How you execute your GTM strategy can determine your startup's fate. (BCV)

Deploying Go-To-Market and Customer Acquisition Strategies That Will Put You on the Path to Success

An early-stage startup’s success or failure is contingent on its go-to-market approach.

8 min read October 24, 2023
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At BCV I work across our portfolio in both application and infrastructure software companies, partnering closely with management teams to develop go-to-market (GTM) strategies and build efficient sales engines. In my work advising founders, I often draw from my more than 25 years of experience helping early-stage enterprise software companies  — like FireEye, IronPort, IntruVert, and most recently BCV portfolio company Armis — scale into market leaders.

In scaling these operations, I’ve found that possibly the most important factor in determining an early-stage startup’s success is its ability to successfully execute on its GTM strategy and create repeatability with the right set of customers.

Focus is critical

It is key to define your ideal customer profile (ICP), then identify your target persona and create bold and provocative messaging that resonates with solving a highly prioritized problem. The foundation of a winning GTM is to understand your ICP in particular verticals where you can identify two to three common use cases that are high-value priorities in which you know your product or service can consistently deliver meaningful outcomes.

It is paramount that your first set of customers all share a consistent theme so that you can create true repeatability. This is designed to ensure engineering, along with the rest of the company, is focused on delivering value and creating consistent and valuable outcomes when bringing a new product to market. 

A well-defined GTM strategy helps increase your market share, drives revenue growth and builds long-lasting customer relationships. It ensures that your products or services reach the right potential customers at the right time, with the right message and through the right channels. 

The level of strategic and operational sophistication required to execute a successful startup GTM has risen significantly in recent years. We’ve seen a major shift in the fundamental buying process and behaviors between businesses, and your GTM and customer acquisition processes should evolve accordingly. 

I’ll lay out the fundamentals you need to keep in mind as you’re developing your GTM strategy. Don’t skip over these details —  a successful GTM and customer acquisition strategy is the foundation of your business, and can be the difference between successfully achieving growth at scale and failure. 

Your first five customers matter 

Having a playbook to get your early-stage startup from zero customers to five is critically important. It dramatically increases your probability of success — not just to get to your next round of funding, but to get momentum to reach your next set of successful customers and to start hitting revenue milestones.

When acquiring your first five customers, seek out design partners and early adopters. These early adopters buy technology for a strategic advantage against their competition. They like to flock early to a technology because they believe it gives them a strategic advantage against their peers, and, in the case of cybersecurity enterprise companies, against their adversary. Understand who the early adopters in your sector are, as they’re most likely to test and purchase software from early-stage companies.

You also want to assess the repeatability of your potential customers, with the goal of maximizing repeatability. By defining and understanding your ideal customer profile (more on that in a moment), you can identify companies with similar use cases and similar desired outcomes. If each of your five customers is unique and has different use cases with your product, that’s not repeatable and is harder to scale. Remember: Customers don’t buy products or services, they buy outcomes. You need to create valuable outcomes that create meaningful ROI for the customer!

When I joined FireEye as its first sales leader, part of the diligence process was testing our early technology with a few enterprise customers. One of those customers was Prudential Insurance. And after a successful trial, Prudential purchased our software, becoming FireEye’s first-ever enterprise customer. That unlocked something for us: It was the catalyst that helped us scale FireEye globally, bringing bookings from $0 to over a $1 billion run rate, and eventually led us to take FireEye public in a successful IPO in 2013. 

Define and understand your ideal customer profile 

Digital innovation and changing consumer behavior have shifted customer acquisition strategies for early-stage startups. Gone are the days of cold calls and the “spray and pray” method of casting a wide net to find customers. These have been replaced by sophisticated digital marketing strategies and data-driven customer insights. 

Your ICP should be based on the solutions you offer. It outlines qualities that allow you to more easily identify potential customers within your target market. By mapping your ICP to specific qualities, such as the size of the customer or particular verticals, you can find your best-fit potential customers. 

This level of specificity paired with the knowledge that your customers all have similar use cases aligned with your solutions ensures that you can be confident converting them as a customer.

Once you have an ICP in place, you have a framework you can use to create your target account list. Then, you can start thinking about implementing a sophisticated account-based marketing (ABM) strategy. ABM programs are successful because they focus on generating revenue from a specifically selected list of target accounts — exclusively companies that are a great fit for your solution. Instead of waiting for leads to come to you, your sales and marketing teams can turn your target accounts into customers.

One BCV portfolio company I’ve advised and seen grow from its earliest stages is the security company Armis. It was particularly successful in understanding its ICP and achieving product-market fit. Today, Armis is one of the fastest-growing companies in the SaaS and cloud technology space. It’s surpassed $100 million in annual recurring revenue, growing from $1 million to $100 million in less than five years. 

Align your GTM strategy with the operating plan 

Your GTM strategy should be commensurate with the operating plan. This requires alignment with internal stakeholders — to deliver on the promise of a GTM strategy, you need to be intentional in your focus. Most startups have a dedicated budget going into their GTM strategies, and understanding that budget and making sure it’s aligned with the operating plan reduces friction. 

In my earliest days at FireEye, I met with our founder, Ashar Aziz. Our operating plan called for a headcount of five. I then had to figure out, based on the operating plan and based on our GTM strategy, how I’d allocate that headcount and also maximize it, based on getting the repeatability of our potential customers. It was an interesting exercise made easier by the fact that I’d aligned with Ashar on our operating plan.

Have a “land and expand” strategy

The environment has changed dramatically for SaaS companies. Your buyer today is highly educated and having to make quick decisions in a competitive landscape. To cater to shifting buyer attitudes, we employ what we call a “land and expand” strategy. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s important to not try to get that big, multimillion dollar deal if it’s going to take too long to close a deal with them. Sometimes, landing a piece of the business with a clear direction to expand based on your product’s success is more prudent.

One strategy to land a net new customer is called insertion, in which you focus on solving for one of a potential customer’s use cases as opposed to trying to boil the ocean and solve for every problem they have with your technological solution. By just solving for that one use case, you lower your barrier to entry and dramatically increase the probability of closing a deal. For the expand strategy it is key that you have a set process and dedicated resources, usually within the customer success team, to successfully expand that customer. Please note the customer base will not expand until that insertion opportunity is fully deployed and operational and adding value.

Don’t underestimate the significance of building a winning culture 

The greatest differentiator I’ve seen in both my career and among BCV’s portfolio companies is the ability to build and maintain a winning culture. 

The majority of early-stage companies struggle setting goals, and don’t have experience in building modern compensation plans or a winning GTM strategy. They instead go towards a more mature model because they want to pay out less and have achievement at the 75th percentile. This is a recipe for a disaster. 

If you create unnecessary turnover in the company it will be far more expensive than building a fair and achievable plan that is aligned with the operating plan. If you go with the latter, you can build this momentum through reaching a much higher rate of achievement than 75%, allowing you to build greater momentum and a winning culture. It helps you retain your greatest talent and drives an increase in sales productivity. We did that at FireEye, and I watched Armis and cloud infrastructure startup Meraki Wireless achieve a winning culture, too. These are companies that built great technology and had strong outcomes — Meraki was acquired by Cisco, and Armis was acquired by Insight Partners.

By following these steps, you’ll set yourself up for success with a well-designed, well-implemented GTM and customer acquisition strategy. Understanding these critical components can make all the difference in your success, especially at the earliest stages of building your company.

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