Your Product Doesn't Sell Itself

Blake Masters posted his notes from a class that Peter Thiel taught at Stanford a while back. The class was focused on distribution for startups and the notes are awesome, awesome, awesome. I've been meaning to write about them for a while. They're a must read for start-up sales & marketing professionals. The whole thing is great but the piece I want to talk about today is where he points out that the idea that a product can sell itself is a complete myth.

Given all of the focus on product lately – particularly in the consumer internet space – you might be surprised to hear this from Peter Thiel. But he’s spot-on. Here are the key paragraphs:

People say it all the time: this product is so good that it sells itself. This is almost never true. These people are lying, either to themselves, to others, or both. But why do they lie? The straightforward answer is that they are trying to convince other people that their product is, in fact, good.  They do not want to say “our product is so bad that it takes the best salespeople in the world to convince people to buy it.” So one should always evaluate such claims carefully. Is it an empirical fact that product x sells itself? Or is that a sales pitch?

The truth is that selling things—whether we’re talking about advertising, mass marketing, cookie-cutter sales, or complex sales—is not a purely rational enterprise. It is not just about perfect information sharing, where you simply provide prospective customers with all the relevant information that they then use to make dispassionate, rational decisions. There is much stranger stuff at work here.

To emphasize his point, he uses this framework:

Consider the quadrants:

Product sells itself, no sales effort. Does not exist. Product needs selling, no sales effort. You have no revenue. Product needs selling, strong sales piece. This is a sales-driven company. Product sells itself, strong sales piece. This is ideal.

If you believe that your product is so great that it can sell itself you’re either delusional or your aspirations aren't nearly high enough – and it’s great to see a hugely successful, product-driven investor make that point.