The theme for this month’s collection of quotes for entrepreneurs is sales and selling.
Quotes for Entrepreneurs Curated in June 2023
Theme for this month: sales and selling.
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What Buyers Want
- They want it to be easy to find you, understand what you’re selling, and buy from you.
- They want you to be available to answer their questions.
- They want to know who is behind the company.
- They want to talk to someone who knows more about the topic than they do.
- They want to know you care.
Kristin Zhivago in “How To Sell”
Her book, “Roadmap to Revenue” documents this in more detail and explains how to to the research to determine what products to offer and how to market them. I have tremendous respect fro Kristin Zhivago and have blogged about her in
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Success in business comes from helping people — bringing the most happiness to the most people.
The best marketing is being considerate.
The best sales approach is listening.
Serve your clients’ needs, not your own.
Business, when done right, is generous and focused on others.
It draws you out of yourself, and puts you in service of humanity.
Derek Sivers in “How to Live“
I used this quote in “Derek Sivers’ ‘How to Live’ is a Smorgasbord of Mindsets” where I made the following observations. The essence of entrepreneurship is a free exchange of value–what the Romans called “quid pro quo”–that leaves all parties better off: no one loses. This does not preclude acts of generosity and kindness. Mastering the skill of entrepreneurship involves cultivating the capability to take prudent risks to explore and learn. It embeds the realization that failure is a real possibility. A plan that anticipates how to survive a sequence of small failures (or “affordable losses”) is far preferable to incurring a substantial loss that bankrupts you. Don’t invest (or bet) more than you can afford to lose.
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“Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune.”
A realistic assessment of the value that you can bring a customer will prevent inflating their expectations or yours. It keeps your focus on creating value before trying to capture it.
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“If you can’t solve a problem for your customer, then there’s no basis for a sale. But if you uncover problems you can solve, then you’re potentially providing the buyer with something useful.”
Neil Rackham in “Spin Selling”
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Entrepreneurs sell to meet payroll not quota. The realization that they are up against it and on the edge of letting others down often provides a powerful sales motivation. I used this originally in “Busyness Won’t Build Your Business” A related quote with the same meaning if you substitute “hanged” with “cannot meet payroll”
“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
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20. Selling is not manipulating; selling is harmonizing. Think of harmony in music, think of it the same way in sales. Are you in sync with your probable purchaser? Are you in tune or off key? “If you write it down and you don’t lie you don’t have to remember what you said.”
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“Only a few know, how much one must know to know how little one knows.”
True for sales as well as physics. We start with simple models and methods based on limited experience can gradually come to appreciate it’s complexities.
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I think most masters are not only open to learning but committed to learning. There is a tendency in sales to find a successful process that becomes a “beaten path” and then a straitjacket. Customer needs and requirements evolve in response to changes in the environment, competitive offers, and new entrants. You can suddenly face the sensation that “Everything You Know is Wrong.” Even if you are paying attention and adjusting–something I embrace to avoid more painful outcomes–I still answer “yes” every few years. Related: Product-Market Fit is a Fraction Not a Bit
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There’s a problem psychologically with apocalyptic apprehension, which is that you stop building. You stop thinking past a certain date line. You are playing completely to propitiate the gods and to stave off disaster, but you stop really thinking in long-term, rational, and incremental ways. And I think that’s too bad because insofar as it was valuable, the traditional progressive left thought in long spans about how we might alleviate common and historical ills, poverty, the powerlessness of the worker, how we might clean up the environment. Because environmentalism is no longer, “How do we protect species, and have clean water, and clean air?” It’s all about, “How do we avoid this thunderous, terrible, super collapse?
I think it’s a disease of the mind, to be honest. I mean we take our eyes off the fact that every one of us is going to die individually and become concentrated on some massive collective destruction, which doesn’t come. We can be certain our individual demise is coming, but we instead concentrate on catastrophes of a collective nature that don’t ever seem to arrive. And it destabilizes people, it especially demoralizes young people, and it causes you to stop thinking in larger parts of time, and makes everything so damn urgent that you don’t even know whether to make plans.”
Walter Kirn in “America This Week Discussion on ‘Nightfall,’ by Isaac Asimov” (June 10, 2023)
Asimov wrote Nightfall in April 1941 as World War Two gathered force around the globe. The short story offers a grim view of a civilization losing it’s mind, viewed from the perspective of a journalist losing his;
“Theremon staggered to his feet, his throat, constricting him to breathlessness, all the muscles of his body writhing in an intensity of terror and sheer fear beyond bearing. He was going mad and knew it, and somewhere deep inside a bit of sanity was screaming, struggling to fight off the hopeless flood of black terror. It was very horrible to go mad and know that you were going mad.”
Isaac Asimov in “Nightfall” [PDF]
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“If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it.”
C. S. Lewis “The Inner Ring“
Good customers are attracted to competent sellers who are easy to do business with.
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“Qualification is done solely for the benefit of the vendor;
discovery is done for the benefit of both parties!”
Peter Cohan interviewed by Aaron Janmohamed in “What Exactly is Good Discovery and Why is it so Important“
More context from the interview:
- Research The work you should be doing as a vendor prior to engaging in any conversation with the prospect. This includes what you can learn from LinkedIn, the prospect’s website, their financial filings, and so forth. Don’t get caught asking the prospect questions where the answers can be found by a quick search.
- Qualification When the vendor evaluates to either rule in or rule out a prospect. Because this is where a lot of people get confused, we’ll put it this way: qualification is done solely for the benefit of the vendor. When you rule out a prospect based on your qualification parameters, you are doing so to prevent your organization from wasting resources on a prospect that is not a good fit or is not serious about making a purchase (AKA still in a “browsing” stage).
- Discovery Enables a vendor to collect sufficient information to propose a precise solution to a customer problem as well as instill in the prospect the confidence that the vendor has enough understanding of their situation to propose a precise solution. Again, to put it simply: discovery is done for the benefit of both parties.
Related post on the critical importance of research: “Customer Interviews: Spend an Hour to Save a Minute.” For more on Discovery (customer development is an older term for the same activity) see
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“I hold the volume of Confucius in my hand, and as I read, grow humble, patient, and wise. We should feel sorrow, says he, but not sink under its oppression; the heart of a wise man should resemble a mirror, which reflects every object without being sullied by any. The wheel of fortune turns incessantly round; and who can say within himself, I shall today be uppermost? We should hold the immutable mean that lies between insensibility and anguish; our attempts should not be to extinguish nature but to repress it: not to stand unmoved at distress but endeavor to turn every disaster to our own advantage. Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
Oliver Goldsmith in Letter VI of “Citizen of the World” (1760) [Archive]
Entrepreneurship is an emotional roller coaster, and the effort of selling is especially challenging. Close a deal, and it’s a wonderful feeling; losing a deal is much less so. The worst is beating your head against the wall of a “no decision” when the prospect decides to live with the problem or leave things status quo. Goldsmith offers three key guidelines: feel the loss but don’t give in to despair; continue after every stumble and setback, learning what you can; and look for further opportunities in your wins and losses.
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- Charles Lambdin (@CGLambdin): A decision is only ever as good as the best alternative that was available at the time
- Sean Murphy (@SKMurphy): Sticking with the status quo is always an alternative. And it’s often the best one. I say this as someone who is often promoting innovation: you have to be realistic about the wisdom embedded in tradition and working solutions. A second point: it’s not always about discovering the best option, sometime it’s about designing it. The decision to create an option in the future cannot be judged from a near-term time horizon.
- Charles Lambdin (@CGLambdin): Right. When building a strategy table “doing nothing” is usually included as one of the options.
- Sean Murphy (@SKMurphy): I think it gets overlooked by some who want to make sure they have a “bias for action.” Watchful waiting is often a viable strategy.
- Charles Lambdin (@CGLambdin): Agree. Also there is an assumption that the quality of decisions can only be assessed after there is feedback, which is wrong.
This is why discovery is such an important part of the sales process. More insight into customer needs and constraints enables you to craft more creative offers that are a better fit with the prospect’s situation. And you always have to benchmark yourself against “How are you solving the problem now?”
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“Arkwright invented his cotton-spinning machinery in 1760. At that time it was estimated that there were in England 5,200 spinners using spinning wheels, and 2,700 weavers—in all, 7,900 persons engaged in the production of cotton textiles. The introduction of Arkwright’s invention was opposed on the ground that it threatened the livelihood of the workers, and the opposition had to be put down by force. Yet in 1787—twenty-seven years after the invention appeared—a parliamentary inquiry showed that the number of persons actually engaged in the spinning and weaving of cotton had risen from 7,900 to 320,000, an increase of 4,400 percent.”
Henry Hazlitt in “Economics in One Lesson” [PDF]
It depends upon the level of demand at lower price points. If demand goes up dramatically you can duplicate Arkwright’s results. Not every market has a lot of unmet demand: e.g. wedding dresses, caskets (very bad if not true), airplanes, high powered lasers, insulin pumps, etc. You can cut price to close a deal, but a lower price does not necessarily expand the market. Related: The Past and Future of Work:How history can inform the age of automation [PDF]
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They may be a successful startup team. Startups don’t get to follow a clear smooth path, they must explore a dark and smoky maze of twisting passages and dead ends. Sometimes there are large formations of magnetic rock that throw you compass off, not to mention the occasional wandering monster.
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“Most of the objections that early stage entrepreneurs encounter are valuable data: they offer insights for how to improve the pitch–and the product.”
Sean Murphy in “For New Products, Prospect Objections Are Valuable Data“
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“If you are getting paid, you are doing business, and you better act accordingly. If you want to make money as an artist, you’re going to have to deal with that business stuff. Every working artist has to take responsibility for their career. Anything else is asking people to take advantage of you.”
As true for engineers, scientists, and other experts as it is for artists. You must cultivate your talent but develop enough marketing and management skills either to run the business aspects of your practice or to delegate them effectively.
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“One of our founders recently lost a deal because a competitor (another VC backed company) offered to not charge the client until they could prove $X in cost savings.Is anyone else seeing this happen with SaaS companies?”
If the competitor has the ability to diagnose accurately up front, on board rapidly, and deliver on their commitments for $X and your founder cannot, they are in trouble. It’s a low risk offer to the prospect (they still have to invest people time in bring-up and integration into workflows) that turns a POC into a conditional PO. I think as the economy contracts and corporations shift their focus from revenue growth to profits we will see many more deals that pull most of the risk to the vendor side of the table. A rich set of cases studies and references can also help but it’s hard to beat let us prove the cost savings before you pay for it. On the sell side you need to be very good at discovery to discern which prospects you can deliver value to rapidly and those who may be less of a fit with your current offering. It’s time to dust off the playbooks from 2008-10 and 2002-4.
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“Progress is the best pillow.
Purpose is the best alarm clock.”
Ascendant Power (@AscendantPower)
The first is especially true Sunday evening, see “By Sunday Night Your Chips Are Down For The Week.”
The second is most applicable Monday morning.
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“A project is a promise. It’s about coordinating unknowable future events to deliver something of value.”
Seth Godin in “Project Management”
We tell the engineers and scientists we support, entrepreneurs all, that sales is fundamentally practical project management. I like this definition: it makes the connection. More context:
“A project is a promise. It’s about coordinating unknowable future events to deliver something of value.
The hallmarks of earnest amateurism are:
- Lots of resources available for emergencies, shifting time away from planning and contingencies
- Embrace of a narrative that this particular interruption is unique and couldn’t be planned for
- The thrill of getting close to failure and making it work at the last possible moment
The professional, on the other hand, invests heavily to be sure that none of these three exciting things happen. And when surprises happen, they expect them, accept them and simply shift to the other route.
The most exciting thing about professional project management is that it trades away excitement for systems thinking and intentional action. We make heroes out of people who show up with the last-minute save, but the real work is in not needing the last minute.
Seth Godin in “Project Management”
In my work experience at larger companies, too many executives would characterize calm performance that delivered on time and on budget as “sandbagging.” They would meddle, change the specs, and pull people off to work on projects that were on fire. It seemed like they were only happy when everyone was stressed, working with too little sleep, too little budget, too little time, and too little margin for error. The “excitement” of working with too little seemed to be their conception of employee alignment and hard work. For some related thoughts see
- Post-Launch Growth Plan: What Was Heroic Must Become Routine
- This is No Longer a Startup: What was Heroic must become Routine
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“When you see one of your workers standing idle with nothing to do, is that good or bad for the company?”
“It’s bad, of course,” I say.
“Always? I’m talking about a production employee who is idle because there is no product to be worked on.”
“Yes, that’s always bad,” I say.
I chuckle. “Isn’t it obvious? Because it’s a waste of money! What are we supposed to do, pay people to do nothing? We can’t afford to have idle time. Our costs are too high to tolerate it. It’s inefficiency, it’s low productivity–no matter how you measure it.”
He leans forward as if he’s going to whisper a big secret to me.
“Let me tell you something,” he says. “A plant in which everyone is working all the time is very inefficient.”
Eliyahu M. Goldratt in “The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement“
The trick is to align effort with demand and allow for some slack for maintenances and problems.
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“I don’t have this house because I invented Ethernet, I have it because I sold Ethernet for a decade.”
Bob Metcalfe (in Wired Nov-1998 profile)
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“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Sometimes you have to take the shot and miss to learn how to score; this applies to the sales learning curve for startups as well as hockey. You should make a proposal if you will learn from going through the process and your opportunity cost is low (you don’t have other higher probability prospects in your funnel that you can focus on). Gretzky is also famous for a phrase that visionary entrepreneurs are fond of quoting (and I originally curated in March 2009):
“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it is.”
In my experience, corporations are socio-technical systems that move much more slowly than pucks: “too early” can be an excruciating position to seize. You can prosper in a niche market that’s buying now. It’s much harder to survive in a market that won’t arrive for a few quarters, a few years, or never.
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“I can bear the uncertainty of chasing a gut feeling without knowing where it will lead, even if it seems futile and illogical to everyone, even myself. I can endure the pain of instability, of ridicule, of illegibility, of scorn, of isolation, of ostracism, of self-doubt, of countless I-told-you-so’s.”
Ashley Zhang in “Do not love half lovers“
Selling in a new market requires the ability to be viewed as wrong for a long time.By definition, a useful entrepreneurial insight runs counter to common wisdom. It’s viewed initially by competitors as “probably not a good idea” until they suddenly flip to “we are late to this market.” Some related blog posts:
- Entrepreneurs Exploit Errors in Conventional Wisdom
- Entrepreneurs Need To See With Newcomer’s Eyes And Ask Stupid Questions
- Innovation: the Trick is Managing the Pain
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“Can you be honest and not tell the truth?
Yes–because you may not know the truth.”
Don’t lose touch with what your product can do, what’s need to adopt it, and how good your support team is. Make sure what you are telling prospects is accurate.
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“Let’s use an LLM” is the 2020s answer to “Let’s use a wiki.”
Gordon Mohr (@gojomo)
Both are useful when you are careful to manage their limitations. We use both.
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“There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.”
Herman Melville “Moby-Dick” (first line of Chapter 82: “The Honor and Glory of Whaling.”)
A careful disorderliness leaves you open to serendipity, new discoveries, new possibilities: it seems like a good mindset for entrepreneurship and discovery driven sales.
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My morning mantra for sales efforts.
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“The believer who has never doubted will hardly convert a doubter.”
Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Understand your prospect’s operating reality, it’s starts with uncertainty as to what you offer, followed by doubts about your ability to deliver. If you address those two categories of concern you need to help them discover a deadline for action.