Thursday, June 12, 2008

Don't Hire A Salesperson, Hire Another Developer Instead

Sounds nuts, doesn't it? Note that I'm a firm believer that in a technology company, you either make "it" or you sell "it".
I had lunch with a friend the other day - he's a young guy, he's sharp, and he's launched a Semantic Web venture. He's in that uneasy period where he's got some great technology and a great development team, but he's looking for those first few key customers to start establishing some real traction and also reduce his cash burn.
Let's say you're a founder of a Semantic Web company. If you're resourceful, chances are that identifying leads and starting conversations isn't really the problem. The fact that there are only 24 hours in a day is a much bigger problem. So the question becomes whether or not a salesperson should be brought in to work full time on bringing in customers. For a moment, let's forget that in North America, there might be two to four people who are really qualified to fill this role. What are the options?
  1. Go ahead and hire a full time salesperson, complete with base salary, commission plan, options, benefits, and all the usual stuff. Oh, I forgot, this is an early stage startup and while time is the most critical asset, cash comes in a hairs-breadth later for a close second. That's going to rule out this option pretty quickly unless you're funded by some very deep pockets.
  2. Hire a commission-only, contract salesperson. Be prepared to pay out at a much higher than normal commission rate and don't expect nearly as much control. But those aren't the risks - these are: a) getting this person up to speed on SW technology (good luck); b) risk having that person leave after six months without making a sale (a pro will be ready to move at this point); c) you'll lose six months of precious time and with it... d) the knowledge and relationships that person accrued.
  3. Hire an engineer and learn the sales job yourself. My friend told me he knew for a fact that he's now much better at selling than he was six months ago. I mentioned that someone I really respect once told me that "good managers gravitate to the most difficult (and important) problems" and I really believe that. 
I carried a sales quota for years and there are times when selling can be a tough, unpleasant job. But since I also believe that a company's most senior people are its best sales people, that means if you're a founder, you need to know how to sell if you want to build a business.
If you're a founder, you can't hire a salesperson and expect they'll know the company story anywhere near as well as you do. If you're a founder, it's your job to discover your market and you can't expect to hire anyone to take this responsibility.
Here's the win: Let's say you learn how to sell and find your market. Once you get traction, momentum, whatever you want to call it, there's certain pattern that sets in - you know the questions and answers, the issues and the responses, the competitors, their weaknesses and their strengths. 
You can teach someone else that knowledge, and that's when you hire a salesperson.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

In 23 Words, The Semantic Web Is...Updated Jun 6

The Semantic Web is an extension of the World Wide Web designed to standardize the integration of data and the interoperation of applications.
Update Jun 6: Today I had cause to use this definition and I'm not sure, but my questioner (someone who's very well informed Semantics-wise) seemed slightly aghast at my brevity and simplicity. I understand completely. It's not a glowing definition, full of promise, imbued with excitement, and burgeoning with opportunity. That's a deliberate choice on my part. From what I can tell, fulsome descriptions haven't worked very well over the past few years partly because the technology hasn't been ready and partly because buyers like CIOs, CTOs, and IT managers of all kinds have heard such promises a million times before.
As a business person, I want people outside the Semantic community to buy products made with Semantic technology (the market outside the community is way bigger.) From my sales experience I know that superlatives alone won't cut it and they'll probably just erode your credibility. But what seems very apparent and very real is the technology's ability to standardize the integration of data and the interoperation of applications. Outside of these two things, I'm not aware of anything else Semantically related that's occurring in a full blown, commercial production environment. 
Inferencing/reasoning, SPARQL queries (even with public endpoints), and the flashy stuff that's so promising probably occurs on a daily basis in tightly controlled environments that engage in what I consider "exotic" research and are overseen by the most highly trained and sophisticated people in the world when it comes to this particular technology. That's a far cry from closing a million dollar (euro, yen, yuan, take your pick) sale for an enterprise application that will see widespread deployment to a relatively untrained audience.
When the Semantic Web evolves to the point where it can fulfill all the promises that people (me included) have invested in it, I'll change my definition. But for now, in terms of what I believe it can reliably do today, I'll define the technology as above, although I'll probably still refer to the future capabilities just to keep it interesting.
Besides, I truly believe the emphasis needs to be on the product (e.g. solution) and not its underlying technology. When Microsoft sells Word or Excel, it doesn't emphasize the use of C and Visual Basic (I admit there are exceptions to this) because that's not what people really care about. They want to be able to create documents and work with numbers. It's that simple.