Bonfire of the Vanities: The Difference Between Marketing and Sales in Tech


When I was in my 20s, I was taught the relationship between marketing and sales over a bonfire.

Over 30 years ago, before the arrival of the personal computer, there were desktop computers called office workstations. Designed around the first generation of microprocessors, these computers ran business applications like word processing, spreadsheets, and accounting. They were an improvement over the dumb terminals hanging off of mainframes and minicomputers, but ran proprietary operating systems and software. My third startup, Convergent Technologies, was in the business of making these workstations.

The OEM Business

Convergent’s computers were bought and then resold by other computer manufacturers – all of them long gone: Burroughs, Prime, Monroe Data Systems, ADP, Mohawk, Gould, NCR, 4-Phase, AT&T. Convergent had assembled a stellar team with founders from Digital Equipment Corporation and Intel and engineers from Xerox PARC. And once we went public, we hired a veteran VP of Sales from Honeywell.

As the company’s revenues skyrocketed, Convergent started a new division to make a multi-processor Unix-based mini-computer. I had joined the company as the product marketing manager and now found myself as the VP of marketing for this new division. We were a startup inside a $200 million company. A marketer for 5 years, I thought I knew everything and proceeded to write the data sheets for our new computer.

Since this new computer was very complicated—it was a pioneer in multi-processing– I concluded it needed an equally detailed data sheet. In fact, when I was done, the datasheet describing our new computer, proudly called the MegaFrame, was 16 pages long. I fact-checked the datasheet with my boss (who would be my co-founder at Epiphany) and the rest of the engineering team. We all agreed it was perfect. We’d left no stone unturned in answering every possible question anyone could ever have about our system. As we typically did, I printed up several thousand to send out to the sales force.

The day the datasheets came back from the printers, I sent the boxes to the sales department in Convergent’s corporate headquarters, a separate building across the highway, and sent a copy to our CEO and the new VP of Sales. (I was thinking it was such a masterpiece I might get an “attaboy” or at least a “wow, thanks for doing all the hard work for our sales organization.”)

So when I got a call from the VP of sales who said, “Steve, just read your new datasheet. Why don’t you come over to corporate. We have a surprise for you,” I smugly thought, “They probably thought it was so good, I’m going to get a thank you or an award or maybe even a bonus.”

Fahrenheit 451

I got in my car to make the five minute drive over the freeway. Turning into the parking lot, I noticed smoke coming from the far end of the lawn. As I parked and walked closer I noticed a crowd of people around what seemed to be an impromptu campfire. “What the heck??” As an ex sales and marketing VP, our CEO had a Silicon Valley reputation for … Next Page »

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Steve Blank is the co-author of The Startup Owner's Manual and author of the Four Steps to the Epiphany, which details his Customer Development process for minimizing risk and optimizing chances for startup success. A retired serial entrepreneur, Steve teaches at Stanford University Engineering School and at U.C. Berkeley's Haas Business School. He blogs at Follow @sgblank

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4 responses to “Bonfire of the Vanities: The Difference Between Marketing and Sales in Tech”

  1. Thank you Steve I needed that. I read a lot of marketing stuff. This article was actually useful. Thanks for illustrating the difference in knowledge and wisdom.

  2. Chris Noble says:

    Interesting story! I have a couple of different takeaways:

    1) Data sheets need to be detailed and precise. However, they are not sales tools. Good marketing and sales needs data sheets AND sales tools, not one document that tries to do both.

    2) Who would want to work for a company with a corporate culture that encourages such behavior on the part of the CEO and VP of Sales?

  3. Drew says:

    Wow- rough crowd!! Sales guys (including that CEO) are “scoreboard” guys, and counted this as a “win” for them on the scoreboard. Not a productive way to treat an employee – humiliate him in front of his team, co-workers, and the people at the company he serves (sales in this case)

    What a couple of immature bullies.