We never intended to sell a product before writing a single line of code. It just happened that way. But after we did, we realized something important: this is a repeatable, scalable process that others can follow too.
It takes a moment to get used to that thought. You can sell product without having a product. You just need to know how to go about it.
It worked for us, and it can work for you. Selling vision instead of product might seem like a bit of a swindle, but it is, in fact, a great way to do business.
Here’s how it happened and what we learned from it.
A Bit of History
Before getting into the world of learning platforms, my team and I ran a management and leadership consulting business.
In the process of consulting with companies and executives, we noticed that they were doing a lot of ongoing development, largely in soft-skills training, and that they were using remarkably outdated tools.
Their learning systems were old, clunky, and difficult to use. Many of them were focused solely on compliance—which, while necessary, doesn’t really do much for employee engagement and retention.
So we tried to help out by finding software that would help them solve their problem.
And here’s the important part, the first step in what ultimately became the process undergirding our business: we couldn’t find any.
There just weren’t any good learning platforms out there that engaged employees, gave them an intuitive user experience, and allowed administrators to easily author and manage their online ad in-person training. This is especially surprising considering the fact that there were already over 100 players in this space.
When we saw that our customers had a problem they couldn’t solve, the spark of an idea that would become Continu was born.
After we realized that there was room for an industry-changing product, we went back to our customers.
We asked if they’d be interested in an learning platform that was more engaging and easier to use. We articulated the benefits of this as-yet-nonexistent software, talked about how it might work, and got input from companies that might have a use for it.
Of course, one of the questions that came up was about ROI. What kind of ROI could companies expect from this product? So we had to find out.
We asked companies how much they were paying for the trainings they had—how much they paid to fly trainers out to their campuses, provide lodging and meals, pay for the trainings, and so on.
And we asked about retention, which was, as you might guess, abysmal. Most learning platforms are lucky to get 10% engagement across a company’s population of employees.
(Another telling statistic is that corporate L&D providers have a Net Promoter Score of -8, which is about as low as you can get on the NPS scale.)
It didn’t take us long to figure out that we could save some of these companies millions of dollars with an effective system. Even if a company already had an LMS, their savings could be astounding.
In the course of determining whether there was a market for our new LMS, one company surprised us. We were in a meeting, discussing their needs and interests when it came to training, and they said they’d pay for our product.
They’d pay $250,000 for our product, to be exact.
And we hadn’t even built it yet.
But their need for this solution was so great that they were willing to take a chance. They loved our mockups, illustrations, flowcharts, and ideas for workflow integrations. They could see how much money they’d save by not bringing trainers out, and the increased effectiveness of trainings that were easily repeatable.
We were, to put it mildly, surprised. But we knew that they really got it. They saw what we were trying to do, they believed in our vision, and they wanted the product that we had yet to build.
We had sold our vision.
The Keys to Selling Vision
We went on to provide that company with better training through Continu, and we quickly expanded to a number of other clients. Of course, our product has gone through a number of changes, and we’ve worked with our customers to make sure it meets their needs. A product has to be great for it to be successful.
But it was that original sale, our first $250,000, before we had even built it, that really kicked off the process.
We laid out a roadmap for the client, painted a picture for them so they could see what it would be like when they had a better learning system. And they liked what they saw so much that they were willing to commit a quarter-million dollars to it.
As I mentioned, this is a repeatable process. We didn’t just do it with that first company; we’ve continued to do it since then. We’ve sold our vision to other companies, showing them how future features and integrations will make their lives easier.
And it’s helped us land some great clients, including well-known brands like Eventbrite, Lyft, Dollar Shave Club, and Stuart Weitzman, to name a few.
To make it both effective and repeatable, there are a few things you’ll need to keep in mind.
1. Identify Your Market
Before you do anything else, you need to identify your market and the pain point that you’re alleviating. In our case, we saw that multiple clients had difficulty with their learning management systems. So we knew there was demand.
Determining whether there’s enough demand for a new product or service isn’t always easy.
Have you seen multiple potential customers with this particular pain point? Is it a niche problem, or more of a widespread one? Are there competitors already in the business? (That’s a good sign that there’s a market, but you’ll need to be realistic on whether you can compete.)
After seeing that there was demand and a notable number of competitors in the space, we had to articulate how we were going to do things differently. We had a design-driven focus that focused on user experience. We wanted to make learning a pleasant experience, instead of something that was simply focused on compliance (and hard to use on top of it).
And once we saw how many related problems companies were having, we could design a single tool that would be useful to as many of them as possible. It didn’t solve every single problem our customers had (we’ll talk about this in a moment), but it was so much better than the other options that many companies with distinct problems wanted to get onboard.
2. Focus on Your Vision
One of the keys of emotional selling is to not emphasize the features of your product or service, but to emphasize the benefits. This is especially true when you’re entering a marketplace that already has established sellers.
We knew that we couldn’t compete on featuresets, so we had to do something else. We focused on our roadmap and the customer experience that we were going to provide. But we didn’t just tell potential customers what we wanted to create; we showed them.
Mockups, illustrations, and prototypes are a huge help in getting your vision across, and you can use them to emphasize the benefits of your product. Get your customer to imagine how the experience will be better, and you’re halfway there.
Clients understand that your product or service isn’t going to have every feature they could possibly want—especially if you haven’t built it yet. But if you show them documentation on what you envision, what you’re trying to create, and where your business is going, they’ll put their faith in you.
You’re not selling what you have today. You’re selling what you’ll have in the future.
3. Come Ready with Data
A vision is valuable. But data is worth even more. When we approached customers to share our vision, we were ready to answer all of their questions.
They wanted to know the ROI of our system, so we figured it out using information from similar companies and industry benchmarks. We had breakeven timelines, comparison metrics, and all of the information we could find to convince them that investing in our product would result in their saving money.
We showed them that the benefit of our product outweighed any risk they might have perceived in it. If they decided not to purchase our product, they would essentially be losing money. And we proved it to them.
4. Be Realistic and Set Expectations
This is a tough one, especially for small organizations trying to enter a new space. When you’re working with a very large client, they might try to push you down a certain path—to develop certain features, or include different functionality, than you had originally considered.
We faced this when we were developing Continu, and we did our absolute best to learn to say no.
It’s understandable when companies do this—when they see that you’re going to solve one of the problems they’re dealing with, they’re likely to ask you to solve more of their issues. But it can go too far, and it’s easy to get too deep before you realize that you’re getting away from your original idea.
Early on, we said yes to a lot of requests we probably shouldn’t have, and we ran into trouble. We found that meeting someone’s very specific requests to help them save time might add time for someone else in the same organization, and that the total efficiency gain would be mitigated (or even eliminated).
So we learned to say no. And that helped us a great deal.
Similarly, we got good at setting realistic expectations. We made a habit of under-promising and over-delivering, and it served us well. High-growth, high-scale companies often need things to be done yesterday—but that’s just not realistic. So we worked with them to establish realistic expectations and timelines.
We outlined the steps we were going to take to get the company from one step to another, and told them what they could reasonably expect.
Not only did companies respect us for it, but it helped us hit our deliverables, which builds trust and solidifies relationships.
5. Take Advantage of Your Small Size
One of the biggest advantages we had while building Continu was the fact that we’re a small company. The legacy players in the LMS world have been building their software for a long time, and they’ve grown a great deal. That means that their software is bloated, but it’s also very difficult to make changes to it.
Because we worked directly with our customers, we could make changes in a matter of days. The average change cycle of a legacy LMS is six to twelve months . . . we can make changes in ours in two weeks.
And that’s a huge advantage.
Small companies have less decision-making overhead, bureaucracy, and red tape, so they can respond to customers’ needs. Small is nimble, and nimble provides good service.
As your company grows, it’s important to keep this mindset.
You need to bake small-company culture into the DNA of your organization.
It’s not easy, but it’s crucial for continued success. With our consulting backgrounds at Continu, we understood the importance of listening to and being informed by our customers instead of larger market demands.
Our clients appreciate that, and so will yours, especially when you’re developing your vision. You can promise faster response times, closer contact, and a better product.
How could they say no?
Build a Vision, Not a Product
We never intended to sell a vision. But it worked, so we kept doing it.
It’s a strange idea, selling something when you haven’t built it yet. But there are customers out there who have problems, and they’ll pay you to fix them. It’s just a matter of identifying your market, building something that solves the problem in a new and better way, and working closely with potential customers to align them with your vision.
This process isn’t about selling vaporware or using smoke and mirrors to trick potential customers into investing. It’s about not being limited by your current roadmap or company size, and pursuing the vision that you’ve created in response to the pain points you see in the market.
There’s no telling what Continu’s history would be like without that first $250,000 sale. It was one of the most formative events in our company’s history, and taught us important lessons about transparency, expectations, and the power of good storytelling.
Above all, it taught us not to be afraid of pursuing our vision. Sometimes we worked to align our vision with others’. Sometimes we had to turn down what seemed like very lucrative opportunities. In the end, we learned to build a solid vision and build a company around that, instead of the other way around.
It’s not easy. But it can absolutely be done.
This is the first post in a new growth series on our blog. We’ll be sharing stories about how we went from one small idea to a thriving company with clients around the world.
You’ll see both our successes and our failures—we want to be fully transparent and show you what goes on behind the scenes. Check back regularly and learn along with us as we continue our growth!