Builders and Sellers

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Essays

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the various job functions that go into technology startups. I have many friends who are product managers, “biz dev guys”, “programmers or software engineers”, developers or designers, marketers, community managers, “VPs of operations and COOs”, etc. Lately, I’ve seen a fair number of “chief creative officers” and “chief experience officers.” This is all, mind you, in companies with fewer than 10 people. It is dizzying, and honestly, I have beef. As I see it, high-technology companies, whether a social network,  hardware device, widget, or mobile app, are fundamentally similar in the early stages. They require two functions: builders and sellers.

I worry that startups, in the spirit of attracting talent, go out of their way to create esoteric titles, each of whose utility ends up getting lost in translation. Enough “Strategy.” Every employee should be strategic. Enough “Experience.” Hire well, codify your values, and the experience will follow. “Creativity” is a personality trait, not a job function. Simplifying roles to ‘builders’ and ‘sellers’ adds clarity, and enables people to focus on the value they provide to a young business.

The ‘builder’ side of the equation is easier to define. Builders tend to be technical, naturally, but not always. They create the product that will be sold: software architect, UI/UX designer, front-end developer, and sometimes community managers or writers for content-driven products.

The ‘seller’ side of the equation is more complicated. Sellers can be everything from business development, to sales, to marketing, to community management. For some businesses, product managers are more sellers than builders when their job is to communicate  product to stakeholders. Raising venture capital, building out a customer base, finding organizations to partner with, branding, and certain types of social media, all fall under the category of selling.

People take issue with this framework for a number of reasons. First of all, many high-technology companies don’t have cashflow when they start, with finances limited to a venture or seed investment. Therefore, they think there’s nothing to sell yet. I disagree: You don’t have to have a revenue model to distinguish between builders and sellers. Sellers take the product and communicate it outwardly, and even sometimes inwardly. A seller is responsible for the ‘why’, and a builder the ‘what’ which the ‘why’ explains.

Second of all, there is an unfounded bias against “sales” and “salespeople” among the startup community. Why is that? Most the world’s most influential CEOs started as traditional salesman. Sales, broadly construed, is the bread and butter of commerce, and is how a product reaches the person who wants it. To be a seller is not inferior to being a builder. Each function is critically important, and irrelevant without the other.

So, early-stage startup employee, take a moment and ask yourself: Are you a builder or a seller? If you don’t know, you should figure it out, and start doing one or both as soon as possible.

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