I've had great opportunities to work in sales, starting before my professional career ever began.
My father co-founded The Great Frame Up and was primarily responsible for growing the franchise to over 150 stores across the US before selling it to Deck The Walls. This means that the backdrop of my childhood was listening to his calls and conversations with franchisees and prospective fanchisees for years - probably the source of my phone sales skills.
I also went door to door, breaking records for walkathons and fundraisers for baseball teams - early exposure to the ups and downs of cold calling.
Before long, I was exploring other business opportunities available to me:
I needed phone cards to support a long distance relationship, so I bought them in bulk at a discount and sold them to friends at Wabash College; I've always been entrepreneurial. I also signed on to a multi-level marketing company called "Excel." Their offering was phone service and I put my efforts into what I would come to know as an enterprise sales approach, gathering information about the school's phone service. I collected and analyzed bills and presented a proposal to the CTO that demonstrated a significant opportunity for savings, both for the college and for students who were being resold phone service on the college's network.
Straight out of school, I made a beeline for Boston, where I started as a National Accounts Manager for KLD Research & Analytics - selling SRI - socially responsible investment research to institutional money managers. THis was the beginning of my SaaS career. KLD had three main offerings:
- Socrates - a database tool to help portfolio managers and financial advisors screen investment portfolios
- Compliance - spreadsheet outputs from the Socrates database with all kinds of bells and whistles to build the data into managed accounts platforms and trading systems
- Consulting services - custom research offerings designed to meet needs of financial professionals and institutional investors
I supported the VP of Sales and took to my work like a duck to water. I still remember walking in to the corner office one blustery spring day in Boston. Mark's window was open and the wind blew through it, blowing some of his sticky notes off of his desk and into the trash. He looked up, exasperated. I said, Mark, we need to get you a better system. By the end of the day, all those sticky notes were in cells in spreadsheets. By the next month, I had made one of the best decisions of my sales career, choosing Salesforce over Goldmine.
I took the dregs, leads Mark wasn't having any luck with, and closed more than he did only a couple months in. From there, Mark took off to work for a direct competitor and I found myself managing the $3M book of business and growing it.
In 2005, some friends called me to see if I would be willing to help them start a new company and before I knew it I was driving across the country to start up Mana Threads - a holding company for several ventures we started, most interestingly Lightservers: a company committed to selling exclusively free and open-source softwares like Mambo, Word Press, MediaWiki, and Drupal. In addition to building our customer base, I built the back end of the system to funnel a portion of our revenues back to the open-source projects that made our business possible, helping to justify open-source software by directly answering the question, "How does anyone make any money with free software?" We also built a customized Linux distribution and evolved netupgrades, which one of the co-founders stills runs to this day, helping many of our original customers grow and customize their implementations of various softwares, taking them beyond their initial deployments and re-contributing elements of their customized software tools back to the open-source community.
While we were living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I came across ZERI: Zero Emissions Research & Initiatives. I took a course with Gunter Pauli in Durango, Colorado where I was introduced to nature as a model for business, Bioneers, and mycology. Inspired, I went to Washington stte to study mycology with Paul Stamets and started Mana Mushrooms, a business rooted in ZERI principles: taking by-products from industrial processes and growing edible mushrooms: oyster & shiitake. I found my way back to Chicago, where The Great Frame Up has a picture frame moulding manufacturing facility in the suburbs. One thing I learned from Paul Stamets and my mycology training was that certain species of mushrooms prefer certain species of wood. I knew I could get oak for my shiitake and softer woods like poplar for my king oyster mushrooms. I took these inputs and mixed them with spent grain from Goose Island, a regional brewery. I also used their CIP fluids to pasturize my substrate by fluctuating the pH. By taking materials conceived of as waste, I had no cost for my inputs and was able to grow mushrooms in a facility just down Broadway from the Green Mill! Empowered with knowledge from coursework, several mycology tomes including The Mushroom Cultivator, and independent research, I built out a clean room to do tissue culture; mycelium running, indeed: Fungi are an amazing kingdom of nature.
While I was building out a cultivation facility, I also worked for River Valley Kitchens, helping Eric Rose with several of his Chicago-area farmers' markets. At the time, Eric ran about 20 farmers' markets between Chicago and Milwaukee, selling his mushrooms and pasta sauces. I wanted to better understand the B2C market for retailing of mushrooms to have a more profitable channel than wholesale, my primary path to market. One downside of mushrooms is their perishability so I wanted to be able to move as much volume as I could produce without suffering spoilage losses. This was another driver for locating in Chicago, where Specialty Produce at the Chicago International Terminal Markets was willing to buy whatever I could produce whenever I could deliver it.
In succinct but technical terms, my Biological Efficiency (yield per input substrate weight) was not profitable. I learned a lot, but made a decision to pivot again, this time back into open source software: Grass Commons. They built the software that helps me put together this blog: WagN. For them, I sold product futures: a path to tools for companies to help customers better understand the implications of their purchases throughout the supply chain. Patagonia's Footprint Chronicles is the coolest tool I have seen that does something similar, since. We were a bit before our time. Now, companies cultivate customer communities and facilitate discussions about their brand. At the time, it was seen as threatening except by the more progressive companies like New Belgium and Patagonia who had plenty to be proud of and nothing to be ashamed of. They took a nonprofit path and are still doing great work, today on a grant from the German government, who have a more nuanced appreciation for open source tools.
From there, I took a job with AGT, selling Equity Indexed Annuities...