An Engineer’s Mistake: Learning that Sales and Marketing Are Critical to a Startup

Guest post from Chris Shellenbarger (Founder of CloudRepo)

“Why do you want to run your own startup?”, is what many venture capitalists, potential co-founders, or business advisers would ask me.

“I want to build my own software and build it the ‘right way’”, was usually my typical reply.

The conversation that followed would involve whether or not running a company was really what I wanted or if what I was really looking for was to be a technical co-founder/architect/CTO/’name your technical leadership title’. They seemed to always feel that I was really searching for the latter.

I disagreed.

In the naturally arrogant way of the inexperienced, I ignored what they had to say and didn’t give it a second thought. I have always wanted the independence of being my own boss and to have full control over my destiny. I held the opinion that engineering was the hard part of building a company and the other aspects (sales, marketing, etc.) were just fluff.

How hard is it to sell and market when you think you have a great product that everyone in the market is going to want?

Turns out it’s actually, really hard. Especially when you have zero experience in either sales or marketing.

I was so inexperienced that I couldn’t even tell you the difference between sales and marketing — I always thought they were two sides of the same coin. The two groups tended to sit in the same space far away from where I sat with the other engineers and where the ‘real work’ was done.

That was my view of the world back when I was among the so-called tech ‘elite’ in San Francisco (the software engineers). It’s easy to think that engineering is the most important/elite input into a startup’s success when you have recruiters lining up at your door every day to offer you $200k+ salaries, massive stock options, endless free food, and benefits package that are unrivaled outside of the fantastical world of tech. The sales and marketing people don’t appear to be as sought after and so the view that engineers are the ‘elite’ in the startup world is confirmed and reinforced.

Now, I’m in Fargo, ND (here’s a map). By myself, with a laptop and a product that I’ve built that’s actually pretty great. It’s much cheaper than its competitors, has higher availability, and is fully managed — everything that I thought a market would need to line up at my door just for the ‘privilege’ of paying to use my service. Sounds perfect, right?

Through the eyes of a former organic fig fed San Francisco engineer, yes.

In the real world, the actual answer is a resounding “No”, or at least I think it’s a “No” but it’s kind of hard to hear over the maniacal laughing that the world is making at how naive someone like myself could actually be.

The reality is I built a great product — it does what it was built to do and it does it reliably. I built a marketing page and an ‘okay’ administrator interface. I launched, told some friends, linked it on Reddit, HN, etc. I sat back, fired up Google Analytics and prepared myself for the massive wave of internet traffic to appear.

The wave never came. My perspective of the world, centered around the idea that you only needed great engineering to build a successful product, had been completely and utterly invalidated.

It’s the kind of realization that makes you wonder if maybe you’ve made a huge mistake and wonder if you shouldn’t have quit that sweet Principal Engineering job back in the world of unicorns(literally) and rainbows (also, literally), otherwise known as San Francisco.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Marketing and Sales are critical to shipping a successful product.
  • Critical in the sense that without it, the blood of a startup can’t flow.
  • Its heart can’t pump.
  • Death is imminent.

So yeah, that’s pretty scary when you’ve uprooted yourself, quit your job, gone all in on something, and then realize you’ve made such a critical mistake.

Fortunately, death is merely imminent, not certain.

Understanding what’s threatening the life of your startup is the first step to recovery.

For me, that means learning everything I can about Marketing and Sales — reading books, blogs, etc. It also means that I have to learn the humility to admit my mistake (hello, therapeutic medium post) and open myself to the assistance/input/advice of others.

Yesterday, I admitted this on a public stage for the first time. That wasn’t easy either.

But it helped.

Going back to the conversations at the beginning of this post, I am now realizing what these more experienced advisers were talking about when they asked me if what I really wanted was to be a technical co-founder.

If you want to sit in a room, coding a perfect solution to problems you care about with a team of other engineers, building it the ‘right’ way, be a technical co-founder of some sort.

If you want to be thrown into a raging river and feel like you’re drowning while being rushed towards a waterfall all while learning to swim, be the founder who is in charge of everything. I guess that’s what the ‘E’ in CEO actually means: Chief Everything Officer because you’re responsible for everything.

I’m going to continue forward with figuring out how to be a CEO as I define it.

P.S. — Now that I’m learning more about Marketing and Sales I actually enjoy how quantitative it can be and my inner engineer kicks in and gets excited. Engineering is about constant improvement in processes. As is Marketing and Sales, I just never took the time to learn it.