Sales from a buyer’s perspective

As I’ve said before, I am not a sales CEO. I’m not even much of a customer-facing CEO. But I’ve been on the other end of a lot of sales pitches, both from our competitors when I was a practicing lawyer and more generally.

Here is how I think about effective sales.

The fundamental rule of effective sales is that solving my problem is your job, not mine. You are talking to me because I have a problem to solve. I want to hear only those things that help me decide whether you are the company who will solve that problem for me.

Everything else is annoying. When there is too much “everything else,” the annoyance becomes anger. Sometimes I will buy a product even when sales doesn’t do a good job at showing me why their company will solve my problem; but in those cases, I am buying in spite of the sales effort (i.e., because I can see for myself that the product or service will solve my problem), not because of it.

So where do salespeople often go wrong?

— No deep understanding of the product. If you have me on the phone, it is infuriating to hear that you need to rope in other people (generally sales engineers / technical folks or domain experts / integration folks) to answer my questions. My first real-time interaction with you should be with someone or some group of people who can answer any question I am likely to have.

— No deep understanding of the domain. I don’t want to explain to you what I do if that is something you already should know. Nor do I want to hear you tell me about what I do when it is plain that I already know what I do. And I certainly don’t want to spend the first 15 minutes confirming with you that what you should already know I do is in fact what I do. Put another way: I don’t want you to learn about me on the call. I want to know, from what you say and what you show and how you act, that you are like me, that you understand me already. Show this, don’t tell me it’s true.

— No deep understanding of the space. I am looking at alternatives. To help me pick intelligently, you need to compare and contrast yourself to those alternatives. The alternatives are not only other products, but solutions other than products; in greenfield sales, you need to compare and contrast yourself to the status quo. And you should be giving me new information, not obvious things I’ve already thought about, when you do this.

I don’t (want to) buy on features or specs. What I am really after is not a list of features or technical specs or even a discussion of how particular features or specs will help me solve my problem. I do not want to be in the position of asking hard questions about these things (will it do X? will it do Y?) because I might miss something; you know what questions to ask much better than I do. Feature discussions and social proof (logo slides) are second bests or means to an end.

What I want is confidence that you’ve thought these things through and solved them correctly, by which I mean “in the way I would want them to be solved if I had all the information.” I want to trust that you know what you’re doing and what I’m doing and that what you’re selling will solve my problem. I then want your company to stand behind that trust and deliver something that just works.

Solving my problem is your job, not mine.

The Inventor’s Spirit

Values are why you do things (and why you don’t). Vision is the way you want the world to be. Mission is how you make the world that way.

The best values are emergent. Like a common-law rule that emerges from the decisions of judges in dozens of cases, all dealing with different facts, values are the why that unites a company’s actions in all the different situations its employees face. Why tackle this kind of problem rather than another? Why hire, retain, or fire this employee? Why arrange compensation plans this way and not another? How much should be invested in customer support and success? What should the response be to this action by a competitor? The best values are those that emerge from the actions a company takes in all these situations.

Companies can and should think about the values that their actions evince. They should identify, in writing, what they are; having done this, they can help spread those values (especially to new people during rapid growth) and can even tweak them upon reflection. This is like a judge who summarizes dozens of cases into a rule and refines the formulation of the rule in the context of the facts of the case before him, knowing that his restatement will guide future judges deciding similar cases. On one prominent model of judging, what judges do is exactly this, all the way down, in hard cases, to values that sound moral philosophic rather than legal.

Codifying, promoting, and refining emergent values is possible; legislating new ones out of whole cloth is not. You can’t command people to change the why that makes them do or not do certain things; you can only distill, emphasize, and nudge a little bit that why. This is why starting with a group of people and a way of acting that embodies the kind of values you want to end up with is so important in starting a company (or any other group of people).

Last year at Disco, Mike Wilson, who has been with us since the beginning, codified, over a series of conversations and many drafts, our values. They are why we do things: why we enter the markets we do; why we build the products we build; why your interactions with us are the way they are; why the people on the team are who they are. They are our why.

We named these values “The Inventor’s Spirit,” and you can see them listed, for example, on the team page of our website.

The Inventor’s Spirit

Observe sharply. The first thing to do is to look hard at what’s going on. Don’t accept the world the way it is; don’t assume that others have looked hard already.

Spot the issues. Identify the problems, both with the status quo and that a proposed solution is likely to create. The issues are what you are looking hard to find.

Solve problems from first principles. Don’t limit yourself to, or settle for, incremental improvements. Throw away all constraints and think of the way the world should work. Build a proposed solution from first principles, top down, from the way the world should be, instead of bottoms up by a lot of little improvements to the status quo.

Have courage to pursue new and better ways. Often this way of thinking leads you to something radically different from what came before. Don’t be scared by this; embrace it. Magical solutions often require radical change.

Important problems, impactful solutions. If you’re going to go to the trouble of solving problems this way, then you should be solving important problems. Solving important problems from first principles leads to impactful solutions, which is why this place is worth your life’s work.

Ambitious goals, humble methods. We set ambitious goals, like helping the law deliver on its promise of reasoned rule, but we pursue those goals using humble, data-driven methods. Do what is proven to work. Experiment always. Listen to what the world is telling you.

Great people + big problems = great achievements. Great things come from a simple recipe: gather the best people and aim them at the biggest problems with a license to work magic. Working at Disco isn’t easy; we do it because we think the outcomes are worth everything.


Occasionally you read or hear an idea that sticks with you, that makes a big difference in what you think and how you act. Often the idea is obvious in hindsight. Some examples for me are the ideas of the law lord as a model of the law, the Necker cube as a model for storytelling from evidence and what lawyers do, and the following idea about persuasion.

The easiest way to persuade someone to do something is to show that it will get them something they already want. For example, if you’re trying to convince a developer to develop in a way that is minimally harmful to the environment, and you know the developer cares about money and not about the environment, you should show the developer how doing the environmentally friendly thing will make him more money. This might be because not doing the environmentally friendly thing will lead to expensive litigation down the road or because doing the environmentally friendly thing will win him support in the permitting process or for any number of other reasons. It is much less effective to try to show the developer that he should care about the environment.

This is true regardless of what you think about the developer’s valuing money over the environment and it is also true regardless of what you think about the arguments why doing the environmentally friendly thing will make the developer more money. What matters is not what you think of these arguments, but what the developer does. And this is true even if the developer knows that you don’t care about his making more money; the developer does care, and that is enough for him to assess your arguments on the merits and be persuaded by them if they are otherwise persuasive. If your goal is to convince the developer to do the environmentally friendly thing, then you need to link doing that thing to what the developer already cares about.

Another way of putting this is that it’s generally easier to convince people about means than it is about ends; it’s easier to convince them that they’ve misunderstood the best way to get what they want than to convince them to want something else entirely. It is not intuitive (at least it wasn’t for me before hitting the idea) that this is the way to go, especially when you yourself care deeply about the ends in question and think someone who doesn’t share those ends is deeply misguided or evil. But what you care about doesn’t matter; what they care about does.

I remember hitting this idea for the first time in some book in college; I don’t remember what book it was, but both the idea and the specific example are taken right from it. If I can teach you only one thing about persuasion — in front of juries, in sales, in recruiting, in finding witnesses, in fundraising, in any area where you want to convince someone to do something — this idea is it.