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The anatomy of a ‘sizzle’ — and how it makes or breaks a business

‘Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle’, goes an adage coined by Elmer Wheeler back in the 1920s, that is still popular with salespeople worldwide. Given that we are in India, where laws will ensure that we cannot anyway sell a steak in many parts of the country, I will recast this adage as, ‘Don’t sell the dosa, sell the sizzle’. What this adage implies is that it is almost never the quality of the batter (or the meat of the cow, in the original American version), but the sizzling sound that accompanies the preparation and serving of the food item that makes the consumer order it.

Entrepreneurs, almost as a rule, are excellent salespeople. So it is not a surprise at all that most of them have internalised this adage, and are constantly on the lookout to make sure that their startup’s sizzle is heard. But this particular obsession with sizzle often turns up hilarious results.

There was a news story last week about a zoo in Cairo that painted black and white stripes on a donkey in an attempt to pass it off as a zebra. Unexpected humidity meant that the paint ran a bit, and the game was up. This situation is not too different from what one can see of startups that are trying hard to fit themselves into whatever is the fad right now, usually something like artificial intelligence or machine learning.

I recently had someone ping me asking if I wanted them, at a price, to use the latest artificial intelligence techniques in training our company’s employees to be more productive. I was very tempted to reply that I might pay them if they used just intelligence instead, but I resisted and did the right thing of ignoring them instead.

The mistake that many entrepreneurs make is in how they understand the adage. Yes, the sizzle is very important. Yes, the sizzle is what makes or breaks their startup. But that sizzle has to come from good-quality meat (or batter.) Take a look at any technology company that started small, but in a decade or two became big and then kept getting bigger at a rate much faster than anyone else. Microsoft back then. Amazon and Google too, next. And some half-a-dozen other technology behemoths that are so well-entrenched now that it is nigh impossible to dislodge them. If you try and find a pattern, you will see that even them, in the early days, depended a lot on sizzle. But these were always companies who, right from their inception, took special care of their meat. They always invested in their own technology, making sure that they could produce the sizzle that they were producing longer and cheaper than any other company that concentrated only on outcomes, without paying attention to what was producing those outcomes. And therein lies a lesson to every entrepreneur who plans to create a company with a long-lasting legacy.

The author heads product at a mid-sized startup in the real estate space

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