The missing salesman

July 14, 2018

Sales processes can be really irritating. It's 2018, and information about many products—accurate information, mind you, not the marketing-spin version—is no more than a Google search away. So I never understood why so many tech products require demos, webinars, and downloading the "whitepaper". Take my money, dammit.

I'm not the only person who feels this way, either: Alex Payne wrote a rant in 2012 that's every bit as true today as it was then. Don’t require that I waste my time on a sales call—or, worse, in a “webinar”—before I can give you my money. Preach on, Alex: Don’t make me read a whitepaper in order to get essential information about your product. Put it on your website. In HTML. Not in a PDF, not in Flash, not in Silverlight or ActiveX or whatever. What your product does, on your website, in HTML.

On its face, all these webinars and demos seem counterproductive; they stop me from buying. So why does everyone do them? I think I figured it out: all this stuff is there because technology used to be expensive.

Buying expensive things means purchase orders and expense controls. It means demonstrating ROI to the CFO. It means sales calls, and PowerPoint decks, and meeting after meeting with people in expensive suits about how "the solution" ("we sell more than just products"), delivers enough "business value" to justify the risk inherent in the large purchase.

It means salespeople. Armies of them, running around, who'd love to take me to expensive dinners and talk about sports. Just don't ask them anything about the product because they're "not really technical". Gee, do I love having my time wasted.

And there are lots of people that used to do this professionally. Many of them are in their late 40s and 50s today, struggling to adapt to a world that's changed from the one they grew up in, selling $250,000 SAN arrays and routers, one $20k commission check at a time. The entire tech industry used to run this way, dominated by salesforces selling to "the enterprise". Companies like Oracle, EMC, Cisco, IBM, all selling expensive things, slowly, one commission check at a time.

All was well and good until two things happened.

First, businesses really don't buy heavy infrastructure anymore. A lot of IT people will hold on to their SANs and Oracle databases just like they held on to their mainframes. But everyone knows the future is in the cloud. 99% of businesses have no reason to buy expensive disk arrays or high-end switches; they'd be much better off handing it off to Silicon Valley, where high-end ops talent keeps things running at 99.99% availability, even with better security and capacity utilization. Home Depot has credit card breaches. Google doesn't.

Second, once you're in the cloud, elasticity is the natural model for everything, and elasticity means you start cheap. Roll it out to 1 user, then 10, then 100. No need to decide upfront or fork over a huge amount of cash. Just start small, and if you like it, use more of it. That's how the fastest-growing companies operate today. Sales says it doesn't work because "you'll never get the big guys that way", but this view doesn't realize that a guy hacking on his side project for 21 cents/month nights and weekends is a director of engineering for Netflix in his day job; he'll be the internal champion because your free tier let him learn his way around, without the baggage of a formal PoC, or demo.

Most companies can't pull this off because they're too impatient. It's much easier to grow "inorganically" with a sales team shoving the product into lukewarm prospects' hands, even if they don't really want it. The real hypergrowth stories happen one customer at a time, when you build something so good, it spreads like wildfire, word-of-mouth.

That's how you go from $1/month to $250,000, which we did at my last company, on AWS.

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