Sell before you Buy

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Many of us operate at work like we shop at a grocery store.  At a grocery store, we might smell the oranges, check which brand of cereal we want to try and contemplate what is on sale.  We’ll walk around, consider the options, and ultimately put the winners into our carts and walk out the door.

We know how to buy.

A lot of how we work comes from the same instinctual behavior.  We’re interviewing candidates before we sell them – considering them like the bucket of oranges. We are thinking about which software vendor to work with – a lot like those boxes of cereal. We are evaluating technical options – considering which one is the right balance of return vs. cost. We are qualifying sales opportunities – thinking carefully about – and sometimes over-thinking – the question of which one deserves our time and attention.

Fundamentally, we operate like buyers or consumers first. But here’s the issue if you are an entrepreneur or working at a startup:

No one in the world cares about you. You have no currency. You have no money. You’re lucky to have anyone spend any time on your business when there are so many successful companies to spend time with.

So, reverse how you operate. Sell first, buy later.

The “buy first” mentality comes from a large company orientation. Oracle can be in “buy first” mode since everyone knows them.  If you’re at a startup, and you try to “buy first,” you’ll be choosing from poor alternatives.

Let’s talk about specifics.  Suppose you’re recruiting, and you prioritize choosing among incoming resumes or interviewing the selection of candidates that are high quality from that group. Fundamentally, you’re choosing from poor candidates. None of the best candidates care enough about your startup to apply. Instead, focus your time on selling to the best people – spend 80% of your time recruiting them to interview and 20% of your time selecting.

Suppose you’re thinking about which of five potential features makes the most sense to build. You can spend a lot of your time evaluating which one is most doable (that’s “buying”) and then push it out to your teams to sell. The alternative would be to spend most of your time “selling” (or validating in product-management-speak) and then only evaluate feasibility on what you know would move the needle.

Suppose you’re meeting a potential vendor – a PR firm, a software provider or a law firm.  Our natural tendency would be to start by assessing them. However, the best vendors in the world fundamentally shouldn’t work with you, because you have a high probability of amounting to nothing.  Start the opposite way. Seek out the best vendors in the world and sell them on your vision and the future potential of your startup. Then evaluate.

Finally, let’s get to sales.  You’d think that the one group of people who would certainly be focused on selling are salespeople. But even in sales, how much time do we spend thinking about compensation plans, territory alignment, qualification, adherence to Salesforce, preparation for those meetings, internal alignment, qualifying deals vs. the pure act of selling – persuading someone to buy something they fundamentally don’t have to?  Of course, all of those are important activities but do they matter if we don’t have demand for our products?  Shouldn’t we be spending 80% of our time on the latter?

As startup leaders, we are not grocery store customers. We are grocery store clerks at the corner store competing against Wal-Mart, Safeway, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.  And the landlord is happy to throw us out.

Sell authentically. Sell often. And, sell before you buy.

Image from Farmer’s Market by Pabak Sarkar licensed under CC by 2.0

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