Marketing Driven Sales or Sales Driven Marketing?

Find The Customer Looking For You

Bet you never heard those terms before. But in a tech startup, they can make all the difference in the world.

Like the difference between being an employee at your over-diluted enterprise or achieving material wealth to give to animal shelters.

What is the difference? Well let’s take a story–currency for the easiest communication of complex ideas.

I took over as the CEO of a search engine company who built the world’s best search engine to track serial murderers. That is not a typo.

They built a search engine, using a new type of search technology called similarity search enabling a police team to find people in multiple databases who had nothing in common. Trust me, hard stuff, really hard and never done before or after.

As a database guy, when I saw the technology I said—right technology, crappy market. We want to stop serial murderers just like the next startup but we can do more.

So as both a CEO and investor, I set out with our hardy band of 6 employees to do what I have preached for 30 years: “find the customer looking for you.”

We broke the world’s largest insurance fraud ring in Chicago. We helped the Air Force find who was behind a test cheating scandal. We helped a bunch of insurance firms find people who were scamming them and changing their names to avoid detection. Our valuation? About nothing.

Then came the Christmas season of 1999. The front page of USA Today was filled, almost weekly, with stories of kids who did not get the computer Mom ordered off eBay because the sale was a scam. It was every week and the eBay brand was in serious jeopardy.

So I called eBay and said we could fix the problem and get them back in the good graces of Christmas kids. No response.

eBay did what all big companies do who have the smartest people in the room. eBay went to the usual candidates. They went to the major software firms, the fraud consultancies, the neural net guys, the FBI, the Secret Service but nobody could solve the problem.


Because the bad actor would sell stuff on eBay for months and properly deliver the product. Then he or she would list 20 computers, take the dough and not deliver a single one. People complained. There were stories in all the papers.

So eBay did what the smartest people in the room do—they kicked the bad guys off the site. And the bad guys promptly did what all bad guys do—they changed EVERY identifier, every single one, so there was zero commonality between bad guy one and the new bad guy two.

All fraud detection technology went blind. It could not associate two people with NOTHING IN COMMON. Neural nets were useless. Pattern recognition—useless, as there is no pattern.

I called Meg Whitman (eBay CEO for those of you under 30) every week for 13 weeks. After week 8 or 9, her admin would greet me and tell me they were just not interested, they were working with the best firms in the business.

The next morning, USA Today would have another story about some kid in a poor home not getting his stuff. Ouch! Talk about an impending event.

Once, my product manager told me I was embarrassing myself and eBay would never respond. I kept calling.

If this were not the customer looking for me, who was?

I also took the time to take our entire website and line it up with one problem—-fraud on eBay.  Every line, every photo, every demo. I was aligning my marketing to get the one sale that would launch the company.

This my friends is sales driven marketing. Why?

Because what happened next is Meg Whitman still has no solution and board members have phones too. And when they call, they get through.

Why are the kids getting screwed, they may have asked.

Then, one day, we had a company meeting—all 7 of us in my office.

About 10:00 AM or so the phone rang and I had to pick it up as we had no admin. Nobody much called anyway.

“Jay, this is (redacted) the President of Ebay.  Meg Whitman told me to call you and while we are working with the best fraud people in the business, we should at least hear what you have to say.”

I asked him to repeat it as I put on the speaker phone for our non-believing product manager. That was fulfilling.

So I said, “can you go to the web site?” We explain it there.

This is sales driven marketing. If my web site had been all kinds of standard junk about fraud detection and our “brand”, the conversation would have ended. But he started to get what we did—we found fraud relationships where there were zero, totally zero attributes in common.

One sentence—-everywhere on the site.

Stay with me, the next part is really fun for the tech startup.

He said “can you do a demo tomorrow at 10:00 AM California time to one of our guys?”

“Sure” I said. What else to say?

10:00 AM came.

We started a Webex demo—Webex was new back then and sometimes sketchy. About 8 minutes into the demo, the person at the other end, clearly one of the smartest people in the room, put us on mute and asked us to start over. That happened 11 times. We later learned that when we finished around mid-day, there were 74 people in the room.

The rest, my friends is history.

The 1999 eBay Annual Report notes, in a quiet sentence, that eBay found a solution to its fraud problem, never mentioning our name.

Forbes Magazine, however, did a feature story on how we solved this problem nobody could solve, and when it came out, my mother, for the first time, said maybe there was a future in this software thing, whatever it was.

Sales driven marketing is what you do as a tech startup. You focus on a very tight message, for an innovator, or in-pain audience, and you make sure your message has zero confusion.

Later, after the VCs come in and dilute you into being an employee with options that verge on worthless, you will move to traditional marketing with stuff like brand marketing, fancy web sites and white papers that are so homogenized as to be salt free.

Sales driven marketing is vital because the world is different before you have your first real customer.