The Sharp End of the Stick

The Sharp End of the Stick
At some point in my career as I began to formulate thoughts about mission and intentI started to think about the broader role of marketing in a growing technology company. It became clear to me that the mission of marketing in most companies has to be to support sales.  While this may seem obvious to anyone not in sales and marketing, trust me, in a technology company this is a conceptual breakthrough. In my experience, every marketer with an MBA wants to “do strategy.” Every marketing communication hire couldn’t wait to produce the next great ad or PR program.  Every product marketer thought they should help define the product feature set, etc.  But without sales there is no revenue, and without revenue there is no company.  All the strategic thinking in the world won’t make up for a missed revenue plan.  74HGZA3MZ6SV

Sales was the Sharp End of the Stick, and Marketing was the Stick
The epiphany for me was that in any company where I was running the marketing department, marketing’s number one job (its mission) would be to support sales – and to make the (commission-driven) sales VP the highest-paid person in the company. We were going to do that by turning marketing into a machine to generate end user demand, drive the that demand into our sales channels, and educate our sales channels.  And the same time we were also going to do all the other strategic stuff about pricing, positioning, promotion and customer discovery and validation to help engineering understand customer needs.  But sales came first.

(By the way, companies that have a single individual as the VP of Sales and Marketing have decided that marketing doesn’t add any other value then tactical sales support, and the only way to get is to put it under the VP of Sales.  That’s why you almost never see a marketer as the VP of Sales and Marketing.)

My way of explaining our support and service role to the marketing department was that:

  1. Sales is the sharp end of the stick, and marketing at best, is the stick.
  2. But while the sales team works for commission, the rest of the employees have equity (stock) in the company.
  3. If sales revenue and profits are high enough, we could take the company public or sell it, and the stock would be worth more than the paper it was printed on.
  4. In exchange for being the “point” organization, performance of a salesperson is measured continuously and individuals who fail to deliver quota are removed.
  5. If sales as an organization failed to deliver revenue to plan then all we had were worthless shares.
  6. In reality the sales team was working for the rest of the company to make all of our stock valuable.

No one was confused after that.

Who’s on the Sharp End
In an early stage startup, instead of sales being up front, the point departments are likely to be product development and customer development. Later on in this same company’s life, sales will become the pointy end and product development moves to a supporting role.  In other companies it may be that manufacturing or finance is the sharp end of the stick.  In an IP licensing business, legal and finance are the sharp end of the stick. It varies by company and changes over time.  There’s no magic formula but there are always “leading” departments.  And all “leading” departments have some type of “consequence-based” feedback loops that make success or failure obvious.

The clearest example is the U.S. military.  Combat troops are the “tip of the spear” while everyone else is the logistical tail.  No one in the support chain of the troops is confused or resentful as they all understand that the greatest risk is up at the front.

Killing The Company With Equality
I’ve been on boards where the CEOs took the egalitarian position that “all our departments are equal, no one is more important than any other.”  The unfortunate corollary is that in these companies no department believed it was in a supporting or service role.

In these companies, departments that should have been providing support and service instead behaved like they were the “sharp end” organizations. I’ve encountered finance organizations with budget processes designed to simplify their lives, but not the rest of the company’s. Or expense reporting requirements that took hours of a sales teams time to fill out every week.  Sometimes it was the legal department crafting contracts so onerous I wouldn’t even sign it, let alone expect a customer to do so. At times it was human resources with policies that made people leave rather than stay, or it was a CIO more interested in standards than deployment.

None of these departments operated with any particular sense of malice – just with the certainty that the company revolved around them. But they were misguided because they lacked a clear departmental mission statement that reminded them of the corporate goals. If each department had a mission statement, it would have been clear whether their role was in support or at the sharp end. Having each department develop a mission statement depends on leadership and direction from the CEO.

“Going Out of Business” Strategy
I’m now convinced “all our departments are equal” is a “going out of business” strategy. Not understanding who are the “lead departments” makes companies feel like ponderous, bureaucratic and frustrating places to work.  The best people in the “sharp end” organizations simply vote with their feet and leave.

I loved to compete against these companies.  Their own internal culture would tie them up in knots, and agile startups could run rings around them.

Don’t let this happen to your company.  Embrace and then communicate the idea of a lead department(s).  Build a company culture where everyone supports the “sharp end of the stick.”  

Stay agile, stay focused. 

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17 Responses

  1. […] This post was Twitted by sharemefg – […]

  2. Isn’t google a perfect example of a “going out of business” strategy? Sales and Marketing is the “lipstick on a pig” strategy. Build the best product at the best price and your options are limitless.
    btw: “stay agile, stay focused.” -lmao

  3. It occurred to me while reading this that another way to look at it is the following: Marketing has an additional ‘customer’, and that’s Sales. Any support department should be able to describe a day in the life of its lead department the same way a customer development team should intimately know a day in the life of the end user.

    If a company behaves this way you avoid optimizing a single component at the cost of the entire system.

  4. This is so true, i’ve seen it time and again. The downward death spiral starts when departments begin to stovepipe and they’re there for their own self preservation and not the mission of the company.

    Steve, I’ve never seen this written so clearly and succinctly.


  5. Naive question: How do you handle the situation when Sales is happier selling an existing product that has a smaller but already established market than a new product with a non-existent but potentially much larger market?

    Your thoughts are much appreciated.

    • “How do you handle the situation when Sales is happier selling an existing product that has a smaller but already established market than a new product with a non-existent but potentially much larger market?”

      And that is exactly what Business Development department is paid for.

      Which brings us to BDSM (BusDevSalesMktg) formula.

    • Martin –

      Sales teams, like customers operate from perceived value. To get a sales team to adopt a new product with a non-existing market you have to sell them.

      The sales team will need to see how they can create this “non-existent but potentially much larger market” without a decline in sales, ie: compensation. When you are asking them to change, you are asking them to take risk. You need to mitigate the risk. They will need to understand how it will improve their customers environments. They will need to understand the process; is it a shorter or longer sales process, does the buyer(s) change, who is the competition, how do I position it etc.

      When rolling out a new product to a sales team, you are a now the sales person. Identify a few of the more influential, successful members of the sales team. Educate them. Arm them with as much information and support as possible. Make it so they can’t fail. If you can make a few of the most influential sales teams folks successful, the rest will follow.

  6. […] The Sharp End of the Stick « Steve Blank (tags: marketing business) […]

  7. Steve, spot on!!!! Well said. I’ve learned when and a functional group recognizes they are in a support role their goals align with the lead group. They recognize the win comes from the sharp end. Support functions should always have at least one of their key goals align with the lead team.

    You can quickly identify organizations who understand this, just look at each teams mission, vision and goals.

    Fantastic post!

  8. This reminds me that free, fair and equal is logically not possible. Equality would imply a compromise on being free and fair and hence wouldn’t work.

  9. Thanks YA and heykeenan. It’s funny how familar those answers look. At the end of the day, those are the problems that everybody needs to be solving. I like the general notion that the different departments may have a leading role at different times during the life of a company. But sales is certainly the point.

  10. Spot on. If no one is clearly leading, then no one is following, either. What you get then looks a lot like The Boneless Chicken Ranch…

  11. Steve, do you think “the sharp end of the stick” could also be called the “heart of the company”? To identify the sharp end it helps for me to think about which department would kill the company if it stopped beating.

  12. One of the more useful features of Steve’s point about sales being the sharp end of the stick comes about from considering why it’s true or when it would not apply. The sharp end of the stick is probably always sales in a financed company, which has (or should have) as its goal the maximization of the residual profits for its owners. But many organizations have other goals, and as somebody pointed out above, the sharp-end of the stick may even change over time. Very useful way to think about “Management By Objectives.”

  13. […] Marketing Supports Sales » Steve Blank It became clear to me that the mission of marketing in most companies has to be to support sales. … “Sales is the sharp end of the stick, and marketing at best, is the stick.” » Steve Blank The Sharp End of the Stick […]

  14. […] The Sharp End of the Stick « Steve Blank […]

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