In the tech industry (and especially in the Bay Area), we glorify the technical founder — the founder with both the vision as well as the programming experience to create the product him or herself.
But what about the founders who are just really good at sales? Shouldn’t founders be equally skilled in that area — or, at the very least, shouldn’t we give sales the credit it deserves?
When I was building my first company, TrackingSocial, I tried leading our sales process, even though my focus definitely falls more in the “technical” camp. I called potential customers on the phone, sent hundreds of emails, and even went door-to-door talking to people about whether they might be interested in our product.
What I realized was that sales is just plain hard.
It requires you to be a bit like a rubber band, bouncing immediately back to a neutral state despite being mentally stretched to capacity after hearing a series of seemingly never-ending “No’s.” And on top of that, it requires an uncanny ability to read people and think on your feet in order to turn a “No”into even a “Maybe” on the spot.
It’s also an intensely educational experience.
It taught me things about my business and how to articulate and represent our core values that I never would have learned if I’d remained behind the cozy blue light of my computer screen.
Those lessons epitomized, in my mind, the importance of sales and why every founder should strive to be more involved with the process. Here’s what it taught me.
1: You learn how to deal with rejection.
- If your company is selling something innovative, you’ll likely have to face a lot of rejection in convincing both investors and customers alike to believe in your vision. Achieving even a 2% conversion rate early on is pretty good, so that means 98% of the time you’ll be getting rejected. That’s literally getting rejected almost the entire time just to land a few hits.
- Learning how to respond to rejection is harder than you’d think. When people say “no” to you, they’re saying no to your service/product/company — not to you as a person. Yet most of us have trouble, in the moment, making that distinction. It’s critical that founders are able to, as it’s the only way to take constructive criticism and use it to improve your product.
- Sales also fosters resilience — which, since sales is a numbers game, is an absolute must. After being rejected, founders need to be able to move on immediately to the next call or meeting without allowing that rejection to affect them. It reminds me of my experience playing USTA tennis; you have to approach each new point as a fresh opportunity without allowing previous slip-ups to affect your play and swing momentum. Sales trains you in that same mindset.
2: You learn to be relatable and empathetic.
- Nothing is as important in sales as empathizing with the person on the other side of the conversation so you understand, genuinely, what problems they need solved and why. Founders who fully believe in their product often have trouble understanding why someone might not be so immediately enthralled by what they’re offering. One reason is they don’t try and understand the person they’re talking to. I remember trying to sell mom-and-pop restaurants a social media analytics dashboard only to discover they didn’t even have a social media presence to begin with. Talk about not understanding your customer.
- Whoever you’re selling your product to — investors, customers, potential advisors — you must get on their level. Don’t talk to people like you’re a Bay Area technical founder dropping buzzwords or going on about the technical breakthroughs you made in creating your product. Your end customer doesn’t care. Just try to understand and empathize with your customers’ concerns. That’s what people want — no matter the brilliance of your product.
- When you connect with folks in this way, you become a person rather than just a commercial. And when that happens, success is far more likely. Plus, hanging up on, ignoring, or saying flat “No” becomes a lot harder for the potential customer after you become a person or even a friend to them.
3: You learn how to make adjustments on the fly and read people and situations.
- There’s a certain conversational athleticism you learn in sales which founders can apply in every aspect of their work (and life). When a meeting starts off poorly, if you have experience reading the room in sales talks, you can make in-the-moment adjustments to assure it doesn’t end poorly.
- What sales teaches people is how to identify when a situation isn’t unfolding the way it should. It also, over time, helps people develop certain tools and skills to adapt in those situations to — at the very least — ensure the experience is still valuable, if not ultimately a “win.” I remember learning early on that switching from a presentation to a hands-on demo was much more effective for getting the attention and reception I wanted in these sales meetings.
- Even if a sales meeting goes poorly — the potential customer says they’re just not interested, for example — a good salesman can pivot and use the meeting as an opportunity to obtain vital information about the product or their performance. This kind of feedback or insight can prove immensely valuable in future meetings.
4: You learn how to articulate your product’s benefits concisely.
- Being able to articulate what sets your company or product apart, cogently and concisely, is hard. When I first tried selling TrackingSocial, my attempts at conveying what exactly we did came out in undecipherable paragraphs of mumbled tech buzzwords.
- After a few weeks of selling practice, however, I got my pitch down to 1–2 digestible sentences that detailed clearly and simply what the product’s benefits were and how it solved their key problems — its core value proposition.
- It’s critical that founders develop this ability, since it proves instrumental in all sales and investor conversations. As cliche as a “30-second elevator pitch” sounds, it is a must for every founder to master, even a technical one.
5: Selling will inform your product decisions.
- Finally, there’s no better way for a founder to truly understand their product — both what works and what should be changed — than to actually engage with potential customers and talk to them about it.
- For one thing, the process allows you to ask a lot of questions and get a lot of feedback you wouldn’t be able to obtain through non-personal methods, like surveys.
- It reveals for you whether you’re making certain incorrect assumptions about what people want or need from a product like yours.
- Talking to potential customers is also the best way to form your go-to-market strategy and answer questions like:
How should you price your product?
What types of customers you should target, and how?
What should your distribution plan look like? Will it require an in-person cold-calling sales team? Will running targeted ads be enough? Do you need to form partnerships?
Ultimately, the lessons founders learn from engaging in the sales process are both personal and necessary from a product standpoint. I know from experience.
It wasn’t exactly easy, teaching myself how to sell, and often times it was pretty humbling (read: “humiliating”), but it undoubtedly made me a better leader and entrepreneur.