Doing things never done before is fun

While employed in high tech in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was enthralled to work in innovative computer companies. The advanced technology I marketed was often the first of its kind. The world’s first portable computer, the world’s first electronic office software, a 4GL programming language that ran on multiple platforms without rewriting code, a managed security system superior to a firewall.  While I never fully understood the engineering side of the technology (hey, I was in marketing, usually in a creative capacity), I did understand enough to know how to write about its appeal and it’s benefits, and to direct writers and designers to produce marketing materials that won industry awards, new customers, and the praise from senior management. I worked in a world that made history, doing things that had never been done before. Work in high tech was the place to be. It made me proud, like I was making a difference. It felt like a big deal.  I remember being told by HR at Data General during my exit interview, after seven years employment, that I would want to come back to DG because the electronic software that only DG had was so cool.  It was; but I didn’t.

Remember Steve Jobs’ pitch to Joy Sculley, president of Pepsi, whom he was trying to recruit to Apple: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

i enjoyed the newness and the excitement generated in these emerging growth companies. I liked going to work in the morning. It was fun.

So when I found myself working at a very small private engineering services firm about ten years ago, a firm that originated as a reseller of used analytical instrumentation (sort of like a used car salesman), it was hard for me to accept.  After three wildly successful start-ups (Progress Software, BBN, and Altiga Networks), I found myself in an unfamiliar, untenable work situation. (After my run at three start-ups, I had the misfortune of toiling at a medical device start-up that went belly-up a year after I joined. But it too had an industry “first”: the world’s smallest automated external defibrillator (AED). I was then in my 50s (age), and that impacted my career trajectory).

So here I was in my late 50s working in a small company that catered to the life sciences. I was spending my day “half in sales and half in marketing”, communicating with PhD chemists and lab managers, with no chemistry background, or knowledge of analytical instrumentation. I had a very small budget and a poorly maintained database. True, it was another start-up like situation, but it was not a start-up. It had a history. The company was about ten years old and had lost its way.  It had to re-invent itself after the 2008 recession and the company was reduced to a skeleton staff. It was different too because the company had no marketing to speak of, there was no process understood, and little budget to improve it.  One had to be resourceful to make it. To my boss’ credit, he, the owner, president and chief salesman, learned enough about mass spectrometry to sell well, but the same technical matter eluded me.

In my capacity in previous firms, I didn’t need to know much behind the most basic definition of a virtual private network (VPN) or the technical nature of IEEE standard 802.3.  When I was at Altiga Networks or BBN or Progress Software, there were sales engineers, sustaining engineers and inside sales who knew the technical side. Engineers and programmers – the two professions which were the far majority employees of the early stage start-ups which employed me – lack marketing communications and database marketing skills. That’s where I came in. I filled a void. “If you build it, they will come” was good for the movies (see “Field of Dreams”) but had no place in the competitive business world.

Fortunately, at the small engineering services firm, besides the instrumentation that we bought, refurbished and resold, we also sold a high throughout disruptive technology called LDTD (laser diode thermal desorption) that was targeted to clinical and forensic toxicology and pharmaceutical labs. It’s in marketing of this technology that I was able to pick up where I left off from my high tech days.

LDTD was a cool technology ahead of its time. I had learned lessons from my high tech days in start-ups and global companies that I applied to marketing LDTD.

Using my business research skills, I discovered laboratories that were likely candidates who could benefit from the technology. As a disruptive technology, much like the DG/One, the world’s first portable computer, it was a special kind of lab and lab manager who would consider and buy an LDTD.  We were looking for the maverick, the entrepreneur-led laboratory that saw the promise and potential of a LDTD, even when colleagues dissed it.  Much like high tech buyers, scientists are risk-aversive and need substantial proof prior to purchase. As a result, we scaled back and marketed to labs with the goal of attaining evaluation rather than outright purchase.  Pilot projects were conducted to prove its value. Application notes were created and presentations done at industry events.  The sales cycle was longer and more complicated, but that was the reality.

Automation and robotics are at the forefront of laboratory technology sales and marketing and lessons learned in other cutting edge industries are transferable to life sciences.  R&D leads the way and it’s all very cool.  The future is bright for both the brightest PhD types and marketing creatives alike.  They both need each other to succeed.





Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

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