Editor’s note: Investor and entrepreneur David Gardner is founder of Cofounders Capital in Cary and is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire.
CARY – Every time I find myself talking with a business school professor I tend to bring up the same question. “How is it that someone can get a degree in entrepreneurship and never have to take a Sales 101 class?” In my experience, a business person’s ability to effectively communicate and sell is the single most important success factor.
Early in my career I took a Dale Carnegie sales course. It was a commitment driving to classes and workshops over several weeks but to this day if I had to trade any one of my college degrees for that course I’d do it in a heartbeat. Looking back over three decades now, I am convinced that that course affected the trajectory of my career and startup ventures more than any else I studied.
A startup venture can survive about anything but a lack of sales. The simple magic of the lean startup approach is that it focuses an entrepreneur on selling, even with a minimal product, as quickly as possible. The act of selling enables you to test your message and value propositions and that early revenue can provide the runway you need to fix all of the other problems your venture will encounter.
As an entrepreneur, you will be putting on your sales hat many times per day even before you have a product to sell. You’ll need it for getting potential beta customers and subject matter experts to speak with you and give you that all-important feedback that will shape your ultimate product and go-to-market strategy. Regardless of your title, you’ll need that sales hat every day for fund raising, recruiting, managing, partnerships, investor relations and almost every other part of your venture. Your ability to understand another person’s perspective, effectively communicate your vision, its benefits, and deal with objections to ultimately bring others in line with your thinking is the skill that will make all of your other skills work.
Some entrepreneurs, especially technical ones, shy away from wearing the sales hat. For them, the very word “salesman” conjures up images of an ethically challenged, fast-talking, information withholding grease ball hovering around a used car lot. It’s as if everyone assumes that a salesman’s job is to get us to do something we don’t want to do or to trick us in some way.
On the contrary, seasoned sales executives are master communicators and trusted advisors to their clients. They possess deep knowledge of the products and services they represent, industry standards, best practices and competitive solutions. They are helpful consultants that take the time to learn their customer’s unique needs and then demonstrate how their offering might meet current business and personal objectives. They ask probing questions and skillfully root out unspoken objections so they can be addressed. They would never lie or mislead a customer because they know that the trust and relationships they establish are critical to their reputation and future success.
The sales hat is honorable and critically important. The greatest discoveries of science would have wasted away in their labs had it not been for those dedicated messengers heralding a better way. Leaving no stone unturned, they are the most tenacious of all of the hat bearers. The sales hat is actually more like a helmet. Those who wear it have strong self esteems that can endure dozens of rejections and dismissive insults each day without even taking a dent.
The irony of selling is that it is profoundly simple and simply profound. Knowing facts about your product and potential benefits is just the foundation of your sales process. You’ve still got to find the right decision maker(s), determine dominate buying motivations, ask probing questions, establish trust, and root out, disarm, and counter objections effectively. Leaning to speak in terms of benefits rather than product features is a skill that requires a disciplined process and lots of practice to master.
The sale skill is so important and yes so overlooked in business schools today that in my book, The StartUp Hat, I dedicate a full chapter to the Sales Hat and one to the Sales Manager Hat.
I encourage every entrepreneur to take a sales training course or at least read some of the great books available today that teach sales skills.