How to sell when you don’t like it

Some people are naturally good at all stages of the sales process. They enjoy coming up with punchy copy with lots of superlatives and shaping it into sales collateral. They enjoy sifting through their life searching for connections with potential clients. I’m told, they see every opportunity in life as a potential sale.

These lucky souls are persistent. They never give up. Never taking no for an answer can be slightly annoying but it is very admirable. It takes thick skin.

You can recognize the quality of persistence in sales outreach efforts even though it is not always pleasant (I just had two such incoming calls on my cell this morning–with email follow-up). Kudos to all sales folks out there. You are dynamite.

Compelled to sell

What I wanted to reflect on was what to do when you don’t have many of these qualities, yet find yourself in a situation where you feel compelled to undertake sales activity, either for lack of means, because the campaign needs a front figure to represent it, or because you just pained yourself into a corner and there’s nobody else there to do that job. This is where I am this month with my book campaign, Disruption Games, in which I’m helping readers learn how to innovate by studying failure in startup/corporate partnerships. What was I thinking?

For me, selling is uncomfortable, it literally hurts. I just sent out an email to bunch of folks in my network. I tried to follow some decorum in that there was at least some valuable tidbits of content in there. I only sent it to people who have already confirmed to be my connections in some digital way before. I know already that some people unsubscribed since I can literally see it unfold on my screen right now, which is fine. (Although, don’t you hate being rejected? I am not a big fan of it). On the other hand, two people just bought the book in the first few minutes, so that brings me to 100 preorders. What a roller coaster!

Crowdfunding caveats

Well, what was I thinking signing up for with a crowdfunding literary agency, knowing this about myself? They are called Publishizer, by the way, and are great, see the Huffington post story, The Pitfalls of Landing a Traditional Publisher: Enter Publishizer and the Reedsy interview, Putting Readers First — An Interview with Publishizer’s founder Guy Vincent Many thanks, Lee Constantine and Guy Vincent, for trying to innovate in this space.

In fact, know quite well why I went this route. Having previously self-published a book, Leadership From Below (a great story for another time), I know what it took to make that successful on my own. On the other hand, I had also started outreach to traditional publishers, and I realized that in order to get the best deal possible, I needed to try to stack the cards differently, in a way that puts the author in a more favorable light.

What’s my platform?

Think about it this way, with book publishing, whether you are a literary agent or a publisher, similar to startups, you know that most prospects you invest in will either fail or not take off. What you are betting on is to find outliers. The trouble is that the signal strength is not that great with prospective authors. Having previously published a book (track record), having a “platform” in the form of an institutional affiliation to a strong brand, a career history of illustrious accomplishments, and more importantly a proven influencer status are really the only things that would give you a leg up, apart from an outstanding book pitch.

An author platform in the making

What I had was some of the ingredients (a career that includes MIT, Oracle and the EU), a previous book (but not a New York times bestseller), and a decent speaking platform of paid speaking gigs. All in all, enough to get interest by some publishers but not enough to immediately score a deal with a top publisher, and certainly not enough to be in a position to negotiate and set terms, just on the basis of my book proposal.

Am I good at any sales sub-function?

Back to selling, what I have realized in this process is that, first and foremost, what I enjoy about business, really about all of my various pursuits, is the process of creating something new from scratch (starting completely independently and usually alone or in a very small team of underdogs).

Secondly, I enjoy the process of working together with people (clients or co-workers) to drastically improve something. I just love that feeling of making progress through experimentation, trial and error (especially when the ultimate result is worth it, of course, but actually, even when it’s not).

Thirdly, I enjoy positioning other people, I especially like working with founders, ideally great founders who have developed path breaking technology or products. I have done so quite successfully in many contexts, including when I built and ran MIT Startup Exchange. I’m great at discovering and nurturing innovative ideas, concepts, technologies, and startups, from start to finish, from early to unicorn. I also have a vast corporate network to build upon when I do so, I quite enjoy advising large companies on being nimble, and I can give advice to both sides.

The challenge, of course, is that I’m only good at (and I only enjoy) the part of selling that has to do with making the actual introductions and especially making those introductions on behalf of others. I’m significantly less good at, and I actually quite positively loathe making self-boasting, declarative statements about myself or something that I have been part of creating. Just wondering if I’m the only one here?

An unlikely salesman

How to sell when you don’t like it? There are two possible answers to this question. I don’t like the first one, perhaps because it sounds so simple and isn’t always possible to implement.

The first answer is: don’t try to sell, don’t do something you know you won’t enjoy and won’t be good at. There are two problems here. One, shying away from hard tasks is a very negative perspective on life. Conceivably, you could improve, and practice makes master, right? Two, it is not very creative perspective, and that bugs me more. Perhaps you can turn sales work more creative, by only doing those sales activities that actually play to your strengths?

In my case, playing to my sales strengths would mean focusing on what I believe the sales literature calls partnership sales, i.e. mostly reaching out to people who are already somewhat friendly to you. However, whilst that works better, avoids the cold calling, and has higher success rate, it is actually highly uncomfortable. Why? Because you are attempting to change the dynamic of a relationship that was previously based on, well, trust, friendship, services you were providing that the other party had requested, perhaps.

Trond Undheim, Disruption Games (forthcoming)

The second answer is, outsource the sales to a freelancer or a colleague (if you are so lucky). What everybody needs is a spokesperson. Somebody who is constantly pitching you, writing about you, saying good things about you, supporting you, picking up your unfinished op-eds and turning them into masterpieces. All of that stuff. I believe they are called content strategists. I’m actually a big believer and I’m looking for them everywhere, both for myself personally, for the campaign, and for my business endeavors (see Content Strategist for Yegii).

Sounds easy, right? Not so much. It has a cost. And, despite all the great advice in The 4-Hour Workweek (yes, I did read some of Tim Ferris’s stuff, what an energetic guy for all that time off he craves), at the end of the day, you get what you pay for, and you would ideally need help with ideation, writing, positioning, pitching, and syndicating, just to maintain your personal brand.

What it takes to run a book campaign

Let’s take the example of a Publishizer book campaign. What I’m getting is a very useful service that greatly facilitates (1) the process of creating, packaging and displaying a book pitch and (2) the promise of a wagon of publishers trailing along should you be lucky enough to get lots of preorders for your book. Notice what’s missing: you are yourself (for now, I’m sure five years from now it will be easier) responsible for attracting the crowds to your book.

Now, I knew that from the beginning. Publishizer is in its early days, and does not have one million eyeballs waiting to buy every book campaigning on their site. So, what this means is, I’m back to mobilizing my own network and using that campaign site to create a new following of potential readers of my work.

Is Disruption Games selling?

It’s going quite well. My campaign is still in its early days. One week in, I’ve hit the milestone of 100 books sold. And, with 22 days left of the campaign you can still engage. Join my journey (and become a mover and shaker in the Disruption Games not just collateral damage), by subscribing to book updates, fetching a book or two or spreading the news in your network, all to prevent losing the grip on a future which is already in the making.

Disruption Games – the book campaign

Just to really show what a poor salesman I might turn out to be, it seems I actually buried the lead here, but here goes, as a futurist, I can tell you that all trends point to the fact that by 2030, the global labor force will be led by an elite set of knowledge workers enabled by robotic AI—and by the next generation the roles will likely be reversed. Are you ready?