A few years ago, my partner and I owned a company that built websites, mostly for well-funded start-ups. During that time, we got to watch a lot of earnest, well-intentioned people live their dream, fail at their dream, and then get angry when things didn't work out.
In every case, the beginning was hopeful. A smart founder or group of founders had a brilliant idea. Of course, the idea wasn't quite as brilliant as they thought, and there was way more competition than they had considered -- but if executed well, it was a good idea.
At one such company in its early days, I sat down with its founder, a top advisor, and the about-to-be CEO. They talked about all of the wonderful things they planned, which included some travel, some big promotions, and an office culture that would be loose on dress code and heavy on free food.
It all sounded nice -- and a lot like many of the start-ups I had worked with (or at) before -- but there was one key area they never brought up. So, of course, even though it had nothing to do with our position as web developers, I asked the question.
"Who's going to handle sales?"
There was no sales vice president or even a salesman in the budget. The answer I got was "everyone," which turned out to mean "no one," dooming at least that iteration of that company, despite the many smart, talented people involved.
Sales isn't everything, it's the only thing
No matter how good your idea is, at some point it needs to bring in money or you don't have a company. Even the most trusting funders won't be happy pouring hundreds of thousands into something that produces no revenue.
That means that even though it may take months, or in some cases longer, to get your start-up off the ground, you need to start selling from day one. Even if those early sales involve manual delivery or using smoke and mirrors to get the customer what they pay for, you need to produce revenue.
Since most start-ups won't have the luxury of a dedicated sales staff, selling falls to the founder. You need to get your hands dirty and do the work. Make the calls, Go to the trade shows. Knock on the doors. Do whatever it takes to both introduce your still-developing company and put some revenue into the pipeline.
Avoid the fake work trap
Sales work is easy to put off. I've seen an entire team at a start-up spend a day fine-tuning their logo or arguing about the colors of their website.
Those things may seem important, but they're not. Very few people are swayed to buy by a great logo, and the difference between a pretty good website and a great one will almost certainly not be the difference between success or failure.
Sales is the work that most needs to be done that you are most likely to put off. Don't trick yourself into being too busy to do it.
Money solves all problems
Sometimes what a start-up starts out as and what it becomes are very different things. That's fine if you can afford to pivot or have backers who trust you. The easiest way to make that happen is to sell from day one. If you have cash coming in, it's easier to either fund your own change or ask a funder for more cash.
You don't need to get all the way there on day one. Start with a single sale and show a pattern of growth. That may not guarantee success, but not selling is a sure way to guarantee failure.