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Rising down and starting up

[TL;DR Announcing Proof’s new head of sales, Brian Foley. His bio can be found on our website here:]

My nine year-old niece wrote a song lyric that has stuck in my head: “I’m rising up, you’re rising down.” It resonates with me because I realize that much of my career can be characterized as deliberately “rising down.” My work trajectory thus far has been a steady march through increasingly worse office conditions: from a private faculty office at an ivy league university to a desk in the middle of an open office plan at a stock exchange to a portion of my own couch as a startup founder. (The other portion of the couch is reserved for a pile of throw blankets and my husband’s laptop charger.)

I’ve taken this path because I’ve been trying to go where I can be most useful, which is not necessarily where I’m most rewarded. Meanwhile, the conventional narrative still holds that career progress is supposed to mean “rising up.” You get a raise and you upgrade your lifestyle. You get a promotion and you move to the corner office. You talk more and you listen less.

And so I personally felt some trepidation when Proof began our search for a senior salesperson. What kind of person would, having climbed to the senior ranks of Wall street salespeople, want to cast their lot in with a small startup? And what kind of salesperson could fit well into the culture we’ve established so far as a group comprised solely of engineers and mathematicians? The world of sales seems like a lovely place to visit (I’m told the food is delicious!) but it’s not generally where engineers and mathematicians feel at home. I’d love to be corrected on this by any technology historians out there, but I would wager that very few pivotal pieces of software or algorithms have been invented from inside the confines of tailored suits.

The choice of early hires is crucial to the trajectory of a startup. We’ve been very cautious so far and will continue to be, preferring to pass on a candidate who could have been great rather than risk hiring someone who ultimately is not a good fit. But we were grateful to find, somewhat to my surprise, an impressive pool of sales candidates who were interested in working at Proof.

It was a surreal process — interviewing people over zoom from our respective isolation chambers for a job that fundamentally involves human relationships. I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a good salesperson, and what it means to be a good representative of Proof.

The typical definition of a good salesperson focuses on the skill of persuasion, and we tend to imagine measuring persuasion by reducing substance to the point of absurdity. “He could sell water to a whale!” we say, or “She could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves!” But examples of silver-tongued charlatans ignore the advantages of much simpler tactics: actually listening to your customers, sincerely wanting to understand and solve their problems, and believing what you’re saying. Of course, the salesperson employing this level of authenticity is limited to taking jobs selling products they actually believe in, no matter what benefits the ketchup popsicle company is offering.

And this is basically what Brian Foley explained to me, upon accepting our offer to become Proof’s head of sales. It was the answer to my original question: what would make a senior salesperson on Wall Street take a chance on a small startup when they could go with much bigger, safer firms? An earnest desire to help solve his buyside clients’ problems and to stick to selling products he believes in.

Brian has built a career out of making increasingly difficult sales, but not because the substance of the products has degraded. But rather because he has used his talent and hard-earned credibility to tell progressively more nuanced and difficult truths. In his time at Liquidnet, he felt the benefits to clients were relatively easy to demonstrate, as block trades stood out clearly on the tape. In his time at IEX, he had to explain much more detail about trading mechanics to buyside clients to motivate IEX’s design choices, and at the end of the day, they mostly had to trust that it worked. The end results were more opaque and less visceral than a Liquidnet block of stock appearing on the tape, but they were nonetheless real. With Proof, Brian will be navigating what is likely his greatest challenge yet: explaining the benefits of a trading platform built from scratch by experienced engineers and scientists, unencumbered by the sunk costs and code accumulated in established firms, and illuminated by a transparent scientific process.

The benefits will be hard to see at first. Buried in the noise of market movements, stretched thin across time and space as trades disperse over minutes, hours, and markets. Nebulous and elusive, obscured by the same mirages of complexity and chance that serve as bulwarks against change in this part of the industry. You won’t see it pop like a big block on the tape. Brian knows it won’t be that easy. He knows he’s making his life harder than it needs to be by continually joining startups with a long road ahead of them. But he believes it’s a challenge worth taking on. And we’re grateful to have him with us:



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