In 2016, 25 million Americans started companies, and I’m proud to have been one of them. By September of that year, I’d left my job as a McKinsey consultant to co-found Beam, an app and integration that empowers users to impact issues they care about for free by visiting retailers they love.
The most common question I get from people considering starting companies is how we secured our first partners. From the outset, it might seem like an impossible task to get early customers onboard without a proven track-record.
Here are 5 tips I’ve picked up in my experience to crush your first pitches to early customers:
1. Know who to approach
While I initially put a lot of thought into building a target list of brand partners, I quickly learned it’s equally important to identify the right audience within each company--especially early on.
The decision to partner with a brand-new startup is often more of a leap of faith than a performance-based decision that employees at large companies typically make. Your ideal internal champion is therefore someone who’s (a) energized to break the status quo, and (b) in a position to say “yes” without seeking additional approvals from others, who might not have the same risk appetite.
In my case, I realized this meant initially approaching franchisees of major chains like Panera and Pinkberry. Franchisees are inherently entrepreneurial since they own and operate their own set of restaurants. Given their common experience, the franchisees I approached were really supportive of my own startup endeavors, and they also had the autonomy to green-light a pilot without seeking permission from others.
In general, doing some LinkedIn stalking and finding people with titles related to “Innovation” can also help isolate the kind of person who would be excited to get onboard with a new company first.
2. Get in touch
The step that probably seems the most daunting is actually getting in touch with your first potential partners. It’s of course most effective to get a warm intro, but that doesn’t necessarily mean relying on people you already know. Seeking out MeetUps and other events in my field helped me hone my pitch, introduced me to new friends, and also vastly expanded my network.
If a warm intro isn’t an option even after exploring industry events, there’s always the tried and tested cold email/call. It helps to reach out to people with whom you have something in common--from a shared alma mater, to a common hometown or former employer. My first partner was also a Cleveland transplant operating on the East Coast, and we bonded over a common love of the Cavs. However, in the absence of any overlap, there are lots of helpful resources to draft a compelling cold email.
3. Over-prepare, and get creative in building proof for your strategy
Once you’ve secured a call or meeting with your potential internal champion, it’s time to prep your presentation. In addition to knowing your own product inside and out, you can build legitimacy before having demonstrated results by proving yourself as an industry expert, and turning to independent field research to validate your claims.
First, you can prove that you’d be an asset to work with by walking into your first meeting with a deep understanding of recent trends affecting your potential partner’s company and industry. Setting Google Alerts for key terms related to your industry and potential partners makes it easy to stay on top of news even the day of your meeting.
Photo Courtesy of The Balance
4. Raise your own profile
In advance of your initial meeting, your potential partners will be researching you, too. Participating in industry events, conducting media outreach, and building a social media following are effective ways to build legitimacy prior to a meeting. This approach can also help make potential partners feel like they already know you before they’ve met you, and a positive first online impression can help compensate for the untested nature of a new product.
5. . Listen to feedback and follow up
After you meet a potential partner, be sure to press them for feedback on your product and ask about the most pressing problems they’re facing. One of the most valuable ways to improve your product is to listen to your potential customers’ feedback. Internalizing our partners’ stated needs and following up with proposed customizations needs drove immensely valuable evolution in our product.
Additionally, your customers are busy and naturally have competing priorities; I’ve found Chrome extensions like Boomerang are helpful in scheduling follow-ups once per week until hearing back.
While going from zero customers to one can be a challenge, remember that it only gets easier from there. Finding the right audience, building meaningful connections within your industry, doing your homework, and viewing pushback as constructive product feedback can turn a potentially daunting process into the foundation for a company the world needs.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.