Stacking the Bricks Podcast
EP30 - Sales for Founders & The Tiny MBA
In this episode…
Hope you're safe, hope you're well, hope your loved ones are well, hope you're finding ways to stay sane and of course, finding ways to keep stacking the bricks to build your own product business.
Over the coming weeks I'm going to be adding new episodes to the Stacking the Bricks feed to highlight conversations that I've been having across the internet with creators and entrepreneurs.
Why have I been having these conversations?
One: I'm stuck at home, just like you!
But two: I have a new book, The Tiny MBA
- 100 Very Short Lessons about the Long Game of Business
- Short enough to read in 20-30 mins
- Available as an ebook but also for the first time, a paperback book!
Today's episode is one of the first conversations I had about the book, with Louis Nicholls from the Sales for Founders podcast.
Louie was one of the beta readers, and invited me to kick off a new seasons of his show to talk about the book and to go deep on a few of the lessons inside.
I'll let him introduce the episode in a moment, but if you want to get your own copy of The Tiny MBA, you can go to https://tiny.mba to order it in paperback or ebook formats, OR find it on the amazon kindle store.
With that, here's Louis. Oh, and go subscribe to his show too: https://pod.salesforfounders.com
Full and Interactive Transcript available for this episode: http://stackingthebricks.com/podcast/ep30-sales-for-founders--the-tiny-mba/
Alex Hillman: What’s going on brick stackers! I’m your host, Alex Hillman, back with a brand-new episode of Stacking the Bricks.
I hope you’re safe. I hope you’re well. I hope your loved ones are well. I hope you’re finding ways to stay sane and of course, finding ways to keep stacking the bricks and build your own product business.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be adding new episodes to the Stacking the Bricks feed, to highlight conversations that I’ve been having across the internet with creators and entrepreneurs, just like you. But why have I been having these conversations and why add these to the Stacking the Bricks feed now?
Well, one, because I’m stuck at home just like you, and it’s nice to talk to people. I think some of these conversations will be useful and interesting to you. But also, because I have a new book it’s called The Tiny MBA, the hundred short lessons about the long game of business. And also, while it’s available as an eBook, this is the first time we’re self-publishing a paperback book, super exciting to have a real physical book out in the world.
Today’s episode is one of the first conversations I had about the book with Louis Nicholls from the Sales for Founders podcast. I know Louis from Indie Hackers and other parts of the internet, he was one of the first beta readers of The Tiny MBA, and he invited me to kick off a new season of his show to talk about the book and go deep on a few of the lessons inside.
I decided to bring that episode over here to the Stacking the Bricks feed and share it with you. I’m going to let Louis introduce the episode in a minute, but if you want to get your own copy of The Tiny MBA, you can go to Tiny.MBA. That’s the whole domain, Tiny.MBA, or you can go on the Kindle store and search for it there.
With that, here’s Louis. I hope you enjoy.
Louis Nicholls: Hey there. Welcome back to season three of the Sales for Founders podcast. This is the show that teaches you how to get just good enough at sales to find your first customers and to grow a profitable business. And I’m your host, Louis Nicholls.
You may have noticed that we’ve been off for a couple of weeks with an unexpected hiatus, because I accidentally started growing a new profitable SaaS business, but we’re back now.
Today, I’m here with Alex Hillman. Alex is one of the few people that I trust to give consistently brilliant business advice to founders. He’s been helping them for decades, both a 30x500 with his co-founder Amy Hoy, and also via his coworking space and community, Indy Hall and Alex’s new project is writing a book called The Tiny MBA.
It’s full of 100 ideas to help you build your own business that lasts. And it’s a bit of a detour from sales, but I was lucky enough to read a prelaunch copy of The Tiny MBA, and I knew instantly just how relevant it would be to most of you listening to this podcast. So, Alex was kind enough to join me and we’re going to take a look at three pieces of advice from the book.
Alex, it’s great to have you here today. Why don’t you kick us off with a few words about what The Tiny MBA is and why you wrote it in the first place?
Alex Hillman: I’ll start by saying this is the first time I’ve written a book, not my first attempt, but the first time across the finish line. So that in itself, I’m excited and proud about. I think part of the challenge of sitting down to write a book in the past has been, any given topic or problem area kind of instantly balloons to include everything, right? And then you start thinking about the book format and you start weaving in narrative structure and stories to kind of provide anchors and metaphors and things like that. And all of a sudden, you’ve got hundreds of pages of book and let’s say in the best of cases, it’s good. Then, you need to convince people to commit two, three, four, five hours to kind of read through all of those stories. Again, in the best cases, get one, two, maybe three really good lessons. All those stories, they’re entertaining. They’re interesting. They help anchor in your brand. They have value, a hundred percent, but it’s so much time to get to, just really a couple of things that you can actually use.
Then you need the things that you learned to line up with the problems that you need to solve or you’re coming across in your day, which might be that day or the next day, but just the way we read books and business books in particular, and then we read stuff and we’re like, “that’ll be useful at some point, but when?”
So, you know, those people who read lots of business books, and I know you read lots of business books and I’ve read my fair share. There’s the ones that like, that could have been a blog post. There’s the handful that I reference often - and there’s a very, very small number of them that I go back and read really, really often.
There’s others that I really should read more often. With that being the landscape of books, why write another business book? I guess this may be a bit better question! Part of the goal of this book was to take that expansive range of thoughts, lessons, experiences, observations from my own 15 years of being in business, as I would give them to someone coming to me saying, “I want to get in a business, what should I know?” Or someone who’s in business stuck on a problem and saying, “Alex, how would you approach this problem” or somebody who’s struggling in general and not even knowing what the problem is. These are all stuff that when you interact with folks in conversations about this business, all these things have come up.
This book started as writing down 100 of those things, not really to write a book, but to write down those things and the feedback that I got on those 100 sort of nuggets of, again, lesson insight, observation, clue, cue, those kinds of things. People were like, “this is better than reading a business book because I don’t have to wade through all those stories.”
So, I sat down with a designer and set out with a task of how do we turn to this kind of unusual piece – a universe of information, a very tiny universe of information, that is expansive, but still very concise. How do we package that up in a way that people would actually want it, use it? Hopefully for me is, you read through it once and a couple of things really stand out and you’re like, “wow!” You know, I don’t think anything in this book is going to be necessarily an innovative business thought, but a lot of it’s the stuff that you need to hear in that moment or you will need to hear any moment in the future, or you wish you had heard at a moment in the past.
My hope is that people can pick up this book, read it in literally 20 or 30 minutes, get one or two things that is going to be useful in that moment or in the next couple of days, and then maybe every six months or a year, because it only takes 20 or 30 minutes to read, to go back to it again, revisit those concepts and I think with those goals in mind, the book we’ve come up with is accomplishing all of them.
Louis Nicholls: Yeah. It’s a really interesting book. I really enjoyed it when I read it. I don’t actually particularly enjoy reading business books that much, very few that I get through. It’s been something that I think I will find difficult to describe to people as well. I mean, there isn’t a kind of a story or a thread as such throughout the book. It’s not something you have to…you know, you can pick up and you can read a page and come away with the value of that page without really reading any of the other pages as well.
I was trying to think how I would maybe describe this to someone and in my head when I was reading it through what I was thinking was, wow, this is kind of, if you took someone who obviously has a lot of business experience and spends a lot of time helping other founders and other business people who maybe aren’t quite as far along and are struggling with things that they’ve already had to struggle with in the past. And you had that person kind of tweet out that advice and those thoughts for, you know, 10, 15 years, and then come back and kind of condense the best 100 of those tweets into a book format. That’s basically what it felt like to me, really, a very condensed kind of fountain of information, that’s concise, that’s actionable, but also, it’s generalized in a good way.
Alex Hillman: The other thing is, there’s two kinds of business advice. That sounds good in the moment, but then if you sit down to do it, you’re like, I have no idea. It seemed like an instruction, but when I sit down and do what I don’t actually know what to do.
Then there’s business advice that is deeply prescriptive that either works or it doesn’t, but regardless of whether it works or it doesn’t, it doesn’t really do the thing in your brain that it needs to do, which is to actually process the experience. So, I tried to make these pieces. Some of them are a little more prescriptive than others. Those tend to be in the vast minority of the 100 individual pieces, but a lot of them are more written to be sort of prompt for thinking rather than explicit advice. One of my favorite ways to describe the book has been – are you familiar with Brian Eno and the Oblique Strategies?
Louis Nicholls: No, not really to be perfectly honest, and I’m sure some listeners won’t be as well.
Alex Hillman: So Brian Eno is a fairly famous electronic music producer, been very successful. And interestingly, he created an app for making music pretty early on in the app store too. So he is kind of like this pioneering creative thinker in many, many ways and he has this deck of cards called the Oblique Strategies that you can buy, you can get, as not many people produce physical decks. I’m not sure if he licenses them or not, that’s a whole other story, or you can find them online and things like that. And the Oblique Strategies are, again, it’s a deck of cards and you’re meant to use them when you are in creative process and you’re feeling stuck or a little too much on rails. Like things are kind of wrote and you’re just kind of going through the motions.
The Oblique Strategies prompts are things like, “what would your best friend do differently?” That’s not really advice, but it’s a thing that’s meant to recalibrate your brain. That’s what I really wanted to convey in the advice where it’s not so vague that I make you leave thinking, you know what to do, incorrectly, but it’s also not so specific that you only ever do the thing, because Alex said. The book is not meant to sort of prescribe business advice necessarily, so much as calibrate your thinking about business and some of the common early reviews we’ve heard is, “this really gave me a different perspective on thinking about business.”
That’s not just from people who are new to business or even people who have been in business for a while. Sometimes even saying, I’ve been in business for a while, but I’ve always felt like kind of an outsider. There’s this sort of dominant narrative about what business is or needs to be or should be.
And this kind of takes a counter view of that which includes some things I’ve thought, but because of wasn’t dominant narrative, because it wasn’t written down, because I hadn’t heard it from someone else who was doing it and seeing success with it, I was afraid to try it. So, I think that angle as well has been, it’s been really interesting to hear how people at different stages of the game are reading through it and processing it in their own way.
Louis Nicholls: Yeah, I love that. I think it will be one of those books that people -I definitely will, I’ll be coming back to this. I think it’s one of those things you could almost come back to every month and I can imagine there are lots of things in there that a very good advice that I think a lot of people who are just starting off will read, they won’t really process. They will maybe ignore to a certain extent or not understand why they should follow it. And then a couple of months later, they’ll come back and say, “oh, wow. Damn. I, I wish I followed this the first time I read it.” So, I’m sure you’ll get a lot of frustrating feedback coming back saying, “thank you very much, I wish I’d listened to this the first time I read it.”
Alex Hillman: It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard that!
Louis Nicholls: Yeah, for sure! One thing I want to touch on as well, you said this is the first time that you’ve written a book, the first time you’re publishing it and obviously you’ve run successful community. I mean, you still run a successful community. You do very well with courses that, hundreds of people, hundreds of founders, probably the same audience as for this book, they do really well with that and they enjoy that as well. Why the book format?
Alex Hillman: That’s very good question. Yeah. I mean, to your point. So, I work with Amy Hoy. And we’ve over the last decade or so created sort of this little constellation of educational products. We have an eBook about sort of our take and Amy’s style of productivity, how to start and finish projects is called Just Fucking Ship, lots of little educational things that are sort of flagship course of 30x500. If there was a polar opposite of Tiny MBA, it’s 30x500 in terms of scale. I mean, it’s a college course, a semester long college course in terms of size.
A couple of interesting things about a book on the book end of the spectrum and not just a book, but a physical book. So, it’s my first book. Period. It’s our first physical book, having an actual physical artifact is really exciting. So, two things come to mind in terms of why a book. One is, I think there is just a level of familiarity with the format. Mentioning Brian, you know, Oblique Strategies. I think the most useful format for this may have been a deck of cards in the future may still be a deck of cards, but I don’t think people would buy a deck of cards being unfamiliar with this material.
I think there’s something really familiar about the notion of buying a book. People buy books for all different kinds of reasons. They buy them for inspiration that they buy them for passing the time, they buy them as gifts. And if I think about the business goals and the, let’s call them ideological goals of sharing this information, objectively I want this information in the hands of as many people possible, especially people who have been soaking in sort of the mythology of business and what business is or what they believe businesses for a very long time. Books are a really good way to do that.
The other thing that I’m really excited about, and we’ve never really cracked the code of with digital books, but I think physical books lend themselves to more is gifting. Think about popular podcasts with big listenership’s. Tim Ferriss is always asking what is the book you’ve gifted the most often? It is a really interesting and illuminating question because most people have an answer to that. And there’s an interesting theme that I’ve heard, not just in Tim Ferriss’s podcast, but in others where people will mention, here’s the book I give, not necessarily because it’s the most quintessential book or even the most valuable book, but because it is the book that you actually sit down and read.
And there’s something I’m very excited to see what the - and this is a hypothesis - again, the book came out on Tuesday, I’m recording on a Friday. But think both at the price point, you know, a $10 gift is a very easy gift to give, but this book is also an easy gift to receive and actually use. I have this theory that in business, people who often have friends who were talking about business and things like that, this is a physical token of, Why don’t you go read this and sit down, we’ll sit down and have a conversation?
I genuinely hope that happens. I think that’s probably one of the biggest reasons of like why a book versus really any other format.
Louis Nicholls: I love that. I love the gifting idea as well. I think it’s one of those things I’ll definitely be giving this to people in my sales boot camp, just as one of those things where there are lots of those things that I would maybe say in a round-about way or that they would have to learn themselves. I think just having that in front of them is amazing. I like the book format. I think that the ideal format for me almost would have been where I would really like it as kind of just next to my coffee maker or next to my kettle. So that every time I go there, it just kind of pops up with a random one and I can just keep, it’s perfect for that kind of like 30 seconds, one minute of while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil.
Alex Hillman: If I come with another 265 of them, I can do a one-a-day calendar!
Louis Nicholls: I was thinking about that. I mean, to be perfectly honest, you could, with a hundred, you could cycle through them and they wouldn’t get stale. I think it’s worth reading through of them again.
I could, can I ask you questions? I found this process all day. I find this so interesting, but I do want to get some of the advice from the book out into the world and to the listeners.
So before we jump in, I do have one quick question, which is, you know, we’re obviously going to dive into three bits of good advice that we’ve picked out together from the book and we’ll go through those and talk a bit about the background to them, and maybe flesh out with some examples and stuff like that. But before we do, do you have like an opposite example, like an anti-example? So, a piece of advice that you often hear that you think is bad, as opposed to a piece of advice that you don’t often hear, which is good?
Alex Hillman: Ooh, that’s a really good question! So, like downright bad advice…
Louis Nicholls: Maybe. Maybe bad is the wrong word. What I would say is the net effect is negative. So, it may be a good piece of advice in certain situations, but is one that is parroted or taken out of context and does more harm than good in the way that it’s currently being given, I guess.
Alex Hillman: I guess one of the first things come to mind is like a very specific counterexample to one of my favorites in The Tiny MBA. The thing that you hear so often, not just in business, but in a lot of things is, the “go big or go home”, “swing fences”, “shoot for the stars so that you may land them among them” or whatever the rest of that quote is. ``
I think the intention of the advice is to urge people to be ambitious, which isn’t inherently bad, but it’s also incomplete. I watch a lot of folks get confused about the difference between being ambitious and choosing a very practical starting point. And a lot of people sort of undermine their own ambitions by trying so hard to create the thing that they simply can’t create with the resources they have now, but it doesn’t mean they won’t have those resources in the future. I think that the advice of, go big or go home, skips a whole myriad of things that you can do in between that actually gets you to the point so that going big is not only possible, but it’s better - the impact is better. It’s a safer bet.
There’s the whole risk-reward component. You can still get the same net gain by stair-stepping your way, towards that much bigger, more ambitious goal than by putting all of your eggs in that basket now, and saying, “if I can’t reach that goal right now, the whole thing’s not worth doing it all.”
I think a lot of times folks, in even the universe that Amy and I work in, a lot of folks misunderstand our advice to start with a tiny product, as we teach people how to create eBooks and courses and not SaaS. And the truth is, is we don’t teach people how to create any specific format of product at all, but software-as-a-service, as amazing as it is as a business model type format for a product, is a real tough place to start unless you have a bunch of very specific built in advantages.
People think that being able to build the software is the advantage I’m talking about. And it’s not. If your goal is to run a software-as-a-service, but you don’t already have a built-in audience of people in the industry that would buy that software, selling them subscription software is about the highest barriered entry you can introduce to them, even more so than expensive consulting or other things that are technically priced higher.
This is about the psychology of how most buyers buy - I know you know this, and I cover a bunch of this in the book as well. If you want to start selling something bigger later, what’s the smaller thing you can sell to the same customer base now that gets you in the market faster, gets you making money faster. But maybe most importantly, it earns the trust of that buyer so that when you do have software-as-a-service, when they are committing to having their credit card billed monthly. Even if it’s not for a lot of money every month, there’s still a commitment there. They already know that you are worthy of the trust needed to make that transaction happen because you shipped consistently, they got what they needed out of the smaller things that you shipped.
I think the being willing to look at that sort of whole holistic process, it’s not just shipping a product, it’s creating a business, which can be lots of products or services or combinations - whatever it might be, most people get laser focused in on “my business is based on this one very specific format” and I think, especially with technical founders who have the ability to create a software, that is tunnel vision that sets people back, not just timewise, but financially, regardless of what the software is or who it’s being built for.
Louis Nicholls: Yeah, I love that. And I identify very strongly with that. I mean, I think I’ve probably done pretty much every kind of business you could try - market places, e-commerce all of the different ones and that does ring very true with me.
A personal thing I’ve seen there is that one of the reasons I think people like doing software is that, especially if you don’t do it the right way, it is the opportunity that you can invest the most amount of time, in feeling like you’re making progress without actually having to talk to anybody or really think about other humans at all.
Alex Hillman: You are so right about that!
Louis Nicholls: It is an interesting way to think about it. So, let’s dive into good advice then.
We’ve picked out that piece which is one that I picked out and I really liked this and I want to dive in and understand a lot more about it because it’s one that I think people don’t think about anywhere near enough.
The only time that other businesses selling the exact same thing really matters is when they’re literally selling the exact same thing, or things that are readily interchangeable. These are called commodities, sustainable, small businesses don’t sell commodities. Do you want to maybe kick off with an example of this, do you have one ready? And then we can dive in a bit in water to what exactly that means?
Alex Hillman: Sure. I mean, I can speak closest to home in the fact that I run, and have been running for 14 years, a coworking space. And we were one of the first in the US, one of the first in the world, so I’ve kind of gotten to watch this industry emerge.
Indy Hall is often, if not always, sort of stood out of what is now a very big mainstream category, where early on, for the first seven years in Philadelphia, we were literally the only coworking space. I got to experience watching other people in other cities start coworking spaces during those seven years, and then other coworking spaces open up in their cities. I got to watch those people panic when somebody opened up a coworking space down the street, down the block, around the corner, other side of town, whatever it was.
I always found that really interesting that they would instantly view that other person as competition when the truth is that in a coworking space, like Indy Hall, the core value of what we sell is not square footage. It’s not a desk, we don’t do private offices. That’s already off the table, but it’s not a desk to work at. It’s an ecosystem of people. It’s the opportunity to build relationships and all of that foundation creates the opportunities for knowledge exchange, for business opportunities, for friendships, for feeling more connected to the city.
The value of Indy Hall is the sum of the people that are in the community, not the square footage or the address. And the reason that’s important is not philosophical. And I think for a long time, people misunderstood that statement as philosophical, frankly, I still think people do misunderstand that statement as philosophical. It is extremely practical because if the value is the sum of the people and the relationships, that is currently not able to be duplicated. Someone can open a space on the second floor, we’re on the third floor and it would be different people doing different things and therefore the value would be different, and we would attract different people.
We are not actual comparable. Even if the physicality of the thing looks the same or similar, I think what people often miss is who is the customer and what is the value that is being created? And those things are so rarely actually identical. When we’re talking about commodities, we’re talking about metals, like aluminum, grain, like wheat, lots of food items. Whatever it might be, all of these products where it doesn’t matter where it’s coming from, it’s basically equal and I’m really just shopping on price. Behind price, maybe convenience. Behind price and convenience maybe a brand, because it has psychologically convinced me that that brand says something about who I am when I buy it.
For an individual, for a solo business owner, most of those things are not things you can actually compete on. So, entering into a market where you’re trying to is setting yourself up for a world of hurt. The alternative that I propose is to get really clear about who you serve and what problem you solve for them, so that when somebody else comes along and creates something that appears similar, something that joins the category, something that you would perceive…I mean, I know you and I are both super active on the Indie Hackers community. I love that community. I love what Cortland and Channing and Rosie do and bring that community together. But one of the patterns I see so often is people posting messages about, “I was building this thing for a little while and I just found a competitor” or, “one of my competitors just raised a bunch of money”. Okay, let’s say that’s true. They’re only a competitor because you’ve defined them as a competitor. What if you were to use that as a prompt to say, well, let me get really clear about who I serve and why rather than doing it as the antithesis of what the other guy is doing, or the other girl is doing, the other company is doing right.
So, if the only way you can describe yourself is in the presence of somebody else, that’s your shit, right? That’s you, and I think that’s an opportunity to learn, grow, and evolve. So, I think at the core of this notion of solo, small business owners can’t or shouldn’t, or don’t sell commodities. I tried to stay away from ‘shoulds’ in the book. I would go so far as to say you don’t sell commodities because if you try, you’re not going to last very long. Or you’ve found some weird, magical wand. I’m sure there are counterexamples to every point that I’ve made, but broadly speaking, that’s not where your advantages are going to lie.
I think the hard part, the introspective part, the part that’s not nearly as much fun as building software a lot of times is answering those questions really clearly. Who do I serve? And it’s not even who do I serve that nobody else serves. You can serve the same person to somebody else in a different way, from a different point of view. Individuals within the same audience don’t exist in the world with a single problem. They have lives worth of problems. Businesses are literally made of problems, which means two businesses that appear competitors can actually both serve the same customer. Quite happily.
Even going back to the Indy Hall example, we have a number of members who are members of Indy Hall, love Indy Hall for all the things that it is and what I described it to be, and also have memberships to other coworking spaces. Maybe they have a membership there because it’s super shiny and fancy and has concierge at the front desk and cucumber water on every conference table, and that’s what they want to show their high-end clients. I get it. I respect it. I get why you want that. But at the end of the day, who do they want to hang out with, who do they want to spend time with? It’s our community.
So that’s a good concrete example of how I think about things that appear to be in competition…if you treat it as a commodity, I’m going to go so far as to say, in a lot of cases, unless it’s an actual commodity. If you’re treating it like a commodity and it’s not, that’s you, and that’s a thing that you can change, you can adjust, and you can actually work on.
Louis Nicholls: I like that. And I think coming back to that idea, there are exceptions to that rule.
I think from my experience, that’s definitely one of those things where if you are one of the exceptions to that rule, then you will know it in advance and you won’t be asking yourself the question. If you have a marketing or distribution channel that’s just way better than anyone else and you’re going to clear out the market that way, if you can produce whatever it is, 10 times quicker or cheaper or something like that, then you will know that that’s the reason you’re not going into business with that in the first place. Right.
Alex Hillman: You’re 100% right. Yeah, I totally agree.
Louis Nicholls: I know I’m going to get emails about this saying, you said don’t sell a commodity or, selling commodities are rarely a good idea. I might be selling a commodity. How do I work that out? And what is the first step to fixing that? Do you have any kind of practical advice? What should I do today if I’ve just started and I’m worried, “oh no, I’ve built the generic to do list app again? What do I do?”
Alex Hillman: I think there’s sort of two ways to approach this. One is if you’ve built that - let’s use the generic to do list app or, project management software is another great one or invoicing software, stuff that people build because it’s great practice at building software, but it could easily fall into this sort of commodity area.
Amy my business partner, time tracking software. There’s a zillion time-tracking tools. They make very good money on time tracking software – why? There are two paths here, one is if you built the thing and you have no customers, then you have a blank canvas. That’s the challenge in and of itself. That’s also an opportunity. I think the best thing that you can do, having built it is stop building. Don’t build any more features and get really clear about what audiences you can reach and of that list, whatever that list may be, try and find at least one where you have built in advantages. And when I say built in advantages is, I mean, preexisting understanding, relationships.
You are a part of communities where people that operate in that world interact. Those can be online communities prior to spring 2020, I would have said industry conferences are a great clue that that category exists and comes together to share knowledge, information, recommend products and things like that.
Obviously, conferences aren’t going away, but now it’s a very strange time for that world, but I think professionals who seek each other is still a real thing. The tools are just changing. So, if you haven’t sold the product yet, pick an audience where you have advantages. And I think one of the things that comes up most often is people go, well, I came up with 20, which one do I pick?
My answer there is look for the ones where you have any sort of a head start. And if everything is equal, then pick one. Odds are, they’re not all actually equal. That’s extremely rare. Or if it comes down to two or three, that are genuinely equivalent, then pick one and it’s not pick one forever. It’s not pick one to marry and invest your entire life into. It’s pick one to start, pick one, to start really getting to know, understand, and be able to communicate. How does that to do list app, how does that project management app, how does that invoicing app, how does that make things better for that person?
Every business has needs for managing to do’s, invoices, and projects, but what what’s unique about that group? What problem do they have? Don’t start thinking, what are other people not doing? Doesn’t matter what other people are doing with their software or their tool or their product, whatever it is. Focus on what the problem the audience has and how can you help?
Every moment you spend focused on what other products exist in the category is time not spent focused on the problems that are experienced by the customer. And that’s why all those apps end up being generic and commodities because they’re looking at each other and copying each other. The one who stands out and goes, “I’m going to pay attention to the customer and build the thing that they actually need and is going to make their day better, is going to save them time or money”. That’s a really easy way to stand out.
So that’s if you don’t have any sales, is to pick a customer base, make the best to do list app for a specific category of business and ideally a category that you belong to. That’s where you’re going to have inherent advantages compared to an audience that you don’t.
If you don’t sell real estate, don’t build a to do list for real estate agents. Not that you can’t, but you don’t have any built-in advantages. Right? If you’re a software developer, building tools for software developers is definitely the fastest way to do it. But I think what people get tripped up on is they don’t want to sell the other software developers because software developers don’t spend money or I don’t spend money, therefore, software developers don’t spend money.
Remember software developers as an audience that you can sell a product to, for instance, includes people who are like you and includes people who want to get into the industry, people who are a few steps behind where you are today. But it also includes people who already hire you. People, other professionals, who you interact with a lot. So, if you work for another company that could be, what clients or industries does your company serve? You probably have some built in advantages and understanding, whether you just slowly process them or not, that are more of an advantage than trying to create software because your cousin’s a real estate agent, right? That’s not a YOU advantage. That’s a THEIR advantage.
Real quickly I’ll wrap up the side where if you already are making some sales, I would take that as a sign of you got something right. Whether it was on purpose or by accident and it’s time to investigate what was right.
I’ve had some really interesting email exchanges with folks who, are like, “yeah, I’ve got my first 30, 50, maybe a hundred customers, but I’m not really sure how to grow”. And so, the question I always start with is, “who are the best customers?”, which leads to another question is how do you figure out where your best customers are?
This is where things get nuanced and tricky, and it depends on the business. So, it could be the customers who spend the most money, that’s not necessarily the best customer, that’s potentially a clue. The most money is also an interesting and complex thing. Is that the most money once? Is it the people who stay the customer the longest? One of my favorite factors to investigate is, who are the customers that bring you other customers? You want more of them? Right. That’s a great customer to have, they may spend less money than somebody who objectively spends more money, but if they bring you a net of more customers like them who bring you more customers like them…now you’ve got something to work with. So again, there’s not a specific formula, nothing I can prescribe here except to figure out, to really look at what can you know about your customers that you already have and what different ways could you slice and dice it to figure out who are the customers that we want more of?
Once you start answering that, then I think it starts to become clear. If we serve that customer better and design better – not even better than someone else – we just serve them better than we already were. We’re going to continue to pull ourselves out of that sort of commodity placement that I think folks end up finding themselves in by choice or by accident.
Louis Nicholls: Awesome, wow! Brilliant! I do want to move on to the second piece of advice to make sure we have time to talk through that. And that was that there are a hundred pieces of advice in the book with foreword and a bit more information in there as well, and pretty much all the way through I was kind of nodding my head going, “yep. Love it. Exactly. Yep. Love it exactly”, all the way through, really like physically all the way through. And there was this one piece here at which - I’m not going say I disagree with, because I want to hear why you think this - but it’s definitely not the way that I explain this, and this is something that I explain quite a lot. So, I’m really interested to hear why you phrase this the way you phrase it.
“Try thinking of marketing and sales as two distinct processes. Marketing is like going to market where you fill up your basket with insights, connections, relationships, and trust. Sales is making strategic offers to people who trust you enough to buy.”
Can you give me the rundown of why you break it up basically into those two parts maybe with an example?
Alex Hillman: I can, and I can give a little bit of credit. I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts that’s not technically a business podcast called The Sporkful. It’s about people. It’s really a show about society, humans, human interactions, history, ethnography - I mean really at the heart of a lot of this stuff - through the lens of food. I think the tagline is “we talk about food to learn more about people”. They had one of my favorite YouTubers on, Claire Saffitz from Bon Appetit, who, if you’re a fan of as well, high five. If you’re not familiar, it’s not really found out in this episode that she described part of her - I think it was grad school or some higher education - she did a paper on the history of food marketing, which is in itself a fascinating topic to think about. And traced a lot of the - I don’t want to say the etymology of the word - but the origin of the use as is related to food, was going to market.
When I heard that, I was like that aligns with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ we teach marketing in 30x500, because a lot of people think of marketing as I am blasting a message out there. I am putting my product out there. I am telling people about my thing. That is marketing. And that’s part of it, but it is not the whole thing and it’s absolutely not the starting point. The starting point is going to the market to gather and learn insights, to build connections, trust, and relationships. I think that’s overwhelmingly the heart of what the broad category of what we think of as marketing as a discipline.
So, I’m curious about your disagreement. I wonder if there’s marketing - the verb and marketing - the discipline is maybe part of the way I’m thinking of it. The breakdown, I think marketing as a discipline is overwhelmingly about gathering insights, building a resonant communication that sets you up for getting somebody, something that they already want. Which can include a thing that they didn’t necessarily know they wanted, but they knew they had the problem.
The flip side of that is sales. And I know that’s your area of expertise and I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read your explicit definition. So, I’m actually very curious about where the disagreement lies.
I think sales builds on that. Sales is - it’s tough because maybe the way I describe it makes it sound like a linear process. First, you do this, then you do this. When I say separate them, I think it’s in reality and in practice. The two are intertwined and symbiotic, right? You kinda can’t do one without the other, at least not successfully or very long, or without mountains of cash behind you to be wrong more often than you’re right. I think the sales as a process very much includes the sitting down, listening and understanding, especially if you’re in a sales environment. I get to sit down one-on-one and talk to you.
The difference in my experience when we’re talking about product sales, whether we’re talking about software, information products, physical products for that matter, where you don’t have a sales person who gets to sit down and do the listening, you have to kind of pull the two parts of the process apart and say, “I’m going to do the sales right up until the last point where I actually make the sale. And then I kind of have to distill that combination of communication”. Writing, spoken word or whatever it is, visual imagery, all of those things. It’s the timing. It’s the sequencing. I think the hard part, and the thing where talented salespeople do this because they’ve got a lot of practice. They do it very instinctively on the fly with an individual to make them feel heard, feel understood, feel like this is the right decision and make that decision.
When you’re selling products, especially on the internet where the price is scaled, where you can’t spend that time with each individual person, certainly not forever, that’s where the value of splitting these into two separate units of process are. And frankly, getting good at both. I think a lot of people get good at one without the other, or that they try and then struggle.
From what I know about the way you express and teach sales, it very much includes that research, insights, conversations, and a big push - I know, as you know, especially for the earliest stage founder - why are you going for turnkey sales on day one? You should be creating a path to have one-on-one dialogues with people. Yeah, your margin might not be as good the first few times you try to sell it but through all of those sales, you’re not only earning the sale, you’re earning the ability to make sales a bit more automatically down the road.
So, that answers the question or sort of highlights what, obviously wasn’t in the 200 or so character version of what’s in the book.
How does that reflect on what you read?
Louis Nicholls: I didn’t disagree with it, in a sense. It was just a very different way to the way that I would normally phrase it. I think part of that is obviously, like you said, these are entangled, there are probably a hundred different ways that you could explain the difference between marketing and sales and be correct, and they would all be slightly different.
I don’t think this is bad advice at all. It’s just interesting that it was almost slightly different in the emphasis, because I think what you’re saying that is, it seems to me more like the emphasis is on what marketing actually is as opposed to what sales is. Whereas when I’m trying to do it from a sales point of view, I’m trying to explain what sales is as opposed to what marketing is.
Alex Hillman: It’s super interesting!
Louis Nicholls: I think the one slight difference, it does depend again, where there is obviously an overlap in the early stages of sales and marketing, where it is about just going out and finding information and building connections and trust and stuff like that.
I think that the reason I phrased it slightly differently is that I feel like there’s a reason that as you start off, you do more one-on-one sales, like you said, and then as you grow larger and larger – normally – you still tend to carry on doing sales, but you don’t do them for the customer paying $10 a month or $50 a month, or maybe even $100 a month. You start doing them for the one who pays five or 10,000 a month.
And there are some other reasons you do that because they like to have a personal contact there who will guide them through the sales process and stuff like that. They like someone to talk to. But the other reason you do that is because, if you want to find out how to sell to a persona - lot of people who are very similar in the same way, then marketing is the way to do that. The pitch, that interaction is the same, pretty much with every single one of those.
You’re not accounting for any variants in between, which is absolutely fine. You don’t need to get every single person who would buy your product in the world to buy it. That would be ridiculously difficult with marketing. Whereas when you have one of those more expensive customers who is willing to pay five, 10, $20,000 a month, it is worth learning exactly what that one person wants. So you still do sales to do that because marketing will teach you what a lot of people want, but it won’t let you understand or it won’t help you learn why one specific person didn’t buy or what would make one specific person buy. And sales does do that. And you don’t need that granularity. Let’s say when you’ve got 200 customers, but for the first 10, it’s probably very useful because you’re not really at the stage yet where you can say, “what is my segment of hundreds of people that I do want to get on board.”
Alex Hillman: Yeah, that’s a great articulation. I agree with a hundred percent of what you said.
Louis Nicholls: Yeah. I know time is pretty short, so maybe we can run to the last one, which actually you chose:
“One of my most valuable business and life skills is separating my reactions – both positive and negative from my decisions. Most of this skill comes from lessons II learnt studying Buddhist teachings and my own meditation practices.”
Sounds awesome. What does it mean?
Alex Hillman: So another thing that I notice a lot in business in general, a lot of knee jerk reactions , people make quick decisions because I think this is a dominantly American business move, but it’s permeated business culture broadly is, speed is an advantage. And let’s be fair. It absolutely can be. But I think the obsession with speed turns speed into a habit. And when speed is a habit, then we often don’t spend enough time processing a piece of information before we make a decision.
Not all decisions require the same amount of processing, but I do think that every decision, including really small ones, deserves at least a pause and a bit of a check on the differential between, “how does this make me feel” and “what are the facts of this situation?” And I look at the world of a lot of our technical founders, Indie Hacker friends, people who are very critical thinkers, they’re so used to things being fairly binary, debug-able , there is a likely, most true answer, fairly deterministic, things like that. That doesn’t mean you operate without feelings. And we are human. That is a strength and a weakness is to have those feelings, but I think the less practice you have pulling apart of, how do I feel right now? Acknowledging it. And what are the facts of the situation that allow you to make better decisions in both directions?
When something good happens, allow yourself to feel good about it, but make sure that you’re not. Over-indexing it as, “well, that’s the way it’s always going to go”, but also under-indexing it, how easy is it to get a piece of good feedback back and forget it, five minutes later, compared to when we get that one tiny piece of negative feedback, we can’t get it out of our head for, how many sleepless nights in a row.
It’s the same size piece of information but we process it differently, our feelings process differently. When it comes to Buddhism, I’m not particularly religious, I grew up Jewish, but not so much into faith, but in terms of Buddhist teachings and secular Buddhism, there’s a book that I recommend in Tiny MBA that was the one that kind of helped me the most. I’ve struggled with mainstream meditation, whether that’s things like guided meditation or with apps or classes or even yoga. I’ve never felt like I was getting what I wanted to get out of it, which is inherent in that, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to meditation.
What I did do was find kind of my own thing. I don’t really know how to describe it other than rather than like sit down to meditate, the closest thing to that I’ll do is if I’m feeling off-kilter in either direction, kind of elated or anxious, just check-in with breath, count to 10, 10 in and 10 out. It’s incredible how quickly that kind of brings everything back to clarity.
But beyond that, I do this kind of, it’s a weird thing to say but it kind of reminds me of in the movie, The Matrix, like bullet time. If I catch myself in a moment of like heightened the emotion and kind of slow everything down, I don’t stop listening, but it’s this intense presence. A lot of my best meditation happens in conversation. It’s this kind of flow state and when I started treating that conversational flow state as meditation, intense focus and really, really paying attention to the other person. What they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, what they’re saying, our own emotions start to fall away because I’m spending time in theirs.
The other way that I’ve sort of framed this as is when you find yourself spending a lot of time in your own head, cycling through thoughts, excited, elated, nervous, anxious, fearful, whatever it might be. The habit I’ve cultivated is when I’m spending too much time in my own head, I go spend some time I’m in somebody else’s and that is a variation on a lot of more traditional teachings. I’ve never seen that specifically said, but it’s worked really well for me. It also, I think, allows you to build in habits that are around good marketing and sales. If you’re cycling in your own head, easiest way to stop doing that is go out and find where your people are online and go take really intent notes about what they’re talking about, what they’re thinking about, what words they use, what problems they have.
Don’t just read it. Don’t just skim Reddit or Twitter. That’s idle work. Do it actively. Sit down with a pen and paper, even if you can’t read your own handwriting, because I can’t read my own handwriting. That is as much of a meditative practice for me as breath work, yoga float tanks and all the newfangled, rich white people versions of meditation. I think it’s healthy. It keeps me calm and happy, but it’s also been really valuable in business. So that was why I wanted to include that in the book.
Louis Nicholls: Awesome! So, what I heard there was a ringing endorsement for mini goat yoga, and you’re going to get those neo sunglasses! It’s unfortunate that listeners couldn’t see you do the demonstration of the bending over backwards bullet time thing there, it was very impressive!
I love that. You know what? I think we’ll leave it there. This has been a long episode. I think people got a lot of value out of that and you know, we don’t want to give too much away. They should spend the 20 to 30 minutes and $10.
Alex Hillman: Yeah, there’s 97 more!
Louis Nicholls: They’re all as good, and none of the others include Matrix quotes that I can remember off the top of my head!
Where can people go and find that? Where can people preorder it? I know it comes out on August the 26th.
Alex Hillman: Physical and digital will ship on August 26th. Preorders are available right now at Tiny.MBA.
If folks preorder now, including up to a week before the ship date, August 26th, preorders will actually get the book about a week before everybody else. So, an incentive to buy now, do the preorder, we’ll ship out the digital or physical book. Also, if you’re an Amazon Kindle fan, the book is also available on the Amazon Kindle store.
Louis Nicholls: Awesome. Brilliant! And where can people go and find you and if they have any questions, kind of follow along with what you’re doing at 30x500 and Indy Hall and just all of the fun and sometimes useful stuff you post on Twitter. Where can they do that?
Alex Hillman: Well, I was going to say, I will start with Twitter, Alex Hillman on Twitter. That’s like my Cheers. That’s my bar. That’s where I hang out with my friends. So, if you do pick up the book and read it, find something useful, give me a shout there.
If you’re not on Twitter or prefer to not be on the public side of things. I totally understand. Email me, [email protected]
I would love to hear what resonates, how did the book land with you? If you decide to share with a friend, those kinds of things I’d love to hear.
The business that Amy and I run together that has published this book as well is Stacking the Bricks. StackingtheBricks.com. A whole archive of long form - I think we actually have many essays that are longer than this book, but there’s lots of really great stuff on there as well as our newsletter that comes out every week or two that you can sign up for on StackingtheBricks.com.
Louis Nicholls: Awesome! I will stick all of that stuff in the show notes and I recommend everyone goes and checks out the book and gets at least one copy. Worst case just leave it next to your kettle or next to your coffee maker and read one a day. You definitely won’t regret that decision.
Alex, thanks so much for coming on and spending the time. It’s been great to chat again, all the best of luck with the launch and we will chat very soon I imagine.
Alex Hillman: Sounds great, man! Thank you so much for having me.
Louis Nicholls: Thanks, bye! That’s all for this episode of the Sales Founders podcast.
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Thanks for listening!
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