I started my first of seven companies about 100 days after my 22nd birthday, and if there’s one thing I wish I knew back then, it’s what’s totally clear to me 40 years and more than 40 “venture adventures” later. It has been said thousands of times since, by thousands of pundits: “Entrepreneurs are always selling.”
I quit an amazing, lucrative job as a senior news editor at WINS Radio, New York’s all news station, to start “Bob Dorf Communications, Inc.,” a pr/marcomm agency. No investors, no board, and almost no idea what I was doing, other than launching a business that was totally mine to build and far more challenging (and perhaps rewarding) than the wonderful job in a high-rise newsroom in Midtown Manhattan.
But what I didn’t know really hurt, and took a while to learn — namely that the entrepreneur is always selling.
The day I gave my two weeks’ notice, I did one other thing: I prepared to put about 500 engraved “birth announcements” in the mail to every friend, colleague, interview subject and “prospect” I could conjure up, so that they’d arrive on “opening day.” It cost a fortune. And I still remember the morning of October 13, 1972 (my first day) vividly, almost as if it were yesterday. Got up extra early, showered, shaved, and put on my best suit. Why? To stare at the telephone, certain that it would ring with inquiry after inquiry, prospect after prospect. By noon, the phone had rung exactly once — my wonderful mom, calling to tell me how beautiful the announcement was!!
It was the very first, excruciatingly painful lesson that selling is proactive, not benign, and that even seasoned professional journalists like me had to do more than mail a bunch of crap to get some attention for my value proposition! Selling was “beneath me,” I thought, the province of stockbrokers and car salesmen and the like, hardly the task for an entrepreneur or a marketing and journalism pro! Ha!
So what exactly did I learn along the way that I wish I’d known at 22?
1. Selling is a proactive, full-contact sport: Mail and voicemail don’t do it. It’s all about getting face-to-face with people, watching their body language and their reaction to you, your ideas, your “what ifs” and more.
2. Selling doesn’t happen in one visit: Sure it does, if you’re selling magazine subscriptions or Girl Scout cookies. But when you’re selling big-ticket stuff like professional services, it starts with a “getting to know you” phase that can often span multiple meetings and weeks or months, particularly in professional services where the product is really “you.” Selling demands investment, persistence, and patience — or it just doesn’t happen.
3. Sell the idea first, then the deal: Before you can get the order, you need to establish that the prospect has a need. Get the need to or near the top of his or her priority list. Then convince the prospect that your (or your product’s) solution — coupled with your reliability, wisdom and value — are the best possible solution to that problem in the customer’s eyes, not your biased view.
4. People buy from people they like, so make yourself likable if you can. Show a genuine interest in the person and their business, as well as the business opportunity. When all else fails, resort if you must to the old W. C. Fields line, “if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.”
5. Selling ain’t just for customers, either. I had to sell Lisa Wanderman on why she’d want to work part-time in some guy’s apartment, and get her to share my vision about where the company was going. I had to sell two leasing companies on why they should trust me to pay the bills for office equipment in my fledgling business. And that selling later came to include other vendors, landlords, bankers and many other people who would take — not give —money to or from my business.
6. There’s nothing shameful or déclassé about selling at all, as long as you’re honestly selling and delivering a great product. After a few years, I actually found it to be the most fun, challenging part of each business I was in.
In closing, remember, though, that selling never ends. It’s what entrepreneurs do, all the time pretty much.
So if you’re not a salesperson, somehow, you’re not likely much of an entrepreneur, either!
Learn more about the importance of selling in the book i wrote with Steve Blank, “The Startup Owner’s Manual,” sold at Amazon and everywhere else.