The Day I Stopped Selling and Built a Business


The advertising agency I joined was one of the most competitive and ambitious in London. The construction business was difficult for each of us. Competition with other internal teams was part of the process. Jumping top of the line over other teams for the next new business prospect gave us more opportunities to win new business. We were trained to offer, sell and sell over and over again. And I was desperate to succeed.

Failure can be challenging. Dealing with our creative teams can be scary. The feelings were very strong – sometimes too much, with unpleasant consequences. I planned to stay for a year or two. But twelve years quickly passed, and I ended up running a large group. The rewards were good for those of us who succeeded, but I wanted more.

I took a big, big risk and started a separate agency with seven colleagues. With a full team and a great office in the heart of London, we had a great folly from day one. We had no customers and no income. We had to sell to survive. Every single opportunity, every new business possibility, no matter how small, was important. Our family home, school fees, grocery bills and everything we had depended on the winning business.

We were good – mostly, very good. Even though we lost a new commercial pitch, we didn’t give up. Sure, it upset some prospects, but mostly they applauded our appetite.

Every idea had to be sold and nurtured. Every opportunity, however small, is exploited. Our life and our family depended on it. And at the end of the first year, we broke up too. Our bankers were so amazed that they threw us a private lunch to celebrate.

Then the time accelerated. We had a huge debt. We restructured, redoubled our efforts and focused more on winning business. We survived – and did some excellent work.

After years and years of selling the agency to prospects, employees, stakeholders, and selling work to clients, I realized something. I was dog tired. I was tired of filling up dripping buckets of revenue over and over again. I knew it was time to merge and exit my agency. I stopped selling.

new business. no sales

After a stint in business school, I was back in business, but this time, on my own. There was neither a website nor any name plate in my office. I was invisible, and I was not sold. I just told past clients and coworkers what I was planning and doing.

The phone was off for four months. Then it rang. I met with the prospect – and instead of selling and telling her about my offer, I just asked questions about her company and what problems needed attention. I examined the size, importance and cost of those problems.

He was interested in working with me, and I was interested in working with him. I wrote a two-paragraph summary of how to deal with the issues and added a price range. It was big and provided good value.

And the phone kept ringing despite no website, no marketing, no sales activity, and no lengthy submissions. I declined to write the submission – only a one-page outline. I just asked questions.

“Saying is not selling. Only asking questions is selling.” – Brian Tracy

Really. No sales.

A few years later I co-founded a client relationship consultancy. Again: no website, no marketing, no sales. I met with past colleagues and explained our philosophy. We got them to sign a two-way NDA – we would never talk about them, and they would never talk about us.

But they wanted to work with us. As customers moved to new agencies, this word spread and we started getting more calls. These new possibilities wanted credit presentation. I explained to them that I would tell them about my business for less than sixty seconds, and about our philosophy and approach for four minutes. At that point, if they didn’t agree with our point of view, we could cut the meeting short and I might be able to suggest others who might be a better fit for them. But no one ever said that. And we still had a two-way NDA.

We never chased after a meeting. If I think a prospect won’t be right for us, I decline their business. Sometimes, existing customers wanted to do things differently. If whatever he suggested didn’t fit our philosophy, we refused to work with him.

I love this new way of doing business. I was feeling energetic again. And our customers got stuck.

Due to the intense irritation of my business partners, I refused to set annual goals. I didn’t want to feel like I needed to sell. But over sixteen years, our business has grown and grown to offices and consultants in London, Windsor, Boston, Mexico, Munich, Singapore and Sydney. Still no website. Still no new business or marketing activity. Still a two-way NDA.

why did it work

Why did this approach work? Not having sales objectives and not selling meant that I had a powerful position equal to that of a potential customer. I could relax. As a result, so can the customer. We were able to have adult to adult conversations. Potential clients became less defensive, and more open to me. They were comfortable disclosing deeper, underlying issues.

Both sides had the opportunity to ensure that the ‘fit’ in the middle was tight. Both sides had a chance to make sure that our beliefs are together. The result: long-term, lasting relationships, and no leaky buckets anywhere.

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