As the owner of a technology company, REB Research, hydrogen generators and hydrogen purifiers, I spend a fair amount of time trying to sell my stuff, and wondering how other companies connect to potential customers and sell to them. Sales is perhaps the most important area of business success, the one that makes or breaks most businesses — but it was sadly ignored in my extensive college education. Business books are hardly better: they ignore the salesmen (and women); you’re left to imagine sales and profit came of themselves by the insight of the great leader. The great, successful internet companies are applauded for giving away services, and the failed interned companies are barely mentioned. And hardly any book mentions smaller manufacturing businesses, like mine.
So here are some sales thoughts: things I tried, things that worked, and didn’t. I started my company, REB Research, about 20 years ago as a professor at Michigan State University. I figured I knew more about hydrogen purifiers than most of my colleagues, and imagined this knowledge would bring me money (big mistake: I needed customers and profitable sales). My strategy was to publish papers on hydrogen and get some patents as a way to build credibility (worked reasonably well: I write well, do research well, and I’m reasonably inventive). Patents might have been a better strategy if I had not then allowed my patents to be re-written by lawyers. I built the company. while still a professor (a good idea, I think).
When I realized I needed sales, I decided to use trade fairs, conferences, and ads as the big companies did. Most of my budget went for ads in The Thomas Register of American Manufacturing, a fantastically large compendium of who did or sold what (it worked OK, but was since rendered obsolete by the internet). I bought $1500 worth of ads, and got 2 small lines plus a 1/8 page. That’s where I got my sales until the internet cam along. In retrospect, I suspect I should have bought more ads.
William Hamilton cartoon from the new-yorker.
My other big expense was trade fairs. Many big companies sold at trade fairs, events that are widely attended in my field. Sorry to say, I never found customers at these fairs, even when the fairs were dedicated to hydrogen, everyone who’d come by was was selling, and no one was buying, as best I could tell.Somehow, my bigger competitors (also at the fairs) seemed to get interest but I’m not sure if they got sales there. They seem to find sales somewhere, though. Is it me? Am I at the wrong fairs, or are fairs just a scam where no one wins but the organizers? I don’t know. Last month, I spent $2000 for a booth in Ann Arbor, MI, including $350 for inclusion into the promoter’s book and $400 for hand-out literature. As with previous events, few people came by and none showed anything like interest, I got no e-mail addresses and no sales. Some hungry students wandered the stalls for food and freebees, but there was not one person with money in his/her pocket and a relevant project to spend it on. I doubt anyone read the literature they took.
To date, virtually all of my sales have come from the internet. I got on the internet early, and that has helped my placement in Google. I’ve never bought a google ad, but this may change. Instead I was lucky. About 20 years ago, 1994?, I attended a conference at Tufts on membrane reactors, and stayed at a bed-and-breakfast. After the conference let out, the owner of the BnB suggested I visit something that was new at Harvard; a cyber cafe, the second one in the US. They had Macintosh computers and internet explorer a year before the company went public. I was hooked, went home, learned html, and wrote a web-site. I bought my domain name shortly thereafter.
The problem, I don’t know the next big thing. Twitter? Facebook? LinkedIn? I’m on 2 of these 3, and have gotten so sales from social media. I started a blog (you’re reading it), but I still wonder, why are the bigger companies selling more? The main difference I see is they attend a lot more product fairs than I do, have slicker web-sties (not very good ones, I think), and they do print advertising. Perhaps they match their fairs to their products better, or have a broader range of products. People need to see my products somewhere, but where? My latest idea: this week I bought HydrogenPurifier.com. Send me advice, or wish me luck.
Robert E. Buxbaum, flailing entrepreneur, September 10, 2014. Here’s a feedback form, the first time I’m adding one.