Sales isn’t for Sissies

One of my fellow speakers (and fellow Bay Staters) at the MWEC Conference was Mike Schultz of Rain Group.  He’s a tremendous speaker, and has written a couple of books about sales that have done well.  I’m not a big fan of most sales books, because what sales requires more than anything else is personal discipline to run the process right and to keep on swinging the bat when things aren’t going well.  There are lots of processes, and many of them work.  (I’m most intrigued by what CEB has discovered in their work about The Challenger Sale– the most successful reps push their clients’ thinking, and don’t just buy drinks and nod their heads.)

Any number of sales methodologies will work.   But if you don’t get rigorous about them, then every one of them will fail.  Sales isn’t about being charming.  Sales is about helping people diagnose and solve problems.  And to lend a sense of urgency that prevents people from staying idle.   Especially at a time when every buyer comes to the table armed with reams of content (that you and your competitors put on the web for free), sales reps have to be smart and bring something special to the table, not just spit out talking points and features.

Mike’s sales philosophy is simple and hard– every successful sales rep needs to do three things:

  • Resonate, or create the belief in the client’s mind that there is a real, relevant problem that needs to be solved
  • Differentiate, or show that you are not like everybody else, but in fact the only one who does what you do.  (I like to call it distinctiveness, but hey, it’s his model.)
  • Substantiate, or offer proof that it actually works

That’s it.  Very simple and clear, and every one of them is a meaningful challenge to execute.

Some people can do well on the first criterion– they are selling something that has real relevance to a real business problem.   But for most of us, we’re not selling water in the desert, we’re selling nice, useful, perfectly adequate solutions to well-understood problems.  Not a whole lot of urgency there.  So how do you generate that resonance and urgency without compromising on intellectual integrity (a/k/a lying)?  There’s a lot of homework to be done, to understand not only your client’s industry, but your client’s positioning within that industry.  Not a shoeshine and a smile.

Differentiating can also be challenging.  The narcissism of small differences means that we know exactly how we differ from our competitors, but those differences– significant in our eyes– really don’t matter much to customers.  Is there really a big difference between Mazda and Hyundai?  In the eyes of Mazda and Hyundai dealers I’m sure there are.  In the eyes of car buyers, I don’t think there’s much. This also requires deep understanding about what your buyer cares about and doesn’t care about.

Finally, substantiation is the hardest for most startups.  When you have no track record, how do you prove that your solution works?  It takes a strong personal relationship and a steady hand on the tiller to pull this off.  The guys from Accenture can afford to miss a beat– they have a bulletproof track record.  You are selling a promise of what’s to come.  That means you can’t miss a trick.  It ain’t easy,and it’s one of the reasons why most startups fail.  Until you have a track record, every sale is an act of faith, or to be more honest, a gamble.  Sometimes you can play the startup card in your favor– “We’re smaller, we’ll hustle more.”  But until you have a track record, this will be the hardest part.

Schultz’s three criteria are easy to remember but hard to deliver on, which makes them a useful mantra for every salesperson and executive.  Until your sales machine is purring, you need to make progress every day on making your story resonate, your value proposition genuinely differentiated, and your value substantiated.

You also need to be running a disciplined sales process.  This all sounds hard, and it is, but sales isn’t for sissies.

P.S.  Check out Mike’s petition about the Melody valve, which helps treat kids with heart trouble, and which needs an exception from FDA Standard Operating Procedure.  Great cause, and great story.

Photo credit: Flickr

What I Said at the Entrepreneurship Conference

Last Friday, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the Midwest Entrepreneurship Conference organized by UNO which took place at the Kaneko.

Great crowd, and great programming.  A good mix of old and young, with a standup comic in the middle. (Major points to the committee for booking him, and major points to Austin Anderson for working a very tough room.  After lunch, no drinks is a suboptimal booking for any comic.  He had a great set, persevered and earned my respect.)

My presentation was not so much about how to do a startup as much as what the personal and psychological cost of entrepreneurship can be.  It’s a great ride, but if you’re not prepared– personally, emotionally, even psychologically– a lot can go wrong.  Mark Suster described this very well in his post about Entrepreneurshit.   Startups are hard.  The rewards can be high, but they take a lot out of the people in them.  We’re finally starting to have an honest conversation about this subject, and like everything else around mental health AND startups, it’s hard for people to be candid.   Everyone wants to say it’s going great all the time, but there’s always something going wrong.  And if you lie to yourself about that, you will have a much harder time.  As Viktor Frankl taught, we all have to be very clear why we are doing what we’re doing, be brutally honest with ourselves, and be able to improvise.  For entrepreneurs, even more so.  A lot of people depend on you keeping it together.  Don’t neglect yourself.

The slides are below, but are pretty minimal.  (I’m learning from the great Idea Transplant that less really is more.)

I also was lucky enough to be interviewed by Dr. Jeremy Harris Lipschultz for his Spreecast videoblog.  The video is here, and I opine on the world of social media.


A great day, and I’m sorry I couldn’t stay for the second day– great speakers, including Blake Lawrence from Opendorse, who is doing some appealingly disruptive things to the athletic endorsement industry.

Entrepreneurship is seductive, transformative, and grueling.  The more honest we are about it, the more likely we are to have healthier companies and happier people.  Take care of your customers, your investors, and your team.  But don’t neglect yourself.

In the Recording Studio of Life, God is the Room Tone

I spent this weekend on a silent retreat at a Benedictine mission house in Schuyler, NE.  Why would I want to do something like that? First, a friend of mine, who is just as extroverted as me, suggested it, saying it was hard but fantastic.  Second, it’s a very noisy world, and I thought it might be useful to find a way to turn down the noise a little.  Third, it was organized by The Gravity Center, one of my favorite organizations.  Thought it might be good to stretch my limits a little.

I had been informally working with Chris and Phileena Heuertz at The Gravity Center on messaging, as it was never clear to me what their tagline– “a center for contemplative activism”– meant.  Well, now I think I get it.

As a divorced Catholic, my relationship with organized religion is somewhat, um, nuanced.  I go to Mass on big holidays (unless I sleep late).  As a divorced guy, I don’t take communion (unless I have the urge to).  My relationship with Catholicism is a mess, and that’s too bad, because I grew up in it, and I know all the dance steps.  But I also know that my life always goes better when I am paying attention to God.  The hard part is to find a way to relate to God that respects my roots as a Catholic.  I don’t want to go Protestant, or Jewish, or Ba’Hai, but the Catholic Church isn’t particularly open to me at the moment.

I arrived with no expectations, except for the sense that I needed to make some changes to get my life back into balance.  Even if those changes involved yoga.  I actually had no idea what I was doing there, but had faith that it wouldn’t be a mistake to check it out.

Where we were

The retreat took place at the Benedictine Center in Schuyler NE, about 90 minutes from Omaha and out in real ag-land Willa Cather country.  The Mission House is like a modern comfortable college dorm, and across the street is a genuine monastery, where 12 monks from Germany(!) do their work.  Spectacular, modern setting, and not what you expect to find among the cornfields.  The isolation makes it deeply peaceful, and the fact that cellphones don’t work inside the center was not lost on me.  The sound of the wind in the grass and bells from the monastery are the soundtrack.

It sits on about 20 acres, with lots of room for walking, including a  minimalist Stations of the Cross circuit set up in a pasture.  The fields look  like this.


What we did

The essence of what Gravity Center does is Meditation (using Christian Traditions).  Nothing shocking, but repossessing tools that aren’t often seen in a Christian context.  Net/net, saying “Amen” instead of “Om.” But it works just as well.


Unfortunately, I think meditation has a branding problem.  Meditation to me usually evokes worn-out hippie culture images of George Harrison solo albums, South Asian con men, and Jeff Goldblum in Annie Hall.

Or Tomorrow Never Knows, the one song everyone skips over on Revolver.

(Groovy, man.)

So meditation seems a little dated.  But the idea of clearing the mind of chatter so that one can (a) be quiet, and (b) hear deeper wisdom makes a lot of sense, and has been practiced in the Christian Tradition for a long time.   It also could not be more relevant to the life I am living (and most of us) are living these days– overscheduled, overstimulated, always living in fear of missing something.

The method we practiced on the weekend is known as centering prayer, and this is a useful guide to how it works.  In principle it’s really simple– pick a word, focus on it for 20 minutes, and let other thoughts drift away.  In practice, it can be very hard, especially for my fast-twitch, overstimulated brain full of social media, TV Theme songs, and to-dos.  Fr. Thomas Keating introduces the concept in a short video here.

So what we did was practice a few kinds of Christian Meditation.  Some of which are easier than others.  The basic unit was a 20-minute “prayer sit” where we would sit silently in a circle (some on chairs, some on cushions) and chill.  Like many things, meditation is something that is entirely doable alone, but there’s something helpful about struggling through it in the company of others.

Most of what we did was Centering Prayer, but we also did some passage meditation, lectio divina, and the examen.  (By the way, here’s a great article from Harvard Business Review by a Managing Director at JP Morgan about using the examen as a tool to manage our fast-paced world.   I’m sure the Jesuits are delighted that they’re making JP Morgan more efficient doing God’s work.)

What was the schedule?

The three values that we kept to were silence, stillness, and solitude.  That had some challenging implications, but helped enormously in getting the mind to quiet down.

The retreat ran from Friday Night to Sunday Noon, with 40 hours of silence in the middle.  During the silence, Chris and Phileena would talk us through everything we needed.  Meals were taken in silence.  We would have 20-minute prayer sits with short breaks.  In total, we probably spent 6 hours in meditative prayer.  Interspersed were lots of breaks (to be taken in silence and solitude) and tragically for me, three sessions of Yoga.  Too many years of good living, sitting in comfy chairs, and not stretching have left me with the flexibility of a stainless steel stove.  Running 2 miles a day doesn’t help either.  I’ll just say everyone was very kind.  In fairness, one of the sessions was spent completely still lying on the back as we were guided through controlled relaxation.  I liked that part.

Was the Silence Hard?

The fact that the retreat was silent scared me the most on the way there, frankly because I had no idea what else we were doing.  (If you had told me were doing meditation and yoga, that might have scared me more than the silence.)  In context, the silence was a complete relief.  I was thrown into a vulnerable position with a bunch of strangers (supportive, but strangers) and frankly, making small talk (I have a gold medal in small talk) might have been challenging.  It was a huge relief to just shut up for a while.  Also, the transformation you go through on a retreat like this is hard to articulate while it’s happening.  Much better not to try to explain the unsayable to people you just met.  The silence keeps you focused.  The tough part was meals, as we all were trying to avoid eye contact with each other and eat in solitude.  I will say this– eating in solitude changes the way you look at food.  Every bite matters, so there’s much less mindless stuffing of the face.  I probably ate one-third less than what I normally do, and almost every choice I made was healthy. Hmmm.  (By the way, the food was great.)

Was the Meditation Hard?

It was very simple, which doesn’t mean it was easy.  Clearing your mind is a very simple idea in principle, but where the rubber hits the road, it can be really hard to get those profane thoughts out of your head when contemplating the sacred.  Pop songs, teenage crushes, perfect comebacks to long-ago insults, shapes and colors– so many things fill your head when you’re trying to clear it.  It takes a lot of discipline to keep coming back to your sacred word.  But when you do, it’s pretty transcendent.  The time really melts away, and you go into a sleep-like state.  Unbelievably refreshing but also disorienting.  And I didn’t get to that place in every single 20-minute prayer sit.  But I got there probably 5 times out of 8.  I assume that will get better.  But as Keating says in the video above– you can’t get this wrong.  Simply to do it is an invitation.  And that’s the point.

So what about the God stuff?

I was waiting for that question.  Let me start with a few statements so you know where I stand.

  • God exists, but probably not in the shape of a nice Caucasian grandfather.  Tom Wolfe wrote a spectacular article on neuroscience 20 years ago, where he pointed out that human beings may not be smart enough to understand the world the way it actually is.  Who said there were only 4 dimensions?

    The consensus was that since the human mind is, after all, an entirely physical apparatus, a form of computer, the product of a particular genetic history, it is finite in its capabilities. Being finite, hardwired, it will probably never have the power to comprehend human existence in any complete way. It would be as if a group of dogs were to call a conference to try to understand The Dog. They could try as hard as they wanted, but they wouldn’t get very far. Dogs can communicate only about forty notions, all of them primitive, and they can’t record anything. The project would be doomed from the start. The human brain is far superior to the dog’s, but it is limited nonetheless. So any hope of human beings arriving at some final, complete, self–enclosed theory of human existence is doomed, too.

    Look at what we’re finding out about the Big Bang this year.  We have only scratched the surface of how the universe works, so any definitive idea that God does not exist is just stupid.  We don’t know, so all we can do is sense.  And the fact that so many Homo Sapiens have reached out to the divine in so many places for so many years is an indicator of something.  My bet is on God existing.  But he doesn’t look like that guy on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

  • Since we have no idea how God actually works, there is no one true faith.  Every faith by definition is fundamentally flawed in some way, but they each can get us closer to God.
  • God has a relationship with you whether you like it or not.  He doesn’t turn it off.  Much of the time, we drift away from the connection to God, but the connection is still there.  You can go away for a long time and God will still be there.

So having said that, this is what came through to me.

  • God’s presence is there all the time, but we drown him out with Facebook, with music, with drugs and alcohol, with reality TV, and  other trivial things that fill the void in our heads.  Most of us are very afraid of silence and stillness because we might not like what we hear in our own heads.  The irony is that if you actually do get to a place of silence and stillness, you get to a place of love.  (And the Buddhists and the Christians agree on this.)The best analogy I know is from the world of sound recording.  Every recording studio in the world (in fact every room in the world) has its own room tone or presence.  It’s the sound of a room when all the instruments and amplifiers are turned off.  There’s a very low throb that is always in the background.  And you can’t hear it when other noises are going on.  You have to turn everything off, and then you can sense it.  God isn’t always taking out billboards (despite what the roadsides look like in rural Nebraska).  God is the drone note that underscores everything.  And you have to turn off a lot of distractions if you want to hear it.
  • You don’t need sacred text to get there (although it’s a good idea).  One of the many trivial things that ran through my head (while I was trying to clear my mind) was from The Wizard of Oz.  “You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.”
  • A second thing that was percolating through my head was the opening few pages of The Cat in the Hat.  We were doing a lot of sitting, and so this came to mind.

     “too wet to go out and too cold to play ball. so we sat in the house. we did nothing at all.  so all we could do was to sit!    sit! sit! sit! and we did not like it. not one little bit.”

So What Did You Get Out of It?

Great question.  Anytime you do something hard with other people, there’s a spirit of camaraderie and teamwork, even if you can’t talk to each other.  We all had each other’s back, and that’s a great feeling that doesn’t come around enough.

Also, the act of shutting the mind down 20 minutes at a time was really refreshing.  I feel like my brain has had a good scrubbing, and a lot of crap that has accumulated there over the years was rinsed away.

The most immediate thing I took away was a different sense of time.  I usually gyrate between being bored and afraid that time will drag out too long (so in need of distraction) and being stressed because there’s not enough time.  After a few sessions of meditation, I realized there was always enough time.  Having time with nothing to do is a blessing, not a cause for panic.  The point is to be present in what you’re doing, not constantly distracted.  Most of us live our lives (at least I do) in a state of constant distraction.  That takes its toll on our performance and our relationships.   Mindfulness seems like a confusing idea until you get there.  John Lennon used these words to define rock’n’roll (and Oasis made a terrible album by this name) but the idea of mindfulness is simple– Be Here Now.  This retreat made it a lot easier to Be Here Now.

Now What?

Try and keep up the practice, or as Chris said, turn the practice into a discipline.  So far, I am one-for-one, as I got up and did 20 minutes early this morning.  One down, several thousand to go.

Like anything worth doing, it’s you vs you.  And it’s not trivial to keep it up.  But I see the fruits of doing it every day, and I am eager to get there.  Wish me luck.

P.S.  Here’s a good video that evokes what the weekend is like:

For more info on the Gravity Center retreats, see this page.

Photo Credit:  Flickr

Two Speaking Gigs

I will be appearing at two events in Omaha in the next couple of weeks.

On April 4, I will be telling Startup Stories at the Midwestern Entrepreneurship Conference at Kaneko.  My speaking slot is at 3:05, and should run 40 minutes.  MWEC is “a two day conference that is for college students, young professionals and aspiring entrepreneurs to learn from highly successful young entrepreneurs and a few seasoned professionals.”  As my friend Dave Ball pointed out, by process of elimination, I must be a seasoned professional.

MWEC registration info is here.

On April 15-16, I will be speaking at Infotec, the biggest tech conference in the Midwest.  It’s a great opportunity, and should be a ton of fun, as I’m facilitating What’s Your Problem, an interactive problem-solving session.

WYP is a fast-paced, interactive problem-solving exercise, where we take the smart talented people of Infotec and set them loose on real-world tech problems offered by the attendees. The unusual mix of talents and perspectives at Infotec make for a unique collaborative problem-solving team. Ask the community about a difficult issue you’re working on. Or just participate and lend your perspective to another community member’s problem. This convention is full of smart people. Here’s your chance to work with them in real time.

I’m particularly looking forward to working with Dan Zarrella, Chief Data Scientist at Hubspot, and the smartest man in social media.  (Really.)  We will have a WYP session for each track– Business Intelligence, Mobile, Marketing Technology (where Dan will participate), and Security.  Infotec has a great mix of tech experts, and tapping into the collective knowledge to solve real problems should be a great experience.

Registration info is here.

Wish me luck.

Tyler Cowen, Automation and Inspiration

Tools are morally neutral.  You can make something great with them or something mediocre.  Look at what Pixar does with computer animation vs something like Food Fight.  (Seriously, just watch the trailer.  You will never be the same.)  The demands on us as content creators mean that we have to create good material, and we have to create a lot of it.  Making everything by hand doesn’t scale.  And doing everything via algorithm just burps out more mediocrity into this noisy world.  That means we have to find the sweet spot between the two.

Tyler Cowen is behind the wonderful Marginal Revolution, a blog which makes economics as interesting as it can be. (He also was involved in a bizarre incident last week, when he was pepper-sprayed while teaching a class at George Mason University.)  He also has a new book out that looks fantastic– Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation.

His premise is that Average is Over— the skill set that powered successful Americans up until now is permanently changing.  (In the words of the irreplaceable Marshall Goldsmith, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.)  Up until now, success was determined by hard work, but also intelligence.  Unfortunately, intelligence is becoming an outsourceable asset.

The key questions will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? Are computers helping people in China and India compete against you?

If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery . If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch. Ever more people are starting to fall on one side of the divide or the other.

And it’s blindingly obvious, but we overlook it—we’re already deeply dependent on smart machines.

Whether it is through Siri, Google, or Wikipedia, there is now almost always a way to ask and— more importantly— a way to receive the answer in relatively digestible form.

It must be emphasized that every time you use Google you are relying on machine intelligence. Every time Facebook recommends a new friend for you or sends an ad your way. Every time you use GPS to find your way to a party.

Algorithms are getting better and better, and if you don’t know how to work with the algorithms (not compete with them), the future will be increasingly bleak.  It’s rational for employers to reduce costs if they can maintain quality, and as algorithms get better, more work will be taken away from humans and given to algorithms.

For content creators, this is a double-edged sword.  Clearly, some of the tools we have are force multipliers.  Sprout Social’s suggested followers and cleanup functions make it simple to arithmetically build your followers without picking people at random.  Buffer and other queuing apps allow us to batch all our work into one period, and see them drip out at predetermined times.  Even something as simple as an RSS feeder or Google News allows us to be on top of industry news in just a few minutes a day.  As Clay Shirky puts it, publishing is no longer a job or an industry, it’s a button.

But at the same time, have you ever read machine-written prose?  It’s getting better, and for some news functions, it will inevitably replace human writers, but there is a joylessness about it that condemns it to the purely functional.  For something like the summary of a Little League game on scorekeeping app Gamechanger, it’s invaluable.  But in terms of distinctiveness, we’re a long way from replacing humans.

It all depends on what you’re selling and how your customers buy. If you’re selling pure functionality at the lowest possible price, maybe algorithmic prose will be good enough.  But frankly, if your brand sells that way, you’re probably not creating content to begin with.  We’re all trying to help our buyer through the sales process, and that takes cultural understanding, nuance, and accessibility.  For now, that means you need a human to write it.  But the change will come sooner than we think.

If you write like a computer, you will be replaced by a computer.  The human voice is the main difference between prose that connects and the fog of words that we all swim through on the internet.  Make your writing as real and human and immediate as it can be.  Your reader is getting drenched with joyless algorithmic prose, engineered for SEO and focused on product features.  Write human stories about how your services changed someone’s lives.  Tell stories.  Not just to save your job from the rise of the machines, but because you only have one life.  Do you really want to spend it cranking out shitty prose?  Gaining a real audience today is hard.  That’s why it matters more than ever to make that audience feel something.

Respect the tools that make it easier for us to create and distribute content, but even more importantly, respect your readers’ humanity. That’s how you make a difference.

Photo credit:  Flickr

Adrian Blake has worked with Saturday Night Live, McKinsey & Co., and The Progressive Farmer and is a founder of a Social Media agency.

Adrian Blake.  Strategy.  Social Media.