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Entrepreneurship in Corporate Life

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

Long term success in a key account management role often requires a great deal of entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to develop resilience in overcoming challenges posed by markets and customers alike.

Having grown tech organisations into multi-million-pound businesses, entrepreneur Gordon believes that the secret to his success has been his approach to building companies which are founded on organically growing sales and building relationships, rather than relying solely on external finance or capital. The degree of Gordon’s success is a testament to the effectiveness of this approach.

Gordon started his business life as a salesperson at Astra Zeneca and has remained an inveterate salesman ever since. It is this passion and identity that has guided him to such a successful career in building businesses.

Although 'finance first, sales later', defines success for many people, it is a very fragile strategy. For example, there are lots of start-ups in the UK, but 90% fail altogether and only about 1% reach £7.5million per annum in revenue. In Europe, only 1 in 200 companies makes it to Series C funding (growth) so, the standard approach to business building has significant associated risks. Conversely, growing companies by increasing sales will provide a much more robust foundation. So scale-up should be the universal approach, not just for entrepreneurs. In addition, this approach removes the intrinsic pressures that come from having external finance and allows the decision-makers within the company to retain control and autonomy and adopt the alternatives that make the most sense for their specific company, circumstances and values.

Gordon was the Co-founder and Chief Sales and Marketing Officer for BigHand, which uses Dragon Systems (speech recognition technology) to create productivity tools aimed at the legal profession. After the company was sold, he decided to share the approach that he and his co-founder had used to grow the company so successfully.

There is a tendency to assume that selling is just the way salespeople talk, but successful selling needs to be conceived and implemented as a structured process. Gordon advocates a model that is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Elements of Sales

  1. Proposition - This is the Value Proposition that should be high-impact, compelling, easy to understand, and should be able to pass the “Elevator test” or, in other words, to be summarised in about 30 seconds or the time that an elevator trip might take. Not because this is a particularly likely scenario for delivery but to ensure that it is succinct and to the point.

  2. Passion - This is an absolutely critical component. Passion is usually part of the make-up of founders of small businesses but many are reticent to share it because they do not see themselves as salespeople; however, in practice, their authentic passion for the company is something customers, and potential customers love to hear.

  3. Pipeline - A common issue with smaller firms is that they are entirely undiscriminating in their pipeline selection, and they try to sell to everyone. This results in a massive dilution of effort and has the consequence that they are rarely successful with anyone. By specialising in the legal market, BigHand were able to tailor their products to that market and gain strong recognition and brand awareness that they were then able to use as a springboard into a greater range of businesses. For bigger companies, pipeline management is often poor because it is seen as a 'boring' part of selling and consequently is neglected. However, it will always be a crucial part of successful growth and won’t be achieved without tight management.

  4. People - It goes without saying that having the right people is critical. Never underestimate the importance of having the right people. This starts with ensuring that the hiring process. At BigHand, the founders ensured that they were involved in every single hire to ensure that there was minimal chance of bringing in any 'bad apples'.

  5. Performance - The best performance comes from constantly being aware of how you are performing, ensuring positive feedback and a coaching culture where performance is continually being improved. Again, models can be beneficial. Figure 2 shows a simple model used to ensure that meetings are sufficiently structured and focus on what the customer sees as necessary. Spending 15 minutes on rapport building in an hour’s meeting will probably feel like a long-time for a salesperson keen to get on and sell, but without established rapport, it is doubtful that anything that follows will be taken seriously. Once it is, however, you will be in an excellent position to determine the customer’s needs and pain points. The last quarter of the meeting should be focussed on what needs to happen next.

  6. Precision - Precision is the final piece of the puzzle. Even if all other elements are working well, it is possible to undermine them with poor precision. If everything else is good and sales are still not high, precision is likely to be the issue. Examples of poor precision are people failing to meet promised delivery dates or having insufficient product knowledge. These things may seem trivial when looked at individually, but the cumulative effect of multiple minor failings can be corrosive, so customers start to fail to trust you as a supplier and will go elsewhere.

Figure 2: Sales Meetings Structure

The final element that is essential in the middle of everything is grit. An excellent Scottish word! Defined as 'courage, bravery, pluck, mettle, backbone, spirit, strength of character, strength of will, moral fibre, steel, nerve, fortitude, toughness, hardiness, resolve, resolution, determination, tenacity, perseverance, endurance'.

When scaling-up any organisation, there will be times when things are hard. Do balance determination with ensuring that you are retaining your work-life balance but don’t ever expect everything to be easy! Grit will be required!


* Gordon is a successful entrepreneur, having grown multi-million-pound tech organisations (including BigHand Software) from start-up to established business and subsequent sale. He also featured in the Channel 4 television programme The Secret Millionaire, where he returned to his native Glasgow in order to help deserving causes.

Cranfield School of Management. Key Account Management Forum. 2022.

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