“Because that’s the way it’s done” — should a founder listen?

They told me I couldn’t sell to The Enterprise with a silly company name like Smart Bear.

They told me I couldn’t sell to The Enterprise without a human sales force using Salesforce.

They told me I couldn’t sell to The Enterprise over GoToMeeting, with a demo and no slides, from a geek with no webinar.

They told me I couldn’t sell to The Enterprise with amateur design and a small-company, human voice.

Oops. I accidentally went and did all that at Smart Bear, and only had millions of dollars of revenue to show for it. Largely from The Enterprise.

Does that mean “They” are wrong? Nope. “They” are in fact describing the way most successful companies sell to The Enterprise. Nothing wrong with “tried and true.”

Unless tried and true doesn’t happen to jibe with you. Unless you can’t bear to hire a traditional “enterprise sales guy.” Unless you can’t stand content-free language and you choose honesty over formal “corporate” language on your website. Unless you prefer excitement over ROIs. Unless you’re happy to compete with big companies instead of becoming one.

I wasn’t trying to be “disruptive” or “innovative” or a “maverick.” I just couldn’t do it. Maybe you’re like that, about something.

You’ll have a harder road if you ignore “Them” because it leads to gut-wrenching awkwardness. But at least you’ll be different. Sometimes just being different is enough, if it’s for good reason.

Who knows. Do it your own way, but you’d better have your eyes open so you can address the special challenges you’re bringing on yourself. Once you buck “Their” wisdom, you can’t rely on “Them” when you get yourself into an unusual pickle. You’ve exited the safe and well-travelled road.

But go ahead and do it. Don’t let the “it’s not done that way” people win on that basis alone.

Maybe it should be done that way.


9 responses to ““Because that’s the way it’s done” — should a founder listen?”

  1. So this mirrors my experience pretty well. I managed to sell into AT&T Wireless as a tiny shop with a product that obviously was a work-in-progress.

    But I want to push back on a couple of points.

    1. Were they calling you or were you calling them? Getting in the door is 2/3 of the value of an enterprise sales guy. (My channel partner got me in the door at AT&T.)

    2. What was their up-front risk / commitment? Just like you can’t decouple price from product, you can’t decouple sale strategy from price. I don’t think it is really fair to say that Smart Bear was an Enterprise product, a la Oracle / Siebel / SAP, because the minimal cost of adoption was so low in comparison.

    I think your experience was different from mine because someone test the product in a week and individual seats where ~$500. My installations requires 1-3 months of data integration, 2-6 months of customization, and cost between $2-20K per month ongoing.

    You may have sold to The Enterprise but you that doesn’t mean you had an Enterprise PRODUCT.

    Can you point to a single successful company (tech or non-tech) that looks more like mine that does not use traditional enterprise sales structure?

    • You’re making a lot of incorrect assumptions about our product, cost, and risk level for the customer.

      No, it wasn’t SAP. But you are wildly inaccurate with statements like “trial it for a week and buy it.” We had $million+ sales on deals that took hundreds of people 18 months in piolet projects. If that’s not “enterprise enough” for you, then you have a very narrow definition of what counts as enterprise, and in fact you yourself don’t qualify.

      And yes there are lots of examples of companies with $10-$500m/yr in revenue selling to enterprise who don’t have or decided to stop having sales people. In fact there was a post from one of those companies on the front page of hacker news just a few days ago.

      That’s not to say sales has to be wrong. Or that anything is wrong. If channel sales works for you, do it! Of course.

      The point is that simply saying “it’s done this way” isn’t enough. It’s a start. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s what matters.

      • Sigh… I had a beautiful reply and hit the back button.

        So take 2 is:

        1. Enterprise products (including mine) are ugly, complex, and hard-to-use. They often just fail to work. Basically, they get stuck at where you were at version 1 because each install is unique. It’s a compliment to say SmartBear was not “enterprise enough”.

        2. I totally agree with your main point. An argument from Tradition is almost as bad as an argument from Authority (ie – “Eric Ries says so” is a bad way to run a startup even when he is right).

        People need to, you know, think.

        I don’t think you got lucky so let us ignore survivor’s bias. You just shot down the easy-of-adoption argument. I think you didn’t have an market access problem but that’s not critical.

        Perhaps your next post should be… If you don’t have a roadmap and tradition is a limited guide, what does work?

        (You are a smart bear so I bet you can come up with more than the usual: good team, product focus, iterate, do good support, execute, etc. No pressure :)

  2. I don’t have any experience selling to The Enterprise, but I have many true stories – about myself and others – that go to show that people are surprisingly willing to support the person who does it her own way, lives his dreams, doesn’t follow the rules. Sometimes people even go out of their way to support you because they admire you for going your own way. At the risk of sounding cynical, I believe what’s happening is that people secretly envy you for what you’re doing, and by helping you, they get a little piece of that thing that they so admire. What I love about this post is that it doesn’t fail to mention the most important caveat: you better have your eyes open! There is a reason why most people do it “the way it’s done,” and that’s because it’s so much easier. Ok, this is silly, but I can’t resist the temptation, one of my top five favorite quotes from Western movies ever is the last line in Corbucci’s “Il Mercenario,” where Franco Nero and Tony Musante ride off in different directions, and Nero says to Musante, “Keep on dreaming Paco, but with your eyes open!”

  3. I couldn’t agree more. There seems to be a status quo in business where going against the grain is kinda shunned. I feel like the road to least resistance is sometimes valuable but not always the right direction to go.

    If you’re going against the grain, people tend to actually turn their heads and take interest in what you’re doing. At least, I’ve always found that to be the case. I enjoy breaking the rules but it’s definitely not for everyone!

    Great post.

Sign up to receive 1-2 articles per month: