Talking to People You Don't Know

I did kind of a long talk tonight at the London Hacker News Meetup. People seemed to find it helpful so I thought I’d put it up online as well. If you weren’t there you can just skip the italicised bits if you like. I’m not embedding the slides because it stands alone more easily as an essay.


I’m really honoured to be here today to speak to you guys. It’s actually kind of a special moment for me because 5 years ago there was a suggestion on News.YC from tpatke asking “if anyone has the leadership ability to organise a meetup - I would be very interested”. My co-founders and I got pretty excited about the idea of meeting other start-up minded people in London and made an event happen. We did a few more, enough to really seed the idea. But didn’t have the time to see it fulfil its potential so I’m so happy to see what Dmitri and many others have transformed a gathering of 50 people in our first office into! I heard that this event has had almost 1000 people show up in the past, that’s a long way from the 30 or so folks who came to the first one. It’s so cool to see how far London’s start-up scene has come since then.

So I was trying to figure out a good thing to talk about to you all today. Thinking back to everyone who stood in that room back in 2007 and wondering how much the audience has changed. My guess is that most people here are a bit like we were back then. Anxious to do something great and looking to learn how to do that from likeminded people. I thought back to some stuff I wish I knew back then and thought I’d talk about the non-technical side of start-up building, aka selling, aka talking to people you don’t know.

First just as a bit of background I guess I should tell a bit about myself. I grew up in South London and have always been happiest when I’ve been making things. I’ve done that in various guises - I made fighting robots in Japan once, studied Machine Learning at university and worked on a computer vision system to classify breast cancer biopsy scans and various other projects. For the past 5 years I’ve been building Songkick with my co-founders Pete and Michelle, and an amazing group of people, based in East London. We were part of the summer ‘07 YC batch along with Disqus and Dropbox, and the second team from the UK to do YC.

Our dream at Songkick is to make the world of live music as great as it can be. We believe that an amazing concert can change your life. That it’s the most intimate connection between and artist and a fan. We believe that live music should be for everyone. But the industry surrounding live music, whether ticketing or other has drifted to a place where it is failing fans and artists. And as a result the experience of seeing music live has drifted to a place where it is niche. We believe we can fix that by using technology to rebuild the connection between artists and fans.

We’re now the second largest concert service in the world, after Ticketmaster, with over 7 million people using Songkick on the web, iOS and Android every month. We’re partnered globally with brands like Foursquare, YouTube, Spotify, SoundCloud and many more. We’ve been fortunate to partner with some great company builders in YC, Index and most recently, Sequoia.

Many of you will hopefully be users of Songkick, but you may not be aware of a new product we’ve been working on called Detour. It’s kind of the natural extension of Songkick, and I’m incredibly excited about it, because it has the potential to dramatically improve the live music experience for artists and fans. Essentially it’s predicated on the belief that when a true fan really wants to see a band live, they’ll do more than just leave a comment on that artists facebook page. They’ll step up and pledge to buy a ticket. And if enough fans self-organise to pledge to bring a band to say London, that de-risks the system for everyone involved and makes more and better concerts happen. We’ve done Detours now, on top of Songkick for artists like Hot Chip, Andrew Bird and Tycho, and it feels like we could be onto something really special. Most importantly the Detour experience it feels authentic to the experience of seeing your favourite artist live.

So over the time we’ve been building Songkick, as co-founders do, I’ve played a variety of roles. I wrote part of the first version of Songkick, and as soon as we found people who were far better at creating web apps, I stepped back from that and put my copy of Agile Web Development with Rails back on the shelf and tried to figure the next most valuable thing I could do. I ended up spending some time on product, then we realised that my co-founder Michelle was vastly better at that than me, so I looked around for the next place to help out. I ended up spending a lot of energy on the hacker side of marketing, which as I’m sure everyone in this room knows has been rebranded as ‘growth hacking’ in the last few years, but for a while I was all up in them traffic acquisition forums figuring out how to get fans to discover Songkick with our zero dollars marketing budget. We found an amazing guy, much more talented that me to take that on after a while and I then spent a while working on distribution partnerships and business development. And at various points in our life I’ve spent a ton of time on hiring, and some on investors and press. I didn’t really know how any of that stuff worked when we started out, and today I want to try to share some of the key things I’ve learned so that if any of you end up stepping into those roles, you have a few helpful abstractions to keep you on course.

Firstly I want to start with something that another YC founder said in a recent article that just felt so succinct:

“If you don’t like shoveling, then don’t work at a startup.  
If you like “managing stuff,” then don’t work at a startup.
You build or you sell.  There’s nothing else to do.” - Christopher Steiner

I think that’s such a great distillation of start-up roles. You build or you sell. I’d modify that to allow that selling is a form of building. Hiring is all about selling, getting people engaged and excited enough to see how your little start-up could make something they love, genuinely better. So selling is the route to building your team. So is it selling, or is it building? Bus Dev for consumer start-ups is about doing partnerships that define a distributed version of your service. So it’s that building, or is it selling? You go out there and you persuade a great VC to fund you and join your board. If that person becomes a core part of your team, someone who you call up when things get hard, who helps you navigate the real challenges of building a company is that building or selling. And to invert things one more time, when an engineer gets excited about a new product idea and they excitedly run around telling everyone in the company about that idea, is that building or selling.

I think my conclusion has been is that building a company is about making and selling. And you will not succeed by neglecting either. Today I want to talk about a specific version of selling:

Talking to people you don’t know.

Before we go much further I want to just be clear about what I mean by selling. I don’t mean that glengarry glenn ross dude with the leads, or that pushy guy trying to force you to buy something. Fuck that shit. I think that selling is about authentically sharing with someone what you believe in, carefully listening to to what they believe in, and finding the places where those are in alignment.

So selling can take on various guises, from sitting down with a key reporter who covers your industry and explaining why your company is relevant to their column. It can be persuading someone you’ll get 15 minutes with why they should invest in your company. Here are some of the areas it touches:

1. Hiring
2. BD/Sales
3. Fundraising
4. Press

And I think those are roughly in priority order. Let’s take an example of a couple of well known YC start-ups. I think if you talk to the founders of Dropbox or Airbnb, they’d probably agree that the most important ‘sales’ they have done have been to convince people who became incredible core team members to join the company. People like Joe Zadeh who joined Airbnb really early on and manages big parts of their product. Who architected one of the cleverest and most scalable schemes for recruiting hosts you could ever imagine (look up his sxsw talk on their system for managing professional photographers. It’ll blow your mind). In the case of Dropbox they focused on consumers for the early years, so there has been relatively little BD/Sales, but for Airbnb, the time they spent in person with home-owners, understanding the value they provided them was probably the next most valuable use of founder time out of the building talking to people they didn’t know. Then based on our experience working with Sequoia with whom we share investors, I’m sure that they have come to see their respective partners there as an extension of their core team, and value that ‘sale’ as one of the best things they did. Finally press is a funny one because of its multifarious impact on a start-up’s prospects. It kind of greases all the wheels, it’ll help with hiring, with partnerships, with fundraising and for some companies it can be a scalable means of customer acquisition.

So with that hierarchy laid out I thought I’d dive in and try and share some really specific advice on the top 2 variations of selling to people you don’t know: hiring and BD/sales. In general, this stuff about selling is kind of generalisable. Once you learn how to do it well and scalably in one area, you can transfer a lot of that over to the rest.


There are kind of 2 stages to hiring in my mind.
1. Making the best people in the world aware of your job opportunity
2. Persuading them to join you

The second bullet is kind of the beating heart of all the sales you’ll do as a founder or start-up team member. Explaining why what you are doing really matters and why they would have the time of their life doing it with you. You can’t fake that bit, it’s basically about uncovering the most open hearted and authentic motivations that drive you to do what you’re doing, and finding words to quickly and easily explain that to people who haven’t yet realised how important the work you’re doing is. For people who aren’t natural verbal communicators a good hack is to do a 5 why’s analysis of why you’re spending your time on this company. That’ll force you to try to articulate your intrinsic motivations. And hopefully those motivations are large hearted enough to get others inspired to join you.

1. Making the best people in the world aware of your job opportunity

The first part is really interesting and by far and away the hardest part of hiring. It’s what everyone underestimates and it’s a big part of the reason the recruitment industry is so utterly broken. Figuring out how to crack it is probably the most important thing you can do if you’re a seller at your start-up.

Now this is all with the caveat that you’re an exceptional team looking to hire exceptional people. Many start-ups don’t set the bar that high, and in which case hiring is pretty easy. You just hire the best person the recruiter sends you. We have an extremely high bar at Songkick. I think from what I’ve heard from our investors one of the highest in the European start-up scene. And for most of the start-ups I truly admire, companies like Dropbox, Airbnb, Kickstarter, Stripe and others, having a high bar is a defining characteristic. I would argue that with the pace of change in technology it’s the only way to build an enduring company in our industry.

Having a high bar should be an incredible asset as a founding team/start-up, but only if you can reach enough people with your message to keep pace with your growth. If you don’t reach enough people it can flip to being a potential cause of failure. I remember having board meetings in the early days of Songkick where we would have arguments about how quickly we were hiring. Looking back we were both right - we were right to set our bar where we do, and they were right to say we should have been hiring faster. The missing piece what that first and hardest step - making more people aware of your opportunity.

So how many more people? I think a good way to force the average start-up founder to think about this right is to say that for every exceptional person you hire, you will need to make 1000 people aware of the opportunity.

WHUUUUUUT. I imagine people are saying. So if I want to hire 10 people I have to reach 10,000? That’s crazy, I don’t have time to do that, and it sounds crazily inefficient.

I think that’s the reality. You want someone truly world class, who is a great culture fit with your team and who will get obsessed with the problem you’re solving? Then 1000 people is a good proxy for the job you have ahead of you. And if you’re listening to this being like “yo, but the first person that recruiter sent me was perfect, who is this crackpot”, you’re probably not setting the bar high enough or you got very lucky.

So how do you make 1000 people aware of your role? There are 4 main things that I’ve discovered that make a real difference:

1. build a community that doesn’t yet exist around an interest that people who you want to hire have
2. hire your users
3. produce unique content that people you want to hire want
4. get out there

1. build a community that doesn’t yet exist around an interest that people who you want to hire have

So for the first one, this is kind of simple. If you can spot an opportunity invest your time in helping people who share your interest connect with each other. That typically results in an opportunity to reach a large number of people you’d possibly hire at scale. Some examples:
- when we started the Hacker News meetup, we figured that it would help people interested in start-ups and technology in London meet each other. We thought that beyond our interest in sharing ideas and support with other start-ups it might lead to a hire or two for us and others. It did and one of our longest standing team members, Dan Lucraft who is a truly exceptional guy joined us via those meetups. He’s the guy with his hand up in this photo at our annual festival trip. Some other examples: 
- the news.yc job board is a great example. News.yc is an authentic community but has also been an inspired way to make the worlds best hackers aware of YC and apply, and from there help those start-ups to hire
- Stack Overflow’s entire business is predicated on this insight
- We recognised that the London technology start-up community was being dramatically outspent and out marketed by the big banks and companies like Google in reaching new computer science graduates so we created Silicon Milkroundabout as a community jobs event. That has lead to close to 1000 hires for the London start-up community as a whole and some key people joining our team in the process

So if it’s such a great way to hire, why don’t more start-ups do stuff like this? Bottom line - organising a meetup for 1000 people takes up a fucking lot of time! And it involves talking to a lot of people you don’t know, which many people who just want to get on with building a great product don’t enjoy. It seems excessive as an approach to hiring 10 people. But I’d argue that it could be one of the best things you spend your time on as a founder.

On the off-chance that you actually love the idea of doing that sort of thing, we’ve decided to spin out Silicon Milkroundabout as its own start-up, from Songkick and are looking for co-founders to build that company going forward. So if you’ve spent time thinking about how to fix recruitment let us know.

2. hire your users

This is one of the most epicly scalable ways to reach 1000 people who might be a great hire for your team. If you’re a growing early stage service you might be reaching tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who care about your market every day. Some of whom are developers, some of whom are designers, some of whom would love to work on partnerships for you. Put the time in to engage them in your jobs. From a jobs page that really articulates your company culture and gets people excited about open roles and a career with you, to creative ways to engage the people who engage with you.

I love this Easter Egg in SoundCloud’s source code “You like to look under the hood? Why not help us build the engine?

3. produce great content that people you want to hire want

This a really great technique for reaching people at scale. One of the hires I’ve struggled with the most at Songkick is a truly exceptional sales person. Someone I can entrust the biggest and most evangelical sales meetings too. Just like every other role I’ve hired myself out of, someone better than me at getting people excited about working with us.

I’m looking for someone who is kind of a needle in a haystack. Someone early in their career, who will be charmingly determined in service of Songkick’s goals who is personable, creative and brings a hacker spirit to sales, who is on course to start their own company at some point. So I started thinking back to what that person would be looking for as they planned their career. I figured they’d be reading a lot about start-ups and trying to figure out where they fitted in. I wrote a couple of pieces for my blog about what the hustle looks like at a start-up which got over 10,000 visitors between them. I’ve gotten hundreds of applications for that role from that and some of the best people I’m interviewing have come from that.

4. get out there

You can do all the super scalable stuff in the world, but for senior hires, often the only way you’ll know someone might be bored in a role, or a potential fit is if through your network. Unfortunately I don’t really know any scalable hacks there. You just have to put in the time. Help people out in London’s start-up community. Help other start-ups hire. Make intros. Stop to give the advice you’re asked for. Show your true colours as a founder or team member. And eventually people start helping you with some of the hardest hires you’ll make.


Whew. So that’s some of the stuff I wish I’d known about sales as it applies to hiring. Let’s move on to the equivalent for BD/selling to customers.

So if sales in general is about talking to people you don’t know. BD is basically about persuading people you don’t know to do things with you no-ones ever done before.

If that sounds like a challenge then it is. Hopefully once you’ve successfully done that a few times though, you move into what I think most people call ‘Sales’:

persuading people you don’t know to do things with you that someone else has done before.

I’m going to focus on BD, because I think it’s probably more helpful to discuss the bit you’ll do first, where the sale is harder. In some ways you could think of it like this:

BD: Product Discovery :: Sales:Product Execution

So BD is closer in spirit to the early stages of customer development and prototyping that many product designers will be familiar with. The difference is that rather than building something for an end user, you’re building something with another company for both of your end users.

So 8 lessons I’ve formulated about how to do distribution centric BD well. The rest is a reformulation of what I wrote here. So go there for the BD theorizin’

So hopefully all this has been a helpful guide through what I’ve learned about selling at a start-up, and the role that plays in building a company. I hope it’ll help you avoid some of my mistakes or at least know when you’re making that mistake earlier! I hope it’ll help you all hire better, and partner better and I hope this make a tiny difference to London fulfilling its potential as an amazing place to build technology companies.