Eight months ago, I was in a really good place, professionally speaking. At age 30, I was running the sales and marketing programs for a 100MM-dollar-a-year middle-market environmental services firm. I sat on the board of the company and had direct involvement in most major decisions within the firm. Our CEO was a brilliant businessperson whom I very much admired, and the guy had serious drive.
But one morning, I was driving along Storrow drive as the sun came up and had somewhat of an epiphany. I couldn’t see myself being in this job long. Not because my colleagues weren’t awesome to work with, and not because the job fundamentally wasn’t right; I realized I was simply bored. The boredom stemmed from a couple things: First, I had been in the environmental industry for eight years and had somehow climbed to the top in a very short time frame; there was not too much more room to run. Plus, I realized that the product we were selling wasn’t overwhelmingly compelling and that there was little chance it was going to experience explosive sales any time soon. This wasn’t necessarily a reflection on the company but the industry in general, as, after thirty years, the environmental industry had become a relatively saturated, price driven, utility-like space.
Over the next two months, I had numerous discussions with my mentor at the firm (COO), which usually ended with me indicating in some fashion that I would most likely not be at the firm in the long term and we ought to set things up for success with that in mind. Things progressed like that until there was an opportunity to move on in spring of 2014. I bid farewell to my friends, colleagues, and mentors, and walked off into the sunset determined to apply what I had learned over 13 years as a salesperson to a new venture.
Now most of my closest friends know that I have had a somewhat constant obsession with the investment banking/ financial serves space for years, most likely stemming from Liar’s Poker and the 50 other books on the subject I had read. I started contacting companies in the private-equity and investment-banking space in New York, Boston, and San Francisco, positioning myself as a sales-and-marketing turnaround specialist after what had been a very successful turnaround project at the middle-market firm. I had spent about three weeks contacting various firms, when I began talking with a startup investment bank out of San Francisco, which was founded by two guys from BlackRock.
This company was positioning itself to do investment banking in the early-stage market, starting with seed stage (very early) companies. The premise was to offer mainstream accredited investors access to a plethora of fully vetted start-up companies out of New York, Chicago, Silicon Valley, and San Francisco Bay area. I was extremely intrigued by the idea, as it offered the challenging environment of being in a startup while at the same time exceptionally diversity, since what we were selling were other companies. I flew out to meet the founders and get an understanding of what they needed. The company had built out a really nice online platform, but they had no sales momentum. They were not funding companies, and they needed to get that fixed quickly before they raised a series A or ran out of money. One of the things I was interested in was their burn rate, or the rate at which they were spending their cash reserves in light of not having revenue. The answer I got was they had 5-6 months of cash before they would need to raise more money.
Now moving across the country for a new start-up was a risky endeavor to begin with, but with the information I was told I figured I had three to four months to get the sales problem fixed. It was going to be tough, but I really enjoyed to idea of the challenge and how ground-floor the position was. Plus, the founders were from BlackRock, which is the largest asset manager in the world, and frankly that is an impressive place to work. Based on what I saw, it was a fair assumption that these two lawyers had their act together and they just needed someone who understood sales to get things moving.
I took the job and flew out the next week to stay with my folks while I found a new place and had my girlfriend and Tembo (dog) join me. This was June 21, 2014. Within two weeks, we had a sales process humming along. The team was getting in for 7a.m. (PDT), starting to reach out to investors along the East Coast, and working diligently throughout the day setting up introductory calls and trying to develop viable prospects to get involved in the platform. After two weeks, we were setting up 35 to 45 meetings a week and things looked good. We also began to get serious investors into the office to talk with us and poke around. Things were starting to move, and I was starting to get really excited.
The last week of August, which I remember because it was the week I turned 31, was really interesting. One of the founders called the sales group into a conference room and indicated that the company was going to be changing direction. Changing direction? What the hell did that mean? I thought. Fast-forward through two weeks of complete opacity and nonsense, and the founders let everyone go and essentially shuttered the operation. It was the craziest thing I have ever seen, and I was completely mortified. I had just moved to San Francisco to pursue a brand-new endeavor that was going to be this life-altering adjustment, and within five weeks the rug had been pulled out from underneath me. The last two weeks with the firm had been ridiculous, with seemingly no direction whatsoever. You could really tell that the very people who were supposed to have direction and understand the company purpose were struggling with how to next move forward. There was an awe-inspiring lack of clarity about what was happening, why it was happening, and when a new direction would be decided on. A recent article entitled “No One Has Any Clue What They Are Doing” summed up the experience perfectly.
At about the same time that this company was “pivoting,” I got a call about a non-tech company that was looking for funding, and I agreed to meet with the founder for an introduction. He was a very nice guy who owned an apparel company that was struggling to gain any traction and was in need of a capital injection. After listening to the founder’s story, I quickly realized that his problem was not a capital problem, but instead a sales-traction problem. His brand concept was solid, his apparel was high quality, but he simply was not selling enough of it. He was waiting for brick-and-mortar retail outlets to pick up his lines, and they were not moving fast enough. Retail is a very difficult business for a small company; it’s a grueling process to get your materials into the stores, you take slim margins, and retail’s payment terms are horrible—leaving you with an awful cash flow situation.
After taking in all these points and asking lots of questions about the business, I suggested that the owner focus on an e-commerce play cut out the retail middlemen, and deliver straight to the consumer. For a small company, it is the most prudent way forward, which ensures that your messaging stays intact and that you are able to keep your cash flow moving without too much issue. The only thing you need to focus on is creating great product, building up your fan base, and taking great care of your consumers. When the investment company disbanded, I spent a week straight helping the apparel company get its online strategy up and running, and within a week we had grossed the highest weekly sales of the year. It was a very cool and rewarding experience.
That same week, I got a call from a guy whom I had been working with at the investment firm. He is the co-founder and CEO of a company that has developed a really engaging format for online advertising, leveraging music as a reward for brand engagement. We met for coffee, more than anything just to catch up after the investment company disbanded, and talked about his business. He was in an interesting situation. He had gotten a fair amount of seed funding to start his business, but had burned through that cash and his investors wanted to see sales traction before any more money could be raised. His product was really compelling, but he didn’t have any major accounts to start building revenue. Additionally, his narrative was a bit broad, not specific enough to have an effective sales meeting with a prospect.
After listening to him for a couple of hours, I made some suggestions on how I would move forward. I told him to nail down his narrative around one product or service and to go right after brands as clients. Because his technology is so disruptive, it would be key to get some majors as early adopters to then drive the social proof factor and allow more middle-market players to jump on board. He would need to develop a hit list of all his targets and then start blasting his marketing material to them to “soften the beaches.” Once we got the story out there, we would “send in the infantry” (sales team) to engage prospects one-on-one. Our discussions ended with him asking me if I would come on as a consultant and help him get this strategy moving.
Consulting is a word that I have had a lackluster relationship throughout my career. I have worked with many consultants—from management consultants/coaches, to sales consultants/trainers, to HR & recruiting consultants—and they all seemed to have one thing in common: They are all talk and no action. They were in the business of giving businesses their opinion and then essentially stepping back when any of the heavy lifting was to take place. What was worse is that many of these consultants with heavy fortune 50 experience (GE & Honeywell types) talked about concepts that were really high level without any capacity to implement programs or actually fix problems. They simply knew how to give the problem lip service, and I adopted a new phrase to describe them, which was “all problems and no solutions”.
The thought of being a consultant without skin in the game was literally repulsive, and I started thinking about how I could scale a company to provide sales solutions for businesses that really didn’t have their act together. I started batting the concepts around with a couple colleagues whom I had developed relationships over the past ten years, and I got another interesting response from them: “This sounds interesting, I want in.” Then, I began looking for firms that delivered sales and marketing solutions as a service, and I was blown away by my findings: there are virtually no companies that offer executions services, only companies that seemed pure play consultants. In fact, when you make a page for a company on LinkedIn, you are not even given the option of classifying it as a sales organization. The closest option is “marketing and advertising.” The idea of starting my own company was becoming more prevalent in my thought process each and every day.
What I landed on was Blarney Ventures, a sales and marketing execution services business that works with growth companies and struggling middle-market companies to revitalize their customer-acquisition process. My partners, employees, and I are providing a solution to a fragmented and broken market that is saturated with consultants and riddled with poor execution. After 13 years of searching to find what I truly love doing, I realized I had been doing it all along. Building teams, being a catalytic change agent, and selling the hell out of the products and services I represent.