Builders should be sellers

11 years ago, when I started YinzCam, I had my fair share of doubters. I was told that there was just no way that the company would survive if led by me.

“You’re an engineer. You don’t know business. You don’t have a network. You don’t know the industry. You can’t sell.”

It’s true. I am an engineer. I am technical. I didn’t know the industry. I didn’t have any connections. I didn’t have a rolodex or a network. I didn’t have business-development experience. Nobody knew me. And, I was not a “professional CEO.”

I agreed with all of it, except one thing.

Anyone (yes, even engineers) can sell. They just need to be taught to.

Why I learned to sell

In one of my earliest industrial jobs more than two decades ago, I was the lead product engineer, and my role was to support sales. This was the first company I worked at. The sales people would go to meet prospects, and talk about the products (that I had built). My job was to tag along and supply technical answers when they looked at me for things they didn’t know about. Whenever I piped up to speak, I could feel their palpable nervousness, as they rushed to interrupt and cut me off whenever they thought I was getting too technical or too wordy in what I said. They were so worried that gaffes from the engineer (me) in the room would hurt the deal.

Two decades ago, I just didn’t have the right communication skills or the right mindset to talk about the product to a customer. Without those skills, I knew that I would always need a spokesperson for any product I built.

The thing is, I wanted to be my product’s chief spokesperson.

So, I learned to sell.

I tried to absorb as much as possible about sales by watching our sales people sell. I was fascinated by how they took the product that I had built and reframed its value to address the customer’s pain-points. I understood where I fell short in my thought process. I asked our sales people for feedback after every sales ride-along. I asked them why they said certain things when they said them, and I learned their thought process. It turns out that, as an engineer, I was framing the product in terms of solving technical problems that mattered to me, but not in terms of solving real problems that mattered to the customer. That realization created a complete mindshift in me.

Photo by Hello I'm Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

Yes, of course, as an engineer, I want to explain what makes a product beautiful, scalable, easy to use, configurable, all those great things that engineers think of. I want to explain the meticulous attention that has been paid to every detail of the product, the craftsmanship behind it.

It is a great profession. There is the satisfaction of watching a figment of the imagination emerge through the aid of science to a plan on paper. Then it moves to realization in stone or metal or energy. Then it brings jobs and homes to men. Then it elevates the standards of living and adds to the comforts of life. That is the engineer’s high privilege. — Herbert Hoover

But, the most important thing — for the product — was to explain why the product existed in the first place. The product didn’t exist because I loved it. The product existed because it solved a real problem for someone, and because that problem mattered to the customer.

With YinzCam, the product was designed and built for a fan (me). It was built to solve my problem. I wanted it for me. I would have used the product if I had been the only user in the world. I understood it. I connected with it. I wanted it to help others. It was easy for me to talk about something that solved a personal problem for me, and perhaps for other sports fans as well.

It was easy for me to sell.

For me, selling simply meant telling the story of the product my way.

Selling ultimately comes down to connecting and serving. You’re not trying to convince them of anything. You’re trying to show them how you are going to make their lives easier. — Mark Cuban

So, when we started YinzCam, I studied the market, studied the industry, looked at products that had succeeded, products that had failed, studied the competition, understood their business models, studied sales people selling, asked sales people for advice. I didn’t waste my time chasing venture capital or funding. I didn’t waste my time chasing people who had a rolodex. I didn’t waste my time with pitch decks, business plans, SWOT analysis, revenue projections, marketing, and branding. I didn’t attend any investor conferences or do demo days. I confess. I never wrote a business plan for YinzCam.

Instead, I chased good product. I chased learning to sell.

I sold from the heart because I knew the product, I felt the product in my bones, I loved the product, I knew what it could do, I knew it inside out. And people could sense that about me. They could sense how deeply committed I was to the product, that I believed in what I was doing and what I had built. I was able to tell the product’s story authentically because it was my story.

Why a sales+engineering mindset is potent

I also realized that this combination of sales and engineering was potent.

In any meeting with a prospective client, I could answer both technical questions as well as business questions. I knew the technical details of the product and I knew the business value of the product to the customer. I could just as easily dive into the engineering details and stay there (when I talked to the IT staff at a sports team) or just as easily talk about the return on investment (when I talked to the sponsorship staff at a sports team).

What I found most exhilarating, though, in sales was the dynamic, on-the-spot, seat-of-your-pants, technical problem-solving that I was often confronted with at sales meetings.

As an engineer, I love a good problem. Given a problem, I have been taught to mentally find and rank a dozen different technical ways to solve it, and make the engineering trade-offs and reason about the options. I am trained to solve problems quickly, to design and implement simple, efficient, elegant, cost-effective, practical ways to solve them. I am trained to be curious about how things worked. I am trained to think about things like hardware, users, workloads, latency, throughput, scale, traffic, failures, performance, network protocols, bandwidth, load balancing, user studies, statistics, algorithms. I am trained to build things to work.

Prospective clients would often throw out problems and challenges during a sales meeting. The tougher the problem, the happier I would get, the more I would find joy in solving it. This was often the most fun part of sales for me, where the client and I would enter into intense collaborative problem-solving in real-time, creating a product, design, or architecture together — often out of thin air — without thinking about it. I’ve often grabbed a whiteboard and markers at a sales call, and started chicken-scratch to solve a problem in real-time. It’s pure magic when this happens. I have often hugged myself inside and grinned with sheer joy whenever this has happened in a room.

As a business person, I never left a client or a prospect hanging with, “Let me talk to our engineering team and get back to you.” As an engineer, I have never left a client or a prospect hanging with, “Let me talk to our sales team and get back to you.” I have never needed to.

As an engineer, I was also comfortable with saying, “I don’t know,” when I didn’t know. I would say, “That’s something I had never thought about,” when I hadn’t. I would say, “Wow, that’s better than any idea we’ve come up with,” when a client surprised me with an awesome new idea. When a prospect or a client mentioned a competitor’s offering or asked us for an opinion, I would say, “They do a great job. I am glad they are around, they make us better,” because I respected our competitors and their design and engineering teams, too. As a builder, I respect other builders.

Why everyone should learn to sell

Selling is nothing but the art of communicating well. Selling is authentic product storytelling at its finest. Designers and engineers should not just learn to design and build product, they should learn to tell the story of their product.

When I started YinzCam, I did things differently from my first company.

  • I put our engineers and designers on the front lines, and had them interface with clients daily. If they designed and built the product, they deserved to be acknowledged, they deserved to be seen, they deserved to be heard. I mention every single engineer and designer by name when presenting their work, and call on them to explain how their products worked. They aren’t there just for pop-up cameo performances. They have the starring roles. If you are never given the opportunity, how can you acquire a skill? What our engineers and designers needed was opportunity. So, I coached them on how to sell, how to describe what they had built, trusted them to communicate the truth about their products, and I put them in front of audiences so that they could practice how to sell.
  • When it came to clients, I never made it about the sale. It was about the problem we were solving for them, with them. It was never about “the deal,” or about “closing” to me. It was more important to me that we solved a real problem for the client, that the product was actually useful and valuable to the client than it was for us to make money off it. If we couldn’t solve a real problem, we didn’t deserve to be given a chance. It was more important that the relationship we had with the client was one where I could tell the truth, “Here’s what the product does. Here are the problems it solves. Here’s what it doesn’t do.”
  • I respected clients as collaborators in the product, not just purchasers of the product. You see, it was their product, these were their ideas we were bringing to life. Without their problems to solve, there was no product, no YinzCam. I felt that that our clients deserved to know the complete and accurate picture of the product, from the people who built it. I encouraged our engineers to talk about the technical details, and not gloss over them when speaking to clients. Good clients care. Good clients are curious. Good clients sweat the details and savor them. Our clients are brilliant and intellectually curious. Their ideas blow my mind. They don’t want — or like — smoke and mirrors or fancy pitch decks. They like to understand how things actually work. And those are the best conversations of all, when a client’s off-the-cuff remark about a technical detail triggers more ideas in our engineers. We’ve built more new products and made existing products better, because we respect our clients as intellectual collaborators and co-builders of the product alongside us.
  • I let the product do the selling. I believed our product would build us the rolodex we needed, if we did it right. If the product was good, it would sell itself. It should sell itself. It. Should. Sell. Itself. We built our rolodex through clients talking to each other about the product, and not because we went out and hired a rolodex. Our product and our clients were — and are — our business-development team.

To this day, we remain true to our roots. We are who we have always been from day one — a company of engineers and designers with a relentless focus on product and clients, and on co-building great products with great clients.

11 years later, we have close to 200 professional sports clients across 5 continents. The product grew the rolodex, instead of the other way around.

Today, I encourage every YinzCam engineer and designer to learn to sell, to tell the story of their product in an authentic and frank way. I believe that learning to sell a product is as vital as the knowledge to design and build the product. I teach product management and product storytelling to the next generation of engineers at Carnegie Mellon because I think that selling is a really critical career skill for engineers.

Every single person on this planet can learn to be a great salesperson. All you have to do is put in the effort and care about your company, your prospects and your customers. — Mark Cuban

So, to all you engineers and designers out there, don’t let someone sit you in a corner of a conference room for a cameo performance, while they act as the spokesperson for your product.

Become the spokesperson for your product.

If you built it, if you designed it, you can sell it. You should learn to.

Your product will thank you for it. Your clients will, too.

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