Hustling as my superhuman power: A chat with founder Steli Efti

By May 5, 2014No Comments

Why did you become an entrepreneur?

It was a mix of personality and talents and mostly lack of options. Growing up I didn’t know what entrepreneurship meant, I didn’t know how business worked. For the longest time I didn’t know it was an option to pursue. I hated school and I couldn’t see myself having an academic career. For the longest time I didn’t like any of the options presented to me.

Early on when you came to the Valley, there was one particular deal: You worked nine months on closing Oracle and just before the signing the senior VP left the company…

… and he took everybody with him.

Was that the most painful experience you’ve had in sales?

Definitely the most painful one selling to an enterprise.

What did you learn from this experience – selling to a large company, trying to close a big deal.

Realizing what it takes to successfully sell to large organizations – realizing that it will take a long time and it will take a lot of deals in the pipeline and most of them will not pan out. [aside]It might be a million-dollar deal but it will cost you half a million in time and resources to get there.[/aside]Realizing that you have to have the ability to finance them.
The first couple of meetings were all positive so we thought we were going to win. We didn’t know that it would take that long; we didn’t know how many deals we’d have to have in the pipeline. It might be a million-dollar deal but it will cost you half a million in time and resources to get there.

With so many big deals falling through, how did you learn to deal with the pain of rejection?

Using sales and hustling as my superhuman power to make shit happen I realized fairly early that I have to find a way to deal with rejection. Embrace rejection as a school board for you to go outside of your comfort zone. If you want to do sales there is no way to be successful and try to avoid rejection at the same time. Even if you are successful you’re going to hear more No’s than Yes’ – just like Michael Jordan missed more times than he actually scored. Find a way to find peace with rejection. Or even embrace rejection as a school board for you to go outside of your comfort zone.

What is your approach?

There’re a lot of hacks that I did. For instance when I call 100 potential customers to pitch them, on average I get about 10 of them to agree to want to hear more and out of those maybe five actually buy my product. Instead of every day focusing on the success metric and saying ‘Oh I want to sell five people today’, what I would do is focus on the failure metric: I need to hear 90 No’s today. Because if I hear 90 people telling me ‘No’, I will get to my five deals. So I started every day off with 90 little checkboxes and every time someone said No I thanked them and I checked off one box.

What is your greatest sales war story?

One of the greatest stories was when we launched We knew from the get-go that we weren’t ready to sell this to the enterprise – we were not interested in that kind of deal in the beginning – but a fairly large company reached out to us and wanted to buy the product. I didn’t want to stop the deal right away, but I was skeptical. After the second call they started making all these requests: “Since we are giving you so much revenue, we need these two features that are absolutely must-have. This is a joke-product if you don’t have these two things.” The normal tendency would be something like, “Holy shit they are this huge company and they are right: our product sucks without this.” But we just told them, “Well, we get that, but if you are not ready to buy without these features then you are not ready for the product and the product isn’t ready for you. Let’s revisit in the future. Thanks, Bye.”

But that wasn’t the end.

They continued trialing the product, they continued emailing us questions. Eventually they let us know that they found a workaround and that they are going to buy, but that they’d need a massive discount. Sometimes you just can’t stop somebody from buying your product. We told them, “We can give you a small discount that we give to everybody and that’s it.” They ended up buying nonetheless. Sometimes you just can’t stop somebody from buying your product. And seriously, knowing what you’re worth, being able to say “no” to all these things and then still win the deal was a pretty cool experience.

So would you tell startups, especially if they sell to larger corporations, to make a game plan and stick to it?

As with everything in entrepreneurship, you have to set clear rules, but you have to reevaluate those rules. If you want to deviate from your plan, you need to step back and ask yourself, “Why are we thinking about doing this? It was not part of our original plan.” If the answer is because of a customer, ask yourself, “Would we ever do this if there wasn’t a company asking us for this?” If the answer is “No”, you really want to take time and think whether it is worth to bet your whole company on this one customer’s request? It’s different if every customer you talk to tells you the same thing. Then you have a trend.

What’s your greatest sales hack? Has there been a really unorthodox thing that you have done to approach a new client for example.

We were just starting Elastic Sales. We were selling to startups and trying to get our first customer to see if there is a market for our product. We had started cold calling and used fake names. There was no website for our service, nothing that pointed to any level of credibility. [aside]You have to understand what is the elephant in the room – what’s the real issue[/aside] One of the companies we pitched was interested, but after three calls there was still no progress. When that happens, it’s clear that there is an elephant in the room: there is a problem that you’re not really addressing. In sales in many cases it will be an issue of trust. If there’s not fundamental trust, your customer will be fearful to making a buying decision.

So what did you do?

I told them, “If you believe that we can deliver, then you would buy right this second. The problem is you don’t fully trust that we can.” The CEO said that I was right.
There was nothing that I could verbally have said to now all of a sudden make them trust us so I told him, “Give us three days. We will study your product. In three days at 9 AM, we will call you and sell you on your product. Be the most difficult potential customer you could ever be. If we can sell you then we can sell your customers. If we don’t convince you, we can stop wasting each other’s time.”

Why did you do that?

If trust is the issue, words cannot conquer that. You need to find a way to demonstrate how you do things versus talk about how you do things. You have to understand what is the elephant in the room – what’s the real issue.

Last question: Imagine you had the power to bring a pioneer back to life. Who would you bring back?

It would probably be Ghandi, just to have him and his ideas exposed to the world for a few more years. Either that or Jesus. Jesus I have more curiosities with. Not even like “alright, here is water turn it into wine.” But more like, “Dude, speak, say something and let me see how I feel about you.”