Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How To Sell Dirt

I recently was in talks with a fairly large internet startup trying to set up a consultancy position related to data mining. The experience was a first for me; I finished my engineering PhD two years ago, and I’ve been working in research as a postdoc since then. I found myself in the surprisingly uncomfortable position of trying to sell myself for cash. Thankfully, everything went very well - even though in the end I didn’t get the job, it wasn’t because of something I did; they were very pleased with me (at least, that’s what they told me), but there were situational difficulties that led them to scrap the position for the time being. However, the ordeal of attempting to convince someone that I have something of value, and that they should pay me to access it, was very new to me, and I was only able to handle it as well as I did (which clearly could have been better, as I didn’t get the job) with lots of discussion and advice-seeking from family and friends.

While this was going on, a family friend came to the states. This fellow, and American who moved to Israel a few years ago, has no advanced formal education. However, he has it where it counts; this man is a businessman, and he knows his stuff. His current job floors me every time I hear about it.

He sells dirt. To tourists. Who buy it. And he makes a good living doing it.

Now, to be sure, this is not just any dirt. This is dirt from the Holy Land. He packages it up in a nice little vial next to two more tubes of Holy Land water and Holy Land oil. They’re all packaged together in a nice cardboard box, probably with some very lovely Pslams or something written on the back. And, I want to be clear, the people who by it are good, religious people who very much value this sort of thing1; I have absolutely nothing against them. They may be looking for a meaningful keepsake by which they can fondly remember their pilgrimage, or they may be completely irreligious tourists looking for a unique souvenir that’s not a refrigerator magnet. The point is, his entrepeneurial brain realized that there are people who appreciate this sort of thing; in fact, these people will pay for his dirt, because it’s packaged all nice and pretty.

The juxtaposition of his visit with my interview process was jarring to me, because I’ve put in almost ten years to my education and I’m working my tail off to sell my skills to someone, and this guy with practically no education is able to make a living selling dirt and tap water to tourists, who buy it for a premium. This was a serious in-your-face reminder of how business acumen is not just requirement, but one of the most crucial requirements for job seeking that exist, and its also something you will probably not be taught much about in school.

I took home a few lessons from this:

  • Business acumen is crucial. Everyone knows this. I knew this. However, seeing this principle in action really makes you understand that “good business acumen » education”. Even if the only thing you’re selling is yourself, understand what you’re selling. Develop on your own elevator pitch.

  • Just because a market is oversaturated doesn’t mean a solid newcomer can’t gain market share. If any of you have been to Israel, you’ll know that the market for tourist souvenirs is hardly looking for more competition. However, this fellow came up with a novel implementation of an old idea, packaged it well, and has carved out enough of the market that he and his family can live on it. This happens in the tech market all the time; the best example that comes to my mind immediately is hipmunk with air travel.

  • Focus on what you know. My skillset: (1) I can program in five languages. (2) I’m able to interpret neural signals and tell you what you’re thinking before you even know it yourself. (3) I know how to create a machine learning program that learns from it’s past mistakes. (4-inf) All the other stuff I’ve learned along the way.

    This guy’s skillset: (1) Selling dirt.

    Focus on what you know. My friend knows how to monetize his skills, and he does so to good effect. There’s always more to learn, and you SHOULD stay on top of new developments, but don’t undervalue your current skillset. DEFINITELY don’t skip out on improving what you know just so you can spend a few days with the hot new tech on the block. “Wide and shallow” knowledge may be good for a Jeopardy contestant, but young job-seekers will almost always be better off with a very deep understanding of a choice one or two technologies. Next time the opportunity comes around, Instead of working on learning something new, work in improving skills you already have for a bit, and it will do you good.

  1. Growing up, my parents had a little display case on the mantel with a piece of the Berlin wall on it. As a kid, I always wondered whether the folks in Berlin would ever come by our house and ask for it back. 


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