Conventional wisdom: Find retailers and distributors to sell your product for you.

On the contrary: Sell direct to boost innovation and growth.

When you're first starting a company, it's tempting to focus solely on your product; selecting a sales model can feel like an afterthought.

Using distributors might seem like the easiest way to go, especially if that's how most of your competitors get their products to market. But if understanding your customers and their needs is really important to you--and who would say it is not?--then you should at least consider selling direct.

From my perspective, the direct sales model remains one of the biggest keys to our success. It's dead simple: It's so much easier to know your customer if there is no middleman filtering or blocking the information exchange. When you can speak to your customers directly, in the initial sales contact and through service after the sale, you'll not only develop a personal relationship and enhance affinity with your brand, but you'll also learn specifically who is buying your products, what they want in your products and how you can focus your innovation.

This kind of feedback loop is only made possible by a direct channel to customers.

From milk cows to ministers

We never would have expanded beyond industrial fans if not for direct sales.

By talking directly to our customers, we learned churches were using our fans. They addressed churches' cooling needs, but our products--originally engineered for dairy barns--were really not quiet enough for those spaces. It became clear pretty quickly that we needed a silent fan.

That didn't exist, so we developed technology that made it possible, opening up entirely new markets for us. Now you can find our fans not only in sanctuaries, but also in concert halls, libraries and bedrooms.

If you think the direct sales model is not for you, guess again. Manufacturers of consumer products like shoes (One Ground), eyewear (Warby Parker) and mattresses (Casper, Tuft & Needle) that traditionally marketed through large retailers have at least initially chosen to go direct, eschewing showrooms for a broad internet presence and extensive advertising. Even Tesla is fighting for its right to sell directly to consumers rather than through the franchised dealership model that's been in place since the car was invented. In October, Michigan banned direct-to-consumer auto sales, but Tesla continues to fight for the direct model because it offers control over sales and product.

Change the channel

When you deal through distributors and agents, you can put yourself at a disadvantage. They likely don't just carry your products--they carry your competitors' product, too. When you accept a distributor, you run the risk of not knowing where your product is going, and without that, you'll never know if people are using your products in new ways that you can capitalize on.

It's much smarter to cut out the middlemen and reap the benefits of all that direct communication with your customer base. Dealing directly with your customers makes innovation easier because you get to understand their specific needs.

You also get to know who they are in a global sense because you get access to a great amount of demographic information. Studies and surveys are slow, limited and can be costly. More than that, they'll never give you the quality of information you get when you talk to people directly as part of your daily business.

A direct channel model--even though it might be harder than selling through a third party--is worth it. It gives you control over your product, it lets you hear directly from your customers, and it lets you know exactly what the market wants. That's the recipe for fast growth. Don't leave your hard work in somebody else's hands.

Published on: Nov 7, 2014