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
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
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