Enterprise software sales are always a difficult task for a startup and something that is fundamentally different from the consumer market. Traditionally, enterprise software sales developed a reputation for being a long and bureaucratic process. However, recent technology movements such as the consumerization of IT, the popularity of open source technologies or the emergence of mobile devices have opened new avenues for products to get into the enterprise.
When thinking about selling to enterprises, there are two main models that will dictate the core of your strategy.
- Top-Down Sales: Some products get sold directly to a decision maker like a Chief Information Officer(CIO) or Chief Marketing Officer(CMO).
- Bottom-Up Sales: As an alternative to the top-down sales model, some technologies have the capability of getting adopted within enterprises by non-decision-makers such as developers or information workers before they make all the way to a decision maker.
While the top-down approach have been the cornerstone of enterprise software sales for decades, bottom-up models are a result of the new movements such as the consumerizaiton or IT or the democratization of software. As any new and evolutionary model, it’s very tempting for startups to try to embrace a bottom-up sales model. However, it’s important to realize that both models have very well defined strengths and weaknesses and, more importantly, they have a profound impact in the structure of your sales organization.
This model is great for generating revenue from every single customer. Additionally, a top-down sales model is essential to land large deals that need that become strategic to your customer.
The top-down sales approach typically comes at the cost of longer sales cycles that require a well-established sales force. Additionally, achieving relevant market share with this model is extremely resource intensive as your sales force needs to be involved in every deal.
The bottom-up model is great for achieving volume and spread your footprint within a wide customer base. This model does not typically require a large sales force and guarantees that your sales executives only get involved with a prospect after they have evaluated the product and are truly interested.
While achieving customer volume is great, the bottom-up sales model does not necessary conduct to revenue and might put you in a situation of supporting thousands of non-paying customers. The tech startup scene is full with stories of companies that were able to attract a massive number of non-paying customers before going out of business. More importantly, embracing a bottom-up approach requires a level of scalability that can become resource intensive for any startup.
Top-Down Does Not Mean Free
When embracing a bottom-up sales model, it’s important to realize that the model doesn’t necessarily require to offer a free entry point to the product (fermium). While fermium models makes a lot of sense as a top-down approach, there are plenty of scenarios on which enterprise software startups can charge a small nominal fee as a starting point.
Deciding whether to adopt a top-down or bottom-up sales model is essential to structure your sales organizations and customer acquisition processes. For some products, top-down and bottom-up approaches are mutually exclusive. However, technologies like Box, AWS, MongoDB have proven that you can effectively developed both sales models achieving large market share while also acquitting paying customers.