Sep 15, 2020

Adapt to Survive: Lessons from Darwin for Modern Businesses

Brian O’Shea
Adapt to Survive: Lessons from Darwin for Modern Businesses

“Hard times make for tough people, tough people make for good times, good times make for weak people, weak people make for hard times”. – Michael Hopf in “Those Who Remain”

History has pretty clearly proven this quote out, time and time again and my own career has seen some ups and downs. But I have been very fortunate to spend my formative years in the golden era of technology innovation, right in the heart of Silicon Valley.

That said, we are now in uncharted territory. The global pandemic has started to take its toll on our economy and, in spite of what the NASDAQ tells us, the worst is yet to come. Having lived through and sold technology through several dramatic dips in the economy, I know two rules have helped me advance my career during these tough times:

  1. Retreat to the fundamentals
  2. Adapt quickly

These two rules may not seem at all related but they are very related in the inverse. When times are good, sales people typically fall into the same routine. They spend most of their time with the customers that buy the most. They entertain the customers they are most comfortable with. They rarely challenge themselves, their partners, or their customers because the good times are rolling.

My first taste of this came in the fall of 2000. I was lucky enough to meet the minimum requirement to fog a mirror to get my first job after graduating from college in 1999. I was so terrified of being found out for a fraud that I made sure I got to work before everyone else, creating a list to cold call all morning so I could visit customers in the afternoon and entertain them in the evening. When I was driving from customer to customer, I would note which companies had full parking lots. I would research them later and then cold call them the next morning. By August of 2000, I had a handful of customers making DSL cards or routers and optical switches. I wasn’t cold calling and I wasn’t trying to build more relationships within the customer base. I didn’t need to because the Valley was littered with “The Next Ciscos” and DSL was going like gangbusters. I just settled in – I had forgotten about the fundamentals. Then the dot-bomb changed everything. I didn’t adapt, my employer didn’t adapt and that 15 year old company went out of business.

First the fundamentals. All good sellers have certain fundamental capabilities that have served them well in their careers. This isn’t just a process of work habits, it is also a methodology in which they qualify opportunities. Many sales people are religious about these philosophies. Value Selling, Consultative Selling, SPIN, MEDDIC are but a few of them. Every great seller I know uses one of them. It’s not uncommon when times are good however for us to lose our Sales Methodology Religion. It’s human nature actually. But as the saying goes, there are no atheists in a fox hole. When the economy takes a turn, you better find your methodology.

In the 2000 dot-bomb, I clung to Consultative Selling because that was all I knew. In the 2008 financial crisis, I turned to MEDDIC. Today I use MEDDIC as it served me well in bad times and in good ones. It not only tells you what you know, but more importantly what you don’t know.

In a financial crisis, you can’t count on relationships and hustle to succeed. You must know the value your solution brings to your client and you should be able to prove it out with numbers (metrics), you should have a clear line of sight to the Economic Buyer and how the solution benefits them. You should know the decision process and validate that the client understands how that process may have changed since the pandemic began. You should understand the decision criteria and how that decision criteria might be different for all of the stakeholders. You must have identified the pain the client is facing, make sure it is recognized and that the implication of them not buying your solution is more pain. Then create a sense of urgency to buy your solution to alleviate said pain faster. Most importantly, you need a champion. Coaches are always appreciated as they can guide you, but a champion will help with coaching and access. Lastly, we are a SaaS company. We need to know the client shares our views on security and sovereignty. Regardless of what is going on around you if you, as a sales person, stick with these fundamentals, you will stand a much better chance of uncovering the opportunities you need to be successful.

Adaptability, as Darwin said, “is the most important trait to the survivability of a species.” However, human nature runs counter to this. We as a species crave routine. That routine, when based on strong fundamentals, can be profoundly beneficial as noted above. When the global economy changes, you must adapt with it. This may mean changing your pitch, changing your value proposition or even changing your audience. You could have a fantastic business but when a Black Swan event comes around (like the internet, the public cloud or a global pandemic) you need to adapt quickly. Ask the Encyclopedia Britannica sales team about how quickly things can change. Make bold and decisive moves but make them with the counsel of your trusted customers and prospects. What pain can your company solve that no one else can? The more pervasive, the bigger the market. Build the plan to address these problems.

During this crisis I have been lucky enough to enjoy the counsel of some of the brightest minds in Silicon Valley history: Lane Bess, Mike Speiser, Mark Leslie, Dave Hatfield, John Thompson, Doug Merrit, Mike Volpi, Chris Degnan, and Scott Dietzen just to name a few. None of them nor I know how long this will last or how deep the impact will be. If we assume the worst and adapt for it, these hard times will make us tougher and it will lead again to good times.