You have to be a good salesman

Episode #5 of my story starting here.

After the army, I wanted to keep working with my clients, but to avoid being an independent because of the tax+duties nightmare it had been to brutally stop doing business. This is a very important learning: create an actual company, put a limit to your liability in case things go sour. The other thing was that I had also come to experience what one of the best friends of my father had told me quite early on: « you’re going to make good money writing software and you’re going to lose a lot of it in maintenance ». That was really where I was, my first clients were mainly calling me for glitches to fix and minor changes, while new clients paid the bills but would join the growing number of people calling with small problems to address.

With a friend, we decided to create a company together and diversify: we would still do software development, because that’s our main skill, but we would also create a service that would bring in steady revenue. The idea was obvious to us: our customers were already calling us for whatever problem they had with their computers, regardless of whether it was related to our code or not. Acknowledging this, we started promoting a service where, for a monthly fee, we would take care of their backups, regularly clean up their configuration and come fix issues they might have. Basically, being like an IT department for small businesses. I still look at that idea like an excellent idea but it failed miserably for one simple reason: people absolutely needed it, but they didn’t know they did. We sold the service relatively easily to our existing customers but it was an uphill battle with new prospects. Back in 1989, most people had the expectation that, because they paid so much for a computer, the technical support should come with it and cover any problem arising of its use. They could understand why they should pay for software or for the time we were spending writing custom code, but paying for its maintenance was alien to them (« come on, this has to be guaranteed ») and paying for services outside of training was not understood at all. We spent an awful amount of time trying to convince people that they had to have someone take care of their systems, trying to make them aware of the benefits but what was obvious to us, they were blind to. That’s where you need a good salesman in a startup, someone who isn’t going to just try and convince people, but sell, because we would have needed to grow, to reach a critical mass of customers, scale the service and be able to factually demonstrate the benefits. But neither of us was a good salesman, I’m still enormously challenged in that department, and we ended up in a situation where we only created more work for ourselves, with essentially our existing customers now calling us even more than before. So we went back to just software development, which was the only available decision.

Some people have told me « you were too early ». No we weren’t, we were exactly at the right time, with the right idea. It was poor execution, not poor execution in the making of the product, poor execution in the bringing to market. You will often hear me claim sternly that « ideas are nothing, execution is everything », I say this because I know, I’ve been knowing this, first-hand, for over thirty years.

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