Sidney Minassian is the CEO and Founder of Contexti, Australia’s premier big data analytics, strategy, technology, and services company.
With more than 20 years of experience, Sidney is an international advisor and speaker on strategy, innovation, startup, growth and digital.
This article is an edited excerpt of Sidney Minassian’s conversation with Team Alore.
Sidney Minassian’s story in his own words:
I was fresh out of high school and keen to land myself a job in the financial markets. I wanted to be a hot-shot trader, so as an 18-year-old university student, I found a day job with a Japanese investment bank. I discovered that I have a passion for people and enjoyed the bigger picture of people, process and technology and how they interact with each other.
That sort of changed the trajectory of my career and I ended up working on a lot of internal projects on technology, business process re-engineering etc. Shortly after, I joined KPMG into a consulting role where I discovered I have the “gift of the gab” – I would turn a 3-week project into a 3-month project, find new opportunities and go introduce a separate partner into new accounts etc.
Despite the hard work, I saw no monetary bump or promotions coming in. Eventually, impatience set in.
On the first product and idea:
Sidney Minassian: I was 23-years old and quit KPMG to start my own consulting company. I worked with a number of financial services companies in Australia and landed on the largest post-M&A integration in Australia at that time. Australia’s Commonwealth Bank bought Australia’s largest fund – the Colonial First state, and there was an 8-Billion-dollar M&A integration happening – People, process, technology, customers etc all had to be merged. I was part of that integration team in a consulting capacity with my own company. That’s when I had two Ahh-ha moments:
1. I don’t have a real business, I’m just self-employed, rather a glorified contractor and
2. We are so bad at data collection for decision making when it comes to large-scale enterprise projects and programs. It involved thousands of Microsoft project plans and a 30-person team to figure out data and merge documents so management could get an idea on what happened 2 weeks ago!!
I decided to do something about it and that was the first product idea. However, back then in the year 2000 Facebook, LinkedIn, collaboration technologies, modern web technologies, slack etc. weren’t there. I bought 50% of a small software dev company and turned it into a product company.
We brought forth an enterprise management and workflow solution product called Omniscope and were able to sell our services to the likes of Deloitte, Commonwealth bank etc.
We often feel we need to have a grand idea to do business but sometimes we just need a spark. For me, the spark was that I can be doing more for myself and I can have a better impact. It’s like how people say starting a startup is like jumping off an airplane or cliff and figuring if you want to wear the parachute from the start or wear it half way down. It comes down to the risk tolerance. So yes, it’s not the first idea that gets you going but it at least gets you into the game and mindset.
The first sale:
It’s all about people. My first product with Omniscope management software was because I had seen the professional pain bankers face and that’s where I had the relationships as well. It made sense to leverage this. People knew me and trusted me as a person and knew I understood the banking space as a problem space first.
I was figuring that the tight relationship I had with a certain senior person at Commonwealth Bank was likely to materialize in a sale and I was working towards it. I would keep in touch, give status updates on how things were going on.
This person once mentioned he was going to be a keynote speaker at a project management conference. I asked him if the conference that he was speaking at in 3 days, had vendors and if we could be involved with it in a small capacity as a sponsor. He asked ahead, and they did agree to have me put a desk at the conference for free. It turned out that I was the only vendor at the 300 people closed-door conference.
After numerous last hour activities, on the day of the conference, we had a desk, a laptop to do the demo and a handful of business cards and brochures. We were the only people to talk to during break. We had a demo and something visual to look at which engaged attendees.
Between all this, we had a state govt person come up to us and say “we’ve been looking for something like this and haven’t found something. How quickly can you guys implement this? We want to do a paid pilot with 100 people and scale to 500 in a few months.” So, they were the first customer – The Queensland Dept of Health Govt. became the first customer.
Here’s the lesson – “Beware of false positives”.
The Dept of Health sales become a false positive for us. Understanding how to qualify a sales deals is key. It’s not about having the money to make a purchase to spend with us but do you have the permission of making a decision of technology in the company. That’s a whole new ball game.
You may have the permission to spend on a budget, but do you have one to spend over. The reason that they were so keen for a project with us was that they had some leftover budget which they wanted to spend which if they hadn’t, would have been taken away from their next year’s budget. Secondly, they had already invested in an enterprise management software Primavera. So as soon as we moved beyond the pilot stage and had to get the IT department involved, all alarm bells rang off and the bigger deal fizzled out.
3 things I’d advise all early-stage founders:
1. Don’t bet your farm on false positives! Unless you’ve had at least 6-10 projects that look the same do not think you’ve figured out the product market fit.
2. Sell way earlier before building anything. I learned to sell products enterprise-grade software products that didn’t exist and collect the cash way before we built anything.
3. Startups need to be a narrow-niche-ninja. Really narrow down and be ace a narrow niche for the persona and audience the business wants to serve.
On scaling teams and hiring:
Sidney Minassian: Think of scaling ideally when you’ve got product-market fit and validation by paying customers. Also, hire when you can lead the sales function.
It’s just like how you wouldn’t bring in a software developer and leave them alone and say, “Hey, just go code”. What you’d say is, “This is our vision, this is the product, this is the solution design etc. Here’s the requirements document here is our development standards. Here’s how we do our stand-ups etc.
A good time to bring in a sales-person is when you’ve got something of that nature. Doesn’t have to be to that specificity something but a framework – a strategy, a mechanism to create incentives, how to manage and do exceptions and jump on things that need help.
I can tell you about four different ways to think about when and how to bring on a salesperson to compliment what you plan as a founder:
A. Outsource prospecting:
So, the way I scaled what I was doing was that we had an outbound sales company that was contracted to just find leads. My consultants would take these incoming leads and go meet them to do a “project management diagnostic”. Instead of selling them anything we said” How about we come to a diagnostic test to understand what your environment looks like? “
Then we’d tell them stuff like Oh you’re not doing exception reporting or tracking reports, Well, we’ll come back and do a demo of what our solution could do for you. In the meantime, here are some things to fix right. It’s important to add value in your sales process but always come back.
B. Bring in experienced people:
Later when we were profitable, I brought a Sales General Manager to Australia. We already had some processes in place, but he also leveraged the processes and improved them.
Bring on someone a little bit more senior, a little bit more experienced and the language that we were wanting to hear from him in the interview process was “I care about the sales process” because eventually, it is all about the process. It’s not about being charming or fast talking or an extrovert simply comes down through solving customer problems and having the process.
C. Don’t take mentors word as law:
I landed in the US with $7 million in VC money to launch an AI-based solution within an email. It was sort of a pivot or vision after the project management software idea that was running in Australia. It was going to take us a year to get ready the Vcs introduced me to the relevant networks. Against all advice, I negotiated a Retired Sales VP from HP out of retirement and he joined the business which was called “Liaise” as our sales VP.
This guy ran worldwide sales for HP. So my entry into the US market and my sales process literally became him picking up his mobile phone where he would call the CIOs of all Fortune companies that he was buddies with. He’d say, “yeah, I’ve just joined this crazy Sydney from Sydney, dude. He’s got an interesting IO based email product you’re taking it. Bye”
I had been getting advice all thorough on “first getting the product ready, not paying this much for a senior person, how I wouldn’t be able to manage them or didn’t know the US market etc.
However, I trusted my gut it paid massive dividends for us with a great sales.
D. Leverage your position:
This was about my big data business in Australia Contexti. Very early on I figured that part of our go to market was going to be leveraging partner technology. We partnered with Amazon Web Services, Cloudera. Instead of bringing on a solution salesperson, I brought on a channel marketing and salesperson. And the whole idea was that all these large US vendors spent heavily in marketing and sales. If I could have one person who could redirect those marketing efforts jointly with those partners into the Australian market under the Contexti brand someone else is doing the hard work for us. We would only need to coordinate these efforts.
On the business mindset to survive road bumps:
Sidney Minassian: From a mindset perspective, we have to adjust ourselves to just accept that things will happen. Nothing lasts. There are no silver bullets. We have to try various tactics and hacks but rely less on them. We have to absolutely double down on strategy and company values and foundations. They’re the things that are going to sustain you. The hacks will come and go, the values and foundations are the real base of the business and act as shock absorbers during the dips.
Don’t ask for permission in terms of when to sell. Sell early and be the selling all the time and don’t think of sales as convincing people to buy things that they might need. That’s not the philosophy that I preach. My definition of sales is – create value, capture value that’s your job as the founder.
We need to sort our strategy and then when we implement it, we need to review it and measure it.
Let’s measure early and measure very step of the way, whatever you can. Another thing I see as a coach is that I recognize we founders build the product and get so excited about the feature and we forget to check the pulse of our audience- who are using the product, how, when and why are they using the product etc.
Have transparent, honest and robust conversations with one another in the team, even when the business dips. If we have transparent conversations and we’re smart mature people we will get out of the dip but if we keep kidding ourselves and sticking to ego, that’s when you hit the death spiral.
On company culture:
Sidney Minassian: When you’ve got 20 Customers who are really paying and engaged there is a good chance of real validation as there is a lesser chance of false positives and one hit wonders and we all have those.
The mindset has to start from the founder – you can’t be the single point of failure in business. You need to think strategically and see how you will scale this thing up. When it comes to scaling a technical situation, you need to have a design decision for a product and technology for 100, 1000 or million people. By thinking differently, you will take completely unique design decision when it comes to your technology and product.
Firstly, we need to think about the process
Secondly, we need to see that we aren’t the single point of failure.
Third, how can we leverage external support and ecosystem e.g. are you ready or not to get third party support or an email marketing, campaign organization. e.g. outsourcing prospecting, marketing etc.
My latest tech venture Contexti where I took all the learning. I ensured I wasn’t responsible for everything and that the business didn’t depend on me for sales. I built a framework where sales came to us. Focus on how you can add value at every interaction and every touch point with a prospect and then with a customer when you plan to expand account e.g. Contexti has two business arms:
1. One is around providing solutions and managing services to open big data platforms
2. The other side is the sales training business
If I think about various personas, audience and different people, of course, I want them as customers but it’s my job to ensure that I’ve given them value along the way even when they have become customers.
If you’re going to strategically leverage what you’re doing and make an inbound sale, you’ve got to break down every door to get your name out there. If you keep updating the platform it will not get better results. However, if you understood your audience – who they are etc. then customers who’re business models are changing, survive the innovation. eg. Once we wrote an article on “six missing drivers of failed big data projects in Australia” Look at the specificity of the topic. Since I was working in Australia and after Australia’s customers who are doing big data projects it was relevant.
It’s beyond the tech and is not about the cheque – People, engagements, change management all these matters if you are implementing a bit of. By having that content out there really helped get attention because others found it reasonable to share on our behalf, it was an interesting article and we subtly embedded how channel seven – our customer did it right. So here are all the missing drivers of the project and here’s channel seven who did it right, this is what they got it right, so it wasn’t about us it was all about my target audience and it was about my customers, their win, and their decisions.
Now on the training example, we figured those two audiences again within training all the large companies and government departments that already invested in technology and spent millions on people in training. We noticed that the people turning into our courses were those who had taken time off work and were spending their own money to turn up for a 2-4-day certification course. They were doing it to improve their chances of success in their careers. I taught them to develop EQ in addition to Data sciences etc. This led to a creation of content to help these customers succeed.
On scaling sales:
Sidney Minassian: Figure out where you are at, are you funded or not funded, are you profitable or not profitable, what stage you’re at. The big challenge you’re going to have if someone is half decent “why they’re going to work for me”.
You’ve got to sell yourself first to your salesperson. This comes back to the brand of your business – the persona, values etc.
You have to be clear on the role this person’s going to play and know what you’re expecting from them to do and how you can measure what they are going to do.
If someone tells you that’s it’s all soft skills and not measurable, they are weak, they are not going to survive sales. Also, when a sales candidate says they have been successful, evaluate of they’ve been successful because of the logo that they previously had on their business card or personal traits.
e.g. If I’ve got Cisco or Oracle on my business card, you’re going to talk to me, but when you are a startup and nobody knows you, you have to be focused, you must be able to nail the deal.
The balance I found which worked well is the superstar styled people hardly ever are going to come to join your startup unless your business is funded. But if you built a relationship with these people who already are successful in their own rights, they might help in an advisory capacity and you can leverage what best they can bring for you. You can give them a little bit of equity and they can help in opening doors while continuing being friends.
Break down the function of the sales.
A) What you can outsource,
B) What you can assign a junior person and train them
Sometimes you might find that some of your best technical people who’ve got that zeal and love customer interaction if managed in a structured process driven way, turn into the best salespeople. It is because they’re less emotionally driven and more practical and honest in terms of what’s really validated, what’s really qualified, do you have a deal or not.
Advice to early-stage founders and small business owners:
Sidney Minassian: What I’d advice is the following:
First, Expect the unexpected and unknown. If everything is known, then there’s no risk and if there’s no risk it’s not entrepreneurship. So, get used to the fact that you going to wake up and there’s going to be surprises, challenges, and problems. You have to feel comfortable in those problems and that’s just part of the journey.
Second, recognize that nothing lasts. Because technology is moving quickly, competition is moving quickly, people and situations change and the well-intentioned conversation we had 18 months ago has changed. Sometimes even personal circumstances change e.g. planning a family or health issues.
The point is it’s not just all about the product and sales. There are always external factors that will bring pressure on to you and your business. Have a strong base – personal values, what do I stand for, what do I care about, communicating well with your business. So that my inside and outside is harmony.
Third, if there are any challenges in the business whether it’s between the co-founders or customers or a business partner- you have to fight early. If you have to fight early, you might end up with a bloody nose but not a brain hemorrhage.
Fourth, set the expectations right from start and then act in a proper way. If there are difficulties in the business it shouldn’t come across as a surprise because you’ve communicated & set expectations with them like “Look we have this amazing opportunity, these great values, got the culture but things could go wrong. Things could change, and we will do everything possible under the sun to keep it up.
Fifth, have multiple touch points with your customers. Don’t just send them the invoice but engage with them.
Sixth, don’t become the single point of failure.
On how to handle comparison with the competition:
Sidney Minassian: Sometimes people approach after they’ve already made a column A which is the preferred window and they try to fill at column B and Column C for two reasons:
a) To put pressure on the person who is sitting at column A and
b) To create the illusion as if we went through a very fair & data-driven decision process while emotionally & psychologically what is already decided in column A.
If you feel that’s the case, have the courage to walk away from the deal early. Don’t waste your time, don’t even put proposals, pictures and things like that. Secondly, figure out in terms of how you positioned yourself from the start. Why were they talking to you?
Also, provide value to the relationship at every step. Give prospects with no expectation knowing that when the time comes you’ve set such a high bar of value giving that’s going to be hard for competitors to just compare the price.
e.g. at Contexti, we created a Big data maturity framework and a self-assessment framework freely available on our website. We were seen as a premium organization providing premium value while talking about business model disruption, value creation, culture etc. while smaller competitors were talking of price etc.
We launched Big data center of excellence and had companies like Cisco and Telstra to sponsor us. We had a meetup every Friday hosted at the Contexti Big data center of excellence and every time we lifted the value of where contexti is positioned. A mere tech provider wouldn’t be able to match up to the network, the value, and positioning. On the other hand, the customer almost felt he was missing out and we got deals easier.
On referral /affiliate programs:
Sidney Minassian: It depends on what the nature of your product & what is the value of the product & do you have to be involved in the sales process. It also has something to do with if you have figured out the right referral partner.
e.g. a sales native customer has built a great solution for schools – an anti-bullying solution. He was thinking his target is the IT person at school. While going through the process, we figured that the real beneficiaries are the kids and kids will listen to parents and the parents will tell the principal and they might be checking with the psychologist. Figuring out who your referrer really is essential.
If your referral is just some code dependant then it’s easy but if not and if you have to educate, train and manage them then just be very strategic. be clear of who you’re serving and what your offering. Often what you’re offering as a solution isn’t what they want.
On sales enablement:
Sidney Minassian: About sales enablement, one must have a sales-marketing strategy, a sale strategy. Having the mindset & skills to be able to sell, having some type of measurement, CRM in place.
You need to start Day Zero is when even when you don’t have a product. You should be selling ahead. Your sales activity should be community building and adding value to the target persona of your business. Even when the product is at the idea stage, build a community and engage.
Your job as a founder is to pitch to everybody and sell to a select few – to your qualified target audience when they’re ready. Get going today.
A book you recommend every founder to read
Sidney Minassian: The book I recommend everybody to read is “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz, founding partner of VC fund Anderson Horowitz. There are a lot of good lessons for start-ups and it’s a world plan.
The 590 Course from SalesNative which Sidney Minassian teaches:
Sidney Minassian: At SalesNative we help first-time tech founders create and capture value by understanding and getting the right sales mindset. How we’re delivering value is by reaching out to the Non-Silicon Valley audience to help them understand sales enablement, knowledge and capability to them. The first course created is the 590-sales boot camp.
The 590 sales course is the strategy where we target 5 deals in next 90 days and talk about our learning of how we made Contexti a multi-million-dollar business. We help you frame your strategy and narrow it for you to achieve 5 deals in 90 days. It’s an online course in 3-minute videos and you can do it at your own pace. It has outcome-based examples, tactics, modules, templates etc. It’s 20 years and millions of dollars opportunity cost condensed into a learning framework.
This was Episode 1 of the 20 Episode series themed on “How to get your first 100 paying customers” You can watch the unabridged recording of the webinar here – Sidney Minassian
You can also check out Episode 2 featuring Scott Sambucci, CEO and Founder SalesQualia