“You’ve been selling all your life. I need your help. Do salesmen sell or do customers buy?” I asked. I had just finished a meeting with one of the most experienced entrepreneurs I have had the honor to know. He started with my first startup in the early 1980’s as a salesman. Back then, he was smart, driven to succeed and hard working.
Today, he is the same man but now he has experience. And because he is a thinker, his experience has given him wisdom. When I have questions about startups, I go to Jim Grady. He understands entrepreneurs and the challenges of building a company from scratch.
Jim answered, “I’ve been doing startups for the 30 years. A salesman’s responsibility is to help his prospects understand what is available. If I have what they want, they buy it. My job is to tell them what is available for a problem they are experiencing. When they see the solution, they want it.”
I remember years ago meeting Tom Noonan, CEO and co-founder of Internet Security Systems. When I met Tom, he just joined Chris Klaus. Chris, was a student at Georgia Tech who read a science fiction book. This book gave him the idea for the initial product which got ISS out of the ground. I asked Tom, “Why did you decide to leave Dunn and Bradstreet, move your family to Atlanta and join a one-man startup?”
I’ll never forget the story.
He said, “When I first met Chris I was intrigued by his views on internet security. I liked him and was drawn to his passion and technical abilities. But I didn’t know anything about internet security so I had to determine if anybody would buy what he was building.”
Tom had a relationship with a key IT executive at Nasa in Florida. He set up an appointment with the guy and brought Chris along with him. He told the exec he had a product which could identify the vulnerabilities in a complex network.
The exec told him, “Your wasting your time here. We are tight and secure.” Tom asked if Chris could run the test on his network to see if his product might find anything suspicious. “Have at it.” he said with confidence.
Within a few minutes of the test, Chris came back with a comprehensive list of security vulnerabilities. As Tom told me the story, he said, “The guy was dumbfounded. He couldn’t believe his network was filled with all kinds of potential problems.”
“What happened then?” I asked.
He said, “The exec asks me how much the product cost and when can he get it installed.”
“Now I was dumbfounded. I went down there to see if there was a need for the product Chris developed. Now the guy was asking for a price quote. I told him that I would get back to him by the end of the week. On the way back, I became partners with Chris and we launched ISS. The rest is history.”
Twenty-years ago it was in the early days of the internet and the very early days of internet security.
First, Chris saw a big problem in the making and building of a product to solve it.
Second, Tom tested the market.
Third, when the prospect realized their problem and saw what Tom showed them would solve it, they bought.
Simple as that. I have been involved with startups for my whole career. I can tell story after story just like this one. Steve Jobs and the unveiling of the iPhone in 2007. Salesforce.com and small departments in large corporations. Think Zuckerberg and Facebook or Google and search.
What do all of these have in common?
When a qualified prospect sees what is available to solve their problem, they want it and they will buy it.
But too often I see startups stuck in long sales cycles. They find themselves continually trying to convince a prospect he should want what the startup has to offer. When this happens, it spells trouble for the startup.