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When William Zhou founded his startup, Chalk, in 2012, he made a classic founder’s mistake. "I decided, ‘let’s build some product,’ because that’s all I knew,” he says.

Mr. Zhou figured he already had a ready-made audience for Chalk. The software suite for teachers combines task management, curriculum planning and data-driven assessments of student performance. The idea is to help teachers understand where students – or their own instruction – may be falling short. Today it’s used by more than 200,000 teachers, mostly in the United States.

But it didn’t exactly hit the market with a bang when it launched. “We did have about 100 teachers purchase it. But at the end of the year we had $3,000 in our bank account.”

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The mistake was not building a sales strategy into the company’s DNA from the beginning. It’s something that Canadian businesses neglect to do, says Charles Plant, a senior fellow with the University of Toronto’s Impact Centre, which works on entrepreneurship research.

“Can you name a famous Canadian sales person?" he asks. "We don’t train or even value sales people. The universities don’t teach it. It’s not respected as a discipline.”

Members of the Chalk staff, from left: Doug Akers, Ryan McKay-Fleming, William Zhou, Laura Jonson, Troy Cook.

Mr. Zhou says he didn’t consider it at all. “Engineers have this build-it-and-they-will-come mentality, and we’ll spend so much on R&D [research and development] without a sales plan or market strategy,” he says. "And that’s not how you build a company.”

The saving grace? Mr. Zhou had developed the idea in part by visiting his own former teachers at his Vancouver elementary school and asking them about their challenges and frustrations.

He didn’t think of it that way at the time, but that first bit of market research was the beginning of his sales funnel, the process that companies lead customers through when purchasing products. Mr. Zhou made sure that his idea addressed real problems for real customers, and that put Chalk ahead of startups that build their ideas in a vacuum and barely think about the sales strategy until they’re ready to launch.

Chalk managed to sell to about a dozen school districts in the United States, but its sales approach was scattershot; staff talked to anyone they could find and generated leads without any overriding strategy.

Then, in 2016, the company participated in the Rev program, a sales accelerator at Communitech, an innovation hub based in Waterloo, Ont. The program forces entrepreneurs to take a hard look at their sales strategy, or lack thereof. That ended with Chalk hiring a vice-president of sales based in their target market, the United States.

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A screen shot of Chalk's Markboard software.

The Rev program also introduced them to the necessity of a rigorous, data-driven process.

It was a lightning-bolt moment for Mr. Zhou, but according to Martin Boucher, a vice-president at the Canadian Professional Sales Association (CPSA), many entrepreneurs still plow ahead with the idea that they’ll improvise their sales strategy as they go along.

“Sales success requires a well-established sales methodology, with clearly defined action steps, expectations, key performance indicators, a system,” says Mr. Boucher. “You can’t just wing it any more.”

Professional sales staff are key to bringing that expertise on board, but good help can be hard to find. A study by Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lazaridis Institute in 2016 found that staffing sales positions was technology firms’ biggest human-resources challenge, and a major crimp in the scale-up strategies of Canadian startups.

One place to start is the CPSA, which connects its 27,000 accredited members with companies looking to hire, and offers consultations to that end.

One major benefit of bringing in outside expertise is simply that a for-hire sales person won’t have the vested interest in a product that a founder does – and that’s good, Mr. Boucher says. Where founders often default straight to product demonstrations and showing off features, a good sales person is customer-focused, not product-focused.

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Okay, but how do you acquire those first customer leads?

“Most customers’ first point of interaction will be with your Web presence,” says Mr. Plant. “Something will trigger someone to start the buying process – they might get a budget, or reach a point on their to-do list. That’s where you better have purchased certain keywords and established content so they can find you in a search.”

And you’d better make sure that content is polished.

Arjun Mali, co-founder and chief operating officer of iMerciv, in the lab of his Toronto office.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Arjun Mali, co-founder of iMerciv, knows all about that. His company, founded in 2014, makes BuzzClip, a small, wearable device for the blind that can can be clipped unobtrusively on clothing. It uses ultrasound to detect obstacles and alerts the user with subtle vibrations.

Like Chalk, iMerciv’s initial sales efforts were less than perfect. “Our first video was just shockingly bad,” says Mr. Mali. “Hiring a photographer and videographer is expensive, so we did things ourselves first, borrowing equipment. It might not have been a great idea.”

But iMerciv’s founders did some other things right. Though they had no professional sales staff in the early going, Mr. Mali and co-founder Bin Liu say they were diligent and organized in generating their first leads. They attended conferences and trade shows in the “vision-loss space” to make face-to-face connections, and they combed through manufacturers’ websites and contacted resellers of complementary products. They also figured out where potential customers lived on social media: foundations and charities on Facebook, medical-device companies on LinkedIn, and so forth.

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The BuzzClip is a wearable device for people living with blindness or partial sight. It uses ultrasound to detect obstacles and alerts the user with subtle vibrations.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Even in 2018, social media is still underused, says Mr. Plant. A well-put-together social-media presence on the platforms where your customers are can be invaluable. “You can also do fairly inexpensive things like a professional photo shoot, or a blurb for [your employees’] bios. Craft a consistent message across all social channels.” (That can also backfire, however: “You don’t own your employees’ social-media profiles, so that can be a risk.”)

Once businesses have built a sales funnel – talked to real potential customers to refine the product, developed early-stage marketing material, created a simple and customer-focused website, actively solicited leads, and, ideally, brought on dedicated sales staff who can help customers through the buying process – how can they make that final sale?

“Look, if they’re a qualified lead, and they’re at the right stage, and you have a sales person who’s helped them understand how your product relates to their need, most customers will close themselves,” says Mr. Plant.

“Then you have to deliver, of course, and move on to account management, relation management, and so on. Sales never ends.”


Looking to brush up on sales and marketing basics? Here are a few resources to help entrepreneurs develop their strategies.

Canadian Professional Sales Association: The CPSA offers online and in-person courses nationwide. The course fees can be a bit hefty, however, and there are prerequisites before enrolling. Click here for more information.

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MaRS Innovation: This hub at Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District offers a three-part “Sales ABC” workshop in communities across Ontario, focusing on B2B sales. For entrepreneurs unable to attend an in-person workshop, try “Selling for Entrepreneurs,” an online course looking at B2B and B2C sales.

Business Development Bank of Canada: The BDC offers a wealth of free online resources for new business, as well as a national network of consultants who work one-on-one with new businesses on sales and marketing strategy.

Federal government: Ottawa provides a variety of free online and in-person events as well as webinars on all aspects of setting up and maintaining a business, including a fairly rudimentary but useful collection of resources on sales and marketing.

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