Selling knives to strangers may seem like a job for future serial killers, but believe it or not, hawking the sharp utensils for Cutco as a teenager was one of the best foundational experiences of my career.
And it turns out, I’m not the only one who thinks so.
Travis Kalanick, founder and CEO of Uber, was slinging Cutco knives way before he was reinventing the transportation industry. Daniel Tosh, the well-known comedian, was a proud cutlery consultant before he created his thriving comedy empire.
One way or another, successful entrepreneurs need to be able to convince other people to do stuff -- aka ”sell." Whether it’s getting a venture capitalist to invest, an engineer to quit their day job to join your startup, a customer to buy your product or your co-founder to agree with your decision, a solid grasp of how to pitch and close is handy, if not fundamental.
Unfortunately, you can’t major in "selling" in college, so the only way to obtain these skills is to actually go out and try to sell something. In my case, it was knives.
In addition to learning how to cut a penny into a corkscrew, here are a few of the key lessons, learned during my Cutco days, that've been foundational to starting and growing a company.
1. Handling rejection
Believe it or not, not everyone wanted to buy my knives.
I’ll never forget doing a demo for a customer -- let’s call him Mr. No -- and accidently sliced my finger instead of my trusty rope (meant to simulate tough meat) while he berated me with objections and criticism. After bleeding profusely all over his table, I was promptly shown the door without an order in hand.
I realized that, at the end of the day, it was ultimately his loss to stick with his crappy knives, and I’d have to learn to shake off the “nos” if I was ever going to start finding the “yeses.”
As entrepreneurs, we run into “nos” more times than we’d like, and dealing with rejection is par for the course. For example, raising capital from VCs is a game of navigating through the many “nos” to get to the one “yes” you need.
Understanding how to take that in stride, address objections and learn from it will enable you to strengthen your pitch every time. Nos enable -- not inhibit -- success.
2. It’s all about relationships
Contrary to popular belief, Cutco knife sales is not door-to-door -- it’s referral-based.
Getting someone to take an hour out of their busy day to talk knives wasn't easy, and it came down to a strong referral from the network I built. I started with family and friends, none of whom would buy knives from me initially (because my pitch was terrible) but were happy to throw a few others under the bus by giving me a handful of contacts who might listen to my pitch.
Once I name dropped the trusted referrer, I more often than not got a meeting and once I got my pitch down, this system started to work -- I raked in the dollars and delivered cutlery excellence to housewives and househusbands all across Los Angeles.
Relationships are at the core of growing any business -- whether it be getting more customers, partners, press, investors. Valuing each and every relationship, whether it results in a paying customer or not, is a fundamental trait of some of today’s fastest-growing businesses (e.g. social networks). Investing in relationships and facilitating referrals for others (karma) are right out of my own playbook.
As a side note, I’m a big believer in the “double opt-in” method to introductions and referrals, although this does contradict the Cutco approach. If A asks you for an intro to B, confirm first with B if she’s interested in the intro before making it -- double opt-ins will go a long way toward improving trust and quality within your relationships and network.
3. Nailing an effective pitch
It’s pitch time. How do I politely convince someone who's just meeting with me that they can’t let me leave their house until they’ve spent $1,149 on the Homemaker Set?
Ultimately, every pitch comes down to the WIIFY, “What’s in it for you?,” which I learned from Jerry Weissman, author of Presenting to Win and the greatest presentation coach on the planet, in my opinion.
To this day, I still rely on some of the following key pitch basics to identify and hone in on the WIIFY and set myself up for a close.
- Ask as many questions as possible to identify the customer’s pain-point(s), and address how your solution is going to solve their problems
- Demo, demo, demo. Seeing is believing, and a live demonstration is worth 1,000 words
- Build a repository of each objection to improve how you address them each and every time
- Don’t be afraid to end with “the ask." Why are you there?
4. Closing time
What separates the ladies from the girls, the men from the boys and the salespeople of the month -- with engraved steak knives -- from the rest?
When I first started selling Cutco, I followed the scripts to a T and went through all the motions, but I just couldn’t close. Certainly, my pitch got better over time but it wasn’t until I started to actually believe in the product I was selling, embrace the value proposition and gain the confidence to close with a strong ask that my close rate skyrocketed.
“Would you like a Homemaker +8 ($1,149) set or Galley + 6 ($944) set today?”
Entrepreneurs will be trying to close something from someone -- daily. Belief in your offering, idea or product mixed with a bit of self-confidence will enable you to close the deal.
Today, I really can’t give enough credit to my Cutco experience for sharpening my skills as an entrepreneur.