Startup Sales: $40 Million in 3 Years to the Fortune 500

The Fortune 500 can be an intimidating target for startup sales, but Curiosity's Michael Burke says his approach works every time.

Michael Burke is the Head of Partnerships at Curiosity. Burke has also founded and owned several other businesses. Read on for a transcript of his presentation from our January 27, 2017 Here’s How Startup Marketing Conference where he describes how he used knowledge, partnerships and team building to garner revenue for his business Apps savvy.

I'm Michael Burke, I run strategy and partnerships for Curiosity. Curiosity is a media company based here in Chicago. We create about a hundred pieces of content a week that you can access through our social channels, our apps, and emails. Our goal is to help get you smarter while entertaining you with everything we create, so definitely download our app or follow us.

My background is in digital media and advertising. I've been working in the Internet since the late '90s with big companies like Yahoo, and started my own businesses. What I'm going to talk about today is one of the companies I started; not Curiosity, because Curiosity in terms of growth and revenue is just getting started, but I have a roadmap that I'm following based on the last business I started.

The company was called Appssavvy. The situation was that their social media was launching– there were lots of businesses in social media, and social networking, and apps, and all of that was growing.

Social media was becoming what consumers did. This is where consumers spent their time. Brands, therefore said, "We need to advertise in there, we need to be a part of apps." The challenge was, brands didn't know how to talk to social media companies and social media companies had no clue how to work with a big brand. How does Procter and Gamble talk to a startup out of San Francisco? So we decided to start a company to do specifically that. Our first tagline was, "Bridging the gap between Palo Alto and Madison Avenue." And so, we launched the business, and when launching the business, being in Chicago, we all know if you've raised money, investors want you to have revenue from day one oftentimes.

So, how do we get revenue from day one?

1.  I launched with a clear focus

Literally, the most important thing was launching with a clear focus. What are we doing as a business? As I said, the need was to fill the gap between social media and brands, and we did nothing else, and when a brand would say "Can you help me with this?” our response would be, "No, I can't. What I can help you with is a social media strategy, and that's it."

2.  I marketed the opportunity with a perspective

What that led to is number two, which is to have a perspective. Is social media is here to stay? You bet it is. You're going to have naysayers challenge you, and so having a perspective, having perspectives on competitors in the marketplace, who's good, who's bad, is important. Don't be afraid to say it.

I can remember days of going to events like this with other startups in the space and other companies literally getting in arguments, but that was just how passionate we were about our perspective. It just gives you cache, it gives you credibility that at least you have something and you stand for something.

So for us, in terms of approaching a client on that, a big brand, it's, "Why aren't you doing this?" Then make them comfortable with the fact that it's not risky, it's not scary, it's not that different. So, it's getting them to feel comfortable, and the fact that, yes, it's new, but it's not risky.

3.  I hired PR quickly

That led us to three, which is hire PR quickly. We knew we had a perspective, we knew it was important to be big, we knew it was important to get everywhere as quickly as possible and we were a small team, and so we knew PR would be effective. And the only reason we knew PR would be effective was because we knew we had strong opinions, and we knew we had a story to tell, and we knew we were knowledgeable.

I remember shortly after we started a meeting with Facebook, and I was going through our story and I said, "We have seven employees," which was a lie; we had four, but I wanted to sound bigger, and he nearly fell off his chair saying, "You only have seven employees? You guys are everywhere. I thought you have hundreds of employees!" So that was just a proof point that it was working, that we wanted to be considered scrappy and growing, but we also didn't want to be considered small, so PR helped with that.

One of the secrets of PR is, and I've gotten this pushback before, it's like, you go to conferences, what really happens? I found some of the best things about PR was getting on panels, going to a conference for free as a speaker, and then meeting other folks in the speaker room. You look at a conference and you see who is speaking, those are the folks you want to meet generally; it's the other speakers.

4.  I built a team

Building a team, initially was, and it may sound weird, but to support me. I knew what I wanted to do, I knew I had a lot to do. We needed to get revenue. I needed to be in a lot of places. So the initial hires of the team were folks that, if I looked at the 70 hours, 80 hours a week I was working, what things am I doing that are taking away from my ability to drive revenue? And where can I bring in people to help with those tasks?

I hired an assistant, much to the chagrin of some of our investors. I had an assistant because I was spending a lot of time scheduling meetings, and the $45,000 a year I spent on my assistant was a lot more effective in terms of driving revenue. I brought in an account manager; someone to be in the office everyday while I was running around the country going to conferences and speaking on panels, and it was very helpful.

It was largely, initially, how can I spend more time myself doing things that matter for the business rather than things that take away a lot of my time and I'm frankly not that best at? We can have someone help do that, that's how I decided who to hire first. Eventually we knew we needed specific roles, specific skill sets, but largely it was, who can help in the needs of the business?

5.  I sold our knowledge

We sold our knowledge, and that's something that I learned quickly. I've been in sales, I've been in marketing, I've been at leadership companies, and selling knowledge, it's always something you say, but what does that really mean?

Every sales person I talk to, I say, "Think about your meetings with your clients –They should pay you for that meeting, because they do pay people to come in and teach them things. You are knowledgeable about the market, that's your job to be knowledgeable about what you sell in the market you're in. They should pay you." So, that was something that's very valuable and I carry with me ever since.

6.  I made responsiveness our most important “process”

Responsiveness is our most important process, and that's something in terms of when you're growing, when you're trying to build credibility, being responsive to clients is so key and it always boggles my mind that when I talk to clients and they say, "Yeah, I reached out to so-and-so, he didn't get back to me for two weeks."

Even if have you have nothing to say, respond. We had a rule, kind of a one in 24 rule, which is respond to every email from a potential client within an hour, and have a resolution within 24 hours or a plan. If it's a complaint of some sort, resolution; if it's a plan, say we'll get you a proposal, we'll set a meeting, do something. That builds credibility and frankly, it builds rapport.

Having conversations over email isn't always the best thing, but if you respond quickly and then they respond quickly, we quickly went back and forth together, and that helped. Being responsive, as a process, as a tactic, and an approach is so key to building credibility with clients. I think, by having tactics like that, it sets the tone that customers are very important.

7.  I asked new hires: “Are we doing this right?”

Hiring becomes the point when we would oftentimes just take a deep breath and learn, "Are we doing this the right way? This person is about to join the company. We're about to pay this person 75 grand. I'm about to write a check every week or every month for $7,000, whatever it is. What are they going to be doing? What are we doing? How are we going to make sure they're successful?"

Oftentimes, when you hire and grow, if you don't stop and take a deep breath and look around, all of a sudden the person's there and he's two months into it and you're like, "Wait, how many times have we talked? What just happened? What are you doing?" A new hire really helps a business, not only because they're fulfilling a role, but because they're actually just a new person, a new mindset, a new perspective, something to the business that has to be garnered.

That's the quick and dirty approach, there's a lot of details behind that, but what we did and whatever happened, we launched the business in March and we did $3 million by the end of the year, and then year two was $12 million, year three was $25 million. So that's the $40 million in three years' approach that we did. Throughout the three years, that's exactly what happened and it worked. We worked with the biggest brands and never had to worry about, "Are we're able to work with McDonald's or Samsung when they're huge and they're also working with Yahoo and Facebook and Google?" That was no issue because we stuck true to those talking points before.