After Wharton, as I was exploring a venture capital (VC) career, one of my accomplished VC friends gave me a piece of advice. “Get off your engineering high horse and spend some time selling something first,” he said.
Gasp! As an engineering manager, I was used to making derisive fun of marketing and sales guys, especially when they demanded product features that were hard to design. Selling sounded like walking to the dark side!
I am glad I did. Since then, I have been on an entrepreneurial journey, and in each of my ventures, I have been the first sales guy I’ve “hired.” This experience has taught me what selling really is, beyond just closing the deal.
Selling is very humbling. Nothing prepared me for the kind of skepticism, ridicule, brusqueness, questioning, disbelief and mistrust that I endure when I sell. My knowledge, education, experience and pedigree do not matter much beyond getting an appointment. My product enthusiasm often turns to exasperation when customers simply do not see my value the way I do.
Selling is exhausting. In my very first venture, I was visiting my customers—small retailers—located on busy roads and dusty by-lanes in sweltering heat just to get a minute with them while they were selling to hordes of their customers and had no time for me. I thought that was hard, until I realized my future salespeople would be walking the streets, traveling in crowded buses, drenched in sweat, and then would be expected to present and pitch the product enthusiastically. Being driven in an air-conditioned car was not the right way to experience the kind of mindset my future salespeople would find themselves in. So I ditched the car and emulated them. And boy was it hard! Try walking Mumbai streets in the height of summer and make a sale—especially a concept sale.
Selling is empowering. Being the first salesperson makes you extremely aware of how your customers perceive your product and what it takes to sell it. This experience comes in handy while selecting, interviewing, training and making your future salespeople believe in what they are about to sell. Nobody else can do that for you. It’s a road you have to walk yourself first, however hard, humbling, dusty, exhausting, nauseating and debilitating it may be.
That’s why selling is believing, not just in your venture or product, but also in yourself. I have to adapt and bring out all my skills when I get to sell. Many of those skills I never knew existed in me, and many actually did not.
You may not be the best salesperson ever for your venture, but while starting out, you ought to believe you are. And chances are, you very well may end up being exactly that—the best salesperson ever.