First, I started my career as a fuzzy-haired scientist and a pencil-neck geek, the “alpha geek” as I was called. When I started my first company, I had no idea what I was getting into or even what the phrase “business acumen” meant. I had no accounting skills and I had never sold anything except for Boy Scout popcorn, and not well at that. I dove in head-first, suffered the trial-by-fire, and was forced to climb the learning curve of leadership and business administration all on the job and at lightning speed with little room for error. After much analysis, I came to a conclusion. I learned that sales is the most important function in the company. If someone does not sell, no one else eats. The problem is business school does not teach sales. You have to go to specialized secondary training to learn the skills necessary to be a great salesman or learn the hard way through through trial-and-error. I was lucky enough to have some great friends and mentors that were more than happy to belly-laugh at my mistakes, pat me on the shoulder, and counsel me into a passable salesman. Thus, an entrepreneur rose from the ashes of the propellerhead.
The days of socially awkward nerds in the garage starting a $B company are over. But, you say, what about Steve and Woz? And, I say, that was a long time ago and Steve understood sales! Read his biography. He had clear intuition and instinct for sales. Clients loved him despite his hygiene and petulance issues. He sold $50k in computer parts to a hobby store based on Woz’s homemade motherboards to start Apple. Steve turned out to be a genius at sales. And, that is my point. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you must become a salesman.
It takes so much more today to get funding than even 10 years ago. First-time entrepreneurs and inventors will find it almost impossible to get funding without building a bank of credentials through collegiate and post-graduate entrepreneurship education, accelerators, etc. and demonstrate they understand marketing, sales, and ROI. The diligence that is required to close an investment is staggering. And, propellerheads simply won’t make the cut. Too many have flamed out failing to understand what customer engagement and sales really mean.
Salespeople are critical to every industry we know. Despite this, no one likes salespeople. They fall into a group of professionals that we dislike as a group, but love as individuals (lawyers anyone?). We all have that dear friend who is in sales, successful, and we respect them greatly, yet discuss the profession as if they perform a menial task. A great salesman does does one thing – inspire trust and confidence. They make you want to become a friend and buy from them because you know they will always do the right thing for you. That is a very valuable and underrated skill. When you see it in action, it is poetry in motion.
So, what separates a “propellerhead” from an entrepreneur? Let’s dig further into the issue of a more common term for them, inventors, vs. entrepreneurs. On a regular basis, we see what we call the “inventor syndrome.” It is a particular and pronounced mindset that is an instant deal-killer for us. As soon as we hear certain words, like “NDA” or “lose control,” we politely decline the investment and move on to the next one. It is a target rich environment for us and this is a very rational business. We never love a team, patent, or product until the deal is done. We don’t walk. We run when we see a grouping of some or all of these traits. We label it “inventor syndrome” and move on:
- Highly intelligent people that typically lack some social skills
- Uncoachable – confident that their ideas and plans are the only way to develop a company
- Focused entirely on IP and technology and paranoid of losing control of both
- Controlling – expect to recruit partners and raise capital, but maintain control of the company
- Completely unrealistic about real capital needs
- Ignorant of the value of marketing, sales, and exit strategies
- Arrogant (If I can split an atom, I am sure I can figure out business!)
- Feel that ideas are more important than sales and execution
- Unable to attract or keep partners in the venture
Here is the problem! The person leading a startup must be an entrepreneur! An entrepreneur understands the value of the team, marketing, sales, and exits and is willing to cede control for the good of the company’s growth. In short, the entrepreneur understand when a company must take on a life of its own to reach its true potential.
A startup CEO’s primary mission is marketing and selling to reach exit. This is their sole purpose as the executive. If you want to be technology executive, be the Chief Technology Officer, but don’t expect to quarterback the team from that position.
When I started my career-transition from propellerhead to entrepreneur, I found something very interesting. I discovered a cycle, the Entrepreneurial Sales Cycle!
A startup CEO first sells the vision, then sells shares, then sells products/services, and then repeats until exit….one way or the other. Marketing and selling selling never stops until it goes belly-up or creates a life-changing exit.
I once gave a talk to the Tennessee Inventors Association titled “Why people like me don’t talk to people like you.” I did that on purpose for two reasons. First, I wanted to shock the audience into engagement…which worked smashingly well. Second, I wanted to completely satisfy the request of the Chairman, who asked, “why don’t investors talk to inventors?” when I asked what I should talk about upon invitation to speak. After the shock’n awe treatment and a room full of saucer-sized eyeballs returned to normal, I began to talk about what is required to get funding, starting with a great team, not a great technology. My advice to the assembled inventors (folks with ideas and technology but without a team or business acumen) was to go down the street to the Entrepreneurs of Knoxville (folks with business acumen looking for great ideas and technology to commercialize) meeting in order to find partners to create companies. This is true for FounderDating as well. Then, please come see me when I can really help. Most of the audience got it and gushed with renewed energy and thanks. The rest were happy to tell me I was an idiot and did not understand the real value of IP. Alas, we can only help those who want to help themselves.
My simple advice is if you want to be an inventor, don’t seek angels, seek partners and platforms that will help you understand the value of your technology and commercialize it. Two great options come to mind, IdeaShares and Ascend. If you want to be an
entrepreneur leader, learn to market and sell. People invest in people in markets they like and understand. It sounds so simple. And, notice the words company, IP, products, and services are not listed.
Copyright Eric L. Dobson, 2016