Top 8 things I’ve learned from sales to Silicon Valley startups

During the last seven months, I’ve learned quite a bit about sales, recruitment and business in general, in the tech capital of the world. Here are my biggest learnings from having way too many late night conversations from Finland, and spending almost 2 months in the San Francisco Bay Area, meeting mostly startup founders and executives.
1. Successful startup founders are normal people just like you and me.
They’re not born geniuses or tech wizards. What makes the difference, is that they just work a bit harder, they’re a bit more passionate about what they do, and they endure risks and pressure better than average people. The best person to reach out to in a early stage startup is usually a founder, since they’re open to any proposal or opportunity which allows their company to grow faster.
 2. Startup people in the Bay Area are eager to help you out, but they always expect something in return.
When you’re meeting someone, almost always the question “so, what can I do to help you?” comes up, followed by some kind of a proposal in return. Based on my experience in Finland, the culture of giving back here is more strongly based on actually giving back and doing good for the sake of doing so, not on having someone owe you down the road.

3. Nordic talent and societies are so amazing, that it’s ridiculous.
The most common reaction from a US founder is a disbelieving laughter, when I tell them that we actually get paid to go to school. When I top that off by explaining about the educational freedom allowing people to pursue full-time work or projects aside studies, and how almost all university students graduate as Masters, the reaction is often either admiring, jealous, or a combination of those.
4. People buy into the “why” easier than the “what” or “how”.
I always talk about Slush, Startup Sauna, and how the whole student-run, non-profit startup ecosystem is designed to produce world-class talent and companies – and thus make an impact on the whole Finnish economy. When people realize that we’re not just another recruitment agency trying to make money, they see a noble purpose that they’d like to support and, subsequently, are more open to the “what” and “how” of our program.
5. You can, and you should, exaggerate a bit when you’re selling to people from the US.
If you’re not rounding numbers up just a little (all the others are doing it!), you’ll have a harder time communicating the amazing things you’re doing. The feedback that I’ve received on our Finnish applicants from surprised US recruiters, is often something like “these guys have actually done all the things that they’ve said they’re done on their resume!” In the US, it’s more common to drop a few white lies every here and there in your application or in a sales presentation.
 6. Recruitment is one of the hardest things for growing startups in the Bay Area.
There are thousands of other small startups competing for the same talent with option plans and passionate missions. And of course, then there are all the established tech giants pouring ridiculous amounts of money into attracting talent. The best way to get great people to join your company still seems to be through networks, which might be non-existent to the first-time founders who have just moved to town. That’s why companies are more than willing to hire through Startuplifers as we offer them a pool of quality talent that no-one else in the Bay Area has connections to.
 7. Artificial intelligence is the hottest thing right now in Silicon Valley.
While bitcoin, ICOs, and blockchains are all over the media currently, it’s still fairly early days for the technology. Everyone knows that blockchain will be huge, but fewer people know about the practical side of how and what to do with the technology yet. And honestly, there just aren’t that many blockchain startups out there yet. On the other hand, almost all companies already have large amounts of data and need new ways of processing and utilizing it, making machine learning engineers and data scientists the most in-demand talent in the Valley right now.
 8. You have to know the lingo, the conventions, and especially the people to get around.
If you’re talking to an AI company, it doesn’t really create confidence in your counterpart, if you ask “so, what’s a Series A or NLP anyways?” during the meeting. Also, you can’t get in touch with people (at least the folks who can truly help you), if you can’t get anyone to introduce you to them. And because everything revolves around knowing and trusting people, and making introductions, people have a lot more than just their reputation on the line when they introduce you to someone. If they think you’re not yet ready for the introduction and nobody will benefit from it, they won’t do it.
 
It’s surely been a fantastic rollercoaster ride of learning by doing, and I’ve met some of the loveliest people along the way – especially my team members Laura, Mirva and Veera, and all the awesome current and previous Startuplifers. For anyone interested in skyrocketing their skills or career, and being involved with the latest tech in the most interesting cities in the world, I highly recommend applying to the program, or to work in the Startuplifers team!
 


Aapo also wrote a piece about his latest trip to San Francisco and what he learned there be sure to check it out here!

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