Have you seen Glengarry Glen Ross?
It's a pretty awesome movie based on a play by David Mamet. There's a scene in there that has been posted ad nauseam, the Always Be Closing speech where Alec Baldwin puts some serious pressure on the small sales team at some kind of real estate company that's never fully described.
A less well-known feature of that film is the sales pitch and approach followed by that company's star salesperson, Ricky Roma, played by Al Pacino. Ricky is shown spouting ten shades of bullshit in a bar with his "mark", convincing him to buy a product that's clearly not good for him (and very expensive), and then actually lying to his face to try and maintain the sale when his customer realises (after being told by his wife that she'll divorce and ruin him if he doesn't cancel the sale) that he made a really, really bad deal that's about to literally destroy his life and put him in the gutter.
What does Ricky Roma do in this situation? He lies and pretends the contract can be cancelled later, so that he can lock in this "customer" into this sale that will destroy him.
Ricky Roma is a complete asshole and a stain on the reputation of salespeople. David Mamet must not have known a lot of salespeople, to have this view of what a good salesperson is, because that is definitely not how great salespeople work.
Which brings me to real salespeople, the ones who actually make sales in the real world, rather than in fantasy plays. The kind that you need to become yourself, to an extent, in order to be a successful founder.
Successful salespeople don't pressure or bullshit the prospect into a sale. They are persistent, but they are always focused on achieving a deal where it will benefit all parties.
This means that a great salesperson will never be selling something that they don't believe actually helps the customer. And that has to be the starting point of every conversation with a potential customer. How can I help you? Is there something that I sell or someone that I know that can make your life better?
For the last few months, I immersed myself deeply in the sales process for GrantTree, but over the last few years, I've observed quite a few competent salespeople at work, and been part of many sales, both successful and not, and the conversation, particularly when selling high-value, high-price items, always starts with how to best help the person sitting in front of you (or on the other side of the phone call).
How you can help someone always starts with who you are. I'm a serial entrepreneur, with a blog full of advice for startups, with connections and experience that come from 5, 6 years of doing this, and with a business that sells a product that can help tech startups. So my conversations always start with understanding where the person on the other side is at the moment, and how I can help them. The best situations for me to help most tangibly is if there is a match between the services GrantTree offers and the state their business is in, but if those services won't help them, I would never push them into deals that won't provide a clearly positive outcome for them.
For example, some clients are too small for GrantTree to be able to add much value. It's the nature of government incentives, which are based on how much you spend, that the more you spend, the more you can get back. And the more you can get back, the bigger the difference it makes to use a specialist. I regularly speak to founders whose businesses are too small or early to make the most out of GrantTree's services. In those cases, I try to help them anyway - even without getting anything out of it for GrantTree.
This is how I start. My cofounder, Paulina, approaches clients differently. Her strength includes a very wide network of people who might be great connections for the person she's talking to, so naturally she leverages that, rather than tech startup experience, to help the potential client. But again - the focus is on helping the other person, never on trying to squeeze a deal out of circumstances where we can't make a positive impact on their business.
How will you approach your potential customers? That entirely depends on who you are, what you bring to the table. But it always has to be first focused on helping the other person. Otherwise, you are not a salesperson, you are a scammer looking for a quick buck, like Ricky Roma.
Getting over the money hurdle
With that in mind, as a geek, I used to find it hard to get past the fact that ultimately, I was doing this to make some money. This is probably the greatest hurdle for anyone (even people who eventually become master salespeople): realising that it's ok to make money from a deal.
It sounds trite, cute almost, but it's a real problem. Most people who have not spent a considerable amount of time selling will feel that the whole process is made unwholesome because they are, ultimately, doing it out of self-interest too. Yes, I'm trying to help the other person, but I'm also trying to make some money, so I must be selfish, right?
This comes back to believing in your product. If you don't believe that your product genuinely adds to your customers' lives, genuinely makes things better, genuinely helps, then don't sell it until you do, because then you are selling a scam and you should indeed be ashamed of doing so.
However, if you do believe in your product, then focus on that and the issue will go away. Here are some examples:
Patrick McKenzie wrote about how he started charging a lot more for his services after a conversation with Thomas Ptacek, who pointed out the vast amounts of value he was creating for the client business. Charging more enabled him to focus on providing top quality advice to people who could really make use of it. He's since helped many other companies to multiply their revenues. He wouldn't be able to do that unless he charged a lot for it (he wouldn't have the time to do it properly, with the right amount of focus). Patrick believes in his product (and should). If Patrick tries to sell to a business that would be a good fit, I'm sure he has no doubt in his mind that if the sale goes through, both himself and the client will benefit greatly. Is that a product you can believe in? Absolutely.
George, one of our recent hires at GrantTree used to work for Point-Two, who sell air jackets for horse riders that inflate upon impact. These jackets can save your life. He showed me a video recently of a woman whose horse hesitated before a jump. She went over the obstacle. The horse came tumbling after, on top of her. The 600-kg beast landed squarely on top of her. The air jacket meant that she walked away with a few bruised ribs. That jacket saved her life. Is that a product you can believe in? Absolutely.
GrantTree sells help with getting government funding. For the right clients, we increase the amount of funding obtained substantially, through our knowledge of the rules, as well as reducing the amount of time spent preparing the filings and the risk of doing so. Many of our clients would not file, or would file much smaller claims, if it wasn't for us. We regularly take on clients who have lost all belief in UK government funding, and are very surprised when the funding does go through. Or we take on clients who are already making use of the funding schemes and we substantially increase the amount that they get. Is that a product you can believe in? Absolutely.
Given that these are all products that add very tangible amounts of value to the clients, is it reasonable to make money for them? Absolutely. Making money from his consulting services means that Patrick has been able to go around the world helping well targeted businesses with his knowledge. Making money from the jackets means that Point-two have been able to save lives. Making money from government funding services means that GrantTree has been able to grow and help even more businesses. None of those things would have happened if those businesses did not make money.
So don't feel bad about the fact that you'll get money out of the deal too. If you believe your product genuinely helps your customers, then making money from it is absolutely deserved and reasonable.
Focus on the win-win nature of every deal you make and, over time, the self-accusation of selfishness will fade away.
Mythological salesmen like Ricky Roma, who are really highly skilled scammers, have given the sales profession a bad name. If you want to be a successful founder, sales is one of the many skills you need to learn.
Get over your fear of making good money from selling good services by realising that every sale you make will benefit your customers (if your product is worth selling) far more than it will cost them, and start every sale from the point of view that you are trying to help the other person.
Good luck with it! Sales is damn hard, even without misconceived notions about whether it's ok to make money when selling something.
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Stealth mode startups ✶
Mostly correct advice, for most cases, to startups in stealth mode:
... stop being in stealth mode. Stop asking for advice. Stop doing your start-up. You're not ready.
Jason Freedman of HumbledMBA proposes these key reasons why you should never be in stealth mode:
- Execution is more important than the idea;
- Someone else has the exact same idea anyway;
- Completely unique ideas generally don't make it;
- The most likely cause of failure is your incompetence, not the competition;
- You desperately need real feedback;
- First mover advantage is just silliness.
Another side-effect, perhaps less important, of stealth mode, is that people you meet in networking events will think you're a startup newbie (and they'll probably be right). You won't get the same level of introductions, because who wants to risk their reputation introducing someone who doesn't even know the basics of startups? Instead, you'll get lots of advice about why you shouldn't be in stealth mode.
My first startup was involuntarily a stealth startup. We didn't tell anyone other than friends because we didn't think it was that important, and we wanted to build a sense of excitement around the launch. It was one of the main reasons the product stank at launch.
If you don't get user feedback from the right people during product development, your product will suck. That was lesson from startup number 2. It's not enough to get feedback, you need feedback from paying users, as soon as you possibly can, or else your product development bus will drive down the wrong road, and it's damn hard to turn it around later.
There's always a caveat, though, always a context where this doesn't work. I believe it works for most web startups, but in other industries, stealth mode may be de rigueur.
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