“I had to learn how to sell the hard way”
Position: Founder of the Modern Sales Pros community for Sales Operations. Also an advisor and angel investor in sales, marketing and HR enterprise technologies.
Home: San Francisco
Family: Wife, Tracy
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English and master’s degree in English-Ethics/Moral Philosophy and Literature from Stanford. Competed on the club ski team.
Career: Co-founder of TalentBin. Later vice president of product and technology at Monster after it acquired TalentBin. Previous stops include VMware, where he was a senior product marketing manager.
Favorite movie: “Ghostbusters” — the original film.
Favorite book: Kazanjy couldn’t narrow it to just one. “This is tough question for me because my focus in college was modern literature,” he said. “For instance I love Joseph Conrad.” But he had a quick answer for his favorite business book: “The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement” by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. “It’s essentially an operations book written as a novel,” Kazanjy said. “It’s sort of the philosophy of a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. It helps you understand process engineering in a way that’s palatable and not dry.”
Interests: Public speaking, the San Francisco Giants, cooking. He’s also active on Twitter (22,000-plus Tweets and counting).
Quote: “The way sales teams used to be run was, ‘We’re going to hire as many folks as we can, we’re going to motivate them, and we’re going to tell them that we’re going to fire them if they don’t hit their numbers.’ Today, it’s more about being a systems thinker and an analyst. I think of Sales Ops as the human representation of the sales organization’s left brain.”
Pete Kazanjy thought they had already accomplished the hard part. He and co-founder Jason Heidema launched a startup called TalentBin. It featured an innovative recruiting product that filled a growing market niche. Now all they had to do was sell it. Easy, right?
Uh, not quite.
“I was totally a fish out of water going from being a product marketing geek to a salesperson,” Kazanjy recalled. “I was lost in the wilderness. I made terrible mistakes. And looking back, I was pretty typical of many founders who just don’t know how to build a sales operation. It’s why there’s such a high mortality rate for young companies. If you don’t figure it out right there, it’s over. There’s no second chance.”
TalentBin not only survived, it thrived — getting acquired by Monster Worldwide in 2014.
And that painful experience of cobbling together a sales process through trial-and-error is why Kazanjy started Modern Sales Pros – a forum to help Sales Operations professionals do their jobs better. Kazanjy also is putting the final touches on “Founding Sales,” an early-stage, how-to-sell book that he wished he could have read during TalentBin’s early struggles.
His core belief: You need an engineering mindset to build a world-class sales structure.
“It’s at your peril to ignore the paradigm shift that has occurred in sales,” said Kazanjy, 36. “You really have no choice other than to make your organization more operationally efficient through process and software. It doesn’t mean that every sales leader needs to understand how to use tools like Tableau. But you’re not allowed to be afraid of math anymore.”
Kazanjy scoffs at the idea that he has become a sort of godfather to the Sales Ops community. Still, it could be argued that no one is doing more to put operations in the spotlight as crucial for business success.
“A lot of people still think of sales as an art,” said Brooke Lengsfelder, the director of sales development at mParticle. “But Pete is trying to show that it’s both an art and science. He likes to say that sales used to be about people with nice hair who wanted to take you out to a steak dinner. But he’s teaching everyone that you can’t be stuck in your old ways and just think you can win people over. That’s not scalable. If process and structure is the backbone of your sales organization, you’re going to do much better.”
But before refining that methodology, Kazanjy first had to stumble.
* * *
It makes sense that Kazanjy eventually would become an entrepreneur. His father started his own company in the Southern California aerospace industry during the 1980s.
“I come from a pretty technical family,” he said. “So I was raised in an environment where if you saw a problem, it was expected that you should try to solve it yourself.”
Kazanjy grew up in the Orange County city of Santa Ana. In high school he bridged social cliques by both pitching for the baseball team and competing in Academic Decathlon events. He followed in the footsteps of his mother, who was a teacher, by earning concurrent bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at Stanford.
So when he later landed in the tech industry, Kazanjy melded his arts and sciences interests into a marketing career. At VMware, he rose to a senior product marketing manager role before getting the urge to create his own company.
Kazanjy and Heidema started with Honestly.com, which was sort of a business version of Yelp where professionals could anonymously review their peers. When that didn’t find traction, they pivoted and eventually rebranded as TalentBin — which aggregated data from the Internet about potential job candidates.
“That was extraordinarily helpful to recruiters,” Kazanjy said. “We thought, ‘Fantastic!’ But then I came to the realization that I had to sell this.”
Like many founders, Kazanjy didn’t have a sales background . . . and it quickly showed.
“When you're just starting out, you’re not used to asking people uncomfortable questions like: ‘Do you have the authority and budget to buy?’” he said. “I thought it was impolite to ask that. And I would end demos by saying something like: ‘OK, let me know what you think.’ That’s a typical founder mistake. So I had to learn how to sell the hard way — by sucking at it. But eventually, I got better.”
It was more than just sharpening a slick sales pitch that emphasized ROI and the potential cost of not buying the product. Kazanjy and his team built a data-driven workflow that set up sales reps for success.
Manny Ortega, who was the sales operations manager at TalentBin, said Kazanjy taught him the importance of thinking analytically about everything they did. Define the problem. Make no assumptions. Be willing to experiment. Measure the data.
“Pete understood that the philosophy of engineering could be applied to sales,” added Ortega, now the director of sales operations at Outreach. “We constantly were testing hypotheses — but only in a very controlled fashion. Then we iterated off those results. He taught us that you need to take baby steps reach to your ultimate goal.”
Kazanjy had a knack of making the team trust the process, Ortega said. Lengsfelder, who was a TalentBin sales rep, agreed. She said Kazanjy’s management philosophy mirrors what former Google executive Kim Scott calls “radical candor.” The blunt-speaking Kazanjy never tiptoes around the truth.
“He believes that you have to be honest with people — even if it’s not what they want to hear,” Lengsfelder explained. “He wasn’t afraid to roast us when it was warranted. But nobody’s feelings ever got hurt because it came from a place of him wanting to help us be better. We knew he cared.”
* * *
After the acquisition, Kazanjy initially stayed on at Monster. But the company’s old-school sales process wasn’t a good match for him. When he left in 2015, Kazanjy founded the Modern Sales Pros community to focus on issues facing Sales Ops specialists. The invitation-only group has grown to 1,500 members. There are regular events that Kazanjy affectionately calls “a gathering of nerds speaking the same language.” And an online forum allows “MSPers” to pose questions to the group about challenges they're confronting.
“He has a genuine, altruistic desire to help and just save people from themselves,” Ortega said. “Pete’s idea was, ‘Let’s get all of these people together because there’s so much tribal knowledge out there.’ He knows this stuff shouldn’t be that hard. We’ve all figured out bits and pieces of it. So let’s help one another solve the rest of it so we all can move forward.”
But woe to anyone who tries to pitch their own product. Kazanjy is swift to hand down temporary — and sometimes even permanent — bans from the forum when that happens. Practitioners are expected to help, not sell.
“I try to be a facilitator,” he said. “Sales Ops people are all out there trying to fix the same problems. But they often don’t have anyone they can talk to at their organizations. This community has become extraordinarily popular because people are thirsty for information.”
Kazanjy and Heidema hope to unveil their next project in early 2017. (Sneak preview: it’s a software solution designed to use data to drive better performance for teams.)
The job of improving a modern sales machine, he said, never ends.
“There’s a lot of organizations that never figure this out, or it takes them way longer than it should have — like with me at TalentBin,” Kazanjy added. “But the sooner you do, the better positioned your company will be to succeed.”
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