Founders Must Turn Into Salesmen
I had a marketing teacher famous for his unforgettable lines. Professor Kostecki (that’s his name) will always stay in my memory for explaining the use of “Business Advocacy” instead of “Lobbying” comparing it to saying that one person is “horizontally challenged” instead of “fat”. But Professor Kostecki was also inspiring for the very simple but realistic truths he was highlighting during his classes. For instance, he often said that “the sales force is everything” and that “a bad sales force gives you no chance of success”. One year after graduating and after a year of startup experience, I can say that Professor Kostecki was right. As Mister Blake (starring Alec Baldwin) states in the well-known salestalk’s scene of Glengarry Glen Ross (see the video below), “only one thing counts in this life: get them to sign on the line which is dotted!” Entrepreneurs have to face these hard truths: You must be able to sell your product and startup. It takes “brass balls” to do it. And this reality is part of your daily life.
Last week I was attending the 2013 Venture Ideas event organized by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) and its Venturelab. Various entrepreneurs were talking about their own experience in financing and leading their startups to successful market launch. Both Mathieu Fivaz (Co-founder and COO at Urturn) and Johannes Reck (Co-founder and CEO at GetYourGuide) highlighted the importance of being able to sell their product and company for every founders and CEOs. An integration of technology with sales and marketing activities at the organizational level has been advocated. I couldn’t agree more. The organizational structure of a startup can’t be rigidly compartmented. Framing marketing, technology, finance and operations restrain the commercial development capacity of startups. Don’t get me wrong. It is important to have defined responsibilities, as in any organization. But some key activities have to be empowered by everyone in the company. Sales are one of those. Whether you are the CEO, founder, web developer, designer, creative director, financial officer, secretary or intern, you must be able to sell your company and product. In fact, you will have too.
What founders quickly realize when they embark on a “startup adventure” is that this adventure IS their life. Indeed, your founder’s role affects every aspect of your life, including your family life. You may think that you will be pitching your startup in front of investors, partners or key customers, and that is obviously true. But you will also be pitching the startup in (almost) every single conversation whether with your family, your friends or with strangers. Actually, most first approaches in discussions are related to the “what do you do for a living?” question. Unless you answer that you’re working for the British Government (that’s usually what James Bond will answer), you’ll have to explain that you’re launching a company. Most people will then ask you questions about it and you will be “trapped”. That’s the moment where you need to sell. Being able to explain in one or two lines what you do and passing along your positive energy and passion is the best way to generate both attention and interest, the first key steps in sales strategy. This will help you convince people around you that what you’re doing and creating is great. And believe me, you need that! People surrounding you are essential for several reasons. First, you love them and you (mostly) live with them. As my lawyer would say, “the first persons you must convince are your family because they share your life and support you”. The second reason is that pitching your acquaintances is the first step to create a network. If you convince them, they will talk about you to others and, sometimes, link you with people able to unlock difficult situations.
Of course, pitching is a difficult exercise and some founders struggle with this. If your family and acquaintances will be merciful with your sales pitch, not everybody will. If you’re not ready to go straight-to-the-point and to explain your business concept concisely, most people will get bored or simply won’t get it. This is where the lessons of Mister Blake become interesting. Even though it is aggressive and represents a pretty old-fashioned way of exerting leadership, this scene highlights some key points for being able to sell and convince. Certainly, it reminds the famous AIDA purchasing funnel to consider when you are pitching (Attention – Interest – Desire/Decision – Action). But it also emphasizes the ABC (Always – Be – Closing) sales strategy, or the need to constantly look for new prospects and pitch them with the objective to close the deal. In my opinion, taken as a whole, it appeals before everything to the notions of courage and perseverance, embodied in the famous line “it takes brass-balls to sell real-estate”. Personally, I have never been against taking a good shot of Alec Baldwin’s best performance before meeting with investors or key partners, because it gives me the conviction that when you are convince and you do not shiver, you can convince anyone. With the correct balance of courage and understanding and taking into consideration those very simple concepts, I believe that anyone can give a very respectable sale’s pitch.
My business partner and co-founder of Novertur, Florent, once explained that he was “99% co-founder and 1% CEO”. He intended to say that for most of his job he needed to do everything which was necessary to run the company, including what seems out of reach for him (in his case it would probably be writing a blog article, no offense;)). Only the remaining 1% is concretely operating as CEO. In the same perspective, Johannes Reck explained that he was answering the phone to support customers, something you wouldn’t expect from the CEO of a company. Founding a startup and, to a larger extent, working for a startup, means being able to act as founder and to do everything that is necessary in order to run the company and guide it to success. Pitching for the business is one of these absolute necessity that you do everyday in front of customers, investors and partners at work; in front of friends, acquaintances and strangers during the after-work; in front of your family at home. You need to force yourself and turn into a salesman. Every founder has to become a salesman to succeed…
So, ready for another shot of Baldwin’s best performance?
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Directed by James Foley
Starring in this Scene: Alec Baldwin (as Blake), Jack Lemon (as Levene), Ed Harris (as Dave Moss), Alan Arkin (as George Aaronow) and Kevin Spacey (as John Williamson)
Also starring (not in this scene): Al Pacino (as Ricky Roma)