The most under-prioritized skill: communication

There are essentially two parts to building a company:

  1. Building a product
  2. Getting users to use said product

This is a very simplified view of entrepreneurship. Of course it does not cover everything. But what this perspective does do well is put everything into binary terms, cut out diversions, and force founders to focus on things that matter. Far too often, we, specifically in the “fast-paced” tech world, get easily distracted by factors that do not at all contribute to a bottom line. If we are not creating something that people want, what are we doing? Are we wasting our time?

Most teams fall into one of two buckets. Either they spend too much time building the perfect product or they are trying to sell something that is not good or does not exist.

Specifically, I have found that some of the people with the best ideas spend all of their energy and talent on the first part (building the product) and never invest time and money in their customers.

Communication and sales are often looked down upon in the tech community as not being “hard skills”:

“Any engineer can learn to be a salesperson. It is not the other way around.”
“I have enough sales friends”
“Communication people do not bring any real value.”

While it is often true that engineering the product is essential to building a company, it is just as much true that sharing it is important.

Communication is a very important skill for founders — in fact, I think this is the most important rarely-discussed founder skill.
Tech startups need at least one founder who can build the company’s product or service, and at least one founder who is (or can become) good at sales and talking to users. This can be the same person. — Sam Altman

And though I do believe sales and communication is a crucial thing every founder should learn, I do think that the best sales people are not the ones that have learned it in the classroom. I do subscribe to the idea that the best agents of communication are the individuals that have had unique experiences in the real world that forced them to become experts of their instincts and taught them to hustle, communicate, and sell.

For people who have never had this experience, it can be incredibly challenging to get a product to users, primarily because sales is a skill you can only really learn through experience.

I think every present or potential founder should make a purposeful, significant effort and work towards becoming a better communicator. You can learn to communicate and sell in so many different ways, often times coming from the most unconventional of means.

Though we communicate all the time, very rarely do we focus in and try to understand how we can improve. Only then, when we dissect our language and structure, do we learn how we can improve.

I first started paying close attention to my communication skills when I was building my first business, selling produce at farmers’ markets and to restaurants, hotels, and distributors.

I was forced to take a close look at how I communicated because this business depended on it. Of all the things I learned with this venture, sales may have been the most valuable. And luckily it helped, quickly.

I was able to improve our business, grow from just 1 booth to 9+ different locations, hire 10+ people, and distribute across the community. I trace this success back to hard work and lots of practice communicating our product.

3 things I learned about communication from selling tomatoes at a farmers’ market for 3 years

#1 Understand Your Product

My story is a great example of the effects you can have by simply better understanding your product.

At my farmers’ market booth, I sold tons of different things. Reminder I was never a “farmer” before this. In fact, at the time, I was a 15 year old high schooler from the suburbs of Scottsdale, Arizona. What the heck did I know about hydroponic produce, let alone specialized house plants? The truth is I did not. But I learned, because I needed to if I wanted to sell anything.

I learned about 23 different varieties of tomatoes. I learned about Dieffenbachia Janet Craig (a type of indoor house plant). The list goes on and on.

But simply knowing your product will only take you so far. You have to understand it.

You have to know what each tomato tasted like and where it belonged on the menu. You have to know what part of the house to place any given indoor house plant and how much water each needed a week. You have to know if you can give a discount if someone wants to buy 40 pounds of tomatoes. You have to know if any pesticides were sprayed on any of the plants.

I am assuming you skipped over that paragraph because it looked daunting. Learning and understanding the product can be really challenging, and often times the only way to really do that is through experience, something I was lucky enough to have plenty of early on.

#2 Learn to Improvise

Wait a second, is it even possible to have every answer for each and every customer? What are you supposed to do when you inevitably run into a shopper that asks you something you genuinely do not know?

Or even if you think you know, this customer is more confident than you in what they are talking about, what do you do then?

It is hard to put it into words, but all you have to do is learn to improvise. Think on your feet.

At the farmers’ market, that meant coming up with prices on the go and using your quick wits to recommend dishes you could use a Japanese eggplant in.

In business, and in life, time and time again people will ask you “really hard questions.’ It will never be possible for you to prepare all of the answers before hand. Therefore, you must learn to adapt and communication will be your favorite tool in doing so.

#3 Be Genuine

Here is the point, though, where many people steer the wrong direction. They take improvisation as a means for lying to the customer.

Here are some hard truths:

The customer knows when you are lying, always.

I have seen it time and time again, so do not let it happen to you. This holds true not only for sales, but also for friendships and job interviews.

Your customers are humans. They favor relationships over sales. And honesty lives at the core of most relationships. And communication predicated on a lie, or even an unconfident base, is bound to fail.

I wish someone had told me this earlier:

If you do not know the answer, do not say you do.

Your customers want the truth, not fluff.

I have found that in life, you can cut out most of the fluff and, instantly, you will become a better communicator.

I hope you maybe learned a thing or two from my experiences. As always, feel free to reach out if you have any questions!
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