Like many entrepreneurs, I started out in sales. I began at 14, when I got a job selling shoes and tennis rackets at a pro shop, and I've been selling one thing or another ever since.

Being a salesperson prepares you for just about everything in business: how to listen, empathize, and persuade; when to back off and when to step in; and, of course, how to close.

But at 37signals, neither I nor anyone else spends much time in sales mode. Our sales process is self-service and entirely automated. If you want to buy Basecamp, Highrise, or Campfire, you simply go to our website, click a couple of buttons, and it's yours. No human interaction is required.

As a result, we're free to spend our time on more creative pursuits, such as improving our products, providing better customer service, writing books and articles, hosting conferences, exploring ideas for new products, and the like. Thanks to the self-service model, the top line more or less takes care of itself.

Pretty enviable, right? That's what I always thought. But there is a cost to all this automation. We see the numbers and analyze the data. But we don't get to hear the stories behind the sales. And I miss that. I began to wonder: What would it be like to hit the streets again and actually sell something, person to person?

Which brings me to 37signals's new product. It's called Know Your Company, and it's an application designed to help the owners of small, growing businesses become smarter managers.

We launched Know Your Company in June, and we're selling it differently from our other products. Instead of self-service, it's full service. You can't even buy it unless you're willing to sit through a 30-minute pitch and product demo. (People in Chicago come to our office; otherwise, we chat via WebEx or Skype.)

The other thing that's different: I (along with a colleague) am doing the selling.

Aren't there more important things for a CEO to be doing than making sales calls?

A few months ago, I would have said, "Absolutely." But after spending a couple of months selling Know Your Company, I am convinced that there's nothing more valuable for me to be doing right now.

When you spend time with potential customers, you get to hear about their struggles firsthand. You see their eyes light up with excitement or darken with confusion. You learn things you would never find in a survey, database, or questionnaire. You learn why people buy. The stories I hear are packed with insights we can use to improve not just Know Your Company but all of 37signals's products.

Just as important, Know Your Company customers all are fellow entrepreneurs. We inevitably wind up talking shop about other things. Maybe someone has an issue I can help with. Or maybe someone has just solved a problem that has me stumped. Such conversations may have little if anything to do with Know Your Company, but they, too, yield useful insights.

So far, we've given about 100 demos, nearly half of which have led to sales. Could we have made 500 sales if Know Your Company was self-service? Maybe. But I would know a whole lot less about our customers.