Alexey Chernyshev, founder and CEO at Odus.ai, tells about his experience in launching sales in the international market without any preludes in the domestic market.
We launched the first direct sales of the Alpha version of our product in September 2018. In November 2018, we opened access to the Beta version and got our first users of the platform.
Odus is a platform to create smart assistants with its own artificial intelligence to automate customer service, contact centers, inbound or outbound sales calls. Our smart assistants understand 28 languages and are able to work in all customer channels, from messengers to telephones (VoIP, SIP).
Any product based on AI is a very difficult story to be sold. But we found the great partner, PitchGround.com, and launched a marketing campaign in March 2019. The campaign gave us more than 1000 users in a month. Also, we were chosen to participate in the programs, "Microsoft for Startups" and "Nvidia Inception", and got some additional benefits.
I know that many young (but not only young) startups make a lot of mistakes this way. That’s why I decided to share our experience and to tell you about our insights into working outside your native country to save you time and money when your business goes international.
How to sell in the US
Many investors and consultants give the following advice to start earning money in the domestic market: check the hypotheses, shape your product and achieve your first customer success. I want to say from my experience of five campaigns launched: forget this once and for all!! Just burn this idea out of your mind and build a heavy wall to block these thoughts if they come back again.
Sales in the US or Asia are completely different from what we got used to in Russia. I proved this idea to myself once again and developed a list of rules for you.
Be concrete and appreciate the time of your counterpart. Americans are very concrete and straightforward in their suggestions. When you approach a counterpart for the first time, you should state the goal of the conversation and mutual benefits from it. Answer the question: why should a counterpart spend his/her time on you?
Americans like to buy from American companies. Your product should look like a typical US startup, or try to be like one. To achieve this, we registered the company in the US and bought a local phone number, paid more attention to our texts and presentations in English.
Americans are oriented to long term partnerships. All the business in the US is assumed to be built for centuries. After having visited California at the end of February and having talked to many local entrepreneurs, I was surprised that they are oriented only for the long term strategy for tens of years ahead. This makes a huge impact on any negotiations about sales or partnerships. Nobody is aimed for profit in the short run.
Customer service is much more important than functionality. Communication is a prerequisite for successful sales in the US. You should communicate to customers often, in a nice manner and with maximum neutrality everywhere: in support, email, chats, webinars or your community. Every little suspicion of a rude word or a slighting manner of the talk will cause an immediate viral negative effect. We experienced that a couple of times and had to “wash off” later. That positive environment is extremely important in your public channels, independent of the response from your customers.
Trust is the key in b2b sales. It is almost impossible to enter the b2b market in the US without a local partner when you are a small and unknown startup from another country. Your product just won’t be bought. You should have a warm introduction to the market and much better guarantees from a local integrator that will take you into its sales offer.
Sales are built on success stories. Forget about “dry” numbers and facts. They are boring and not interesting. Instead of them, tell success stories from the experience of your customers or sell your client a better version of his/her product. How could your product help someone? What did they achieve? What problems did they overcome?
The same works for your company. You need to tell everyone your story and how you achieved what you have. This gives you trust, respect and sells you. You should permanently learn how to do this since Americans do this superbly.
Sloppy work doesn’t work
I can not speak for all other businesses, but I can speak about the highly competitive niche of chatbots and smart assistants we work with. This niche has more than 10 leaders, about 20 active players, and approximately 100 small startups. If you work in a similar niche of SaaS products, then read attentively.
To be a competitive comparison to your average competitor, your MVP must look like a completely finished product of high quality, with enough functions, and the main feature, which is the value of your product. The idea to collect leads from customers through a landing page without a product to be used, as it is popularly advised everywhere, is doubtful. This idea is good for market research or investigation of pains, but not for real sales.
When we launched our first version of Odus with the awful design (we accept this :) ), sales were almost close to zero. In three months, when we rebuilt the platform from the ground, up, and relaunched it, active users started registering on their own!
If you do only b2b sales and you are not aimed at customized projects, then be ready to do a live demo. Otherwise, I doubt you will have any sales. We are improving our platform permanently and fixing tons of bugs that our users find every day.
Sometimes, we sell to enterprises or marketing agencies, so we created ready-to-be-sent presentations for agencies and huge clients. In May 2019, using these presentations, we started negotiations with a huge US client (a Hubspot analog) about a partnership and integration of our platform into their products.
Where to take traffic
Let’s go back to the major pain of any startup. Where can a small and young startup take traffic in a new marketing environment?
There are 4 ways we tried on our own.
Partnerships. A partnership was the first channel of traffic we tried with PitchGround. It is important to understand that any partnership is aimed to introduce you to as many people as possible. The profit from it can arrive later, of course, if your business model assumes recurrent payments or repetitive sales. There is a big website, PitchGround.com, and other similar websites that help SaaS companies to sell subscriptions, annual or lifetime deals. You pay 50-55% of your first sale to your partner, and then your goal is to convert a customer to a monthly subscription. PitchGround works very well for American and Asian audiences. You could hardly do a partnership with PitchGround if you have an ill-considered version of your product.
Paid traffic. The main channels for the American market are Google Ads, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and Linkedin. Linkedin is very popular in the US. I think the promotion should be started from Linkedin, independently. Either you do user research, or sell. Yes, Linkedin is probably the most expensive source of traffic, but the quality of traffic and conversions are much better. The openness of our marketing messages reached 50% in our tests.
Content. Content is the best, but the most expensive channel. Major content channels in the US are Reddit and Quora. Compared to advertising costs in your country, similar costs for the world market are three times higher. This sum is too huge for the biggest part of startups from Russia, for example. We talked to tens of American experts and accelerators, and each of them told us that a startup must put a major focus on content marketing. You should have a person on the team do this, and all the articles or comments your team publishes should be checked with a native speaker. If you don’t have such an opportunity to consult a native speaker, then one of the team members should speak English fluently.
Publications. Publications are the obligatory channel to develop trust for a company. Let me give an example. Publications are the obligatory condition for a company to be launched at ProductHunt. By the way, we found a lifehack in the field of publications. There is a website for journalists called helpareporter.com. You can register there as a source, subscribe to your topics of interest and start receiving samples of requests from journalists twice per day. You can respond to all requests you like, and if a journalist likes your response, you will be published or mentioned in an article for free with a link to your website. Thanks to this, we were mentioned in an article at It Pro Today, AI Time Journal, VC.ru, RusBase, and a couple of other blogs.
Life hacks for user research in the US
I have already mentioned helpareporter.com earlier. Also, this platform is awesome for user research!! I will share the step-by-step plan with you. You register as a journalist there and go through the check process. We succeeded only on the 4th attempt. Then, you write exact questions to your target audience and submit them.
Using this scheme, in a month, we got 48 broad answers from market experts, competitors, potential partners, and clients. They told us their success or failure stories, pains and wishes. To do this research, we spent just a couple of hours getting prepared for it. After we got the results, we contacted almost everyone from the list of respondents in LinkedIn.
Success in your domestic market doesn’t matter
If you are aimed to launch your product in the American or any other foreign market, then I can assure you: your success in the domestic market is of no interest to anyone, neither to clients nor to investors. It turned out that even the largest Russian companies are well known only in Russia. There is no difference for Americans if you worked with the largest oil producer in Russia or with a local coffee shop.
That’s why don’t waste your time. Set global goals and act globally. You will always have time to launch your product in your domestic market.