As a first-time founder, I’ve learned a lot this year, to say the least.
We started 2021 at Accord with zero paying customers, a handful of design partners, a small group of builders, and no sales or marketing yet.
It’s hard to believe that since then, we’ve: announced $7M in seed funding, signed our first 50+ paying customers, grown our team, launched on Product Hunt, started a podcast, and too many more things to list here! It was an equally epic and challenging year, and I’m grateful for the experience and all the folks who helped me out along the way.
After a lot of reflection, I came up with eight lessons that made a big impact on me and the Accord team this year. Hopefully they’ll be helpful (or at least relatable!) to other early founders or sales leaders out there.
Here’s to more learning and growth in 2022!
1. You don’t really know until you’re in the market
If there’s one thing I learned after taking the leap to start Accord, it’s that you don’t know what the reaction from the market will be until you’re actually in it – no matter how much of an expert you think you are.
After my years of experience in sales, I was incredibly confident that I knew the market, our ideal users, and what would resonate in our positioning, features, and sales process. But at the end of the day, nothing compares to launching in public and seeing the feedback bubble up.
When we started I knew (read: assumed) that Accord was going to be an instant hit with large enterprise sales teams. However, we actually found the sweet spot to be with sales leaders and founders of earlier stage, high-growth startups, for a dozen reasons that in hindsight make a ton of sense.
This is one of 100 assumptions I got wrong – and that’s okay, because we got to market early and realized that learning is the only path to progress. At some point you need to stop planning, jump off that cliff, and iterate your way to success!
2. Long term goals help prioritize and manifest your company’s future
At an early stage startup, it feels like everything is on fire. All of the time. There are a million things to do and they’re all labeled URGENT.
Goals are a necessary map that help you decide what you need to do next. Looking back, if we hadn’t taken the time to set very specific goals for Accord last year, I think we would’ve accomplished half of what we actually got done.
Every quarter, month, week, and day, these flags we planted grounded us to what we thought were the most important outcomes for 2021. Anything that didn’t help us get there was a distraction from our mission.
My favorite definition of strategy is “what you chose not to do” – and for that you need clear goals.. Think about where you want to be 6 months or a year from now – what needs to happen for you to get there?
3. You don’t need to know how you’re going to accomplish those goals
Another unexpected lesson: once you set goals, you may not know how you’re actually going to accomplish them – and you shouldn’t if they’re ambitious enough!
A prime example of the power of goal setting was picking an aggressive ARR target… 12 months out… without having closed a deal before.
We didn’t know what our ACV was going to be, let alone the sales process, lead generation strategy, or any important lever to hitting that audacious goal. However, it gave us a specific point to trek toward and manifest into reality. It forced us to say no during non-obvious decisions, and added clarity on what to double down on.
As a founder, you’re going to need to figure a lot of things out as you go. This past year, I relied on a certain amount of blind faith and trust that we could make it work – and we did.
However, there were some obvious things we needed to accomplish our goals, which leads to the next lesson…
4. Find where your expertise gaps are and fill them
When you’re not sure how to hit your ambitious goals, one place to look is where your gaps in expertise are. Your team isn’t going to be an expert on everything, especially when you only have a few people on board. When you’re making early hires, be honest about your current team’s strengths and weaknesses, and which kinds of skills and expertise are most needed.
This will obviously vary for each company, but what really helped Accord was having specialists in both R&D and GTM very early. Developing the product and building our GTM motion at the same time enabled us to accelerate and get a lot done in a relatively short amount of time. As a bonus, both sides learned how to collaborate and understand each other early in the game.
5. Execution is everything
Never underestimate the power of word of mouth, even at the very start, when you’re only talking to a few people and no one really knows about you yet. Everything that others see or hear about your company is important. In the words of Brian Halligan, “How you sell is why you win.”
At Accord, we spent a lot of time defining our core story and message: identifying our unique perspective, simplifying it to its bare bones, and repeating it everywhere our audience would see or hear it, from our website to our conversations with prospects.
When you give that extra 10%, it helps you stand out from the noise. From the way you talk to partners and prospects, to the experience you provide in your product, to the content you post on your blog or social media: it all adds up. The more you can make your communications and actions 10/10 from the very start, the more likely people are to listen, work with you, and even tell others about you.
6. Plant seeds and invest in relationships early
I often think about this great quote from Adam Grant: “Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them.”
At Accord, our early design partners generously shared their time and feedback with us because they were passionate about the problems we were out to solve. We didn’t look at this as a one-way street, and despite barely having a product, tried to give back as much as we could (such as sharing learnings about the market or process recommendations). As a result, many of those partners became early customers and our biggest supporters.
Finding givers, and being a giver yourself, is vital to success – especially if the odds are stacked against you. If you’re part of an early stage startup, you need to be planting seeds and developing relationships from the beginning, even if you don’t know when (or if) they’re going to pay off. Give something of value to others, and if they’re givers, they’ll help you in return.
7. Understand the difference between your early adopters and your first “real” customers
Speaking of investing in relationships early… there’s a difference between your very first customers and your first “real” customers.
Our early design partners spent time with us because they were excited about where our idea was headed, not because they expected to get value from our product right away. But eventually, we needed to start signing customers who wanted to use Accord because it solved a business problem. A big change we experienced at Accord last year was the transition between these two types of customers.
Both types are critical! You need the honest feedback and valuable guidance that your early adopters can provide when you’re just starting out. The key is understanding where you fall on the adoption curve and knowing when to shift from your early adopters to the early majority.
8. Deliver the learning & buying experience your customers want
I’ll end with more of an obvious, ground-level lesson we learned: adapt your processes and buying experience based on what your customers want, not what you think you should do.
We found that people don’t want to be sold to. They want transparency, someone to help solve their problems, and the time and space to explore on their own. So we met them there. Specifically, we shifted our GTM motion in to include a free trial, case studies, and other resources to help our prospects understand how Accord works and how others succeed with it.
We originally thought our prospects would need extra hand-holding from sales to see the value in Accord. Instead, giving them resources that provide this value, and the time to try the product for themselves, empowers them to make the right decision – with as much direct guidance from us as they ask for.
All the things I learned this year just feel like the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come and what I still don’t know! I hope these takeaways from the first year of launching Accord were helpful. I couldn’t be more excited for everything we have planned (and for all the surprises that will inevitably come) in 2022.
Resources that got me through the year & helped create frameworks for Accord
Crossing the Chasm – crucial for learning where you fall on the adoption curve and the transition from your early adopters to your “real” customers
From Impossible to Inevitable – templates for achieving and sustaining fast growth and creating predictable revenue
The Secret to a Great Planning Process – tactical tips and strategies for pulling together a long-term plan at your company, with examples from AirBnB and Eventbrite
Founding Sales: The Startup Sales Handbook – this book’s goal is to accelerate the learning & success of founders and sales leaders at early-stage startups