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Startup Leaders, Don’t Get Lost in Translation

As an entrepreneur, you are going to wear many hats if your tech startup is to become successful. One of the most important and often overlooked hats is that of the translator. I have been a leader my entire career in tech companies – both small and large – and the one thing all of these experiences have had in common is that you are constantly speaking to diverse audiences. If you can become the shaded region of the Venn Diagram that overlaps between engineering and go-to-market, then you will provide tremendous value and set your company up for success – both externally and internally.

External Translation

I was the first head of sales and marketing for Dyn, which at the time was a small, self-service domain name system (DNS) company with enterprise ambitions. Prior to being hired, I interviewed with one of the company’s co-founders, Tom Daly, who is a brilliant technical mind. During our conversation, Tom pulled out what appeared to be a 10,000-page book explaining every detail, nuance, and history of DNS. He told me to read it. Never shy, I slid the book back across the table and said, “You don’t want me to read this book.” More than a decade later, I can still remember the startled look on his face. He wasn’t expecting that.

I wasn’t just being brash. For a tech company to succeed, you have to simplify your messaging. You have to remove jargon, get out of the weeds, and show the business value of the products and solutions you offer. I truly believed I shouldn’t bog myself down with too much technical detail. I always say, “you need to know what you need to know and draw the line.”

As an executive, however, you need to know your tech cold, and this comes in time and practice. But you also need to know about a wide breadth of adjacent technologies because, when speaking with high-targeted prospects or partners, you never know in what direction a conversation may go. And you must always find the opportunity. If you simply memorize a product, when the conversation veers beyond that one-pager, you’re lost, which can mean money is left on the table. So, yes, it is important to understand your products’ features and differentiators, but it is also crucial to understand where your products fit into the broader market. Only then will you understand the current pain points that exist in your industry and be able to articulate how you address them for your customers.

Additionally, at the end of the day – for now at least! – it is still human beings who are buying technologies. For thousands of years, humans have communicated through stories. Your tech team will give you excellent products and features. It is your job to translate those from speeds and feeds into the value that they add, the problems that they solve, and the better night’s sleep that they provide. Any company can show a product checklist on their website and even compare it to competitors. Of course, that is crucial. But the reality is that everyone can have reasonable tech and good products. As a founder, you’re not trying to just make a product. You’re trying to build a company. A company is a great story backed by products that fulfill the promise of that story.

Internal Translation

To tell a good external story, you need buy-in from within. As a leader, you’re not just communicating to the outside market. One of your most important audiences is internal. And these conversations often need translation, because different parts of a company can oftentimes think quite differently. This is a broad generalization, but I have found that many on the tech side of the house love going deep into the nuances of products, while sales folks lean heavy on a great story, even if it isn’t 100% true today. These divergent viewpoints can create friction if not properly translated. Both sides want what’s best for the company: to create great products that people buy. But they often speak in different languages. And I’m not going to even get into the general and administrative talent in your organization, like human resources, finance, or accounting, which are critical functions to scale a company, but oftentimes are so far removed from what you actually do and what value you provide. You need to educate them too because they can be some of your best evangelists if armed well.

As a leader, you may need to remind your engineering team that, even though one feature may be sexier, it may have to wait until one that customers are demanding is finished. Simultaneously, you may need to remind a salesperson that new products and features do not grow on trees, so they must remain patient or figure another way to add new value with the current offerings. Above all, you must get EVERYONE to believe in the story you want to tell the market. Only once your entire business is on the same stage can you deliver to your greatest potential. And delivering on your story is what will make your company an undeniable success.

And you’ll have the added bonus of being able to add “translator” to your resume.

*A version of this blog was originally written while working at Oracle as a Vice President and General Manager after being acquired with Dyn. Lessons learned and applied to York IE.

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