The 3-Step Cure for No-Sales Syndrome

image of sad dog
You’ve built a beautiful dream around having a successful business, making a living at your passion. You’re fired up. You’re ready to make your own decisions, be captain of your own fate.

You’re building an audience and boosting your credibility with great content.

Maybe you’re even savvy enough to capture that audience with an exceptional email autoresponder, to keep building loyalty and authority.

The problem is, you gathered your courage and tried selling your wonderful product or service … and there doesn’t seem to be anybody who wants to buy it.

You’ve got No-Sales Syndrome. And it sucks. A lot.

The truth is, just about every business gets hit by No-Sales Syndrome every once in awhile. (Pixar started out as a complete bust, mainly because they were trying to sell an image-rendering computer that no one wanted to buy.)

But there is a cure.

Why do some fail and some thrive?

Jim Collins’ terrific new book, Great by Choice, is all about the key differences between the companies that thrive in tough times, and companies that sink.

You might think the difference is innovation, or getting some juicy VC money, or even plain old luck.

But it isn’t. In fact, the companies that survived tough times were actually sometimes less innovative, and had objectively worse luck.

Great by Choice is full of advice that applies to businesses of any size — even if that business is just you and your laptop.

Today I want to give you one of Collins’ most important bits of advice, something you can use this week to bust your way out of No-Sales Syndrome.

The difference between bullets and cannonballs

Here’s a quote from Great by Choice:

Picture yourself at sea, a hostile ship bearing down on you. You have a limited amount of gunpowder. You take all your gunpowder and use it to fire a big cannonball. The cannonball flies out over the ocean … and misses the target, off by 40 degrees. You turn to your stockpile and discover that you’re out of gunpowder. You die.

Lots of companies, both big and small, do this. They put everything on one roll of the dice, risk the whole enterprise on a single big, risky project.

In fact, this is exactly why the average person thinks business is so risky. Our stereotype (shared by some reckless CEOs) is that the prize goes to the boldest business.

But that isn’t true.

The smarter option — the one that Collins found consistently led to a much more resilient business — is to fire some bullets first. Fire a few, see where they land, and then adjust your trajectory.

You use your light ammunition to figure out how to hit what you’re aiming at. Then you load those cannons.

In business, this means you don’t roll out a big, risky project until you’ve collected lots of data by launching smaller, lower-risk projects to see works and what doesn’t.

Don’t try to sell what your market doesn’t want to buy

The most common — and painful — mistake I see marketers make is to develop a product that no one has any interest in buying.

This is why so many inventors spend decade after decade without any commercial success.

They’re passionate, yes — but they’re passionate about the product — about their brilliant new invention that they’re sure the world needs.

A smart businessperson falls in love with the market, not the product. Fall in love with your buyers. Watch them, listen to them, cherish them. Figure out ways to surprise and delight them.

Famed direct marketer Gene Schwartz wrote that copywriting was like sailing a ship. Your market’s desire for a particular product or service is the wind that propels that ship.

A smart marketer can take a faint wind and make the best of it. And in the internet age, you can collect bits of breeze from all over the globe, and combine them to make a strong business.

But even the best marketing technique will only take you so far. The desire has to be there before you start trying to sell. Where there’s no wind, there’s no movement.

That’s actually why the very first thing our students work on in our flagship course Teaching Sells is to identify a profitable market. Not a market of enthusiasts or fans — a market of buyers.

What’s a buyer? Someone who deeply desires a certain result, and will pay to get it.

Step 1: Get analytical

There’s a lot of analysis you can do to unearth a solid market.

The simplest is just to watch for a topic with lots of competitors. The “blue ocean” strategy, where you look for a market without competition, is attractive in theory, but more often a lack of competitors means a lack of buyers.

Instead, look for markets driven by the basic human desires that never change. People will always look for sex, status, or a really great lunch. They want to look cool, to feel safe and secure, to create better relationships with their kids or spouses, to make themselves more attractive. We always have wanted those things, and we always will.

Then you figure out where the holes are.

What are the slivers of the market that aren’t being served well? What’s missing in the other offerings, good as they may be? What can you do that’s different in a valuable way, in a way that better serves a slice of the market?

Innovation is great, if you’re innovating in the right direction. Instead of dreaming up a product or service no one has ever seen before, innovate better ways to serve a robust market.

Step 2: Get empirical

But analysis only takes you so far.

There are all kinds of business ideas that should work … but don’t.

Maybe you’re not a great fit for the market you’ve chosen.

Maybe you’ve figured out what your customers need, but it turns out it isn’t something they want.

Maybe what worked last year (or last month) doesn’t work today, for any one of a thousand reasons.

There’s one way to find out if your idea will work or not, and that’s to fire off some bullets and see if they hit a worthy target.

Last year, with some help from Authority Blogger Chris Garrett, we added a module to Teaching Sells on the “Minimum Viable Product.” It takes everything our students learn about developing the right product for the right market, and it teaches them to create a bullet first, before they build a cannonball.

Step 3: Create a bullet and fire it off

You don’t have to be a Teaching Sells student to make this work for you.

This weekend, put together the smallest product possible that will deliver a benefit for your customer. It might be an 8-page special report. It might be a 30-minute webinar or teleseminar on a basic concept.

Whatever it is, make it good enough to pay for. (Keep in mind what Jon Morrow told you earlier this week — you want to deliver ten times as much value as you’ll charge.) Since it’s going to be a small product, the price will be in line with that.

Not a lot of risk for you, not a lot of risk for your audience. And it’s a priceless way to gather intelligence about what works and what doesn’t. What your audience values enough to pay for, and what they don’t.

Put your new product out for sale next week. If you wait any longer than that, you’ll get sunk in analysis paralysis and a week will turn into three months. Rather than getting it perfect right now, let your audience know it’s a beta version — that you guarantee it will have some flaws.

Create a simple landing page, then email your list, write a blog post, get your friends to talk it up on Twitter or Facebook.

You’re not trying to pay the mortgage with this one

You’re just firing a bullet.

You’ll learn more, and gain more confidence, in putting a simple product together this weekend and launching it next week than you would in five years of market analysis. And you might even come away with a few dollars in your pocket.

And if you don’t sell a single copy? That’s good data.

Figure out if the problem is the product (doesn’t solve a problem people care about), the market (cheapskates who think everything should be free), your list (if you have 9 people reading, it’s going to be hard to hit that first sale), or your copywriting technique (here’s a quick reference for a simple technique that should give you at least some results).

Then start at step 1 and do it again.

Don’t launch a cannonball until you’ve fired enough bullets

A single Minimum Viable Product may give you enough data to build a much bigger project.

Or, more likely, you may need to fire some more bullets.

Try different angles. Different customer types. Solve different levels of problem (simple, moderate, or really ugly). Take different approaches. Try getting out of your comfort zone a little with a stronger copywriting approach.

Figure out who you like to sell to. Who really gets you. Who benefits the most from your product or service. Who actually has the money to spend on what you’re selling.

Then, observe. Watch what people go for. (It’s often very different from what they’ll tell you in a survey.)

Keep track of your conversion rates (what percent of people buy) and your total profit. Keep working to nudge those two numbers up.

This isn’t always an easy process, but it’s a straightforward one, and it will reveal the cause of your No-Sales Syndrome.

Fixing it can be tricky, especially if you’ve been trying fruitlessly to sell to a market of non-buyers, or your topic just doesn’t have the potential to support your business goals. You’ll need to have the courage to face the facts, and make the changes you need to make.

But knowing is, in the end, always less painful than not knowing. Keep firing bullets, keep observing, and keep getting better. Do all those, and you truly can banish No-Sales Syndrome for good.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is CMO of Copyblogger Media and co-creator of Teaching Sells.


If you want to maximize your chances of running a successful, profitable, enjoyable online business, take a look at Teaching Sells.

It’s a comprehensive course that distills the Copyblogger approach to building a great business — by focusing on benefiting your customers and giving them the results they crave.

Our next enrollment session is coming up in the next few weeks.

Sign up here to learn more about it, and to pick up a suite of articles, reports, case studies, and more that will help move your business forward, whether or not you end up joining us inside the course.

Learn more about Teaching Sells now.

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Reader Comments (71)

  1. says

    Unfortunately when a post is this good all I typically have left to add is an obligatory: “That was awesome.”

    ‘A smart businessperson falls in love with the market, not the product.’

    Hardest lesson to learn in my opinion.

  2. says

    I am thinking the same as Gregory, with my that was awesome. Thanks Sonia, today that post really spoke to me. here’s to being great by choice *raises glass*

  3. says

    Great post. I needed to read this. I do love my market, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what they want. But I do know that if I ask beautiful questions I will get beautiful answers. So maybe I should do some queries.

  4. says

    The best part of this entire article?

    “A smart businessperson falls in love with the market, not the product. Fall in love with your buyers. Watch them, listen to them, cherish them. Figure out ways to surprise and delight them.”

    Absolutely. I find this easier to do when selling physical products. We have a website where we sell things online between $5 and $300. We give freebies to everyone that orders – even if they order something for $5. We have free shipping AND give them freebies. It works wonders because many of them order something big the next time – some tell their friends. Some keep ordering year after year.

    With writing – it’s much tougher to give what the readers want – figuring out ways to surprise and delight them. Let’s just say I’m not ‘there’ yet.

    Great post & cheers from Thailand, MF

  5. says

    The toughest part is to fall in love with the market. Its important that you understand the market, trust its potential and have confidence that you can win a part of it.
    I agree that you must start small and grow big, without putting all your energy into a single project. Large projects only make sense if you can sustain the effort for a long time without making money.

  6. says

    I read copyblogger for writing advice which is always top notch. But today Sonia you touched upon something which connects my passion.

    Experiment. Such a simple word and yet so uncommon.

    Somehow big bang is so SEXY. Look at nature, it experiments. It should be so natural.

    Except in the business world. We want it big and now. Failure comes next.

    The thing is people want a sure shot solution and a quick fix to their problems. They forget that the only solution which really works is the solution which you find yourself after experimentation. You can learn about experimentation from others but you cannot substitute experimentation with results from others.

    I also think very many people suffer from god complex. That I know what people want and I know I am right. They have a vision of a solution but not if there is a problem to start with.

    • says

      I agree, a lot of businesses make these big bold decisions out of ego, not the desire for the business to do well. Risk-it-all heroics are great for storytelling, but real life businesses benefit from a more cautious approach.

      • says

        Starting fires to put them out. “I saved the business when I did _______,” may beg the question “why did you put the business at risk to begin with.

    • says

      “The thing is people want a sure shot solution and a quick fix to their problems. They forget that the only solution which really works is the solution which you find yourself after experimentation. You can learn about experimentation from others but you cannot substitute experimentation with results from others.”

      That is so, so true! I may have to frame your quote lol. I’ve fallen for the magic pill many a time but have began to realise that nothing compares to experience and experimentation. Testing your idea in a cost-effective, timely and strategic is the best way to optimize your chances of succeeding in any business. This post has really reminded me that it’s about testing, experimentation collecting data and then using it all to grow.

  7. says

    As a marketer I understand that I first have to know the needs of the customer, like you are saying the market comes before the product, however sometimes the customers may not necessarily know what they need and that’s when we give what they need but don’t know in small bits…firing bullets that is. I have been having a business idea will definitely order samples and sell it to a few people and see how it goes *fingers crossed* soon if everything goes well will definitely launch a cannonball.

    • says

      Definitely true that the market often doesn’t know what it needs or wants. You have to watch what they do more closely than you listen to what they say they want, imo.

      For example, they’ll always say they want it cheaper, but often what they actually want is better. See the entire Apple line of products for an example.

  8. says

    I highly recommend that article.

    I swear it is more valuable than any textbook I’ve bought for college — and it’s free.

    Just the words “Teaching Sells” impacted me and made me go, “hmmm.” This is valuable information, and it’s smart to bookmark it or have it placed somewhere so it’s not lost and forgotten. Definitely something good to read over and over until it fully sinks in.

  9. says

    I agree with Gregory, it’s awesome!

    Funny how many of us preach the word experiment like anything but never experiment! (Yes, I am talking about me too. Though I just launched a big experiment!)

  10. says

    I cannot print it yet (out of ink) but after I return from Staples, I will memorize this one by heart because this is the only thing that can save me.

  11. says

    “Keep firing bullets, keep observing, and keep getting better.”

    A great motto to work by. It doesn’t matter how amazing your think your product/brand/advertising campaign is (something many marketers are guilty of) if your audience doesn’t care. Sometimes you have to let your ego go and give people what they want, not what you want them to have.

  12. says

    This comes in such a good time as I’m currently building an eBook for my site, maybe I’ll do this market research and see what people think about it (I might even give a “demo” for free to my subscribers and get their feedback)

    thanks Sonia!

    • says

      Instead of asking them (often what they think they want isn’t what they want), try releasing a “beta” version (maybe just a portion of what you envision for the final product), and offer a limited number for a good price.

      Or if you can finish the whole thing painlessly, go ahead and launch it and watch what happens. Then collect feedback from customers (which is more valuable than feedback from prospects), improve it, and raise the price.

  13. says

    Absolutely love what you say in this article and how you say it! I work with people to create income and build wealth; sure there are a few glorious ‘home runs’ but more people become more successful bit by bit. It’s just a smarter, more responsible and ultimately more effective approach to just about anything. And because you are aiming and adjusting after each firing, you are further refining and honing the product/service/process along the way and end up with a much stronger foundation (and understanding of what makes that foundation so solid!) than all the ‘Hail Marys’ put together! Great stuff – thank you for sharing!

  14. says

    I dig the “1-2-3-4 Formula for Persuasive Copy.” Straightforward and very effective approach! I modeled the landing page for REBT around it but it still needs work. Always a work in progress it seems :-)

  15. says

    With all marketing, social media, etc you’re supposed to experiment and monitor the results. There all all these systems out there to help and the way you have this spelled out specifically is very helpful.

    But being primarily right brained I become such a techno procrastinator when it comes to the linear sequential tracking tasks. Necessary for business, challenging for artists:) All the steps just create this overwhelming roadblock that you have to push through and there really is no magic technique. You just make a list and tackle one thing at a time (also not a natural tendency for the creative mind LOL Thanks for giving it to us in an easy to understand methodology!


  16. says

    “But knowing is, in the end, always less painful than not knowing. Keep firing bullets, keep observing, and keep getting better.” Love it Sonia. Looking forward to the launch.

  17. says

    This is one of the best articles I’ve ever read on selling, and I’m not saying that to be a brown noser! So often entrepreneurs launch something big and panic, fret, and get down on themselves when it doesn’t sell. You’re totally correct–look at it as data.

    You helped me clearly see a strategy I’m playing with now. I’ve been creating lots of small things with varying degrees of success. Some things are selling way better than I expected and others are selling less than I expected. I know where I’m headed and why I’m practicing and what I’m practicing for, but seeing it called out so specifically made me feel even more solid in my methodology.

    Thanks so much for this content. I’m spreading this one around.

  18. says

    Mike Dillard always teaches to give out great value – really overdeliver on a very small $$$ cost item. It guarantees your customers will come back for more higher priced items in the future

  19. says

    Thanks for sharing the excerpt from Great by Choice. The worst thing someone can do is not to fire any bullets at all! : ) This post absolutely makes sense and should be read by all start-ups. Evaluate your resources, research and experiment, and finally – hit the goal :)

  20. says

    “innovate better ways to serve a robust market.”

    You just described the Blue Ocean strategy, Sonia. The whole concept, as I understand it, is really just positioning what people already buy, not innovating a brand new thing that’s untested.

    But the positioning has to be so strong, it has to be so purple a cow, that in the prospect’s mind your offer has no competitor.

  21. says

    Like the first commenter, little more to say other than ‘YES’ !!

    Found myself nodding in so many places – this is just what I say to my clients and students so often. Great one Sonia 😉


  22. says

    Outstanding article, Sonia!

    The bullet vs cannonball analogy describes this perfectly.

    There is this myth about business that you have to make it big the first time so people develop cannonballs that just cannot hit any target…

    Thanks for the pump-up! :-)

  23. Khaled Alsultan says

    This post has some good, important ideas to consider. The concept that focusing on the market instead of the product is something that I did not think of before. However, it makes a lot of sense. Also, I like the advice to focus on markets of buyers who will take action to get what they want instead of enthusiasts. Thank you for this information.

  24. says

    I worked for a start-up once that failed for this very reason. Instead of launching their product, they kept revising and improving it. By the time we got it close to market, the dotcom crash happened and we were out of business. It’s a shame because it was a great product and customers were waiting for it. They definitely would have accepted some flaws in the first version and still been happy.

  25. says

    One of the main reasons I feel people fail in selling is that they refuse to understand what the customer wants. They only want the customer to buy what they have irrespective of weather the customer needs it or not.

  26. says

    I totally support this approach 100%. I remember being at a consumer show once (which was deathly slow). Our stand was doing okay but we always take spare cases of different categories of product so we can adapt our offering to match the audience. The vendor across from me complained at the end of the day that “the people in this area are cheap and stupid” because they weren’t buying his product. I was appalled. I thought (but didn’t say) “Maybe you’re just not selling something they want to buy.” People have worked for and saved that money in their wallet. Most won’t even give money to their family members. We ask ourselves with every collection, do we deserve the customer’s decision to buy? Have we done enough to honour the customer’s trust in us?

  27. says

    When I joined Teaching Sells in 2008, my new bloglet was sucking up money like crazy – and spitting out none at all. At the time it was a hard decision to spend money on a program I new nothing about.
    Joining Teaching Sells turned out to be my best investment ever! I put what I learned into action and created a six-figure business online within a year of completing TS.
    Teaching Sells is a top-of-the-line program. If you want to create courses on the Net, joining TS is the best way to get essential training.
    And they didn’t even PAY me for saying all this… 😉

  28. says

    Great article.

    I never had confidence until recently.

    Thanks to another Jim Collins book I read, I now walk tall.

    My first product is due this month. And all plans are in place to release one product every month in 2012.

  29. says

    truly one of the more helpful business-related articles i’ve read in a very long time. lots of great info that i hadn’t considered before (yet, come to think of it, it all seems to common sense. hmm). :) many thanks for putting this out there! gives me lots to think about…

  30. says

    This is a great, motivating article . We all get in a slump every now in then, especially in my field of Real Estate. You sometimes have to force your way out of it and get motivated once again. Looking at my business from an outsiders perspective, helps me quite a bit. Thanks again for the article.

  31. says

    Really informative article with a different approach to curing the “no sales syndrome.” It put in a nutshell what I had been recently thinking, that you may believe that you have the greatest product the world has ever seen, but if people are not interested in, it the market does not want to buy what you sell. Then you need to rethink your product., and either change your marketing strategy, tweak your product (after researching the market) or go with a completely different product (on a small scales at first.)
    Thanks so much for the insight!

  32. says

    Pure awesomeness! Great point well said. I have fired a few bullets off but I think I’ll have to fire a few more off before I know the result. Maybe if lucky enough maybe I’ll be able to get into Teaching Sells this time around. If not then I’ll be firing more bullets around, testing the waters.

  33. says

    Damn you, Lady! Teaching really does sell and you continue break it down to it’s finest points. Thank you for your continued leadership in the market.

    And, yes, this post comes just in time to give me even more clarity on a product I’m creating this weekend. I already put the question out on Facebook and asked my market if they wanted it … and they do.



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