In 1994 Curtiss Pope’s first job was as a grocery store clerk. Only 15, he couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a document to show customers which aisle had the bread and which aisle had the dairy. “I had to be well versed in the store layout,” remembers Pope. Fast-forward to 2008; Pope, now a software engineer, was on a grocery run with his wife when he got a spark of inspiration. He wanted to create a mobile app to help customers navigate their stores. That’s exactly what he did.
The app, AisleFinder, helps shoppers find their grocery items based on their shopping list. It also provides users with coupons and collects information about shoppers’ habits. Pope’s wife, along with several of his friends and family, thought it was a great idea and gave him moral support; along with $22,000.
Unfortunately, the national grocery store chains didn’t feel the same way. It took a year and a half before Pope, and his four-person staff, were able to get a pilot deal with national grocery retailer, Safeway Inc. After a lot of coaxing the store agreed that starting this January they would endorse his app in 40 of their stores across California.
Although AisleFinder still has a long way to go, Pope says that the deal with Safeway is already opening doors to other retailers. Here are his 10 tips for closing a deal with a national brand.
Research the industry. Learn about the company before you pitch them, Pope advises. Know what happened with their last stock offering. Find out how well your new tool will apply to their current business situation. “Put your pride aside and get someone that can teach you,” says Pope, who after a number of letdowns realized that he needed advice from someone who was a veteran in the business. He talked to an uncle who worked as a grocery store manager for 16 years and visited other store managers across San Francisco to get their advice about how his app should work.
Find the right decision maker. Call the company and ask who is in charge of aspects of the business that relate to your product. You don’t want to waste time engaging the wrong person. “It is important to know the structure of the company and who are the decision makers,” says Pope, who at one point wasted time talking to a company representative who couldn’t move his project ahead. “Think about what Donald Trump says, ‘Talk to the boss. Don’t talk to underlings.’”
Be persistent. Don’t take no for an answer. Even when people say no, it is always good to check back. Pope routinely called Safeway every two months for 18 months. Each time he called back he informed the company about any changes he made. “They knew that I was going to call back. I was building a reputation,” says Pope. “I went back enough to be annoying.” Fortunately, he called back just when the company was planning to launch a similar initiative and his resilience paid off. He got a yes.
Simplify. In the beginning Pope gave a long drawn out explanation about how AisleFinder worked and nobody got it. Later, he edited the definition down to something anyone could relate to: AisleFinder is like Google Maps for your grocery store. Make sure you explain definitions in a way that is simple enough for a grandparent or small child to understand, says Pope.
Don’t be afraid to change your concept. Initially, Pope presented an idea to put 42 inch touch screen televisions in grocery stores where shoppers could go to find what they needed. Many of the stores had already tried something similar with no success. At first he was disappointed, but then he realized that technology had advanced to the point where he could provide the same information to people on their cell phones and BlackBerries.
Create a visual business plan. “We’re visual people,” says Pope. “We aren’t impressed by what is being said… but we are stimulated by visual [elements].” Play up the visuals early in your business presentation because if you get their attention early, they will stay engaged. Don’t worry about creating a long drawn out business plan, he says. You won’t have a lot of time to pitch your idea, so you need to make sure it is short and interesting.
Be an expert. “Don’t say ‘I don’t know,’” says Pope. “That is the death stroke. They don’t want to hear that. ‘I don’t know’ will get you dismissed real quick.” Give the impression that you are abreast of everything. If they ask you a question and you don’t know the answer tell them that is something you are exploring.
Get endorsements from people with influence. Pope turned to Stuart Skorman, a serial entrepreneur who successfully turned local retail shops into national chains. Skorman’s business advice was invaluable, but his name was worth just as much. “That [name] added a lot of clout to what I was doing,” says Pope. It didn’t stop Safeway from telling him no, but it did catch the attention of SuperValu Stores, one of Safeway’s competitors. “That opened their ears a little bit,” he remembers. “They said, ‘[Skorman] knows what he’s talking about. We’re going to listen a little bit more to what Pope has to say.’”
Target more than one national retailer at a time. Sometimes you need to “go after smaller fish to get the big fish,” says Pope. Once Safeway saw that their competitors might get a leg up on them, it drove them to take Pope seriously.
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