Sourcing vs. Prospecting
While at Lake Street, and as part of my role at IGC, I spent a significant amount of time investment sourcing – going out and talking to potential counterparties in order to develop new investment opportunities. When I was at Lake Street it was corporate venture guys & treasurers and venture capital CFOs. When I was at IGC it was start-up CEOs and founders that I was talking to. Sourcing at Lake Street and IGC involved research/identification (to find out who was best to contact), cold calls/e-mails (to generate leads) and relationship building. I occasionally utilized my network to develop contacts as well.
In my new role, as a business development professional, my primary role is in sales, and therefore sales prospecting, is a critical part of my job. Each day I’m identifying, cold e-mailing/calling and developing relationships with prospects. I go through a similar process prospecting as I did investment sourcing and of course, while interviewing and when I first arrived, I assumed these were basically the same thing. I quickly learned that my assumption was far off.
While investment sourcing wasn’t easy, and I often had difficulty reaching my targets, at the end of the day I was usually able to make the connection. In sales prospecting, I’ve had no such luck – multiple calls go unanswered, e-mails are unreturned, and meetings are impossibly difficult to set up. The key difference being money, and more specifically, money-flow. As an investment professional, even if I was calling on someone who had little interest in talking to me at a particular time, I was still part of the buy-side and eventually it probably made sense to talk. A CEO who was too busy to answer an e-mail when his company’s bank account was flush with cash, was often readily available when it was time to raise a new round. I was calling to introduce IGC (or Lake Street) and propose an investment, but ultimately the dollars were flowing towards my sourced contact and so if they were “buying,” they were really selling.
In my current role, I’m selling a product – quite simply asking people to exchange cash for our product. So even if I find someone with a pain point that we can provide a solution to, I still need to convince them to part with their cash. It’s an extremely difficult process, and in this market, even more difficult than usual. Once you get people on the phone, usually they are nice enough to give you a few minutes – occasionally you can grab them via e-mail if you send enough of them (and occasionally you find someone nice enough to respond on your first outreach). To get them to trial the product is another story entirely, and of course, that is only the first step – the trial is no-risk, and while many do convert, its a true sales process all the way through to the end.
In general, as a vendor, it’s extremely difficult to get people to call you back, e-mail you back, respond to notes, etc. In order to get responses I try to be as engaging and constantly in front of them, while at the same time trying to be as hands-off / not-pushy as possible. So far I’ve learned that you only have so many shots on the goal (people’s time and attention) to get your introduction across, and so it must be tremendously appealing, and pitch incredibly pithy. If you get their attention, you need to keep momentum-up – once they disengage and move towards other activities they quickly lose attention. Once their bandwidth fills with other projects, its very difficult to get them back.
If nothing else, my foray into sales has taught me extreme humility and the ability to quickly forget dismissal. One of my former colleagues at IGC once gave me a bit of advice – “Always assume that the guy on the other end of the phone wants to talk to you, they are just busy” – which I’ve relied on even more in my current role than ever before. You won’t always get a response, but as long as you continue trying, you might get a few. And of those few, some will turn into trials, and a few ultimately clients. We’re not only selling a product, but evangelizing a new type of service – keeping my head up on outbound sourcing has been incredibly difficult, but in the end I think it’ll be worth it.
In my short time in sales, I’ve realized that it truly is one of the hardest jobs in the world. Having to put yourself on the line each day and with each conversation is nerve-racking, frustrating and humbling. I have a newfound appreciate for salespeople of all sorts, including entrepreneurs, who go out and sell their vision and dream each day. Its important to remember how much of themselves they pour into each coversation, keeping a positive attitude throughout. I certainly salute them.