Ardent 2: Get Out of My Building

Some of the most important business lessons are learned in the most unlikely ways. At Ardent I learned many of them with a sharp smack on the side of the head from a brilliant but abusive boss. Not a process I recommend, but one in which the lessons stuck for a lifetime. (Read the previous Ardent post for context.)

Lessons to Learn
By the time I joined Ardent I thought I was an experienced marketer, but I’ll never forget my first real lesson in what it meant to understand customers and product/market fit.

We were sitting in our conference room in our first “system-planning meeting”  trying to define the specifications of our new supercomputer and make the trade-offs between what was possible to build, and what customers in this new market would actually want and need. The conversation that day would become one of my professional watermarks.

Marketing is Heard From
Engineering was discussing how sophisticated the graphics portion of our computer should be, debating cost and time-to-market tradeoffs of arcane details such as double-buffering, 24 versus 32-bits of color, alpha channels, etc. I was pleased with myself that not only did I understand the issues, but I also had an opinion about what we should build. All of a sudden I decided that I hadn’t heard the sound of my own voice in a while  so I piped up:  “I think our customers will want 24-bits of double-buffered graphics.”

Silence descended across the conference table. The CEO turned to me and asked “What did you say?” Thinking he was impressed with my mastery of the subject as well as my brilliant observation, I repeated myself and embellished my initial observation with all the additional reasons why I thought our customers would want this feature. I was about to get an education that would last a lifetime.

Picture the scene: the entire company (all 15 of us) are present. For this startup we had assembled some of the best and brightest hardware and software engineers in the computer industry. My boss, the CEO, had just come from a string of successes at Convergent Technologies, Intel and Digital Equipment, names that at that time carried a lot of weight. Some of us had worked together in previous companies; some of us had just started working together for the first time.  I thought I was bright, aggressive and could do no wrong as a marketer. I loved my job and I was convinced I was god’s gift to marketing. Now in a voice so quiet it could be barely heard across the conference table our CEO turns to me and says, “That’s what I thought you said. I just wanted to make sure I heard it correctly.”  It was the last sentence I heard before my career trajectory as a marketer was permanently changed.

Get Out of My Company
At the top of his lungs he screamed, “You don’t know a damn thing about what these customers need!  You’ve never talked to anyone in this market, you don’t know who they are, you don’t know what they need, and you have no right to speak in any of these planning meetings.”  I was mortified with the dressing down in front of my friends as well as new employees I barely knew. Later my friends told me my face went pale. He continued yelling, “We have a technical team assembled in this room that has more knowledge of scientific customers and scientific computers than any other startup has ever had. They’ve been talking to these customers since before you were born, and they have a right to have an opinion. You are a disgrace to the marketing profession and have made a fool of yourself and will continue to do so every time you open your mouth. Get out of this conference room, get out of this building and get out of my company; you are wasting all of our time.”

I was stunned by the verbal onslaught. At that moment I felt so small I could have walked out of a room underneath the crack in a closed door.

Facts Not Opinions
The shock quickly wore off as I processed the gist of what he told me. He was right.  I personally didn’t have any facts, and if we were counting opinions, there were a bunch more educated opinions in that room than I had. All I had been doing was filling the air with marketing noises.

I was convinced that I had just been humiliatingly fired – 90 days into our new company.

Get Out of the Building
As I got up to leave the room, the CEO said, “I want you out of the building talking to customers; find out who they are, how they work, and what we need to do to sell them lots of these new computers.” Motioning to our VP of Sales, he ordered: “Go with him and get him in front of customers, and both of you don’t come back until you can tell us something we don’t know.”

And he was smiling.

My career as marketer had just begun.

Lessons learned:

  • Corporate culture is either set by fiat, by default, or by consensus. But regardless of how it gets set, it gets set early
  • An intelligent opinion is still a guess
  • The dumbest person with a fact trumps anyone with an opinion
  • There are no facts inside the building so get the heck outside

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48 Responses

  1. I too had a similar moment–though now I realize what I should have done after reading your post.

    After a long focus group, I’m sitting in the listening room with 10 people, including our client, and we are discussing what we heard. The client asked a question about what we should do. I replied, “I think that we should do so and so.”

    The client replies, “I don’t give a f*** what you think–you’re 24 years old.” My face went pale–everyone stopped talking. I suppose the lesson is never just blurt out an opinion but rather frame it as a fact.

    • Matt,
      The issue isn’t how you “frame it.”
      It’s whether you actually have facts that you are going to add to discussion.
      Or, what domain expertise do you have so someone should care about your opinion?
      If you don’t have facts or domain expertise to add, and your business card has the word(s) “marketing” or “business development,” realize you have brought no value to the table

      steve

    • The correct response is:

      Yes, I’m 24, but I learned manners by the time I was 9. I’m going to go get a coffee now, and you can have your meeting with those at our company you respect enough to not insult.

  2. OK, so who was the CEO? ;-) We know Ben W was the CTO.

    You’re making him look good, so he should’t mind.

  3. Fantastic!

    I think I would have died — my face went pale just reading that story. Good thing it had a happy ending, or you would have ruined my whole day!

  4. Excellent story!! I felt like I was right there sitting next to you when you were getting yelled at.

  5. Typical marketing person…the problem is that 99% of marketers have yet to learn your lesson.


  6. # An intelligent opinion is still a guess
    # The dumbest person with a fact trumps anyone with an opinion

    Hallelujah.

  7. What an asshole.

  8. Wow.

    Just wow.

    The CEO really treated you unprofessionally, regardless of whether or not your opinion was incorrect or unwanted. He should have pulled you aside later and told you what he wanted and what was wrong with your opinions rather than crucifying you in front of the entire group.

    I’m sure glad I’m not in the business world since that kind of shit doesn’t fly with me. I get treated with a level of respect or else *PSHT*–I’m out of there.

    • and THIS is exactly the problem we have with business today, political correctness is ruining American business.

      If you have something on your mind SAY IT, if the person receiving the message cannot parse it, too bad for them. Robust communication never hurt anyone who was strong enough to fight back and wise enough to know when to shut up and learn.

  9. Anyone squirming probably shouldn’t be in sales anyway, and a wise person would have realized it was good advice.

    A direct point is sometimes necessary to make an impact. Carly Simon was right. We are all vain characters.

    Furthermore, the CEO wasn’t praising himself, but the other people in the room.

  10. Steve, great story. Don’t think the CEO’s response was professional, or appropriate, but it definitely hammers in the importance of analytics within any organization and/or meeting.

  11. For those who thought the CEO was being abusive – keep in mind that he was dealing with someone who need to work with customers, and keep his cool in the face of that level of, shall we call it, “passion”, and more. Sale Guys, Account Reps, Project Manager – they all need to be able to deal with this without even blinking. No halfways-competent CEO would ever talk with an engineer this way unless they were getting ready to fire them.

    It reminds me of that infamous Glengarry Glen Ross sketch:

    “You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksucker? You can’t take this, how can you take the abuse you get on a sit? You don’t like it, leave. ”

    Love the story. The best lessons are those that come with a bit of stress – you never forget them.

    • Just because someone with direct customer contact might be on the end of verbal abuse from the odd customer (in which case I would say fire that customer– the sale is probably not worth it), that does not give anyone the right to humiliate an employee.

  12. if ever do / tell something..be sure to keep the facts ready…main moral of the story….or may be not…or do not poke your nose in other people’s affairs.

  13. [...] Steve Blank: Get Out of My Building [...]

  14. Great story Steve, but I hope people take the right lesson away. The proper lesson is that everyone–Marketing, Sales, Engineering, even the CEO–needs to earn the right to an opinion by talking with customers.

    I’ve been at many technical startups where the engineering team feels that they know the product best because they built it, and opines freely without ever talking with customers because, “That’s how I would want it.”

  15. Excellent story telling, Steve! I don’t think I can get the CEO point at that time like you. Would need to get my blood back to my head after, at least, a short walk outside :)
    To most people, it’s not easy to learn the lesson from bad situation like this. Love to hear more..

  16. Wow, I’m totally surprised by the number of people who are taking issue with the form of the CEO’s conduct.

    Smart, confident people need this level of butt-kicking to get them to listen and understand. This act made an impression — an indelible one, it seems — that a casual sit-down would not. Steve, I’d be interested in hearing if you personally believe at that age and know-it-all-ness you would have attacked “outside the building” with the same vigor had the CEO not provided a public dressing-down.

    For my sake, I only wish someone had done the same to me 15 years ago. I might have actually listened. Instead, I needed to suffer deeper wounds (ie, lost a boatload of time and money) figuring it out on my own.

    • David,

      If your question is, “would I have attacked the “outside the building” problem with the same vigor had the CEO not provided a public dressing-down”, the answer is no.
      (In fact, I could have used a refresher at Rocket Science.)

      If your question is, “were there other ways to communicate the same information and get the same result?” – the answer for me is no, given who I was at the time, this was probably the most effective way to get me to change my behavior.

      If your question is, “is this the most effective way to get everyone to change their behavior?” – the answer is also no. You live long enough and you find that not everyone is wired the same way. I think I was a corner case. There is enough literature to see that this method of teaching is not uncommon in history. However the U.S. now has laws that makes abuse as a teaching tool illegal in the workplace.

      steve

    • My original question sought the answer to the first version, and implicitly the second. Thanks for both.

      Your response and version #3 begs another question, namely: was everyone treated this way or just you?

      If the former, then I might agree with some your CEO’s detractors. If the latter, then I say “Well done!” for knowing his audience and managing to it effectively. (Hmm. Sounds like Pages 144-149 of 4SE…)

  17. Agreeing with the people who would have gotten up, walked out, and kept going.

    Be blunt with me, be straightforward with me, tell me what I need to hear as directly as required, but do NOT scream at me and do NOT flat-out insult me.

    You might think that works, but that sort of atmosphere is poisonous.

  18. I don’t disagree with earlier commenters who suggest that there is often a better way to get the point across that junior peoples’ views need to be backed up with evidence and explicit reasoning to be taken seriously in a meeting with senior people whose opinions can be taken on authority or trust.

    But I have seen and heard of many first-year lawyers being taught this lesson in a similar manner, and I can honestly say that none of them is scarred from the experience.

    Law firm partners often have anger management issues, but the thing about anger is that it is not always wrong to be angry — if somebody is angry at you because you did something wrong, then that anger is valid. The most relevant piece of information about this CEO for me is missing from the story — i.e., was he _always_ angry like this, or did he know how to turn it on and turn it off as appropriate?

  19. [...] 15, 2009 Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank blogged about being on the receiving end of a hostile outburst from his “abusive boss,” the [...]

  20. [...] 15, 2009 Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank blogged about being on the receiving end of a hostile outburst from his “abusive boss,” the [...]

  21. [...] of huge losses made by Nokia. Perhaps, I would advocate that Nokia get their marketing guys to get out of the building and find out what their customers really want, so that they can stem this huge financial blood [...]

  22. [...] out of the building is a lesson for Langley. Customer development isn’t just for [...]

  23. [...] understands and groks Customer Development.  That is to say, sees the tremendous value in “getting out of the building” and iterating on Customer Discovery, Customer Validation, Customer Creation and Company [...]

  24. [...] out of the building is a lesson for Langley. Customer development isn’t just for [...]

  25. [...] most important part of customer development? Getting out of the building. You must engage your customers directly and frequently. As Steve Blank says, “in a startup no [...]

  26. This obviously seems like a clever and indirect jab at your former boss. I’ve been yelled at before in front of many people and it isn’t pleasant.

    Decency and respect are the hallmarks of a good leader. A good leader inspires confidence, courage, and enthusiasm….being angry, yelling and excoriating subordinates definitely doesn’t accomplish this nor does it set the right example for subordinates to follow.

  27. [...] with a minimum feature set was a bad idea. (One of the principles of Customer Development is to get out of the building and understand the smallest feature-set customers will pay for in the first [...]

  28. [...] prevents you from establishing your hypotheses and verifying them with customers outside of the building via a good old fashion customer interview. “Do you have a lot of old junk you want to get rid [...]

  29. [...] I have already established relationships with a few potential users. This is a nice side effect of getting out of the building. Before I even wrote one line of code I talked to ten different people who I knew were in my target [...]

  30. [...] Blank‘s commandment of “Get Out of Building” is exactly what Katherine Webster from our team did. We had an application designed to [...]

  31. [...] Blank said it best “There are no facts inside the building so get the heck outside” (quote source): Marketing is Heard From Engineering was discussing how sophisticated the graphics portion of our [...]

  32. [...] two, Customer Discovery is the first step and most of the startups will never get past it. Just getting out of the building and questioning your assumption, if you can do that well — 90% is done of what you need to [...]

  33. [...] During this period, there was also a 10.5% increase in visitors saying the pricing was clear. We were also pleasantly surprised when some of our users reported that they really liked the “pop-up thingy”. It was an easy and effective way to reinforce our commitment to listen to them. For us, this was also a very effective way to augment our input from “getting out of the building”. [...]

  34. [...] However, holing up in an apartment is a really good way to avoid talking to customers and clients, which I’ve discovered is the #1 important thing.  So I’m revisiting this decision in light of getting out of the building. [...]

  35. [...] My gut reaction is to be even more driven to back up my vision with facts.  To always strive for a good balance of quantitative and qualitative data about my product. Make sure I make a habit of getting out of the building. [...]

  36. [...] If we want to know whether our Intentions are in alignment with the Actual Need, Steve Blank would say that we have to get out of our cubes and talk to potential users or customers. [...]

  37. [...] reads this blog regularly — most products are poorly designed because the product leadership failed to get out of the building and talk to customers.  Another way to state it is an overvaluing domain [...]

  38. [...] Crawford Published in: rants No comments yet The startup community operates in a world of “get out of the building.”  Of “write more specs“.  Of asking “should this project even be [...]

  39. [...] from the same blog post by Steve Blank. One of the principles of Customer Development is to get out of the building and understand the smallest feature-set customers will pay for in the first [...]

  40. [...] from the same blog post by Steve Blank. One of the principles of Customer Development is to get out of the building and understand the smallest feature-set customers will pay for in the first [...]

  41. Anger management takes some time to cure. the patient should really be willing to undergo treatment. ..

  42. [...] a Founder/CEO is leave the office and talk to potential customers. This is what Steve Blank calls Getting Out of the Building and it’s been a tremendously valuable practice for me and Treehouse. I was becoming [...]

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