Start With “A”

Back in the day, I lost my Navy ROTC scholarship to Tulane University after my freshman year. I’ll pause now so you can all recover from the shock that, yes, at one point I was going to join the Navy. The guy with long hair and black nailpolish was a midshipman. But the week before classes started, they took us out on a 50-foot training schooner, and I immediately became so seasick I could no longer function. Between that and a pronounced lack of interest in attending university classes, the Navy suggested we go our separate ways. So I moved home.

I attended community college for a few semesters and one day my mom, fed up with paying for my life, told me I needed a job. “But Mommmmmm,” I whined, “I don’t know how to find a job.” She handed me the Yellow Pages (yes, the real book) and told me, “Call everyone. Start with A.”

So, that’s what I did. I called maybe two dozen companies, and in two days I had a job as a host at a Hibachi grill (Asian restaurants). That job sucked and, thankfully, a week later a law firm (Attorneys) called me back and asked me to work in their mail room, so I spent six months working for Gray Harris Robinson Kirschenbaum & Peeples. 

Now, my mom could be a stone cold bitch. But she also knew what too many people I’ve talked to lately don’t — that the more you’re talking about or thinking about doing something, the less you’re actually doing anything. Sure, there’s a time and a place for thinking and talking, but at the end of the day, the only way to get work done is by doing. So, start with A.

Recently, a CEO was complaining to me about his salespeople. He was frustrated they weren’t making much progress, but when I asked them how many people they were talking to, he said that the two of them were talking to a combined eight to 10 people each WEEK. Holy hell, I said, they EACH need to be talking to that many people, every single day

They gave the CEO lots of excuses, saying they don’t have the right materials and they needed a finished prototype and they needed to figure out how to better segment their prospects. 

Seriously, fuck that noise.

How are they ever going to figure what the market needs until they start talking to people? You base your materials on what language resonates with prospects. You segment your market based upon which prospects convert. And don’t fucking tell me you need a prototype to hold initial conversations and gauge interest. Get your ass out there and talk to people!

Since the company works in the mental health space and is based in Vermont, I told him to grab the local yellow pages, turn to T for therapists, and have one salesperson start with A and the other with Z. Just pick up the phone, call them, tell them what you’re working on, and see who’s interested. It’s not about closing, it’s about learning how to close. And the only way to do that is to talk to people.

The fact is that whenever you’re in the early stages of customer development, and you’re making excuses for why you can’t call more people, the only response (at least from me) is to hand you a phone book and say start with A. 

Millenials in particular are terrible at this. For some reason, anyone born after 1980 has stopped believing in the concept of a phone as a tool for real-time audio conversation. My buddy Ian Bogost wrote an article about this phenomenon years ago. Y’all just hate to use the phone. So let me tell you, right now, if you’re 27 and you’re trying to start a company, get over yourself, pick up your cell phone and start calling people. 

Let me say it louder for the people in the back, EMAIL AND LINKEDIN WON’T WORK. Even Compliable (formerly known as Rebric) who hired a person purely to break LinkedIn still had to make phone calls eventually. In fact, they used the relative difficulty of calling people from different verticals to determine which markets they would further explore. Because if it’s that hard just to get someone on the phone, imagine how hard it will be to sell them anything. 

With another client of mine, we’ve found that when the CEO can get a prospect on the phone, he’s closing more than 50 percent of them.. But when he sends an email or LinkedIn message, he gets such a low response rate that he can’t ever get them on the phone. So, he’s just started calling people. If the only reason you’re emailing someone is to get them on a call, let me give you permission to skip that step.

To be fair, this is harder for B2C companies than B2B. But it’s still not a step you can skip. If you want to start a B2C company for jugglers and can’t figure out how to talk to jugglers, do something else! You have to acquire your customers, one phone call at a time. 

Stop overthinking it, because early on you have one goal: to have real conversations with your customers and find out their problems. If you’re having a rough time assembling a list of people in your market to call, then think hard whether this is a business you really want to build. Because until you’ve talked to your market, you’re just guessing. And if it’s really that hard to talk to people, then you’re just making your sales process that much more difficult.

And if you can find/buy/build a list, well then, start with A. 

— Eric Marcoullier

The whole reason I write Obvious Startup Advice is because complex problems often have straightforward solutions. Not easy, but straightforward. My job as a startup coach is to remind founders who are wrapped up in all the minutia that they just need to go out and grind. As a result, “Start With A” is a refrain that some of my clients really begin to loath hearing, simply because it’s code for “there is no easy answer, just do the fucking work.” And that’s what founders often need to hear.

If having a coach in your corner sounds like something you would like, then drop me a note at or visit my coaching site.

(Photo by Krysten Winstead on Unsplash)

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