staff the web chat function when they aren’t talking to a prospect on the phone. These inside sales reps will proactively reach out to prospects that downloaded your trial and are approaching the trial expiration date. They are also the ones that respond to inbound leads and contact requests. But they do everything over the phone.

Inside sales reps are more expensive than web chat reps. But they’re less expensive than field sales reps that travel to the prospects’ location to engage in-person.

Run (Full Touch)

This phase involves someone that drives or jumps on airplanes to visit interested prospects. Big ticket purchases above about $50,000 or $4,000 per month usually require this level of sales engagement. But if you’re lucky, your field sales reps will be able to focus on the most strategic opportunities that are capable of paying the big bucks.

It’s also common to put an inside sales rep and a field sales rep on a team to split the workload and better optimize your costs. For example, the inside sales rep takes the first qualification call and maybe even does a product demo before engaging the field rep at the right time, and with the most qualified prospects.


At the end of it all, you might find that you need a combination of all three sales approaches. In fact, the web chat option often goes well with any sales model.

Using the Lean Startup principles, you can learn a lot from crawling and walking first, and without overspending. And please don’t hire a VP of Sales before at least learning a few things about what your ultimate sales model might need to look like.  In fact, if you want some help deciding what type of sales-related role to hire first, read my article titled “Hiring Your First Sales Professional“.

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