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👔 How to run a great demo when you’re not a sales person

  • GTM, Product
Sparky the boldstart mascot wearing a tie.

In early stage startups, before the sales team exists (and arguably for a long time after) everyone is a salesperson. Learning how to demo your product well means you’ll be able to hire for those dedicated roles a lot sooner!

In this post, I’ll walk you through some of the tips I’ve picked up from pros on presenting a product to potential customers or design partners.

Do some research

It pays to do some planning before diving into a demo — get to know a bit about the industry your potential customer is in, their business, and about the team and their product. You want to make the person you’re demoing to feel less like a sales target and more like a valued partner — so a bit of research goes a long way in helping here. As a side effect, being more prepared will help you feel more confident in your delivery.

It might seem like a lot of unnecessary effort to do a bunch of up-front prep, but remember, the purpose of doing demos isn’t to get through a presentation — it’s to get potential customers to the next stage.

Once you’ve done this research a few times, you’ll get faster. Start by blocking off 15–20 minutes before a call, and once you’ve given a few demos to similar companies, you’ll be able to bring that down to 10.

To start your research, begin at the top and zoom in. Make notes have have these to hand for your call.

Understand the nuances of the industry

Different industries have different challenges that, depending on your product, you might be able to lean into: Finance and Healthcare are heavily regulated. B2C companies typically rely a lot on usage metrics. E-commerce platforms are very sensitive to downtime because it directly impacts their revenue. Travel companies have seasonal spikes. Consider how your product can cater to these nuances, and ensure you’re highlighting that in your demo.

Find out about the business

Do some research on the company you’re presenting to. The company’s LinkedIn page will show you whether the company size is growing or shrinking. If it’s growing, they’ll care about things like how you’ll help ramp up new employees quickly. If it’s shrinking, they likely won’t be interested unless the product is going to help them cut costs by reducing line items or by helping them save money elsewhere.

Also consider whether the market they’re in is highly competitive — can your product help them get ahead? Are they likely to have modern engineering practices? If not, can you speak to how your product can fit in with existing workflows? This is a good place to have some case studies to hand.

Learn what you can about the team

You can get a lot of information about teams from LinkedIn, but don’t be afraid to ask questions during the demo. Useful things to know include roughly how many people are in the team who’ll be using your product (for ballpark pricing, if seat-based), and what the reporting structure looks like (so you know how many decision makers you need to get on board). While you’re doing this part of your research, see if you have any mutual connections that are worth casually mentioning.

Get to know their product

If you can, try their product out. It can be useful to pick up some of the vocabulary within the product which you might need to refer to later.

Learn what software they’re currently using — sites like builtwith.com will give you an overview. This will give you an idea of the tech stack as well.

And most importantly, learn who the competition is, and make sure you’re not using their products for the demo!

Show, don’t tell

Nobody says on seeing the product “actually, I’d like to see some slides”. The best way to showcase your product is by showing the product. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a deck — they can be handy as a (very short) jumping off point, or to have to hand if you need to pull up some diagrams. Better still if you can pull up this information from your public docs so your documentation becomes part of the demo.

Take the time to build a great demo environment — one that tells the best story about your product. If it has a dashboard or some kind of reporting area, make sure it’s rich with data. Ensure that data is visualised going in the direction you’d want your customers to see if they were successfully using the product. Add your team as team members in the workspace so you can show off any collaboration features, and also be prepared to demonstrate how permissions work if that comes up (which it frequently does).

If you don’t yet have a demo environment or are presenting a concept with mockups, add their logo. Make them feel like they’re already a customer.

Make it personal

Now you’ve done your research, it’s time to demo. When you’re ready to go, resist the urge to plough straight in with a presentation. This is a conversation, not a video you’re hitting play on. Start with curiosity. Ask them questions about their role. Ask them what their goals are. You’re doing this to pick up on areas they may be looking for help with as well as build a rapport. As they answer, you should be making mental notes on what parts of the product to show them that will best showcase solving their pain.

If you’re a fan of their product, say so! In previous roles, any time I demoed to a company I had swag from, I’d make sure to incorporate that into the call — either wearing their shirt or drinking from a mug with their logo on it. I once presented a demo to an online fitness company while using their product. I tried to pick a light workout but I was out of breath the whole time — not my smartest idea but they did become a customer! Ok, that probably wasn’t why they signed up — they no doubt loved the product — but I think it got us a few points and I couldn’t imagine our competition doing that.

A shout-out to the pre-demo demo

A cold-outreach technique I’m seeing more of is to send a short, personalised demo to a decision maker. Done well, these can pique enough interest from the viewer to be a door-opener for a longer conversation (and a more in-depth demo).

Loom has a thorough guide on creating great product demo videos and they advise keeping it to below 3 minutes, ideally 1 minute, which doesn’t give you a whole lot of time — so pick one relevant pain point to showcase. They also emphasise the importance of making it personal. I’d add to this to make sure you’re sending these videos to the right people in the org, and to offer as low-friction a way as possible for the recipient to book a chat with you.

When it’s not a good fit

There will be times you’ll get on a demo and it becomes clear pretty quickly that what you’re offering isn’t right for the company you’re trying to sell to.

Often, the pain you’re solving isn’t something they’re experiencing. In this case, ask if there are places they’ve worked in the past that have had this pain — and if so, be cheeky and ask for an introduction to someone in their former team.

If they’re not sold because of a feature that’s still in your roadmap, keep in touch with them and offer to demo it when it’s ready.

If the price is turning them off, or they’re not open to buying new tools, try some of the tips in my post on selling the value of dev tools. I also have a post on competing against internally developed tools if they express a desire to build your product themselves.

Finally, don’t forget to keep track of all this feedback for your Priorities Pulse session. You’re running one of those, right? 😉