My column in the January 2014 issue of the Entrepreneur magazine:
Let us assume that the two of us are wannabe entrepreneurs and have invented a revolutionary ‘ice-making machine’. What’s revolutionary about it? Well, we still don’t know, but we have some fancy ‘concepts and ideas’. Above all, we desperately want to be entrepreneurs!
So, we get this once in a lifetime meeting with Vinod Khosla – the greatest VC in the Universe. How we got this meeting is a secret and cannot be revealed in public. Actually it can’t be revealed at all, because that (How to Get a meeting with Vinod Khosla) will be our next startup business anyway!
Vinod is very kind and patient; he gives us exactly half an elevator ride to pitch our idea to him. When have ridden to the 34th floor (he is going to the 68th floor), he smiles and tells us, “Guys, I like your passion. Go and sell your ice-making contraption to some real Eskimo – show me pictures plus their intent; and then maybe I can then give you a few hundred million dollars in angel funding….”
So Hum!! That’s the mission. You and I have to sell an Ice-Making Machine to some real Eskimos.
After weeks of begging and borrowing some money, we board a plane to Alaska on this mission!
Any successful entrepreneur will tell you that the toughest part of any startup is Sales. And boy, if you are selling something that has never been invented before, or been consumed by someone before, then selling that ‘thing’ is nearly impossible. Therefore, the mission of this exercise is to sell and figure out how to make the impossible possible!
Before reaching, I have done lots of homework for us. The first lesson in sales is to do thorough research about your customer, market, competitors and social sensitivities. I can tell you that selling an ice-making machine to Eskimos ain’t gonna be easy…
After reaching our cold Igloo hotel, a rush of nostalgia hits me. Many years back, when I had started an online contesting portal called contests2win.com, I had undertaken a very similar journey. I had flown to Bangalore, checked into a shady 2 star hotel and then using the Bangalore Telephone directory (no Google, ask me or LinkedIn around then) started calling random clients. Selling online contests in 1998 to Indian brand owners was akin to selling ice to Eskimos.
For this mission, I am going to lean on all the valuable sales lessons I have learnt in the past 15 years and prove to Vinod Khosla that real entrepreneurs can sell anything, to anyone!
Eskimos don’t really need Ice Machines. They are kind of surrounded by ice if you still didn’t figure! But then, real need has nothing to do with sales. As long as we can ‘create’ a need for our products in the minds of our consumers, they will buy. Consider for example the bookshelf in your house. Over half the books sitting there have probably never been read by you. But you bought them because you felt you needed them.
As my partner, you have agreed to let me take the lead in this sales drive and give me feedback post our meetings. Just remember to make adequate notes…!
Our first meeting is with Koda – A 35 year old Eskimo who has a wife and a young daughter. He invites us in his house for a demonstration of our machine. I have brought a baby pink machine with me, knowing very well that girls like pink! I can see his wife looking very lovingly at the machine…
Koda says, “Tunngasugit” (‘Welcome’ in Inuktitut)
I say, “Hello! It’s an honor meeting a real resident Eskimo. I really respect your way of life and the hardships you suffer.”
Koda acknowledges, and asks about the Ice Machine.
I say, “Koda, you are a successful man. You need to have this Ice Machine at home to make your wife happy and for your relatives to realize that you can afford to buy what they could never imagine. If you buy my machine, I promise I will not sell this machine to any of them.”
Koda smiles. I have just used the first and basic trick of sales: ‘Sell vanity & status, not the product. The image-hungry consumer will buy.’
Koda promises to call us back soon. We move on to our next meeting with Atka which means ‘Guardian Spirit’. Atka is in his early 50’s and lives with his extended tribe members.
I greet Atka with a researched phrase that goes as, “Inuusiqatsiaq”. It means “Good Health”. Atka smiles and greets us affectionately.
I have with me just a nice brochure of our Ice Machine that has complex charts of the safety aspects of the ice it makes vis-a-vis regular ice makers. With a strong and compelling voice, I tell Atka, “Sir, you are the guardian … as your name says… And this Ice Machine of ours makes sure that any crystal of ice your tribe eats, is safe and absolutely disease-free. A person like you will never take a chance when you know that a safer alternative is available. The tribe and its health comes before everything else…”
Atka has a serious look and nods at me. He promises to get back to us very soon. In his eyes I know that the second law of sales has worked – ‘If required, sell FEAR to sell your product.’
Our third meeting is with Hiti. He is a young man who has just started a restaurant and is very busy. It’s been difficult to arrange a meeting with him.
Inside his rather cold, blue colored restaurant called ‘Tihi’ (his name reversed), Hiti barely smiles and asks us to come straight to the point. I request for a glass of water and he beckons the bartender to serve us.
The moment I get my glass, I quickly slip my hand in my jacket and place what I have been carrying inside my pocket, safely, into the glass. These are real ice carvings, fashioned in the name ‘Tihi’. I had got the ‘Tihi’ name mould prepared before our trip and had frozen some ice in them before the meeting.
Hiti is stunned when he sees pretty delicate ice carvings, carrying the name of his restaurant, floating in our glasses. He smiles very reluctantly and says, “Interesting. I see this is not an ordinary Ice Machine. I will call you gentlemen soon.”
I know I have made a deep impact with not just my Ice Machine but also with my third mantra of sales: ‘Sell innovation, innovation and innovation.’
Over the next few days we meet countless Eskimos and their families. I pitch colored ice cubes to housewives, animal & alphabet shaped ice cubes to school teachers, ice that just doesn’t melt to some ice cream shop owners and most interestingly, ‘ice-jewelry’ to local jewelry shops who seem fascinated by the concept!
On the last day of our trip, I take a count and figure that we have pitched our Ice Machine to over 25 individual Eskimos. This makes me feel satisfied that we have pavement pounded and carpet bombed the available market for selling what we have.
Just three hours remain for us to head back to the airport. As we go down to the lobby to clear our hotel bills and hire a cab, I notice a small crowd downstairs. There are over 10 of the Eskimos we have met! They quickly gather around us, shake our hands, smile and say, “Yes, we want to buy your machine…!!”
We have won. Our mission is accomplished. We take down their names, addresses and then take a group snap.
In the long flight back home, I smile and write this for you, “Always remember that sales is not a process or a science. It is an Art. It is a dedication, a meditation, and a journey that is unique every time you embark on it. When you really want to sell something, just dive into your buyers’ souls and they will tell you how to sell to them….”