Shark Tank is a reality TV show in which ambitious entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to the metaphorical “sharks”—five successful entrepreneurs who advanced their careers exponentially by turning some initial project idea into a lucrative business model. CHF’s Accelerator Fellows are participating in a similar process at the culmination of their Fellowship with a Pivotal Project designed to accelerate their careers based on an original Career Blueprint conceived at the beginning of the Accelerator Program.
The key objective is to demonstrate through the pitch that the project is VIABLE. Put another way, it’s READY TO SELL. But what makes a project viable? The following serves as both a definition of what we mean by “ready” and a troubleshooting tool anyone can use to analyze whether they are ready to take their product, service, or project to market: The full “ready to sell” chart is here.
While I serve as Programming/Education Director for CHF, I also help companies achieve their revenue goals by working across the components that result in successful sales, namely Product, Messaging, and Sales itself. Aligning those three elements is crucial when anyone is taking a project, product, or service to market. That’s true whether it’s a public art project by James Moore, a local conference of art-industry stakeholders conducted by CHF, or a new automation tool in the blockchain world. Viability for purposes of selling—getting other people on board with the product or project—depends on getting message, the act of selling, and the thing we propose to deliver into a state of aligned readiness.
The Message is Ready
- Message is Correct: There’s what we WANT people to buy, and what THEY think they’re buying, and what they are ACTUALLY buying. The conversation we have to have is about the last two. Above all, don’t sell what you can do as TASKS; sell it as OUTCOMES. This keeps you aligned with WHY the person buys in the first place. We don’t buy a lawnmower or life jacket because we just like those things in general, even if that’s true. We are buying a neat, proud lawn and perhaps the reputation and standing that impacts, and fun that’s free of worry.
- Message is Clear: It’s clear in our head, and it may be clear in the heads of our friends and associates, but NOT clear in the heads of our target audience for the project and/or that of the end-user.
- Message is Supported: A strong message is supported by strong evidence. What empirical support do we have for the case we’re making—that it matters (to whoever we’re talking to), that it will succeed, and that we are the ones to deliver it? It also needs to be “supported” in the sense that the right people are on board. That may mean the end-user + sponsors + other stakeholders in carrying it off. If there are multiple stakeholders in a target organization, it needs to be generally supported by their consensus. But of course, that’s an outcome of the sales process itself, not part of ‘readiness’.
- Message is Compellingly Articulated: Is it punchy? Are we substituting jargon for persuasion? Does it take into account both the intellectual and emotional side of the person hearing the message?
- Message is in Optimal Format: Should it be a document, a presentation deck, a piece of collateral in PDF format, a graphic image like a Venn diagram, a video, a live presentation, an email, a series of emails, a campaign with multiple supporting advertising images, a PSA, an industry report, some other format, or some combination of these? Is it our TED talk? Is it in the ideal format to be consumed by our target audience at the right moment in the right mindset?
The Salesperson is Ready
- The Right Salesperson: We can’t wait for the ultimate sales Jedi to arrive, so often it’s US, warts and all. We have to BECOME the right salesperson. Doing that is a particular mindset and the willingness to initiate and lead a certain set of conversations. I can’t recommend enough that you take the digital courses on Sales Conversations available to CHF Members, Entrepreneurs, and Executives. However, it’s also about having the following pieces in place:
- Salesperson is On Message: It’s easy to go off track. What’s the difference between supporting a local community because it’s right (a cause), because they need it (charity), and because it benefits you (value)? All three might be reasons to, for example, execute on a public art project. I’m thinking again of the incredible ideas James Moore presents to local communities. But knowing which aspect of the message to emphasize at any given moment and to which stakeholder requires continual presence of mind.
- Salesperson is Credible: At least half of this is style. If it weren’t so, a well-dressed, well-spoken, energetic and reassuring individual like Bernie Madoff couldn’t persuade 4800 clients to invest in thin air. So polish everything from your tone and pace to how you come off in person. Somewhere between faking it and being true to yourself is a sweet spot—find it and adopt it so it BECOMES your persona for public performance. The rest is what you know and why you, which is less about your resume than how well you can convey what your experience means for me and what tangible outcomes you can cite that contribute to the overall project outcome thus far (the more they are outcomes, not just tasks, the more credible you will be as an achiever).
- Salesperson is Persuasive: It’s not the gift of gab—telling isn’t selling, Nor is it some Jedi mind trick that wouldn’t work on Jabba the Hut. Persuasion is SEEING what another person wants, how they’re feeling at a given moment, what barriers they have to ‘yes’, and what they need to get on board. Then it’s acting like those things are true, regardless of what WE want in the moment or whether it matches the pace we’re comfortable with. For example, countless sales are lost because the other guy is ready to say yes, and we feel a “need” to keep providing information.
- Salesperson Using Optimal Method: If this is a transactional sale involving e-commerce, after which we never see them again, then we sell one way. It’s not much different than trying to get someone to change phone carriers or buy a Toyota Prius. But if we’re trying to build a long term relationship involving referrals and repeat business that we leverage to keep growing our business, we have to behave like consultants. “Consultant” is a dirty word, now, like “salesperson” is, but we don’t have to use it—we just have to execute by asking good questions that aren’t self-serving, listening rather than thinking of what we’re going to say or do next, and then pairing the person with an aspect of what we do that fits their own motivations and objectives, even if we need to go away and think about that and come back to them. Givers gain. Serve others, and you sell forever.
The Product is Ready
- Product is Useful to End-User: We can’t sell a product or service or project that merely benefits us without regard for the end-user and any stakeholders that are key to accessing the end-user. It has to carry value all along the chain of adoption, to each participant, or the idea fails. We have to guard militantly against selling what we wish or hope someone needs and sell what they actually need. It’s OK if they don’t know it yet—that’s how Steve Jobs sold. Who knew they needed an iPod® ’til he sold it to us? It’s how the Sony Walkman® sold. Right now, we don’t know we need 3D or perhaps a smart home or even a water purifier, but those days are coming for one reason or another. Whether we solve an obvious need or a visionary one, it’s always about the other people involved.
- Product is Understandable: When the umbrella was invented, the chased the guy down the street and threw fruit at him. How dare a man carry a parasol, and in the RAIN no less! When Babbage invented the computer in the Victorian era, we said “No! We refuse to live with advanced technology in a Steampunk Utopia! Give us more smog and pestilence!” When coffee hit Europe, it was renounced as having the Devil in it. And now I get lost in Penn Station because it has three Starbucks’ and I don’t know where I’m meeting fellow travelers. It’s just in our species. We apes could live with jackhammers outside our windows and wonder what these strange spongy things on the nightstand called earplugs are for. It’s on US—the people putting out the new thing—to make sure the other guy gets it.
- Product Works: Elizabeth Holmes could sell the heck out of some blood testing machines. She got Walgreens on board. Only problem? They were just boxes of blood with a lot of broken vials inside. Gross! If we’re going to sell the future, the future has to actually work. Theranos was a good idea but, in its rush to corner the market, the company didn’t do the work. And now it’s gone, along with a lot of investors’ money and reputations, and other companies are looking at how to make the original vision a working reality. We can have the definition of “working product” be something soft; it can fill a need for something intangible, but it still has to work. If we’re saying x creates “awareness” which is pretty low value, or “engagement” which is maybe one rung up from that, or “creates community”—up yet another rung, then we need to be able to demonstrate by some means—from case studies to actual working models—that this thing does what we say.
- Product is Interesting: Earplugs work, but they aren’t sexy. Yet—sure as snot, someone will read this and create a fashion line of plugs for affluent New Yorkers to use as they fall, oblivious, into open manholes outside the subway. But half of something being interesting is just getting us to see the world in a new way. Take Brooklinen®. What if your choice of sheets could determine whether you are truly rested and feel fresh for tomorrow’s presentation, or in a better zen-like state to face that heedless New Yorker who just ran into you with their delicious “flat white” from one of the three Starbucks in the train station? What if linen could change your sense of self? Brooklinen® has a subway sign that says to choose sheets that are better than a “one night stand”. Doctor Ruth would probably agree. And if sheets can be sexy even without the sex, and earplugs can keep you out of Rikers or San Quentin as a reaction to intolerable noise, then imagine what an artist could make interesting!
- Product in Sufficiently Viable State of Iteration: Two pitfalls are here—1) going to market with a half-formed (or half-baked) idea we haven’t thought through. Especially how it’s going to work—Elizabeth Holmes, whether it’s sustainable—Bernie Madoff, and what people are going to get out of it—whether everyone (or anyone) benefits. Did anyone really want or need “New Coke”, “Facebook Home” or (yes it’s real…) “Coors Rocky Mountain Spring Water”? Blech! 2) being too gun-shy to go to market without a perfectly iterated version of our product. Google tried social networking; it made sense if social signals impact SEO. But it turned out no one wanted to hang out and be social on Google. The company tried it again with a revision and reboot of the product. It failed again. They learned a lot about social behavior from that experiment, and perhaps a bit about their brand perception, so it wasn’t a waste; at least they had the courage though, to get an idea to market and test it. You don’t get the iPhone without the Apple Newton. Go to market with the MVP (minimum viable product). It has to BE viable, but then the market will tell you whether or not it’s in a sufficiently viable state of iteration, and you’ll learn that without all the opportunity cost of polishing it to perfection before you take the needed actions and deploy.
Now “Ship” Your Product | Take Your Service Live!
Once you think your message, sales approach, and product (or service or project) are ready, you deploy and see if you achieve your sales goal, or somewhat less than the goal, or a different but still beneficial goal, or nothing. The result tells you whether to revisit your readiness to sell and, if you’re lucky, where exactly the problem lies. Don’t be quick to blame it on the message being unclear (which may be an assumption about why people don’t do what we want or expect, not a sure conclusion about what happened); or that you or the salesperson are the wrong person for the job (if WE can’t sell it, we can’t hire someone who can, but maybe if we can’t sell it, we can learn something that LETS us sell it); or that the product is not viable (maybe it’s just ahead of its time and needs to masquerade as something else right now. Could we package and sell parasols for men before we call them umbrellas?).
Once we achieve a working program of selling our art-business outcome (we HAVE ideas, we sell OUTCOMES), we can still learn, hone, and work the problem until we sell more at better prices more easily to a wider audience. All of that is possible. We just have to get it past the shark tank. The shark tank isn’t really some committee of ‘experts’ on business; it’s the market itself. Ten years ago, who would have thought Uber would take off? We already have taxis, and I’m not getting in some stranger’s car with dice hanging from the mirror and his poodle in the front seat. But now, we say we’ll “Uber to the airport”. The darned thing is a verb. So “Shark Tank” your idea. You’re the first expert—it’s your eye on the “ready to sell” chart determining that you’re ready for the next stage in the competition.