A common day for me at BlueArc would include at least two visits a day from members of our sales force. These visits would be accompanied by stories about how we could win the deals they were working on if only we had SnapMirror, or SNMP or support for some third party database. If only we had this one extra feature then sales would pour in and all would be well. From talking with many friends in the industry over the years this is a fairly common pattern. Honestly, it seemed reasonable and at the time I didn’t know there could be another mindset.
When I left BlueArc, I was fortunate enough to be recruited by Frank Slootman the new (and first time) CEO of Data Domain. When I arrived Data Domain was just starting out and had done less than $2M in sales revenue in its first year. The company only had a handful of sales people and the product was at a feature deficit to almost every competitor they had. At the time the product could only accept files via a NAS interface (no VTL) which was a big change for a backup system and didn’t even have a GUI but rather had to be configured via a command line interface (with only 12 hard to remember commands). A diffcult sale for sure.
Almost as soon as I arrived one of the sales guys (who I had actually worked with earlier at BlueArc) came by and told me that things would be a lot easier if only we had some feature or the other (I forget what it was exactly). Later in a meeting with Frank I mentioned this. Here’s my best recollection of what Frank did next which was a shock to me and became the pattern for how I’ve dealt with these kind of situations ever since. Here’s how it went….
FRANK (leaning out of his door) : Hey, sales guy I want to see you in my office right now…
SALES GUY : Erm, yes?
FRANK : Geoff tells me you can’t sell the product without new feature X. Is that true?
SALES GUY : Well things would be much easier if only we had feature X.
FRANK : That’s not what I asked you. Can you sell the product we have or not?
SALES GUY : Erm…
FRANK : Because if you can’t you’re no use to me whatsoever. I don’t have feature X, I only have feature Y so I only need to know if you can sell Y. If you can’t I’ll find somebody else.
SALES GUY : No, no I can sell Y.
FRANK : Thought so. Thanks you can go now.
Simple, brilliant and should be repeated more often than it is.
Here are some related thoughts –
- Whilst it’s easy to have sympathy for a sale person selling at a disadvantage that’s exactly what the company needs them to do. Either they can do it or you need somebody else. A young company can’t engineer as fast as a larger competitor and even if it could it might be years before feature parity can be reached.
- Startups are based on feature Y. If it’s not compelling enough to sell the product on it’s own the company is unlikely to survive long enough to be successful and ought to be shut down. Many of the “living dead” companies in Silicon Valley would be closed if more folks accepted this fact.
- Engineering solutions are slow to create. Sales and Marketing solutions can be invented and rolled out much more quickly. Start there and see if there’s a solution and resort to engineering if there really is no other option.
- If your engineers are working on “catch up” features they’re not working on your core differentiation. “Catch up” features are the opposite of differentiation and will hurt you efforts to segment to market for your customers.