James Stickland | Crain's Boston

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

James Stickland

Background:  

Veridium is a biometrics authentication startup based in Quincy, Mass.

The Mistake:

In my early days transitioning from marketing into sales I realized pleasing the customer is not always the right thing to do. It sounds like a ridiculous statement, but in your early ambitious desire to make sure that you please everybody, “yes” is the easy answer to pretty much every question.

I had a client in a chemicals and pharmaceutical company way back in the day. I'm a young hungry sales guy, I probably watched too much "Glengarry Glen Ross," I was desperate to make my quota and I was desperate to make my client happy at the same time.

So you challenge your own business and you say, “Yeah I think we can make that, I think we can do that.” You know it's an aggressive goal but you're eager and confident so the answer is yes. As soon as you say “yes” or “I think we can,” on the client's side that's considered a bond of trust and a commitment. So now it's your accountability and responsibility to deliver on that, come hell or high water.

For me I had to chase manufacturing in China 12 hours a day to get products shipped. I spent probably three weeks of my life on daily calls trying to get my products shipped out of manufacturing plants to somewhere in Scotland and get thousands of servers shipped in time to this client. I was bending the business over backward to try to make this thing happen. There were bigger opportunities, there were other clients, but I had put my word, my bond on the line.

It got to the point that I even needed to go to Scotland to help unpack the boxes because we were running so short on time. I remember driving to somewhere in Birmingham, which is in the middle of the United Kingdom to help on a Saturday unpack boxes, which kind of wasn't part and parcel of what I was expecting in the job.

Would I have done that again? I was super, super fortunate it worked out, but it was an absolute mess from an execution standpoint. Internally I was paddling like a duck under the water and trying to gracefully look like a swan on top. But the reality is I damaged my early reputation and my early brand internally by trying to bend the business out of its natural state.

Did I learn from that? Absolutely. I burned probably a year's worth of favors with all the relevant operations functions because I wasn't just putting my own credibility and reputation on the line, I was asking people to go above and beyond their call of duty and I was asking people to come unpack boxes with me. There's a lot of goodwill that you have to do to rebuild after something like that.

I even needed to go to Scotland to help unpack the boxes because we were running so short on time.

The Lesson:

Expectation setting is super important. Under-promising and over-delivering is something worth looking at from a sales perspective. But I also think that transparency and honesty would have worked in that situation. If I had just said, “You know, we can do our best"—so shared ownership between myself and the client—as opposed to, “I think I can do this,” the responsibility may not have been wholly on me. I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, “Now I own the monkey in its entirety.” If I had been brave enough to maybe step forward and say, “It's not going to happen on this day,” we could have shared accountability and responsibility for it.

It's about having a level of confidence in yourself and in the value of transparency. We got it done, but it was extremely difficult, and I got zero thanks from the client because the client just expected that [it would be done] the day it was due. I wasn't expecting a pat on the back, but I had set the new expectation and then that was the standard now. So you need to have some degree of trust in your own business. And there needs to be an element of transparency without giving away the full responsibility of execution.

Photo courtesy of James Stickland

Follow Veridium on Twitter at @veridiumid.