Saying No to Sales

May 7, 2015 holman

There it was, right in my inbox:

If you go ahead and make those changes, we’ll come on board and send you a check for $75,000.

75 grand was a buncha cash for GitHub back in 2010. It became pretty clear that this was going to be no ordinary sales thread I was about to deal with.

When I first started at GitHub, I worked on GitHub Firewall Install. This was our version GitHub that you could install on your own servers. This was the product that would eventually evolve into GitHub Enterprise.

OG GitHub Enterprise

A month or two into my employment, we got an email in the sales queue from a prospective company with a short list of needs in our product. They made it abundantly clear that they couldn’t switch to GitHub without these points addressed. If we went ahead and built them, though, boom, easy 75k. Hell, that was more than my year’s salary. Not too shabby.

While all of their needs combined wouldn’t take more than a day or two of development time, most of them were requests that were pretty obvious we didn’t want to add to our product. There was a real concern about bloating our app and increasing our support burden and costs.

I was still feeling really new to the gig and was pretty nervous about this large potential contract, so I remember spending a good half hour or so responding to the email, considering my approach. I didn’t want to piss away potential future customers, even if we couldn’t help them today.

Those are great suggestions, and we’ll keep them in mind. Or maybe, We have some interesting thoughts about solving these problems in the future. Perhaps god you’re stressing me the fuck out dude. Or no, maybe we should just go with Sorry, but that’s not feasible in our current product.

Eventually I found a tactful way to put my thoughts into words and fired off a response.

Not three minutes later, I received a response back:

Cool, no problem. My boss made me ask that. We’ll have a check in the mail later today.

That was that.

The whole exchange is still burned into my memory five years later because it was the first surprising sales lesson I learned: don’t go chasing the quick buck.

It’s a bit of a cliché in the startup world to always focus on the product rather than what your customers think they need. Henry Ford and faster horses and all that. I knew this, and we talked about this constantly on the team, but it’s still one of those things that can blindside you if you’re not actively thinking about it.

Money can be really tempting.

But everything you add to your product dilutes everything else. It becomes harder to use. It becomes more expensive to support. And chasing individual features and one-off fixes can unfortunately shield you from coming up with even simpler approaches that solve this problem and seven others at the same time.

That’s not to say you should ignore customer feedback, or ignore your sales channel, or anything of the sort. It just means you deeply consider every little product change you make. It means you only make these changes if it aligns with your goal and will make your users happier in the long-term. It means you’re proactive rather than reactive.

If you believe in your product, and you have faith that what you’re building is the way forward, hold your ground and resist adding things just for the short-term gain. The long-term can kill you just as well, and by that point it may be too late to save it.