I work with a lot of startups on positioning and one of the most gaping holes is always references. When I ask the question, “Who is willing to say that your solution is awesome?” the answer is always, “No one, we don’t have customers (or willing customers) yet.” They then expect me to move on to my next question, but instead I dig in my heels. Because you can get references! You just need to know where to look.

Top places to get references – other than customers

First of all, references don’t all have to testify that your solution worked for them. As an early stage startup you need to prove there is a problem and prove that your solution is the best way to solve that problem before you can have customers to validate the above. So instead of jumping to validation, let’s look at ways you can get the proof points you need to get those early customers.

References to prove there is a problem

  • Industry analysts – as a trusted source for your buyer, quotes or research reports from industry analysts can be very effective to prove the existence of the problem.
  • Influencers/experts – If experts are writing about it in social media, speaking about it at a conference, etc. you can take any public statements and use them as proof points.
  • News articles – if your problem makes the news, showing sensational headlines on a slide is a great way to convey and validate that the problem exists.
  • Survey of target buyers – If the problem is so early that it isn’t on anyone’s radar yet, but ideal customers are indeed feeling the pain, then ask them about it. Either with friendly calling or a formal survey, get their data and opinions on what is happening and why it is making their lives miserable.

References to prove your solution solves the problem

  • Industry analysts – even if you don’t pay for analyst services, the analysts like to stay on top of the latest solutions in the market. You can contact them and set up a demo to show them your wares. Some analysts have stricter rules on quotes than others, but be sure to ask them if you can quote them on how your technology solves the problem – not that you are the best solution. Let them know it will only be used in a sales presentation and you will have some success here.
  • Influencers/experts – Go on a virtual roadshow. Influencers love to know about the latest and greatest just like analysts. Reach out to as many as possible and start doing lots of demos. Just like the analysts, ask for their feedback on how your solution addresses the needs of the market. Most will be honored to be quoted as long as it isn’t a claim of best product.
  • Target buyers – Form an advisory council of C-levels at your target accounts. Tell them you want product advice and the commitment is 4 meetings a year. Really, you hope to start relationships to begin to sell into them, but they don’t need to know that. Start with a product demo, get their feedback and ask for their statements. Again, not that you are the best solution, but that you address a specific need. Better yet, that you do it in a unique way.
  • Retired target buyers – Often overlooked, former C-levels have a ton of credibility and are likely a bit bored in their retirement. Their title alone still gives them clout so don’t hesitate to ask for their opinions on your solution as well! Especially if you are having difficulty recruiting active target buyers for the advisory council.

References to validate that you have the best solution

  • Free trial/pilot – Whether you have a freemium model or not, there will typically be some pilots and free use of product before deals get made. Make sure you don’t put in the effort for this without getting agreement that they can validate some good points about your solution.
  • Deep discount – Similar to free trials, early customers may get the desperation discount. But don’t offer the price cut unless it is tied to referenceability!
  • Early customers – Most founders tell me that their customers aren’t ready or willing to provide a testimonial. But the reality is that most are afraid to ask. The trick is in how you position it. Tell them that you don’t expect them to boast about ROI if they haven’t realized it yet, but what else can they say about your solution? See if you can get them to comment on any of the following:
    • Is it easy to use?
    • Was implementation smooth?
    • Do you have a responsive customer support team?
    • Have any small improvements been made?
    • Is it making anyone’s work life easier?

Many references beat one testimonial

While you may not yet be in a position to get the quote that “Your solution changed my life – I can’t live without it!” there are clearly many more avenues to pursue to obtain references. I would argue that having proof points throughout the education process will continue to lend credibility that is much more powerful to a prospect than a single testimonial. Now go get some references!