Missionary vs. evangelical technology sales

Martijn Rutten
9 min read

Does your product sell like hot cakes? In that case, you can skip to the next post. Yet if your startup sells or aims to sell disruptive technology, you are bound to have a missionary or (even worse) evangelical sales process.

Selling disruptive technology is a vastly different play from selling an improvement or extra feature to an existing product category. But how do you know your technology or product is so disruptive?

Here are some of the typical symptoms:

  • There is no competition. You are in a “Blue Ocean” (as opposed to the “red ocean” full of sharks that compete with your offering).
  • If you pitch the benefits of your product the typical response is a glazed look in the eyes of your prospect.
  • There are no market studies available and you do not really know the market size.
  • There is no good reference for pricing your product. There was no competition, remember?
  • Customers need to change their current way of working to adopt your product.
  • Adoption the product requires a serious effort from the customer.

Ok, so you are defining a new product category. That means you need to get the word out that your product is the best thing since sliced bread, and get them hooked on your dope.

This type of sales process boils down into missionary and/or evangelical sales. Missionary is the least involved of the two. Your religion is already known to the masses. You just need to convince them that it’s wise to convert. Evangelical sales is progressively more difficult. You first need to tell them about your religion, and why they need a religion in the first place. Only then comes the missionary part of explaining why they should convert to your religion.

What does this really mean for your startup and your chances in the market?

Missionary sales

With missionary sales, your prospects know the need and potential business benefit, but they haven’t seen the solution in action. Or worse, they believe the solution does not apply to them or is too cumbersome to adopt.

At Vector Fabrics, all prospects knew about Valgrind and Purify to find memory leaks in your code. But they also knew these tools were dog-slow, could not scale to millions of lines of code, and reported errors were often unintelligible for the developers. We were on a mission to prove our tool Pareon Verify could overcome each of these objections. that meant the burden of proof was on us.

Here’s the missionary sales approach:

  1. carefully select a niche market where the users have a clear latent need;
  2. convince the prospect they do have this latent need and the business benefit applies to them;
  3. prove there is a solution that indeed delivers on the promise;
  4. prove that your solution has the highest value proposition over competition;
  5. closely work with the customer to create a product that matches 100% to their needs. As opposed to a great technology that caters to 80% of the needs of any customer.

The risk is that you educate the customer on the benefits of competing solutions. But as you have brought the value proposition to the customer, if your solution works, you often get the benefit of bypassing their competitive analysis in the first sale. The take away is to know how you differentiate and be ready to prove the added value over competition.

Crossing the chasm

The close integration and contact with the customer means a heavy involvement of field application engineers (FAEs), sales, and support. Your business scales only as fast as you can scale these people. Hence it is vital to get out of this mode as fast as possible. The high-touch sales is needed to cross the chasm and win the first niche markets. Once you win a number of related niches, your product may take off. To make sure this not only will happen, but also can happen, you need to design your offering for scalability from the get go. That often means you need to have a different business and deployment model ready for when the market is ready to fly. Can you bring down the complexity to sell your product online? Can you move from a corporate business model to a pay-as-you-go model?

So how do you get through this process and out of the missionary position (pun intended)?

  • Move from direct sales and cold calling to generating inbound leads. Start with inbound marketing to establish yourself as the authority on the subject.
  • Acquire customer references and turn customers into active sales persons. Read up on Seth Godin’s inverted funnel to save your time in convincing and proving.
  • Hire a true deal closer to get past procurement and arguments like “you are not ready”, “you have an immature product”, or the typical slicing tricks of keeping asking for more proof (and your time) before committing.
  • Forge big brother alliances to leverage their credibility in your sales process.
  • Scale with specialist resellers that have local representation, FAEs and support staff. Especially if the reseller has an existing customer base, you can leverage their relationship of trust to introduce your offering.
  • Qualify your prospects! As the missionary sales process is expensive, you better make sure you spend it on the right customer. Don’t spend time pulling on a dead horse.
  • Map the value stream of your sales process and define performance indicators (KPIs) on the length of each step in the sales process. Then try to reduce the total sales cycle.
  • Closely manage your resellers to make sure they learn and keep pushing.

Evangelical sales

What about evangelical sales? Customers don’t know they have a need. They are happy with the status quo. I’ve seen automotive companies writing all code by hand in assembly while there was a good C-compiler available. Why? That’s how they always did it. Never change a winning team.

Our Pareon Profile product helped software developers to parallelize existing C/C++ code onto a multicore, e.g., octa-core processor. In selling this product, we first needed to sell the pain of software only running on a single core. And using up all the battery life while at it. Then we needed to convince the prospect that their code could actually benefit from parallelism. Only once we proved that parallelism was possible and indeed improved battery life, we got to selling our solution as a means to get there.

Interestingly if you are the one to give the prospect the insight into their latent need, you have their trust and become the preferred supplier on their list of potential solutions.

Here’s the evangelical sales approach:

  1. convince the prospect they have a need or problem;
  2. convince them there is a solution with a clear business benefit;
  3. now they are ready for the missionary sale, see steps 3 to 5 above.

Note that step 1 and 2 are all about the “problem-solution fit”. Is there a problem that is worth solving? Steps 3 through 5 are about the “product-market fit”. Is there an actual product that can deliver the benefits?

Evangelical sales is always missionary.

How do you get through an evangelical sales process as a startup?

  • Follow the lean startup process: make sure the founders “get out of the building”, create and validate hypotheses with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), and listen and be ready to pivot to the specific customer need.
  • This process needs a business developer that forges strong relationship face to face. Establishing trust is a lengthy process. Don’t rush it.
  • You need to become the authority or thought leader. That is a good match with traditional PR and content creation. Get some editorial pieces in.
  • Carefully pick your prospects. Select those with the largest need that are open to innovation. Make sure you have or can forge a good relationship and they are ready to work with you. Often getting the prospect in this mode needs external pull from their customers, so start at the end of the value chain.
  • Start in a clearly defined niche where you can establish yourself more easily as a thought leader and you can intimately learn the market needs.
  • Create “foot soldiers”, enthusiasts for your technology, e.g., in the open source community. These will never convert into customers, but will help you to establish your credibility.
  • Evangelism needs an evangelist. A person that people can believe in. Steve Jobs. Pick on of your startup’s founders to fulfill this role and make sure he/she shines. Consistently.
  • Don’t do demos! Really, don’t. Everybody loves to see new technology but you are wasting time. Demo only once you checked commitment on the need and promise. Make sure the prospect checks out. We once had < insert big semiconductor company name here > show great enthusiasm for our technology, inviting us to talk to more and more of their architects. Finally we asked them point blank if they would buy. Their answer: “eh, no.” We immediately pulled the plug and banged our heads for getting sucked in like that.
  • Avoid selling snake oil. Reputation and reliability is key in a long-term relationship that evangelical sales needs. Under promise and over-deliver.
  • Try to quantify the business benefit as best as possible. Don’t forget that your guess is always better than theirs as you are the thought leader.

Tim Ferris’ adage holds here:

big ideas have more likelihood of success than small ones.

For large corporations it is easier to invest in a business promise than in a small advantage.

The bottom line

Evangelism often requires 10 years to get the product in the market, and then 10 years to grow to the market leader. The market potential has to be huge to warrant this. Such a long time frame requires investors with deep pockets and patient capital. Qualify your investors on this ability to avoid spending all your time raising too little too often. Also here it is usually better to think big than to think small, as it is easier to get funding for big ideas.

If you have a missionary sales process, that needs convincing to show investors you can scale fast enough. Faster than you can add FAEs and sales people. Know how to scale up when the product category takes off. You need to plan your go-to-market extremely carefully to scale as fast as possible. Consider growth hacks and carefully select sales partners that can leverage their existing network. Here, the biggest risk is you one-day wake up and discover your once-promising technology startup has become a service shop.

How do you win souls for your technological heaven?


About Martijn Rutten

Fractional CTO & technology entrepreneur with a long history in challenging software projects. Former CTO of scale-up Insify, changing the insurance space for SMEs. Former CTO of fintech scale-up Othera, deep in the world of securitized digital assets. Coached many tech startups and corporate innovation teams at HighTechXL. Co-founded Vector Fabrics on parallelization of embedded software. PhD in hardware/software co-design at Philips Research & NXP Semiconductors. More about me.