Know When to Hold ‘Em, and When to Fold ‘Em

    “We just have to hold out until the cavalry arrives!”
    –Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, 7th US Cavalry

There comes a time in every marketer’s life when he or she has to decide if discretion is the better part of valor.

As marketers, we make our livings as optimists and evangelists, and we convince others (or die trying) of the benefits and superiority of our chosen products and services. Eventually, however, even the most successful marketer has to face the specter of failure. Some of the brightest minds on the planet worked on products such as New Coke, Olestra, and the long-forgotten Microsoft “Bob” version of Windows (think annoying-paperclip-guy on steroids). That didn’t save them or their products from being consigned to the scrap heap of history.

None of us wants to face the specter of failure, or even a little poltergeist. We’re used to succeeding at every level, from kindergarten to initial public offering (IPO), and it’s hard for us to accept the fact that WE (in the royal sense) MIGHT HAVE BEEN WRONG. If only we try hard enough, we can always make any worthy product into a success, right?


We may want to flatter ourselves that we’ll always succeed, but such perfectionism is ultimately corrosive to the soul. To paraphrase the great Lois McMaster Bujold, the trouble with swearing death before failure is that you eventually end up with only two kinds of people: the dead and the failures.

A marketer has to have the discipline to know when to quit; to keep going after the point of failure isn’t heroic, it’s a selfish attempt to avoid admitting having made a mistake.

There is nothing wrong with making mistakes — just don’t make them again.

With that in mind, I’m proud to present the top five quotes that just scream, “Calling Dr. Kevorkian.”

5. “Our market research says it’ll be a hit.” Although I’m as big a fan of market research as the next guy, I reach for a noose every time I hear someone citing a Forrester report, a Jupiter study, or, horror of horrors, the latest announcement from the Interactive Advertising Bureau. While it may provide a good sense of where an entire industry is going (sometimes), outside research is useless when it comes to predicting the success or failure of a specific start-up or product.

4. “We’ve got some great deals in the pipeline.” If I had a nickel for every time I heard this from a sales guy, I could probably buy Webvan (or at least its assets). The bottom line is that sales is a funnel, not a pipeline. Of the 100 leads that you begin with, you’re kicking ass if you actually convert two at the end of the day. Take the old saying about counting chickens before they hatch, double it, add infinity, and you have the square root of the size of the grain of salt with which you should take your sales forecasts.

3. “It’s 90 percent done.” I once worked with a VP of engineering who must have used this phrase 10 times a day. We took to calling him “Mr. 90 Percent Done.” Suffice it to say that if you hear this phrase more than once during a product cycle, it’s time to reach for the ripcord. As for Mr. 90 Percent Done, he’s now working in quality assurance for a soon-to-be-sold also-ran portal.

2. “We’re putting on a push to make the numbers in the plan.” There’s an old joke about the CFO who calls the VP of sales on March 31 to find out how first-quarter sales went. “Not sure yet,” says the VP, “the day’s only half over!” Guess what? That might work for an established company, but if you’re introducing a new product and it’s clear that you’re behind plan, you’ve got two chances to make up the shortfall: fat and slim.

1. “We have a superior product.” This is the granddaddy of them all. Yes, it’s important to market a high-quality product, and, yes, all other things being equal, the best product will win. But all other things are usually about as equal as a four-game series between the Seattle Mariners and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. You’re a marketer, you’re not God. It doesn’t matter if your engineering team has produced a bug-free, feature-complete, 1MB operating system that makes Windows look like a cheap toupee — you’re still not going to beat Microsoft.

Remember, there’s a big difference between conceding and quitting. There is more honor in living to fight another day than in heroic death for a lost cause.

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