If I were creating a survival guide for entrepreneurs, the first lesson would be on selling. Yes, you have to learn to raise and manage money, create great products that your customers actually need, manage and motivate your employees, and so on. But the single most important skill that entrepreneurs don't typically learn is how to seal the deal.
During my days as a techie, I always associated "sales" with the used-car business. Perhaps movies like Glengarry Glen Ross and Tin Men helped me conclude that selling equaled hustling. I thought it meant convincing people to buy things they didn't need, and the key was to close a sale before they changed their minds.
DIFFERENT BALL GAME. Yet, after having worked my way up the ranks of Corporate America, cofounding two tech companies, helping launch a film and a TV venture, and mentoring dozens of entrepreneurs, I've come to the conclusion that I was completely wrong. No entrepreneur should even start a company before undergoing basic sales training.
Selling isn't something that you do only when seeking money for a product or an investment: You sell all through life. Whether negotiating with your parents for a bigger allowance, trying to convince your children to eat their vegetables, or going for a job interview, it's all about selling. You have to persuade people to give you what you want, and you achieve this by convincing them you're offering something good for them.
It was after my promotion to project manager that I first realized getting anywhere in the corporate world would involve selling my peers and managers. Life was so simple when all I had to do was to write computer code. Convincing others that my ideas made sense and persuading management to provide the necessary staffing and funding was a different ball game, however. It required me to listen very carefully to what others were saying, understand their needs, and communicate honestly and effectively.
INTO THE FRAY. After I learned to listen and focus on helping others to succeed, advancing myself grew relatively easy. Whether it involved my peers, subordinates, user departments, company customers, or bosses, it seemed that I could always win by helping others win. And with the primary goal of helping the company succeed, I found it not difficult to rise above departmental politics.
Then, from a relatively safe haven as vice-president of technology in an investment bank, I assumed the position of chief technology officer of a software spinoff.
In a startup, everyone quickly learns that survival depends on the company's ability to sell its products. No matter how unusual or wonderful your products, the stark reality remains that you're always competing with someone else. Even though you may have a better product that the world really needs, your competitors are likely better at selling than you are. And your prospective customer will have never even heard of you.
"SELLING BOOT CAMP." I was fortunate to be working for one of the best salespeople I have ever met. Our company's CEO, Gene Bedell, had run billion-dollar businesses and reached the executive levels in investment banking. In an industry in which financing companies furnish funding for tech outfits, he had persuaded IBM (IBM) to provide seed money for a software spinoff from Credit Suisse First Boston (CTNX), one of the richest investment banks.
Gene started by putting all of our software-development staff into "selling boot camp." It took my team and me a while to figure out why we were learning about qualifying prospects and closing sales rather than the latest software-debugging tools.
But within months, we were closing multimillion dollar sales with blue-chip customers across the globe. We did this with only two experienced sales reps and part-time sales support from our development staff. Our developers became so competent at sales support that our reps would often leave the selling to them. We would compete with some of the largest software companies in the world -- and win the sale almost every time.
UNDERSTANDING BEHAVIOR. With a culture that put customer support and sales above everything else, we built our little startup into a $100-million-a-year revenue machine within five years. Our developers formed long-term bonds and friendships with our customers. They would go to great pains to understand customer requirements and build products that would sell. More often than not, new development projects would be funded directly by customers. Whenever there was a customer-service problem, our top engineers would voluntarily work around the clock and fly all over the globe to personally provide support.
There are probably as many selling techniques out there as there are diets. Every few months, another best-selling book comes along claiming to have the magic formula for success. Some of these prescribe selling tricks to manipulate customers into buying something they really don't need. These are ideal for the scam artists depicted in Hollywood movies. Others focus on selling customers what they really require and creating a successful business. The only way to succeed in the long term is to make your clients successful, after all.
Most selling techniques are founded on the same marketing principles, however. It's all about understanding human behavior and motivation, fulfilling needs, and communicating clearly and effectively. And most important, each of these techniques creates a well-defined and repeatable process for completing a sale. I've read more than a dozen books that I liked, but my favorite, and perhaps the easiest to read is 3 Steps to Yes: The Gentle Art of Getting Your Way, by none other than Gene Bedell.
PROMISE FULFILLED. The lesson for the entrepreneur is to learn how to sell. It's much too easy to fall in love with your own product or believe your own hype. Most entrepreneurs I know believe that "if you build it, they will come" -- but this almost never happens. It takes a lot of hard work and discipline to create the right formula for success.
Mastering the art of selling is what can make the difference between simply having lots of potential and actually realizing it.