How to Succeed in Darn Near Anything

Every day, I get a bunch of emails from readers asking me all sorts of questions.

“How do I get a job with an Internet start-up?”

“How do I get the attention of a potential advertiser or sponsor?”

“How do I attract traffic?”

“How do I get on the speaker’s list at various conferences?”

I don’t claim to have any intricate knowledge that transcends the industry to give many of these people the answers they are looking for. But what I can do is tell you about Jim Kelly and how he got his job at ClickZ. If you take Jim’s approach to darn near anything you set out to do, you stack the cards in your favor in a big way.

The story began in the spring of 1999. We had decided to hire our own sales rep after two years of exemplary service from one of the top rep firms in the business. We ran ads in various places, put an addendum to a publisher’s letter we sent out to the list, and put the word out on the street that we were in the market for an account executive.

I remember two candidates in particular. One was a middle-aged man with several years of online experience who talked himself up quite well but clearly never took the time to get to know anything about ClickZ. Another was a tall, handsome, charismatic young man who — within minutes of sitting down for the interview — guided the conversation to his demands: a 10 percent equity stake in ClickZ, $150K minimum salary, plus an additional 15 percent commission. He was a bit fuzzy on what ClickZ was all about, but he knew that we were a “dot-com company” and had ambitious goals for a big payout in the not-too-distant future.

Both of these guys were well qualified on paper, and I’m sure that had I hired either one of them, they’d have done a fine job.

But then I got an email from Jim Kelly, who was a friend of a friend of a friend of my brother and had heard about the opportunity. He was up front about the fact that — on paper — he wasn’t qualified for the job.

He had been in print advertising sales for some time and had worked for several years selling ads for a marginal gay men’s publication with modest success. He was convinced he had a great deal to offer us that couldn’t be captured on paper, and he asked if Ann and I would meet with him.

What the heck… Why not? We set up a meeting with him in San Francisco at the @d:Tech conference.

We were scheduled to meet at 10 a.m., but he showed up at the hotel one hour early. He went to just about every exhibitor at @d:Tech, spoke to its sales and marketing people, got its literature, came to an understanding of its business model, fished around to find out if it was aware of ClickZ, and got an overall education in the market that few of us would ever take the time to do.

That’s impressive. But what was more impressive was what he did in the week prior to our appointment.

He took the time to read and digest all the articles that Ann and I had ever written for ClickZ. He read a representative sampling of the pieces written by all the major ClickZ writers. He looked at all the ads and clicked on them, then explored around on the web sites of our advertisers and sponsors in order to get a better understanding of their business and why they might want to advertise on ClickZ.

So by the time Jim sat down to talk with us, he was a walking, talking encyclopedia about ClickZ. He developed a detailed understanding of the business we are in and could articulate what we were trying to do. He got a good handle on our culture. He was able to discuss intelligently why an advertiser might benefit by being on ClickZ.

All that to prepare for the first interview.

Needless to say, Jim got the job and has done quite well for us.

But I have one complaint: He spoiled us rotten!

We get a steady stream of callers and visitors who want to partner with us, sell to us, work for us, or whatever, and if it isn’t obvious within the first few minutes that they have done a Jim Kelly research job on us, Ann and I give each other that “look” (translated: that look we get when we’re thinking, how do we get out of this meeting?).

How does this translate to profitable online publishing, you ask?

When you are seeking to do business with someone — maybe you’re seeking an investor, a sponsor, an advertiser, a content provider, or a technology partner — give yourself and that other person the courtesy of doing your homework thoroughly, learning all you can about this person and his or her business. And do so well before the meeting.

Look at the world through this person’s eyes. Look at your business from his or her vantage point, and see how you might benefit him or her.

Can you imagine how much this person will appreciate the thorough preparation you’ve gone through for your meeting? I can assure you, it feels great to have someone go to that amount of trouble to prepare. When you’re on the receiving end of this type of treatment, you find yourself looking to find a way to do business.

If you’ve really done your homework, you will make that decision as easy and painless as possible for your prospective client, boss, partner, or advertiser as well.

Just like Jim did for us.

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