It’s come up a few times in recent weeks. Here’s the scenario: I am meeting with Bob, the CEO of a start-up who’s just returned from a two-week sales tour — three Fortune 100 companies, three mid-tier suppliers, two government agencies, another early-stage technology company, and a university research center.
“How did it go, Bob?
“Great, every meeting was a home run. They liked the product. They liked the technology. They really liked the company.”
“How many orders did you sign?”
“None, yet. But they all asked me to come back. Except for the university guys, and they wanted copies of my presentation. Lots of excitement about this stuff!”
If you’re in the innovation business, the last thing you want to hear — even if you make the improbable assumption that everyone was telling the truth — after a meeting that doesn’t close a sale is “Great meeting, Bob!” It’s a sure sign of impending catastrophe as worlds collide. I’ve talked in other posts about conflicting agendas and how the need for technical recognition can shape an innovator’s view of what is actually taking place. The great meeting phenomenon goes beyond that.
I was in the lobby of Netscape Communications a few days after its 1995 IPO, waiting for a former colleague who had promised to set up a series of technology exchange meetings between Bellcore and Netscape. Bellcore had just filed patent applications for two server technologies that we knew would be important to Netscape, and we were hoping to license them. One was for buying and placing ads on web pages, and the other was for video streaming. I had been in meetings like this before, and it was good to know that there would be a couple of familiar faces on the other side of the table. So I sat there watching visitors file in and out. There were a couple of guys dressed in three-piece suits, clearly bankers. There was a Hollywood type with massive gold chains around his neck — he and his two handlers had just rolled out of a black Town Car. There were two kids in the corner — complete with sandals and dirty tee shirts — who looked like they had just crawled out of a basement. Lots of khaki’s and blazers and Madras shirts with pocket protectors. I remember trying to guess who they were there to see and what they wanted from Netscape. Except for the guys in the suits, who were quickly escorted past security, we were all ushered in turn to small conference rooms off the lobby. I realized in a moment of panic that I had no idea what Netscape wanted.
The meeting was awful. The Netscape executive I really wanted to see was off doing other things (something about buying an Irish castle). My contact was selling, not buying. After about fifteen minutes of nervous chit-chat we agreed to keep in touch. But not before I asked about the strange collection of visitors in the lobby. “I’ve been in lots of technology companies,” I said, “and I’ve never seen anything like it. I see why the financial people are here, but what do you think is going on with the others?” What he said stunned me, and as soon as I left the building I wrote it down. “We don’t know,” he said. ” The guys in suits are from a Russian software company, and we get a lot people who just want to stop in. It’s chaos.”
I’ll tell you in a later post what happened to our technologies, but Netscape did not figure prominently into Bellcore’s future. They were not excited. They told me almost nothing about their business. They did not want to know about ours. It was not a great meeting. It was the best thing that could have happened to us. I want to use Bob’s great meetings to explain why.
The University Meeting
Let’s first dispense with the university meeting. Universities are in the great meetings business. Professors give great talks. They are great listeners. All it takes for a great university meeting is a great story told well. There are some possible positive outcomes. For example, Bob could have heard about a new invention that would help the business, but that would have involved the university selling to Bob.
The Government Meeting
Government agencies do in fact buy from small companies, so it’s not hard to imagine a meeting with a good outcome. It depends on who is in the room. A meeting of technologists is all about learning what Bob knows, and they are inclined to lavish praise on anything they can use to sell ideas and programs internally. That’s literally what they have to spend. The outcome of almost every other meeting with a government customer is irrelevant to closing orders. Bob may hear about proposal opportunities or new programs that the company is qualified for, but government employees never show up pen in hand ready to write a check.
The Meeting with Another Early Stage Company
If a meeting concludes without an order being signed, it’s because they are the C-O-M-P-E-T-I-T-I-O-N. They are thrilled to hear what you’re doing.
The Meeting with a Bigger Company
Big company meetings are the most dangerous. Almost everyone is interested in what Bob knows. Engineers run internal projects and Bob is the ideal guy to help educate them. Marketing casts a wide net looking for trends and intelligence. Who better to help them out than the head of a company that has just acquired investors and is thinking day and night about what new customers want? General management doesn’t have time to spend on a meeting (Irish castles, remember?) and mid-level managers, who are not inclined to spend money, know that, if you keep coming back, they are buying time in a possibly interesting market. Bob could have snagged a meeting with someone who manages vendors, and it might have led to a sale, but it would not have been great.
What I said to Bob was “Great meetings lead nowhere.” Every one of Bob’s meetings was designed to transfer value away from his company. Everyone he met with was so thrilled with this that they told him how much they liked him. He educated companies with greater resources and provided fodder for PowerPoint™ presentations by technology managers. All for the price of a sandwich and a bag of chips. And they were willing to do it again.
My Netscape meeting was awful, but I learned that
- We were a small slice of a value chain that we didn’t understand;
- Innovation bubbled all around Netscape, and they did not need to get on a plane to New Jersey to get access to it;
- The market looked as chaotic to Netscape as it did to me.
A great meeting with Netscape would have felt good. They could have said how important we were to their success or how much the Bellcore patent portfolio meant to them. I could have come away feeling that the 1995 golden child had the market all figured out. I could have been enticed to go back for a second or a third meeting. None of those things happened. Instead, Bellcore started its own e-commerce company and for a brief while was a smaller, dimmer but still exciting star. The star eventually fizzled, but that is a different colliding worlds story.
I was once on the board of a start-up with new technology for analyzing transactions to determine probable future customer behavior. It was in the earliest days of CRM and almost no enterprise-ready products had hit the market. Every financial services company had internal projects in this area and wanted to have a meeting to hear what was up. I made introductions within my own company, although I told the CEO to not waste his time, because we were engaged in ten simultaneous discussions with large software companies. Every six weeks the board heard about a string of successful meetings — great meetings. A lot of them were great, but not one led to a dollar of revenue. The company was eventually sold at a huge discount to a much larger company where there had been a great meeting years before. How much better off everyone would have been if, instead of a great meeting, there had been a little blood on the boardroom floor.