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To Sell is Human

Simple Things They Don't Teach in Schools

Recently, I taught a couple of classes on “Sales Strategy and Process” in the SCALEUP Maryland program, hosted by bwtech@UMBC and produced by TCV Partners. Participants in this program are entrepreneurs who have already taken their ideas from concepts to at least MVPs (minimum viable product), with a few early customers. Now they are in the “seed stage” of a startup lifecycle. At this stage, the top challenge is to generate sales, acquiring more customers and acquiring them faster, to prove that the business can scale. The purpose of the SCALEUP Maryland program is to help these companies scale.

Most of the participants in this cohort of SCALEUP Maryland program come from engineering or life science background, with advanced degrees. But I sensed that selling may not be their favorite task as a startup CEO. This is not uncommon among startup founders. Many startup founders come from technical backgrounds. High achievers in schools, they have learned the core expertise required for technical innovation, but they have not been exposed to any classes that teach how to sell. As a matter of fact, most colleges do not offer classes in sales strategy and processes. For an undergraduate degree in business, we see majors in finance or marketing, but rarely in sales. So naturally, to many entrepreneurs, the task of selling could be intimidating.

Fortunately, everyone can sell, whether you realize it or not. All you need is to understand the basic elements, do the homework, and believe that you have what takes to close the deal.

Best-selling author Daniel Pink has written a book appropriately titled “To Sell is Human”. The thesis is that selling is an intrinsically human skill that has evolved with us over time. Most of us are in sales, whether we know it or not. One in nine in our economy work in the field of sales, but the other eight are also in sales (influencing, persuading). Further, it explores how deeply embedded this skill is in our lives and shows the tools we can use to harness these skills to achieve results in sales, as well as other areas of life. To simplify sales, Daniel Pink has distilled it into three elements:

1. Know what others want or need.

2. Know what alternatives your customers have.

3. Make it easy for your customers to buy your products and services.

These three elements apply almost to everything we do, whether you are applying for a job or selling a multi-million-dollar ERP system. Perhaps that’s why they don’t teach “sales” in schools, because it is innate in us, integrated in our daily life and in everything we do.

Selling is a critical skill for building a business. No matter how intimating the task of “selling” may seem, entrepreneurs must learn how to sell:

1. They need to test and validate their ideas in the marketplace. The best way to do that is to sell to potential customers, listening to their feedback and reasons for rejections. Through talking to potential customers, they will understand or validate the customer pain points, what buyers want and the perceived value from their products and services. That feedback will in turn guide their business strategy, so their business can gain traction quickly.

2. They need to recruit employees. In early stage of the business, when the company is unknown and future is uncertain, it is hard to compete for talent with more established businesses. Entrepreneurs need to identify the right talent, sell them on the growth potential of the business, get them to be excited to work in the company. That takes top selling skills. Sometimes it could be harder to sell to a potential recruit than a new customer.

3. They need to build distribution channels, raise money from investors, or borrow money from banks. In doing so, they need to sell the growth prospect of their businesses to these critical partners.

How can entrepreneurs use the three basic elements outlined in Daniel Pink’s book to their business and scale up the sales? To make it simple, here are the three things I believe founders of early-stage business must answer:

  • What is your value proposition to the targeted customers?

  • Why are you better than your competitors?

  • How easy is it for customers to adopt your products and services?

When we keep things simple, it helps us achieve success. However, we human beings tend to make things too complicated, which prevents us from achieving desired outcomes. Some examples of complications:

  • When you use 10 to 12 bullet points to describe the value proposition of your products and services, perhaps you don’t know what your customers want or value? Ask yourself, which 3 are the most relevant?

  • Remember, competitors may be the status quo, not necessarily another provider. When a new business says that “there is no competitor out there”, it could signal that the market is not there. You have come up with a unique solution to a problem. But if nobody is willing to let go of status quo, it won’t sell.

  • You must make it easy for your customers to use your products and services. Whether it’s ordering furniture online or switching to a new software application, if the process of assembling or on-boarding is complicated, it won’t sell, no matter how great the actual product is.

Selling is not complicated. If we focus on the three basic questions, do the hard work so we can get the simple answers, sales will become easier. Remember, to sell is human. Maybe that’s why they don’t teach selling in schools. If you need help in refining your sales process, pleased don’t hesitate to contact TCV Partners. Jackie Luo, TCV Partner.


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