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Bob Marsh

When it comes to making big sales in the business-to-business space for startups, conventional wisdom dictates it gets easier after delivering on that first order to a major corporation. The toughest part is landing that initial big client.

Often startups toil for years doing work for small- and mid-size businesses, but not one major Fortune 500 corporation. It can take a long time before decision-makers feel safe enough taking a chance on an unproven startup, regardless of how dynamic and innovative its technology.

"That's the mentality," says Bob Marsh, CEO of LevelEleven, a mobile app startup based in downtown Detroit. "With a big company, there are lots of people who are afraid of making a mistake. It makes them feel better if they know they are not the guinea pigs."

LevelEleven makes an enterprise gamification app that is native to the salesforce platform. The app helps motivate sales professionals and track their progress. The 18-month-old startup now has a staff of 20 employees and three interns servicing a growing client list of big names, including PayPal and Tiffany & Co.

Of course it helps that LevelEleven spun out of HelloWorld (formerly ePrize) and is a venture-backed startup receiving help from the likes of Detroit Venture Partners. However, early on LevelEleven had to fight for its first big customer just like everyone else. Comcast signed on within three months of the app’s Beta going live, making the cable company the first big win for the startup. Marsh points out the business relationship got its start when a representative from Comcast came by LevelEleven’s both at the Dreamforce conference, and LevelEleven was ready to pitch its technology.

"They didn't come by our booth with an order form," Marsh says. "They came buy because it was interesting."

When it comes to landing that first big customer, it helps to have your product ready to pitch, Marsh says. He adds that finding the more open-minded companies can make the difference in making a sale.

"You need to figure out how to use your network and strengths," Marsh says. "You need to find the innovative companies."

He adds that startups should respect their own technology's value and charge their first clients. "I don’t think you should give the product away," Marsh says. "But you can give them the deal of the century."

LevelEleven's app is also built on the salesforce platform. Using a popular software platform that has already gone mainstream helps make customers feel more comfortable with it while also lending technical credibility to the final product.

Another ingredient, and one of the most important, to big-sales success is comfort. The startup’s sales team should feel comfortable pitching big clients, confident in its ability to deliver, and relaxed throughout the process. In Marsh's case, he spent most of his career making sales to big corporate players.

"If you have the experience you feel comfortable calling on big companies," Marsh says. "If you don’t you need to fake it a little. You need to feel comfortable."

- Written by Jon Zemke

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