Entrepreneurial

Don’t celebrate until the cash is in the bank

November 30, 2010

– Mark Suster is a partner at Los Angeles-based venture capital firm GRP Partners. This article originally appeared on his blog “Both Sides of the Table”. –

Recently I wrote a blog post about how I hated losing, but I embrace it as a way to learn, improve and increase my win rates.

One of the things I learned from my “post-game analysis” is that you’re most vulnerable right after you’ve won the deal. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but my experience tells me it’s true. At the moment you pop the champagne cork and let down your guard is when you’re easiest to attack.

In my blog post I told the story about how when I was running my first company in the UK, I competed and won a major contract with the largest water company, Thames Water, that would have been worth millions of dollars.

I won, that is, until I lost.

An external consultant helping the Thames Water procurement team overturned the decision to use my company and got them to select a small software company. Funny thing – that consultant just happened to own the small software company that Thames Water selected. It’s been more than 5 years and I still think about that sales campaign and get pissed off at how much I took for granted.

Here was my biggest take away from the loss: I naively thought that when somebody told you that you had won the deal that it was so. I had been told I won by the lady in charge of procurement for the project so it seemed to have an air of inevitability to it.

And the reverse lesson is also true. Often when it has been announced that I have lost a deal I have just graciously accepted defeat. I fought really hard before the decision was reached but for some reason when the results were announced I have had the mindset of a soccer game where the final clock had gone off and it was time to be a good sport and give high-fives to the opposing team.

I have to admit to still having a weakness for calling it quits when I’m told the game is over.

I recently repeated this mistake with a company in which I wanted to invest. I’ve added it to my list of 2010 lessons learned as a VC and I’m a bit pissed off with myself for not fighting harder, especially because I was convinced I would make a better investor than the “brand name” they had selected who was thousands of miles away. My bad for wanting to be gracious – the “nice” guy. What would Leo the Lip think of me?

But back on the winning side of the equation, I think many people get lulled into the “you’ve won” sense of security until they get screwed on their first deal. If you can learn this lesson from me rather than by losing after you’ve won that would be a great outcome.

In every sales campaign of any substance (e.g. you’re really competing for something big) you will almost certainly have fierce competitors and you have to assume that there are people inside your customer’s organization that are against you even while others have selected you. There is rarely unanimity. It’s probably nothing personal. The people who favor your competitors may have been using the competitor’s product at a previous company, they may think that using your competitors product is better for their career or they may even be friends with a senior member of your competitor’s team. Or frankly, maybe they just believe that your competitor has a better product.

For simplicity, let’s call this person inside your new potential customer “the enemy.”

Many times the enemy just accepts their loss and gets behind the initiative that has been selected – yours. But some enemies live to fight another day. They are hell bent on getting their way. They believe that the fight is not lost. They may question the decision-making process. They may solicit the support of people more senior in the buying organization. Quite honestly they may even resort to feeding your competitor information about your proposal or your product to help them better fight you.

I know it sounds ugly, but it happens. And it’s not even that rare in my experience.

When it’s announced that you’ve won internally sometimes the enemies feel that they have nothing to lose if they try to torpedo the decision.

And if anybody has nothing to lose it’s your competitor. They’ve just been told they’re out. If it involved a lot of money or a lot of prestige don’t assume that they’ll just walk away. Especially if it’s their existing client and you’re unseating them. The fiercest competitors will work the refs. You see it happen in sports all the time; don’t assume it isn’t happening behind the scenes in business.

You’re goal is to get to the finish line as quickly as you can. So when you’ve been told that you’ve won a deal make sure that you keep your sales campaign up. In fact, ramp up your efforts. Go into overdrive to get the contract completed. Continue to meet with senior executives at the buying organization. Don’t take anything for granted. And make sure you spend as much time with your “enemies” at the buying organizations as you do with your friends there who selected you. You need to neutralize the enemies through both competence and charm. It’s much harder for them to fight you when they can’t dehumanize you.

When you first “win” the deal assume it’s the “2-minute warning” and the opposing team still has the ball. It’s when the desperate throws start coming, but it’s often when your defense is the most tired. Don’t let that be you. Play all 60 minutes and be prepared mentally for overtime.

As I always tell my wife: never celebrate until the ink is dry on the contract and the cash is in the bank.

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