Skip to content

Bob Metcalfe: Zen and the Art of Selling

March 25, 2008


One of my favorite things about my job is getting to meet, work and hang out with really interesting people — not the least of which are my partners at Polaris. Top of the list is Bob Metcalfe, who in addition to mundane things like inventing Ethernet and founding 3Com, is an incredibly witty and entertaining fellow. No meeting with Bob in it is a dull one.

Bob just shared with me one of his “golden oldies:” an article he penned in 1992 for the MIT Technology Review titled “Zen and the Art of Selling.” In it, Metcalfe takes issue with the aversion many technologists and academics seem to have with market-facing activities, like selling, while arguing that selling is what ultimately accounts for a firm’s success, or lack of it:

“I am sad to find that the MIT culture,
at all levels, is still permeated with
the notion that professional salespeople
are properly placed in the food chain just
below green slime.
That attitude relegates too many MIT
students to bleak Saturday nights alone,
because they think it unseemly to do
the bit of selling conducive to lining up
a date….
And too many MIT entrepreneurs launch
companies that give no thought to selling
and so promptly crash and burn.
I can tell you firsthand that selling is
one of the highest arts in entrepreneurship.
Most companies, even successful
high-tech companies in Silicon Valley,
spend 10 times more on selling than on
In short, nothing happens until something
gets sold.

I can’t help but notice traces of Metcalfe’s observations playing themselves out today in the world of Web 2.0 startups, virtually all of whom envision an “ad supported” business model but many of whom embrace a technology-centered culture which often turns up its nose at the culture and personality of ad sales itself.

Now, this is not all bad, in my view, as it is often this single-minded focus on great software that leads to wildly rapid adoption of “successful” web-based services. But it is worth remembering, every once in a while, that none of these are truly successful businesses until they actually  generate sales.

In any event, Metcalfe’s piece is characteristically sharp, witty, and a damn good read. Here is a link to the whole piece: zenofselling.pdf


Post a comment
  1. April 9, 2008

    I ran across Metcalfe’s article the other day as well, forwarded by the founder of a Polaris-backed company, and found your blog when I searched for the article on Google. What impressed me most was his description of the states of selling consciousness. We technologists learn early in life to hate salesmen in the first two states of consciousness: the difficulty is learning (and then convincing our peers) how valuable salesmen in the fourth state can be.

  2. Utediafrire #
    September 9, 2010

    What a blogpost!! Very interesting… Looking for more posts like this!! Do you have twitter or an RSS feed?
    Anyway thank you for this info.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s