Marketing Rockstars 2014: Possible Is Everything

Marketing Rockstars 2014: Possible Is Everything

Marketing Rockstars is one of my favorite events to speak. Watch the video to find out why, the energy in the room is always amazing and I’ll share my own strategies to get shit done with the power of entrepreneurial hustle.


I arrived yesterday from San Francisco at Vienna airport. Myself and two other speakers were picked up by an awesome volunteer of the event, and we've been driving together to this event. The volunteer listened to us babbling on, getting to know each other for awhile, and then after about an hour of drive, he turns around and he's like, "Uh, guys, can I ask you a question? What did the organizers do to convince you to come to Grads and speak at this event at this event?" And I told him, "Can I ask you a question? What did they do to convince you to be a volunteer?"

That's actually going to be the main point of this talk today: How to accomplish things other people would never dare to even attempt. To make this talk a lot more challenging for myself, yesterday, (with another group of volunteers) I had this crazy idea that they should bring tomatoes to my talk. And if I suck, I told them specifically to actually throw them at me. Are you guys here today, just so I know? There you go, over there, tomato throwers. I've been thinking the entire time, "What can I say to piss them off to actually throw a tomato?" It's not that easy. But if I accomplish that, it'll be pretty exciting.

Let me tell you a bit of myself first. I've been a lifelong entrepreneur. I'm originally from Greece, born and raised in Germany, and I moved to Silicon Valley about eight years ago. I am totally unemployable. I've never had a job in my life. I've been an entrepreneur my whole career because of a lack of options.

The last thing that I've done, my latest venture, started off as a company called Elastic Sales. What we did was, in the heart of Silicon Valley, we built kind of a secret sales lab. We were doing sales and helping new startups, tech startups, to innovate in their sales and business models and scale up their sales as quickly as possible. I personally worked with over 200 venture-backed startups that raised billions to help them grow their sales. In the process of building that company, we actually built a piece of software called Close; which is our internal secret-sauce software that helped our sales people outperform other sales people. Recently, we released that software to the world to help other startups grow. It's been a pretty fantastic ride.

When it comes to entrepreneurship, when it comes to hustling sales, it's something that is very, very near and dear to my heart. Let's get started!

What it takes to be an entrepreneur

Let me first tell you the way that I think about entrepreneurship and startups. Here’s what a startup really looks like and feels like when you're an entrepreneur:

You’re at a cliff with a group of people. Everybody has a couple parts of an airplane in their hands and you all, on three, jump off the cliff. Then the task is to assemble the minimal viable pieces of that airplane before you crash to the ground and die; you take off just in the last second before you die.

Most startups don't make it. They don't. If you are lucky and you make it, now the task is to piece together the pieces to be able to navigate the thing and direct it. Once you have that, you have to put together the pieces to be able to land it. Once you've landed, awesome.

This is the easy part. You go out, you paint the thing, you make it look nice and you either sell it or you find a way to make money with it; You lease it out, you rent it, you turn it to a profitable business. That's what the entrepreneurial journey is. It sounds exciting and awesome, right? Not while you're approaching the ground! You're terrified!

It takes a certain kind of character to want to be an entrepreneur; it takes somebody who wants to go out there and do things that other people would not dare to do. I will give you some tools and stories on how to accomplish that.

Show up -- Follow up

Start with the first story. How does somebody who has no clue about technology, knows nobody and has no money get to Silicon Valley? And after a few years, now runs a profitable high-growth startup that raised millions, that is making millions and could be considered a success from a specific perspective? I'm talking about myself. How do you do that? I had no college degree, I knew nobody, and my English was horrible. How did I make it to Silicon Valley, the most competitive entrepreneurial environment in the world?

Very easy: I just sold everything and bought a one-way ticket; simple as that. I arrived at S.F.O. and I asked somebody, “How do you get to Silicon Valley?” And for those who don't know, Silicon Valley is not a city; it’s an area. It's like saying, “How do I get to the south of whatever/ a specific area?” There are multiple suburbs that make up Silicon Valley. So the person looked at me and was like, "I don't know? I mean, do you want to go to Stanford?" I'm like, “Stanford! I've heard of that.” He said,“Yeah- well, take the train and go there.”

Here's what I did. The first night I arrived I was exhausted. I was excited. I was a little terrified. What I wanted to do, my internal instinct, was to just go to sleep. I was like, "It's my first day at Silicon Valley, so just take it easy, Steli. Just go to sleep. Enjoy the hotel." And then a little voice in my head said, “Fuck that! That’s the stupidest thing you could do! You’re in Silicon Valley! Go out and meet people! Make some friends!” I was like, “Aw, fuck… all right.”

I went online. I looked up an event. I went to that event. I sat next to Robert Scoble; he’s a famous blogger. I tell him, “Hey, I'm fresh off the boat. I just arrived in Silicon Valley. I don't know anybody.” He was like, “Awesome! Give me a call tomorrow!” Next day, I give him a call and I’m nervous, “Hey, Mr. Robert Scoble.” “ Which hotel are you staying in?” “Uh, Hotel California.” “All right. I’ll pick you up in ten minutes.” “Okay.”

He arrives there. We go to a coffee shop. We sit down and then he’s like, “Oh, stop!” He goes to his car, brings out a massive camera set, sets it up and is like, “All right, let’s do an interview. So, who are you?”

That interview is the most painful thing in my life to watch. It’s sixty minutes of me looking like an idiot. I watch it once a year just to humble myself, to keep myself grounded. The crazy thing is, after the interview he tells me, “Hey, I’m going to do this event. I'm going to speak. What’s your plan for the rest of the day?” I’m like, “A plan for the rest of the day? I don’t have a plan for the rest of the year.” He’s like, “All right. Come with me.”

We go to this event. He speaks, a bunch of other people speak, and at the end of the event they have a thirty-second soapbox; everybody can get the mic for thirty seconds. Usually people are like, “We’re raising money,” or “I’m trying to hire somebody.” I go over there, I take the mic, and I’m like, “I need friends. It’s my first day in America. I don’t know anybody. If you want a weird guy from Greece with a German accent, just come over and say ‘hi’.” At the end of the event, there were the three speakers surrounded by people, and myself... surrounded by people. I had forty business cards and we were off to the races. I couldn’t meet enough people!

How do you get to Silicon Valley and make it with no background, no knowledge, no clue and no money? Just show up! You show up, because you know what? Most people don't. Most people think about things, they say , “Oh, it’s going to be hard. I could fail, so let’s not do it.”

This is my story. This is me bragging that I did this amazing thing: how to become a founder. Let’s talk about when you're not a founder. How do you get a job at a place?

Don’t wait for permission

Here’s the story of my first intern. That guy hired himself and then became a co-founder of that business. And here’s how it happened. The guy saw our business online and he started emailing me. Eventually he scheduled to Skype. He was in a university in Germany at that point, he was a student. We had a Skype call. We talked about the business and at the end of the Skype call, he says, “Oh, you’re super busy right now, right?” What can you say? No? I’m like, “Yeah, we’re drowning in work.” He’s like, “Oh, cool,” and he hangs up.

Four weeks later, I get an email, "Hey Steli, since you're so busy, I thought I'd drop out of college. My flight to S.F.O. arrives tomorrow at 9am. It would be really nice if you picked me up but I can also take the train. I'm excited about my first day at your company.”

What do you say to someone like that? No? He took a flight to San Francisco! I'm like, “Okay, I guess we hired an intern.” The guy showed up and he worked his ass off every day. I had a larger team and sometimes people that were most senior would argue that they wanted the co-founder title. This guy didn't. He just showed up every day. He hustled every day, EVERY DAY, for a year... for two years! Eventually, I would go to events and people would be like, “Oh, you work for Bjorn? He’s the founder of the event?” No, but people associated our company with him because he was just everywhere. He was busting his ass off. And then eventually, I was like, “I guess you’re my co-founder.”

How do you hire yourself and become the co-founder of the company? You don't ask for permission! You don’t! You just show up! If you want something-- go take it! Don't wait around! Most people are like, “Well, I would really like to have this thing; can you please give it to me? Why don't you give it to me? I really want it. I think I deserve it. Please give it to me.” That guy was like, “Well, this is what I want. Just give it to me.” He actually deserved it. He put in the work. He never asked me about a title. He never asked me about selling equity. Never once did we have that discussion. At some point, I was so guilted, I was like, "You need more equity. Can I give you a title? We need to do something here; you're amazing." He never cared about that. He just showed up and kicked ass every day.

How to get your first customers

Now you know how to be a founder. You know how to get hired and become a co-founder. But how do you get your first customers? Especially when you have nothing: no website, no credibility, no product, not even a team. How do you get paying customers? Not just paying customers but paying customers and a waiting list of other paying customers?

I'll tell you quickly a story of how we started Elastic Sales; a company helping other startups’ skill sales. When we had the idea for that business it was a Tuesday, and we said, "You know what? Let's not fuck around, let's not come up with a brand, let's not put together a website, let's not come up with a presentation, let's not jerk off in our minds about how awesome this is, let's not research about the market. No, let's go out and let the market educate us if this is a good idea or not."

Tuesday morning we had this idea. On Wednesday, we went out there and we started selling that thing. And we said, "You know what we're going to do? We're going to do something really unsexy. We're going to cold-call startups that have raised to series A (at least more than two million) and that we don't know (no personal connection). We'll use fake names because we don't want the world to know that we were thinking about this idea (we were doing something else very publicly). If we can convince one startup to consider paying us after two or three weeks of cold-calling with no name, no brand name, no references -- nothing, then maybe there's something onto this idea we might want to pursue."

This is the actual script we used to kick-start the business, word by word. This is the script. Here's what we did. I would call somebody. We would open up by saying, "Hey, my name is Steve, (something like Steli). I'm calling a few startups in the Bay Area to see if they might be a good fit for a potential beta program that we're running."

Here's the important thing about that first sentence. When you cold-call somebody, they don't know who you are. And when somebody calls you, you don't know them. You don't know who they are, so your first question is, “Who is this?”, “What do they want?”, and “Can I hang up already?" That's all you think. When you cold-call somebody, you can't start blabbing on about your idea. "Well, we're doing a social network virtual reality, you know, group chat, app, that..." Nobody's hearing you. They're like, "Who is this? Who is this? Who is this? Can I get off the phone? Can I get off the phone?" You have to answer those questions first.

First you say: "Hey, this is my name, I'm calling startups in the area..." That's suggesting I might be similar to you. I might also be local. All of that builds rapport. Then I say: " see if you might be a fit for a potential beta program." Not, “if you want to buy a product”, but “if you are a fit for a beta problem.” I'm speaking their lingo. They probably had a beta program, so I establish a little bit of rapport. I might know what I'm talking about it. I might be a startup in a local area. Once I answered who I am and why they should listen to me for one more sentence, I give them what I do in ONE SENTENCE. Not a paragraph, not a book, not a chapter; a sentence. "Oh, but we have such a great thing, it can't be described in a sentence." Everything can be described in one sentence, just not perfectly.

What we would say is, "Hey, what we do in a sentence is..." and I'd say "IN A SENTENCE" so I could calm them down. They'd be like, "This is not going to take forever. Just answer the question: "How long is this going to take?" Not forever. “In a sentence, what we do is we offer startups sales team on demand. Does that in general sound interesting to you?" At this point, if they say "Yes," I'd say, "Awesome! Tell me about your sales process." If they say, "No," I’d say, "Awesome! Tell me about your sales process." And when they say "Maybe," I’d say, "Hmmm, curious... tell me about your sales process."

It's not that I didn't care at ALL if it was a good fit for them. I just didn't care at that moment, because both them and us didn't have enough information to know if it was a fit or not. But I needed to give them an opportunity to verbalize what they think. Again, so that I have their minds here. If they think, "No," I cannot just keep going on and talking, because they think, "No. I'm going to hang up. This is not for me." I have to let them say it, "No," and then I can continue the conversation. Because now it's off their mind, it's blank and I can fill it with something else.

Now we go through the questions to ask them to explore, "Could this work for them or not?" I really wanted to know. Once we arrived at a point where it could work, we'd schedule another call and try to close the deal. This script (cold-calling startups, fake names, no website, no brand, no nothing) got us seven companies that wanted to work with us. We couldn't service seven companies; we didn't have enough sales people. So we picked two random companies, two very different, to test. We're like, "Well, now we have to do it. Let's see if we can actually deliver this." And with a bunch of customers on the waiting list. This is how you get started with customers.

Attracting investors

How do you get an investor? You got to Silicon Valley, you're a founder, you got a job from an intern to this, you've got some customers, but what if you want to get the attention of somebody that's a billionaire? You followed up with them forty-seven times, and they ignored you. Some of you might think, "I would never follow up forty-seven times. Do you not have any self-esteem?" No. No! I'm not getting paid for self-esteem. I'm not in it for self-esteem; I'm in it for growth, I'm in it for creating value, I'm in it for challenging myself--not for self-esteem. That ship sailed when I asked people to bring tomatoes.

Here's what you do when somebody ignores you for forty-seven follow ups: you send the forty-eighth one. Here's my simple philosophy on follow-ups and this is only if I meet people in person (disclaimer: don't send a hundred emails if you've never met somebody). But if you've met somebody and it was a good conversation, a good first connection, and when you follow up with them to set up the second meeting or the third and they go silent? Most people start assuming things. They're like, "Oh, I guess they didn't like the product after all." They get self-conscious. "Oh my god, I think they didn't like what we did! I think they thought I sucked!"

I'm not in the business of assumptions. If we have a personal relationship, if we met and I email you and you don't respond to me, my assumption is you're busy. You have a life, you have something else to do that was a crisis; something's happening. So I'm going to keep following up until you tell me, "Yes," "No," or "Fuck off!" If you tell me to stop following up, I'll stop following up; I'm not going to bother you. But in a professional relationship, I'm not going to stop communicating to you just because you haven't replied.

There was an investor, his product you've all used, -- a billionaire. We've got another investor who is a good friend of his; he connected us. He responds to that connection email and says, "Great! I want to meet Steli." Yeah! I said, "Do you want to meet me Tuesday or Thursday?" Silence. Another follow-up. Another follow-up. Another follow-up. Forty-eight follow ups! You know what his response was? "Oh my god, Steli, I'm so glad you followed up! I traveled around the world, there was this big crisis going on, blah blah blah, this and that... Can we meet up tomorrow?" We met up tomorrow; he invested.

When you go outside your comfort zone and you do things that other people don't do, you create results other people don't. Follow-up is where winning happens. Showing up is the first half, and very few people do. But even from the people that show up, most of them will not follow-up and follow through. If you do both, winning is the only possible outcome.

The last negotiation tactic you will ever have to use

The first part was all about how to be a founder. How do you start a company? How do you get customers? How do you get investors? But how do you use hustle to get yourself out of shit? Because you constantly are going to be in shitty situations as an entrepreneur. What happens if your company has a contract with a large organization and eventually you figure out, "Oh, we totally changed our model; we have to do something completely different. That contract makes no sense anymore, and we cannot afford to keep paying these people or we are dead as a company. We would crash before we were able to put together the wings."? What do you do then?

You have to negotiate. How do you negotiate when you are a nobody and you talk to a large company and you signed a contract and you have to pay that money? Here's the one most effective negotiation tactic I can give to almost out-negotiate anyone, if you have the mental strength to do it. Any person can do this: You just shut the fuck up. Yeah. That's easy, right? I can shut the fuck up; I do it all the time. Through the whole night; I don't talk!

In the right situations, it’s actually really, really, really hard to shut the fuck up. Here's what is happening: this scenario is real. Our company had a contract we couldn't get out of. I tried everything. They didn't let me out of the contract. Eventually, I hustled, I got one of our investors to reach out to one of their board members. That board member sent an email to the account executive that was responsible for our deal and told him, "Be nice to these people." This guy was trying to tell me the entire time, “All the bad guys from finance they don’t let me. I would like to help you, but….” Pay me! I don't care about your situation. Give me the money, there's a contract!

Eventually, he gets that email from the board. My phone rings. I pick up the phone. The guy's like, "Hey! Steli, blah blah blah, do you have a minute? Blah blah blah, I have some great news, some really great news! You don't have to pay the full $250,000. I really worked with finance and everybody...” Of course, I knew that was bullshit, “and I think that we can get it down from $250,000 to $50,000.” I was silent. Eventually, he says, "You know what? Because it's November, if you could actually wait for two more months in the new calendar year, in January I could get it down from $50,000 to $25,000." So it went from $250,000 to $50,000 to $25,000 and all I had to say at that point (once he out-negotiated himself) was, “sure $25,000 generally works for us.”

While you are going to ask questions, I'm going to add pictures of my kids because I want to make them famous; they're my rock stars. My two-year-old. My two-month-old. Two months! And here they are together, two little co-founders.

Thanks, guys.