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Without Startup Experience, Do You Qualify For Tech Work?

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I’ve been in technology my entire career and it has been an excellent ride. Having startup experience later in my career, however, has been remarkably eye opening for this experienced techie. Just when I thought I had my industry figured out, I joined another startup, Alation, and a few new things caught my attention and changed my perspective. Here are the more recent highlights:

Turning innovation into value for customers – A startup that isn’t focused on innovation isn’t going to have much success, but a startup that can’t turn innovation into customer value is doomed. Bigger, more established companies often have some of their most innovative moments behind them, and they’re riding the residual effects of early success. Customer value is assumed for big companies because a track record of success simply has a momentum of its own. The startup, on the other hand, has nothing but innovation as its differentiator and needs to create customer value momentum from a standstill.

There are no other resources to solve the problem – Big organizations have a level of specialization that means there’s always someone with skills and even the time to solve problems. My startup world is life with limited resources. I wear multiple hats and my coworkers do as well. Expertise is a relative concept and learning is often done just in time, iteratively, and as a group exercise. Ideation, productization, perceived value and creating real value are in the hands of everyone on the team. Long decision cycles are a luxury we can’t afford as we continually move the needle, even in small amounts, multiple times per day. Relentless movement and self-reliance can sound demanding but at the same time are exhilarating. Adding to the mix, diversity in age, skills and life experience are the currency that makes self-reliant startup work so interesting.

Every software seller should have startup experience – Regardless of selling role, sales reps and their managers should have startup experience under their belts. Of all of the things I’ve learned, the selling experiences that startups have given me have been the most valuable and irreplaceable. My experience at ILOG took me from a very small startup, to IPO, rapid growth, acquisition by IBM and then integration with a much larger company. While it was valuable, it was my more recent experience with and as an angel investor, advising small startups and then becoming head of sales for Alation that helped me realize how critical life in a startup is for a selling career.

Here are my more recent sales-specific lessons:

  1. You never stop learning. Even at 50 and with more than twenty years of software selling behind me, the demands of a software startup keep me learning constantly. That creates humility that makes me open to criticism and open to a customer’s needs. Learning also forces better decision making around the time to spend on any one prospect, any feature that engineering might tackle and how much to spend on marketing.
  2. You never stop messaging. There’s a constant need to message and position the product’s capabilities, transforming them into valuable elements that solve customers’ problems.
  3. You never stop adapting. From fundamentals like pricing to trying three distinct messages on three different sales calls, all in the same day, adapting is about trying new things to find the ones that work.
  4. You break the sales process. This statement is maybe a bit misleading since there isn’t a sales process to break early in a startup’s life. Even when selling begins to take on process, it may be broken ten times for ten different customers. Sales process isn’t a solution for creating value for a customer; it is a solution for the startup’s need to sell. It has to be minimal and open to challenge and constant learning.

While I was qualified at the time my career started, I look back at my early years with a realization that I learned more in startups than anywhere else. Learning to learn, message, adapt, and being willing to break even established processes was incredibly important to my success. It continues to be the lesson that’s reinforced every day with Alation.

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