Selling half-baked cakes

If you ask any serious investor what’s the most important thing a startup can do they’re likely to mention three things: sell, sell and sell.

IT based startups know this well and are used to making things that are somewhat useful and may attract customers since day one. After all, a good hackathon can lead you from idea to prototype in just a couple of nights provided there’s enough pizza and beer.

Us biotech founders though, after receiving the selling mantra, generally get an extra phrase: good luck.

It’s one thing to make a mockup of what the box containing your product will look like – you might even add some Eppendorf tubes inside to make it rattle a bit and therefore feel a bit more real – to what prototyping the actual product entails. At a startup level, your new drug, or kit, or bio-based device is quite likely a bunch of formulas held together by pipettes under a laminar flow cabinet. Not exactly something you can box and ship for a client to try, and very possibly years away from what you envision will be The Product of Your Science.

And yet, investors tell us we must sell. So how do we get there faster?

In my experience, this is how: You get repeatedly verbally slapped by someone who knows better. In my case, the slaps were three and they came from Bill Liao.

Slap 1: The scientist versus the salesman

When I came to Rebel Bio, I was dreading my first meet with the program director. I expected to be in for some drilling, since my laboratory work had lagged tremendously and my technology was so far behind from where I wanted it to be that the path to product looked at least two years long, with already four years behind us. The drilling did come, but not in the way I expected. Of all things, the main critique was the dreaded “why are you not selling?”.

Because we’re still two years away from a completed product, I wanted to say. Because right now the product doesn’t do even a third of the things we want it to do. Because it doesn’t look the way we expect it to look. Because it’s not ready.

None of that mattered to Bill. Where I saw incomplete science, he saw a product of value for someone. “There is someone out there for whom this thing you have, exactly at this phase, is useful. You just have to find them.”

That was slap number 1. It was both embarrassing and reinvigorating in the best of ways. I had been looking at this completely wrong. I can totally do this. If this is actually useful for someone even at this incomplete stage, I should be able to sell it. Right?

So I set to make pretty boxes and fill them with Eppendorf tubes (these ones actually containing vital parts of our kit) and finally said, with no little pride, that we had a product. A product that I was ready to sell.

 

Slap 2: Cake and batter

But the thing is, I was scared. Petrified. Mortified. What I had was a mildly successful indicator of a very particular set of things, that operated in a very contained environment, and looked nothing like the beautiful render my designer had meticulously created for me. How could I sell this to someone with a straight face and without saying sorry?

One of the most startup-y experiences I’ve ever had in my life was assembling and packing 30 boxes of our first product and fitting them in my suitcase to take to a conference three hours away. I couldn’t think about it while I packed them – I was too busy making sure every box had exactly the tubes and plates and paper it needed to have, while simultaneously trying not to fall asleep over the mess of labels and cultures and plastic – but once I was in the bus, and with the impending reality of what I had to do, it hit me. I was walking straight into the wolf’s jaws, going to a conference full of scientists with thrice to ten times my experience in the field, with a few dozen flimsy cardboard boxes containing what I couldn’t stop thinking of as a half baked cake.

Who on their right mind buys a half baked cake? The sort of in-between monstrosity you want to bin right out of the oven, praying for the lives of the poor ingredients you sacrificed for something this useless. And worse – who on their right mind tries to even sell a half baked cake, and to a maître patissier of all people?

The second slap came not directly from Bill but from introspection. I remembered what he told us merely the first week of the program. That our business works in language. I remembered what he said about my product being useful for someone, even in a state I considered incomplete.

Maybe my clients don’t need a cake. Maybe they need advanced batter.

 

Slap 3: The sleazy salesman and the forgotten ethics.

This changed my understanding of what I was doing. I was trying to sell an incomplete product, yes, but it was on purpose, and people were buying it, on purpose.

Which led me to the key question: is it ethic?

The moral correctness of my conference heist was probably the main point of my worries during the full week that led up to it. Knowing that your product was less than the intended Product with a capital P and trying to sell it anyway sounded too close to a sleazy used car salesman to me. I expected that someone would ask me about something about my product I didn’t yet know – how will it perform under these other circumstances? Have you tried it thousands of times? Are you completely sure it’s going to work when I try it? – and I’d have to put on my best smile and jazz-hand my way out of the situation with a shout of NOTHING TO SEE HERE, FOLKS while my cardboard empire collapsed around me.

I refused to be a used cars salesman. I refused to obscure faults or flat-out lie. I was about to give up on the whole thing when I got slap three.

“Don’t. Be completely transparent”

Just that. No obscuring, no lying, no smoke-selling and cardboard empires. Just stating exactly what your product is at for the time being, what it does and what it doesn’t. It’s ethic as long as everyone involved is fully aware of what’s happening. You need to explicitly say “this is a work in progress, and I need your help to make it work, progressed.”

 

If you are waiting for the perfect cake and not sparing a single glance to what you believe are failed or incomplete attempts, you might be missing out on a great in between. Think of it not as a scientist evaluating an unfinished paper, but someone whose needs can, finally, be met by this. And as long as you let them know exactly what your beautifully terrible first version of a product can do, you’re being the kind of salesman that is so keen to serve they are willing to start by telling one on themselves.

The conference went great, by the way, once I started thinking about this as batter. The next version of the product, I expect, will be slightly fluffier and marginally resemble a bit more the gorgeous cake in my mind’s eye. And someone out there will have a use for it.

Now I just have to find them.

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