The Builder and the Salesman

Job Well DoneI published a popular article named “The Single Founder Myth” a few years back. In this article, I contended that contrary to popular opinion, it was not impossible to go it alone with a software startup and be successful. To clarify up front, what I mean by “going it alone” is that you build up the company without handing over equity to someone else, be it either investors or other co-founders.

In this article, I gave several reasons why companies have multiple founders and countered the necessity of each for a single founder company. I came to a sudden realization the other day why most technology companies have two founders.

It’s because one of them is a builder, and the other is a salesman.

The Builder is the person who is doing the bulk of the work building whatever it is that you’re trying to sell. The Builder is most likely the better of the two at development or engineering than the other and it is internally agreed that the Builder is going to make the major design decisions.

The Salesman is the person who spends most, if not all of his time trying to find customers and sell the product. It’s quite possible that this person will be the person searching for investors for the company as well and in essence, is “selling” the company as a viable investment.

Responsibilities other than building the product or finding customers are likely to be divided between them to some degree, but these primary roles will remain steady for quite some time until the company either starts hiring employees or falls apart. Things like creating marketing collateral, business negotiations, financial planning, etc. All of these things can be done by either co-founder.

But the ability to sell technology products and the ability to build technology products are two entirely different skill sets. There are very few people who possess both skills and even if you do possess them both, there are only so many hours in the day. The problem with trying to build up a product while you’re also acting as the salesman is that at the beginning, both of these tasks are extremely time consuming and tend to be mutually exclusive.

I know from experience that developing software or designing hardware is something of an art and it helps if you’re “in the zone”. It takes time to get into that zone and once you’re there, if you’re interrupted it can take a long time to get back, assuming you can get back that day at all.

I also know from experience that sales is very much an interrupt driven process. It takes several minutes to prepare for any “major” sales calls and when you’re leaving messages, people can reply at any time which is very disruptive to whatever schedule you were trying to keep. With a co-founder, it would be a lot easier to have one person field all of the calls while the other concentrates on building whatever it is that you need to build.

Does that mean I’ve changed my tune? Do I now want to run out and find a co-founder for my company? Not a chance.

You see, the Builder and the Salesman model works great for companies where you really do need a sales force, be it for customers, angel investors, VC’s, or distributors. While one person is working hard in a back room somewhere, the other can be on the phones or hitting the pavement trying to land sales and close deals.

However a lot of software companies these days don’t hold themselves to that model. In fact, many shun it like the plague because the cost to acquire a customer on the internet is exponentially lower than it is if you require a sales rep to call on each of your prospective customers. It’s more efficient to use Google AdWords to solicit 1,000 visitors to a website and sell to 1,000 people at the same time than it is to have a sales rep call 1,000 people in succession and ask if they’d be interested in what you have.

“Hi, this is so-and-so from Acme Widgets and we’d like to sell you some software.” *click*
“Hi, this is so-and-so from Acme Widgets and we’d like to sell you some software.” *click*
“Hi, this is so-and-so from Acme Widgets and we’d like to sell you some software.” *click*
“Hi, do you have a minute?” *click*
“Hi, do you have 30 seconds?” *click*
“Hi, I am in contact with you to disperse a sum of $30 million US dollars from a bank in Nigeria that is no longer being claimed.” *click*

This sort of thing gets old quick. You can hone your story as good as you want, but at the end of the day it’s still difficult to make sales one on one. A lot of large companies are still very successful these days doing it because they have price points that are so high you absolutely need to have a sales rep.

Do I need a Salesman as a Cofounder to be successful?

Absolutely not. There are millions of products being sold online today which don’t require or use a sales rep at all. Don’t get me wrong, the price points are a lot lower, but let’s be honest. What price point do you expect to be putting on your software?

The reality is that in many organizations, the role of the salesman can be eliminated, especially if you’re selling your products online. In that case, what you really need is a marketer. Building a better mousetrap doesn’t do the job like it used to. When two products go to war, the one that wins is going to be the one that has better marketing, not the better product.

Now here’s the best part about this arrangement. Because you’ve eliminated the salesman in favor of a marketer, guess what time is the best time of day to do business on the internet?

The answer is that it doesn’t matter. Whether it’s 2pm or 2am, you can make changes to your website, update your marketing collateral, review website visitors and statistics, etc.  No matter what time of day it is, you’re not actually interfacing directly with customers. You’re setting things up so that customers will see what you want them to see, and when you want them to see it. There’s never a time when a customer comes to your website, you size him up and say “No, come back tomorrow.” It just doesn’t happen. Sales reps on the other hand are required to work within the schedules of their customers and try to convince them to allot time to speak with you.

What this means is that you can be both a builder and a marketer and so long as you’re selling your products online and don’t require a sales channel, you don’t need that salesman. Hence, you don’t absolutely need a cofounder.

A Word of Caution

To be a successful single founder business, you need to be really really good at two things: Building software, and marketing it. Without both of those, you’re basically sunk. If you’re a great builder, then you’ll have a wonderful product that nobody is ever going to hear about. If you’re a great marketer but a lousy builder, you’re going to find that you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig and everybody knows it.


  1. on March 9, 2010 at 10:14 am

    The Builder and the Salesman…

    Many successful startups have two cofounders. One is a builder, and the other is a salesman. What you really need is a marketer, not a salesman….

  2. TED on July 9, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    So then you will agreed that in most situations the chance for success is much greater with one awesome builder and one awesome marketer.

    You don’t bring a salesman into the game until you have a scalable business where you can put in one dollar of marketing and get a positive ROI on your ad spend.

    A good marketer can make something valuable out of thin air just like a great developer creates value out of lines of code. The marketer and the developer are climbing up opposite sides of the same mountain. A good marketer can reposition an entire industry. A good marketer can make an entirely new economic ecosystem. Marketing is the engine that drives commerce. Just like there are hundreds of different coding languages there are hundreds of subsets of marketing disciplines. Marketing strategies like SEO, PCC, SEM, copy and direct sales etc. etc. The rabbit hole goes pretty deep. At some point you have to stop reading all of the books and blogs on 10 ways to do X and actually make something happen in the world.

    Mike you have some really great insight and experience and I appreciate your openness and honesty. The openness from those with experience is what makes the startup community online so awesome.

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