in Tech

Your Job As A Nontechnical Startup Employee Is Convincing People

from Marina Noordegraff on Flickr

Paul Graham has a saying that goes something like this: “In startups, you either make the thing, sell the thing, or pick up toilet paper at CVS.”

Harsh view of Operations people aside, I agree. Maybe we could say that ‘you make the thing, sell the thing, or facilitate that making/selling.” As any company grows, the number of administrators increase, but in startups, it’s mostly makers and sellers. Look at the classic founding duo – a technical guy makes it, and a nontechnical guy sells it.

It’s easy to forget that once startups blow out to ten to fifty people, but nothing has changed. If you’re nontechnical and in a startup, you’re a salesman. How far removed you are from the customer depends on your role, but strip away the business lingo, and everyone is convincing people the product is worthy (of their money, time, attention, whatever).

Think about it. Sales is convincing people to buy directly. Marketing convinces people to notice. Customer Support convinces customers to continue buying/noticing. Press Relations, Business Development, and Fundraising are all convincing journalists, partners, and investors to do something for you.

Who you are convincing and what you are convincing them to do varies, but at the end of the day, it’s all about making them believe in your product. If they do, something good happens that either prompts buys, or is a buy itself.

Not Selling, but Convincing

Therefore the best nontechnical startup people are the best convincers. It’s not about pure selling ability – this isn’t a used car. It’s about getting the person to believe in your product. The way I see it, there are three parts to a good convincing: 1)finding the right person, 2)connecting with them, and 3)the Convince.

Finding the right person isn’t hard in today’s digital world. Everyone has a guessable email address or digital presence of some kind. Sales prospectors have this down to a science, and customer service reps have people come to them. But for marketers and the rest, it’s a lot more freeform.

Connecting with people is tougher. Either you network your way into a relationship, or you do a good job of marketing yourself and your product. Assuming they stand to gain from talking with you, you can even do the cold email intro. Whether it’s warm or cold, now you’re at the Convince part.

Convincing is either Manipulating or Communicating

The way I see it, there’s two ways to convince someone of something: either you believe it yourself, and communicate that to them so they share your belief, or you’re adept at manipulating them to believe something you do not. I think we can all agree that salesmen who believe in their product perform better than even the best of manipulators, but go ahead, find studies that prove me wrong. At any rate, if you’re at a startup, you are probably a believer. Otherwise you’d work in corporate or another more stable job.

Therefore, the ambitious nontechnical startup employee who wishes to improve at their job must practice communication. Your success at your job is directly correlated to the skill at which you can find, connect, and convince relevant people. And given that any web-savvy virtual assistant in the developing world can find and send emails, the only thing separating you from them is your ability to communicate the company’s value proposition clearly and succinctly.

It’s one part art and one part science. There are right ways to approach people, and there are certain ways to convey your ideas in an attractive way (covered in Carnegie’s classic How To Win Friends and Influence People). But talking and negotiating is an art, and lots of it relies on your conviction and charisma. I don’t know if there’s one right answer in that regard. It depends on what your value proposition is, and how they stand to gain. (who you are vs who they are).

I’ve drawn lines rather black and white here, as I often do in short blog posts. There are a few aspects of nontechnical startup work that aren’t convincing people, but those veer into the technical, like optimizing marketing campaigns. But I look at my days as a Marketing/Partnerships guy, and see that half of my time is strategic connections over email, and the other half meetings or digital conversations where I present and convince.

Am I the only one that feels this way? What are some ways we can all get better at convincing people, beyond the classic sales tactics?

  • Mo

    Corey, this is an awesome blog post!

    I would love to read more about non-technical start-up founders and what they need to do.