Learn to Sell, Learn to Build—You’ll Be Unstoppable

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  • Learn to sell, learn to build. If you can do both, you will be unstoppable.
  • Selling is anything from one-on-one sales to marketing, recruiting, fundraising, PR, and more.
  • Building is anything from engineering to design, manufacturing, logistics, procurement, operations, and more.
  • When one person can both sell and build, they can create entire industries. Examples include Marc Andreessen, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk.
  • It’s easier to be a builder who learns sales, than a seller who learns building.
  • Being a builder helps you stand out when you’re starting out, but it can be exhausting to stay current. Sales skills scale better over time and can be self-fulfilling.


Learn to sell, learn to build

Nivi: Talking about combining skills, you said that you should “learn to sell, learn to build, if you can do both, you will be unstoppable.”

Naval: This is a very broad category. It’s two broad categories. One is building the product. Which is hard, and it’s multivariate. It can include design, it can include development, it can include manufacturing, logistics, procurement, it can even be designing and operating a service. It has many, many definitions.

But in every industry, there is a definition of the builder. In our tech industry it’s the CTO, it’s the programmer, it’s the software engineer, hardware engineer. But even in the laundry business, it could be the person who’s building the laundry service, who is making the trains run on time, who’s making sure all the clothes end up in the right place at the right time, and so on.

The other side of it is sales. Again, selling has a very broad definition. Selling doesn’t necessarily just mean selling individual customers, but it can mean marketing, it can mean communicating, it can mean recruiting, it can mean raising money, it can mean inspiring people, it could mean doing PR. It’s a broad umbrella category.

The Silicon Valley model is a builder and seller

So, generally, the Silicon Valley startup model tends to work best. It’s not the only way, but it is probably the most common way, when you have two founders, one of whom is  world class at selling, and one of whom is world class at building.

Examples are, of course, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak with Apple, Gates and Allen probably had similar responsibilities early on with Microsoft, Larry and Sergey probably broke down along those lines, although it’s a little different there because that was a very technical product delivered to end users through a simple interface.

But generally, you will see this pattern repeated over and over. There’s a builder and there’s a seller. There’s a CEO and CTO combo. And venture and technology investors are almost trained to look for this combo whenever possible. It’s the magic combination.

If you can do both you will be unstoppable

The ultimate is when one individual can do both. That’s when you get true superpowers. That’s when you get people who can create entire industries.

The living example is Elon Musk. He may not necessarily be building the rockets himself, but he understands enough that he actually makes technical contributions. He understands the technology well enough that no one’s going to snow him on it, and he’s not running around making claims that he doesn’t think he can’t eventually deliver. He may be optimistic on the timelines but he thinks this is within reasonableness for delivery.

Even Steve Jobs developed enough product skills and was involved enough in the product that he also operated in both of these domains. Larry Ellison started as a programmer and I think wrote the first version of Oracle, or was actually heavily involved in it.

Marc Andreessen was also in this domain. He may not have had enough confidence in his sales skills, but he was the programmer who wrote Netscape Navigator, or a big chunk of it. So, I think the real giants in any field are the people who can both build and sell.

I’d rather teach an engineer marketing than a marketer engineering

And usually the building is a thing that a sales person can’t pick up later in life. It requires too much focused time. But a builder can pick up selling a little bit later, especially if they were already innately wired to be a good communicator. Bill Gates famously paraphrases this as, “I’d rather teach an engineer marketing, than a marketer engineering.”

I think if you start out with a building mentality and you have building skills and it’s still early enough in your life, or you have enough focused time that you think you can learn selling, and you have some natural characteristics or you’re a good salesperson, then you can double down on those.

Now, your sales skills could be in a different than traditional domain. For example, let’s say you’re a really good engineer and then people are saying, well, now you need to be good at sales, well, you may not be good at hand-to-hand sales, but you may be a really good writer.

And writing is a skill that can be learned much more easily than, say, in-person selling, and so you may just cultivate writing skills until you become a good online communicator and then use that for your sales.

On the other hand, it could just be that you’re a good builder and you’re bad at writing and you don’t like communicating to mass audiences but you’re good one-on-one, so then you might use your sales skills for recruiting or for fundraising, which are more one-on-one kinds of endeavors.

This is pointing out that if you’re at the intersection of these two, don’t despair because you’re not going to be the best technologist and you’re not going to be the best salesperson, but in a weird way, that combination, back to the Scott Adams skill stack, that combination of two skills is unstoppable.

Long term, people who understand the underlying product and how to build it and can sell it, these are catnip to investors, these people can break down walls if they have enough energy, and they can get almost anything done.

Nivi: If you could only pick one to be good at, which one would you pick?

Naval: When you’re trying to stand out from the noise building is actually better because there’re so many hustlers and sales people who have nothing to back them up. When you’re starting out, when you’re trying to be recognized, building is better.

But much later down the line building gets exhausting because it is a focus job and it’s hard to stay current because there’s always new people, new products coming up who have newer tools, and frankly more time because it’s very intense, it’s a very focused task.

So, sales skills actually scale better over time. Like for example, if you have a reputation for building a great product, that’s good, but when you ship your new product, I’m going to validate it based on the product. But if you have a reputation for being a good person to do business with and you’re persuasive and communicative then that reputation almost becomes self-fulfilling.

So, I think if you only had to pick up one, you can start with building and then transition to selling. This is a cop-out answer, but I think that is actually the right answer.

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