Over the past two days, hundreds of start-ups have joined industry analysts, journalists, entrepreneurs and the “techerati” for a celebration of all things disruptive, modern, and mobile appy at Tech Crunch Disrupt at the Copper Box Arena, Queen Elizabeth Park, in East London.
This is exciting – speakers included superstar entrepreneurs Nikolas Zennstrom, ex-Skype, now at the helm of early stage investment firm Atomico, Google Deep Mind’s Mustafa Suleyman, Ismael Ahmed of World Remit, and the start-up Battlefield, judged by some of London’s best known tech investors; Entrepreneur First, Forward Partners and Playfair Capital, was won by Seenit, one of London’s most popular startups.
Events like this are great for London’s eco-system, but they only tell half the story of what it takes to launch and successfully run an early stage company.
Now I want to tell you something about the world of disruptive tech that is going to surprise and shock you – and possibly make you sweat a little bit – but this, let me assure you, is a good thing.
Introducing The “Swan Paradox”
Some of you may have heard of Nissim Taleb – the essayist, scholar, and former trader. He’s renowned for coming up with clever – seriously clever, theories about markets, risk and decision making and how it can affect the way you run your business (or your trading desk, if you have one of those, too).
It was he who came up with the “Black Swan” theory, to describe the unpredictable events that nobody sees coming, that end up changing the world, and the way we try to justify these events to ourselves as human beings.
Well, here at HHH we like to think differently, too, and we like to think about swans as start-ups, because they have one key similarity.
Sublime, beautiful, and majestic above the surface, under the surface the swan’s ungainly legs are whirling around like out-of-control piston engines, desperately treading water to keep everything afloat; about as cool, calm and collected as a canoeist enjoying a gentle paddle only to realise they are being sucked into some nearby rapids.
Above the surface, that all important veneer of sophistication. Below the surface, chaotic, manic, desperate, distinctly uncool, old-fashioned, paddle power.
And that, readers, is exactly how your start-up should operate. Because in business, there are no prizes for looking, or acting, as cool as a cucumber.
So, What Does All This Have To Do With Sales?
In case you haven’t guessed already, a start-ups’ sales operations are like the legs of a swan. We don’t like to talk about them – we prefer to focus on the sexy parts – look at that stunning UI – marvel at the game-changing idea – oh, just look at that cute, disruptive take on that common old health / fashion / travel problem – but an idea that has no sales team behind it, quite simply, has no legs.
And here’s another funny thing – very few tech start-ups have tried to target the sales industry – which is kind of odd really, when you think about it.
It’s almost as if disruptive tech start-ups have an issue when it comes to the sales part of their businesses. With a product as brilliant and life-changing as ours, many seem to believe, we don’t need to worry about anything as vulgar as actually selling it.
Oh, yes you do.
There’s nothing worse than a smug start-up founder who believes the world needs his product so badly all he has to do is show up, deliver a keynote, stare into the middle distance whilst explaining how their new car-pooling app will eradicate human suffering and bring us all closer together. Give us a break, Elon, and credit us with at least a modicum of intelligence.
Your Sales Team Makes The Hard Yards – And Keeps Everybody Else In A Job
We don’t talk about sales much in the start-up world, but we should do. A few weeks ago, at an HHH GaP->GaS event we heard from Shelley, @ Trellyz, a Palo Alto veteran whose businesses failed, failed, failed, and finally succeeded.
Where was she going wrong? Were her ideas not game-changing or disruptive enough? Nobody could see how her product was going to change the world? Ok, ok – she didn’t establish what the right kind of “product market fit” was?
Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. All the time, through each cycle of failure, success, failure, success, one step forward, two steps back, she was making new connections. She was physically meeting customers – at Meet-ups, at events, by cold-calling, by going door to door. Learning more and more about what mattered most to people.
It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t glamorous, but it sure was effective when she finally achieved critical mass. Slick marketing, a beautiful user-experience, and a mission statement so do-gooding it makes Bono seem like Donald Trump by comparison is all very well, but there’s no substitute for good old fashioned sales and networking. Ultimately, that what’s gets the uncertain, non tech-savvy punters in.
Don’t forget that building a start-up is not like entering a talent contest – where if you look fancy, pull off your one trick and keep smiling, you may win a lot of prizes – if there’s no substance to what you have built, nothing to sell, or an expectation that your customers will come to you because they have nowhere else to turn, boy are you on a hiding to nothing.
Consistency and determination are what builds the crucial, profitable business relationships.
Wise Up, Think Like A Real Entrepreneur, Not A Start-up Phony, & Start Selling
Listen, the guy standing next to you at the TC Disrupt start-up alley may have a product that knocks yours into a cocked hat – but if you have a sales team that gets you that all important meeting with the top brass at Softbank, or Barclays, or UBS, or Andreesen Horowitz, that’s all that matters.
Sure, there are investors out there who will tell you – forget traction, forget revenues, we have the contacts in place to make this product a best-seller. But you still have to sell yourself to get in front of them.
So, don’t be too precious about elbowing your way in. And pay your respects to sales folk who understand the subtleties of convincing people that a product is worth owning.
The story of Clozer – a sales tech product the journalists couldn’t wait to knock.
Back in 2015 an “uber for sales” platform called Clozer launched that puts businesses in touch with qualified, vetted sales-people all over the world via a digital platform that uses AI and algorithms to generate optimal results and matches. A smart, sharing economy win. But some weren’t having it.
Ugh! The tech press said, this business stinks, look at its “controversial” marketing techniques – it’s going to contact people via LinkedIn – how “un-tech-nified”. Never mind that it was a great idea, “for goodness sake”, they cried, the founder hasn’t even explained how it’s going to end human suffering forever!”
Some didn’t want the platform to succeed because it demonstrated that good, old-fashioned sales techniques are still very much in demand. They did not realise that by disrupting the sales process, founder Ami Bloomer had secured a massive for win for disruptive tech by getting more traditional sales-people to sign up to an online, Airbnb style platform.
It hasn’t been easy – sales people grumble, they criticise, they are demanding – but they are also committed, determined and loyal.
So, don’t neglect your sales team, and if you don’t have one, get one. They might not make you feel like Bill Gates, but here’s a newsflash for you – people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have sales in their blood, and that is what made them successful – the “disruptive” tech – well, that was all so much window-dressing.