Sunday, August 19, 2018

Engineers Turned Entrepreneurs

Lately, I've noticed a lot of ex-Qualcomm engineers wanting to become entrepreneurs and I see them struggling with the same challenges I faced when I made the transition: sales and marketing. I'm personally reminded how difficult these operations are since I've never, once, booked my talk about Apple; instead, every one of my Apple speaking engagements, over the past few years, has been arranged by my agent in NYC – she's the expert who handles my sales and marketing.

Ineffective Marketing

If there's one point I can't stress enough, it's that you can't workaround sales and marketing, or hope it simply happens because you believe your offerings are great. If you don't know, or understand, exactly how you will match customers to your product or service, then you will have problems. I've met and mentored too many engineers who think that marketing and selling their offerings is easy. Marketing is not easy. Think about it this way: Engineers can't suddenly become effective marketers any more than marketers can instantly become respectable software engineers. As a matter of fact, it's easier to become a software engineer, and deploy code into production, than it is to effectively carry out sales and marketing operations since coding can be done without interacting with people. A software engineer can scour the Internet 24/7 to discover software libraries, error message meanings, best practices, etc. In order to carry out effective marketing and, ultimately sales, requires direct contact with people, which frightens many engineers.

Begin with the End in Mind

So, you're a career individual contributor who wants to become an entrepreneur. Why do you want to be an entrepreneur when you've had a great career as an individual contributor? Because it looks fun and exciting?

Many jump into entrepreneurship simply so can tell people that they're an entrepreneur. I've seen a lot of these types, and many of them fail because they've fallen in love with a particular technology, such as blockchain, cloud computing, machine learning, big data, IoT, etc. From there, they look for potential market opportunities for their favorite technology. In other words, they have a solution looking for a problem to solve. That's backwards. Steve Jobs said it best at WWDC in 1997:
You got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can't start with with the technology and try to figure out where you're going to try to sell it. And I've made this mistake probably more than anyone else in this room and I've got the scar tissue to prove it... What incredible benefits can we give to the customer?
Think about it like this: You have nearly zero sales and marketing experience and you think you've got what it takes to become an entrepreneur? You're about to pivot from a field you've excelled at to one where you have very little experience; please don't think it'll be easy. Don't believe that your brilliant engineering skills will translate in superior selling skills because you believe engineers are smarter than "flaky" salespeople who overpromise and underdeliver. Nearly every engineering project is delivered late and over budget. At some level, we all live in a glasshouse. Even if you think you can hire someone to help with marketing, you need to realize that marketing is experimental, much like coding. More importantly keep in mind that a salesperson or marketer can't simply jump, from selling one product or service, into another industry and be successful, off the bat. It's an iterative process, much like software engineering. And, just like a server side software engineer can't jump into mobile app development without making mistakes, the same is true for salespeople and marketers entering a new field.

People Skills & Storytelling

Engineers, like all career individual contributors, work in quiet work environments where they are inwardly focused on their work product, regardless if it's code, prose, design, art, photography etc. Sales and marketing require people skills. This begins with storytelling. Words like cloud, blockchain, crypto, JavaScript, patented, etc, are not very meaningful to customers because these are features of your product or service. Customers do not buy features, they buy benefits. When pitching a potential customer, entrepreneurs need to focus outward on people (customers, employees, investors, etc). This means leading with the benefits before the features. How can you deliver your message using as few words as possible? You need to hear what you're saying from your customer's perspective. After each claim you make, during your pitch, ask yourself why that's important. Imagine your customer asking, "So what? Why should I care about that?" Your pitch needs to fit into your customer's needs, so it has to be tailored each time to your audience.

Benefits for Your Customer

Selling an iPad to grandma or grandpa means they can be more social by texting and e-mailing you very easily. But this benefit could be a liability if you're selling iPads to a restaurant owner for their food servers to use. The restaurant owner doesn't want their employees using the iPads for social media; they want their employees to use the iPad for taking customers' orders and running the business. Know your audience, and understand which benefits are meaningful to them.

Engineers tend to focus on features, technology, and tools. There are similarities between software engineering and home building. For example, both fields have similar concepts such as architecture and design patterns. When buying a home, you care about what it looks like, both inside and out, and the quality (durability) of the work. What a homebuyer doesn't care about are the tools used to build their house. Telling a customer that your app was built with .NET, Swift, or Java in the cloud is the equivalent of a homebuilder telling you that construction workers built your home using power tools from Black and Decker, Hitachi, or DeWalt. You may care about the tools, but your customer doesn't, so don't even bring it up. That's what I mean by focusing outward on your customer's needs, instead of inward on what you consider important.

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