In January 2016, I walked through the doors of the Istanbul head office of one of the world’s largest fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies. I was invited to present my products as they were revamping the offerings in their cafeteria. I was on the brink of launching my startup, which produced healthy, good-for-you snacks and energy bars. I was 27 years old, had no previous founder experience, had never worked in the food industry, was launched in a foreign market and had no team or financing. In short, the odds of success were stacked against me.
Regardless, I entered with the courage and ambition only a 20-something can have and was able to turn an otherwise trivial meeting into an opportunity of a lifetime. The meeting sparked the rollout of my products with some of the largest brands in the world, as well as an international expansion.
Since then, I’ve been asked time and time again how I—with my small and unlaunched startup—landed a deal with one of the most powerful FMCG companies on the planet. The lessons I learned from that experience can be useful to anyone building a company.
1. Maximize every opportunity. That fateful meeting in Istanbul could have ended with only a small sale for the company’s internal use. Instead, I left with a contract for a co-branding campaign and the sale of my first 300,000 products. To go from the former to the latter, I had to come in with a bigger vision to sell to them and make them see the potential we could have together.
As a startup founder, always look for opportunities to level up. Often it will take less effort and work to expand a current deal than to land a new one. I learned to cultivate a mindset of asking for more. When preparing for a meeting, I would always detail the base case and the best case with any stakeholder, and I would proactively work to nudge a meeting or agreement toward the best case. This brings me to my next point.
2. Always come prepared (aka, manage your stakeholders). If it’s worth doing, do it well. I spent the days and nights before my first meeting in deep preparations. I read up on the company and its competitors’ annual reports. I knew that healthier, sugar-free and natural products were on their agenda, and I knew that I had something they did not: credibility in serving healthy products.
I read up on all the people I knew would be in the meeting and knew they were in my prime target group. I was up until 2 a.m. the night before making samples so the whole team could try my products. And I did not just make a few—I made enough for about a week of snacking. This strategy proved useful as they called me back once that week had passed asking for more products.
Getting the buy-in of influencers and people at the right level of the organization will greatly improve your chances of success. You’ll have an internal team championing you, and if you can identify stakeholders who have something to gain personally from the project’s success, you’re even closer to your end goal.
3. Use data. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming or guessing. One of the most useful strategies to build stakeholder conviction is using facts and data, focusing on what is relevant to them. Bring trends and market analysis, growth numbers and statistics. You’ll come across as more knowledgeable, trustworthy, and skilled in your field. In addition, if you always save and internalize relevant data, it can be helpful to use later in a range of situations.
4. Get personal. While data is great, it’s even better when it’s combined with authentic stories. I’ve never been a good salesperson, but when it came to selling my own brand, it was easy. I let my genuine passion for better-for-you food shine through and was never afraid to share my personal story of why I launched my company. I walked them through my background, why I decided to launch my startup, how I risked everything to build my company and how I monitored my blood sugar level when testing recipes to make sure I made something truly healthy. Sharing what it meant to me personally helped me build a deeper, more meaningful connection with my audience. Frequently people became so dedicated to my story they wanted to help, even for free. Any help while launching a company or product is hugely needed, so building emotional connections turned out to be a useful strategy, which also helped me land contracts with everything from logistics to production.
5. Sell first; build after. I’m not the inventor of this phrase, but it sure does work. At the time of my Istanbul meeting, I brought homemade samples and had not yet landed on the right factory to work with. The design of my products was not even done. My experience is that working toward a very clear deadline greatly improves the momentum of your business. We apply this strategy at my current company when working with founders. You have to be willing to put in the extra hours and effort, but doing so can accelerate any company-building journey.
These steps can transform an everyday meeting into something transformational for your startup. What first seems impossible becomes entirely possible—and in a much shorter time frame than you imagined.
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