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Everyone can learn how to be good enough in sales to be dangerous – interview with Steli Efti

A few days ago we sat down with Steli Efti – the founder and CEO of the popular inside sales CRM Close.io. Steli was born in Greece and raised in Germany. When he entered the startup world, he sold everything he owned and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco. He is an alumni of Y Combinator and his company has received funding from Spark Capital, SV Angel, Start Fund, and Omidyar Networks as well as several notable angel investors. Steli is a true startup sales expert and also well-known for his speeches at several conferences like Pioneers and the EU-Startups Conference.

Hey Steli, I am very glad to have you here. Could you give a brief intro to our readers why you entered the sales world and how you got started with it?

For me I think partially it was nature and partially was nurture. So you know having Greek heritage you know I was always a man of the people – or child of the people – I like people, I like communicating, I like storytelling – this is I think partially just part of my identity and DNA. But then when I formally learned to do sales was my first startup.

So when I dropped out of school to start my first company basically all I was doing was selling a service and selling a product that I hadn’t developed myself. I didn’t know that I was doing sales at the beginning but eventually I realized – oh what I do is called selling and I’m actually kind of good at it.

Then I started studying it and just reading all the books in the world going to all the workshops consuming as much as possible and practicing as much as possible to really hone that craft. For every different company my entrepreneurial superpowers has always been selling in one way or another. That’s the way I was raising money and getting customers and getting people to join the team as employees. And then it was not until this very company where I formally was doing sales for lots of people and becoming a sales expert. I think my experience in selling has been a lifelong practitian experience of doing it. From hiring sales people, to growing sales teams – basically almost everything I was doing was as a sales transaction in one way or another.

You said that selling is maybe a little bit of cultural thing. Is there a difference between the mindset towards sales let’s say in Germany then compared to the U.S.A.? How do you handle these different roles – what would you advise?

Yes there are cultural differences around the world regarding how selling is being done how something is being perceived. I think at the core there are certain principles of successful selling. That will always be true and are universal.

You cannot break any of these principles and still be successful no matter where you are. And if you get these principles right you’re going to be able to adjust and customize the way you communicate the way you are selling to almost any market. Since Germany has a lot less of a sales and marketing culture than the U.S.A. people don’t grow up with a high IQ on selling and marketing things. It is seen as a little bit of a sleazy thing culturally.

But even in the States people think salespeople are sleazy. There is no place on earth where sales people are amazing. There’s no person that’s great at selling that was growing up wanting to be a sales person. That doesn’t exist itis sleazy and shitty everywhere.

But there is a difference as how much I think in the US it is much less of a stigma and people kind of accept that you have to be good at selling you have to be good at marketing to succeed in life. I think in Germany it’s much more seen as like an afterthought this country is all about producing things, engineering things. That’s where the core of the value changes but then what do you do once you’ve done the product? The common perception is that people that are good at sales and marketing must be really good at lying.

What is your take on Manipulating in Sales?

Manipulating people with words right – which is funny to me because you’re always manipulating at all times with words if you’re communicating. The question is this – do you manipulate with intent or do you manipulate randomly – because you don’t know what you’re saying and how it influences people.

Makes sense what would you say is the right intention in sales?

Ask yourself what are you trying to accomplish. If what you’re trying to accomplish is rob people up the money right, then you know you’re obviously an asshole. If your intention is to create value to make sure the world moves forward, to help people make decisions, then you have a very important place in the market place, in the value chain of the economy. I think in the U.S. people grow up with more knowledge around sales and marketing. People there understand it better – they’re better at it. You could be in a taxi cab – you could be in a hair salon – and their business IQ and their marketing and sales IQ is just much higher than the one of the average person in Germany in my experience. People are just much better at these things. But it’s not that people think sales is the best job in the world still it has some stigma to it.

Why do you think it like that? Do they learn that in school?

That’s a good question why are they better at this. I think they’re exposed to better marketing and better sales.

Just on television, in school, in their neighborhoods everywhere there’s a little bit more display it is also how is it presented, how it is communicated. Everywhere I think you can just see a higher level of a culture that is better at this.

So I think that people just consume it that way. I don’t honestly know how it is in school. I have not gone to school in the U.S. I barely went to school in Germany. As a culture Americans have embraced it, they are most surrounded by great examples of people that are good at marketing and selling. They just pick up on it much more.

Makes sense. Let’s talk a bit about your mindset in regards to selling. How do you deal with rejection? What would you advise someone who has their first startup, someone who needs to sell and deal with tons of rejection to still keep the moral up and continue?

I don’t have any magical lines on this – rejection sucks. It’s just no two ways about it. I don’t like rejection today. I don’t like it more than I liked it when I was 10. Like I hate fucking rejection, rejection stinks. The thing is that. I have learned over the years that if you want to do anything worthwhile in life you want to really accomplish anything worth accomplishing, you are going to have to face rejection! It is not so much about liking it, or learning to not be bothered by it.

I think it’s much more about learning to deal with it and overcoming that and that negativity around it. I have been rejected a lot more than the average person. I just have a thicker skin
It still stings if I try something and it doesn’t work. If I approach somebody and they tell me to fuck off.

I’m not this type person that doesn’t care. For a millisecond it will sting. But then I move on with life. If I try to accomplish something I think I’m probably going to get rejected. Right now it is much less likely to stop me today because I’ve done this so many times. I know now I will survive and I know it is part of life. I’ve programmed myself any time my voice goes – don’t do it, this is scary or this could fail or this could be bad or embarrassing- then I must do it. That’s what I need to do. That is the compass that guides what I need to accomplish. I learned to embrace rejection rather than trying to overcome it or try to learn not to feel bad about it.

Speaking about this, what is your take on the statement? Sales People are born or Sales People are made!

I think it’s both. I think there’s people that are more naturally talented at selling than others. Not every human is equally preconditioned or has equally capable DNA to sell and to be an effective communicator. But I do think that sales is not just nature. It’s also nurture. And I do think that even the worst communicator on the planet that you can learn to be effective and dangerous in selling.

I’ve always have an example of one of my friends is Patrick McKenzie. He’s an engineer, and has built a lot of software tools and made money with it. He is the geekiest human I’ve ever met in my life. He was awkward and not social. But he learned that shit – If I want to succeed in life, have businesses and lots of people buy my products I need to learn how marketing and sales works. He approached it like an engineer and he just learned the basic formula – What is the structure of this? How can I do it? and today he’s incredibly effective in selling – he is very dangerous actually. He is my prime example for anybody can learn it. But if he and I were in a sales competition I’ll crush him. He has nurtured selling but he doesn’t have the nature – I’ve the nature and I’ve nurtured it. Not everybody can be the best basketball player but everybody can learn how to play basketball. Important is you don’t have to be the best sales person to be effective. I do think that if if somebody thinks sales is not my thing and I’m not good at it I think that’s just a lame excuse I think you can learn how to be good enough to be dangerous and that’s all you need.

Finally do you have a number one learning over the last years in selling that you can share with us?

Most of my entrepreneurial career I was actually pretty average salesperson. And the reason for that was. That I was incredibly inconsistent. I would have these brilliant weeks and then I would have really shitty weeks. I would wake up in a bad mood, I would cancel my calls, my meetings and I would feel so horrible at the end of the day that I would cancel the entire fucking week.

Because I had brilliant moments my average month was always great. Always better than other people’s. So logically I would always tell myself – well I’m still doing better than anybody but you cannot be at peace with yourself you can’t look at the mirror and be ok with yourself when you know half of your time you’re an asshole and you’re not doing your work. For most of my life I was very inconsistent. And that was the biggest thing the biggest destroyer of value in my career. The biggest thing that I regret. Eventually at some point I learned how to be consistent and how to be disciplined about things. I learned how to do things although I don’t feel like it. If I wake up today, feel shit and I have a call in 10 minutes which I want to cancel, I have this inner voice that tells myself – well fuck it – do it anyway!

I’m going to do a bad job on this call but who cares. Once I do the call I feel good because I kept my word and I did it although I didn’t want to do it. Then I feel great and think about what else can I do. Exactly then it turns that bad moment into a beautiful day. The biggest difference, between my success today where I’m creating the most value in the world that I’ve ever had in my life is that today and for the last four five years I’ve been incredibly consistent.

I haven’t had that week’s where I don’t do anything – Exactly that’s why I’m an expert in selling. You will never hear me say I just hired an amazing salesperson. I don’t know if you’re good in sales or not until I’ve worked with you for at least a year.

I want to see are you consistent to be – You can be. Good. You can be okay but to be great at selling you need to be consistent no matter what. Bad days, good days, sickness, arguments at home, depression whatever it is – can you come every day and bring it no matter what. That’s what separates the good from the great. It took me 10 years of selling to get to that point to figure that out. It’s like not the sexiest advice in the world but the only one I have.

Consistency do it anyway. Great. Thank you Steli

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Florian Eberhart
Florian Eberhart
Florian is a Berlin-based entrepreneur who is working on B2B Sales Acceleration for venture-backed startups. He is an advisor to several startups and also a mentor at the Founder Institute.

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