In 2002, on the executive education campus of MIT, I learned that I had been selling the wrong product.
I, along with 61 other entrepreneurs, had been going to MIT for three years to learn how to be better company-builders. The program was called 'The Birthing of Giants,' and we had been selected from a pool of applicants who all met the same criteria: own a company with at least $1 million in annual sales and be under the age of 40.
The curriculum was designed by Verne Harnish, the program founder and adviser to many of the fastest growing companies in the U.S. Harnish seemed to have a sixth sense about when best to bring in speakers to provide a real-life perspective.
In the beginning, we heard from Jack Stack on the benefits of employee ownership. The next year, we heard from Pat Lencioni, who taught us how to avoid the temptations of leadership. In the final year of the program, Stephen Watkins, an entrepreneur who had recently sold his business, spoke to us.
To be honest, I was going to skip the session. I'd never heard of Watkins and had tired of the trite, rags-to-riches success story of the cashed-out entrepreneur.
In the end, I decided to attend his session, and I'm glad I did because he said something that forever changed the way I think about entrepreneurship. He began by canvassing the room to see how many of us were involved in selling our product or service to our customers. I, along with virtually every other entrepreneur in the room, raised my hand.
With that, he proceeded to scold us all for spending too much time selling our products and virtually no time selling our company. He went further, and I'll try to paraphrase his message for you: 'Your job as an entrepreneur is to hire salespeople to sell your products and services so you can spend your time selling your company. You make a few hundred or thousand dollars when you sell your product, but if you turned those same skills to selling your company, you can make exponentially more. You have the right skills, but you're selling the wrong product.'
He paused, took a long pull from a bottle of water and let his message sink in.
He then explained that entrepreneurs add the most value when they design and start their business; the return on their time invested starts to go down rapidly as the business gets going. The entrepreneurs who earn the best return on their investment of money, time and energy are the ones who get in and out quickly.
His message landed on me with blunt force. I felt like an amateur who had gotten a glimpse at a professional game and realized the pros were playing with an entirely different set of rules. Here I was spinning my wheels selling our services when I should have been marketing my company.
From that day forward, the way I thought about my role changed. I started hiring salespeople to call on customers. At first I missed the adrenaline rush of personally making a big sale, but in time, I came to enjoy seeing other people make sales even more.
I still went out on sales calls, but they were to people I thought might one day buy my company, not my product.
John Warrillow is a writer, speaker and angel investor in a number of start-up companies. He writes a blog about building a sellable company at http://www.BuiltToSell.com/blog