Big S, little m--What is the Right Mix of Sales and Marketing?

Don't worry; this isn't going to be an article about Sado-Masochism! Well, come to think of it, that term may apply to what some founders and senior managers in startups are doing to themselves and their companies. What I'm referring to is the VP who gets hired to manage both the Sales and Marketing functions. Oftentimes this turns out to be a job we call "VP-SALES & marketing". Thus the phrase "Big S, little m". The position is usually offered to a crack sales guy or gal, who also happens to have a marketing title somewhere in their job background.


To high tech insiders the meaning is clear. The anointed candidate will be expected to go out and beat the bushes for customers, and bring in new orders quickly. Oh, and by the way, Mr. VP, you'll also be in charge of producing data sheets and attending a few trade shows. You know, all that marketing stuff!

In most of these cases, I would recommend that anyone being approached for a job like this run in the other direction as fast as possible. These positions are usually classic "traps". The attitude is "We've got a great new technology; all we need is someone to go knock on a few customer's doors and bring the purchase orders back to headquarters".

Hopefully, most of those reading will recognize that this is a recipe for a very unhappy outcome. The founders and senior management will be unhappy with revenue and profits, the VP will be unhappy because he's likely to get fired in 9-12 months. The other employees will be depressed and talking about how "Sales & Marketing" is the weak link in the company. And the investors, of course, will be very, very cranky.

Why does this occur? It often occurs when the key senior decision makers (CEO, CFO, Founders, etc.) don't have a background or appreciation for the difficulty of the sales function. And it's even more likely to happen when there is no key decision maker with a background in Marketing. The decision maker's attitude often includes an over-confidence in the role that superior technology plays in the overall success of a company.


Certainly having a defensible technological advantage is a major factor in the success of a high tech company, especially when that company is in startup mode. The problem arises when management believes this is enough to "win". How hard is cold calling and knocking on doors for a sales force with an unknown company name? Not to mention an unproven product, which may solve a problem the customer may not yet know exists? I'll give you a hint--it's really, really hard!

Likely there is a lack of understanding of the crucial role marketing plays in establishing a new product in the marketplace. There may be a view that marketing is some theoretical, squishy function that is a waste of money, or maybe something that has value but the company just can't afford. Management thinks, we'll introduce the product, sell a bunch and build the marketing function later. Unfortunately, that thinking is as backwards as can be, and will usually lead to the unhappy results discussed earlier in this article.

Why IS marketing so important, and why is it such a critical mistake if it isn't a major part of the new product process? It's because marketing is crucial in every phase of introducing and growing the revenue of new products, from conception until end-of-life. In the beginning, an engineer may come up with a great new technology that appears to allow someone to do an existing task better. Or maybe it allows someone to do something that wasn't even possible before. But that's really just the beginning of the product development process. Product engineers aren't trained to closely match customer needs with the features of this whiz-bang new technology. Often they think it's easy - you just go ask the customer what he wants! But customers often don't tell you the truth; sometimes they lie, and sometimes they don't even know what they really want (this is the topic of a future column). And even if they tell you the truth, it's important to make sure that what these customers are telling you is representative of your entire target market segment. This is a task that looks intellectually easy on the surface, but for a lot of reasons, it's very difficult to get right.

Sometimes companies do get it right even without an experienced, professional marketing function in place. Let's assume for a moment that they do. There's still a very long way to go before those purchase orders start pouring in. The product must be positioned properly, relative to the direct and indirect competition in the market. It needs to be priced so that the market is willing to take a close look, but not so high or low that it retards the product's long-term profit potential. Will it be distributed only through the company's direct sales force, or should we court VARs, distributors, retailers or OEMs? What kind of pricing can we offer those partners without creating gray markets or channel conflicts? And please, let's not forget about creating a bit of demand for those poor guys and gals in the sales force. Cold calling really does suck! It's not good for anyone, the sales reps or the company's profitability. It will "burn out" your sales force in no time.

Marketing programs that generate hot leads, or even complete sales, are much more cost-effective than relying on highly paid (but beleaguered) sales reps to do their own inefficient "door to door" marketing. And how should we generate those leads? Via PR, Advertising, Direct Marketing, Partnering, Search Engine Optimization, Paid Search Engine Ads, Trade Shows? The Marketing folks are the strategic quarterbacks of the organization who should be driving the answers to these questions--as well as executing the strategy within the required parameters.


So does "BIG S, little m" NEVER work? Well, in some cases it not only works, it is even appropriate. Take the example of a semiconductor company selling a very niche chip to a vertical segment. They might have only 50 potential customers. In this case you REALLY CAN go ask the customer what he wants, and easily ask enough of them that you will end up building products that will apply to your entire target segment. With respect to lead generation, the target market is so small that traditional outbound marketing programs don't make sense anyway, and that "door to door" marketing by your sales force might work just fine.

But I propose to you that this example scenario is the classic "exception that proves the rule". In many, if not most cases, "BIG S, little m" will lead to failure - or at the very least, suboptimal performance. That's my view--as always I'm very interested in hearing yours.