Sell It Before You Build It

You’re going to have to sell it eventually, so why not sell it first?

If you’re new around here, “it” is your product or service. And since you’re here, you probably have one of those (or want to have one someday). My guess is you’d like to make money off of it. That requires one thing. Ok, it requires more than one thing, but it definitely requires this — selling. 

But here’s the problem. Most people who start companies don’t start them because they like to sell. Engineers (frequently) build products because they’re frustrated with a technical issue and enjoy challenges. Product people (usually) build products because they have a cool hypothesis about how the world works and want to test it. Very few people, and we’re talking rare unicorns here, build something because what they enjoy most in life is sales and dealing with customers. 

In fact, I’d say many people who build products do so in part because they want to AVOID dealing with other people, much less try to sell them anything. But eventually, you’ll have to talk to customers. The question is, do you do it before you build anything and validate they’ll pay for all the work you’re about to do, or do you do it after you’ve spent all your time, money and effort to create something, only to find out no one cares. 

We both know the answer, but you’d be surprised how many people choose the wrong one. You’d be surprised how many times I’VE chosen the wrong one. Please don’t be one of those people.

But Eric (and Megan) you ask, how do I sell something I haven’t already built? To which I reply, ask Elon Musk. In 2016, he stood on a stage and showed the world his concept of the Model 3 Tesla. To be clear, it wasn’t built yet. But in under a week, Tesla announced they had pre-sold more than 325,000 Model 3s, corresponding to more than $14 billion in future sales. They took a $1,000 (refundable) deposit, and in less than 7 days, Musk had raked in more than $300 million for a car that you couldn’t test drive, let alone take home.

If you’re thinking, “Well, yeah, fuck, I’m no Elon,” well, you’re right. But look at any Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign. Millions of people are making real money off of products they have yet to build. Still unsure? Ask a software development shop, building contractor or any other service provider how they make money. They all sell their product before delivering anything. 

This isn’t something you can outsource either. As a founder, CEO, or both, YOU are responsible for your first 20-30 sales. It’s the best, and only, way to figure out what your customer truly wants. Before you ever hire a salesperson, you need to write their sales playbook: how to identify and qualify prospects, what they’re really looking for, what objections they’ll raise and how to overcome them, and on and on.

If you don’t want to talk to customers ALL THE TIME and RIGHT NOW, don’t be the founding CEO of a company. If you want to be the founder of a company and you don’t like talking to customers, you better be able to code or design. A startup only needs so many founders, and one (maybe two) spend more time talking Python than English.

Bottom line:  If you want to start a company, start by talking to lots of potential customers. Because any customer who truly has a problem will commit to paying for a solution before that solution is built, as long as they have an out if you don’t deliver.

One important phrase to note however, “commit to paying.” We’ll talk more about that with a friend and colleague of mine, Chris, next week in Part 2.

— Eric Marcoullier

Worried you’re not a salesperson? You’d be surprised. Sales more than anything else is a frame of mind, and what seems distasteful about sales can often be flipped into something far more palatable — evangelism — without actually doing anything differently. If you’d like to chat for an (complimentary) hour and talk about what’s keeping you from truly understanding your market’s needs, just send an email to or visit my coaching site at

(Photo by Nainoa Shizuru on Unsplash)

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