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Selling Your Brain, Not Your Labor

The key to success is the ability to sell one's own brain, not labor hours.


Editor’s Note: As many MR suppliers attempt to make the  shift away from a cost plus business model, it’s vital to begin to think as a consultant not just in terms of the services we offer, but also in how we sell ourselves and price our services. Snorri Gudmundsson is in the middle of this transformation himself and shares some learnings from his own journey. Good stuff…


By Snorri Gudmundsson

After spending a decade believing I was selling my brain, I recently discovered that I have not been doing that at all – I have been selling labor hours. It is very easy to start selling labor hours without being aware of it but there are ways to prevent it. Doing so requires unbiased introspection which may be difficult, but going through the following points can be very helpful:

Do you spend more time working on your computer than speaking with people? I did that, for I believed that it would be easier to close a deal with images, PowerPoints, Excels, Words and PDFs rather than just drafting a quick outline. I spent around 80% of the workday generating content instead of actually working with the client solving a problem. Once I reduced that to 20% – and that required quite an effort – business began to accelerate. While engaged with a project, I found myself forced to cut time to market for a client from six months to two and that meant that fat had to be trimmed. I nearly stopped drafting anything – basically mapped it out in my head using mental PowerPoints, Excels, Words – reduced meeting and meeting duration from 30 minutes to 15 and got the ball rolling at high-speed. Once everything was in place, partners, distributors, end-customers and investors, I pieced together a brief Word document (converted to PDF), a short spreadsheet and a 7-page PowerPoint, That is all it took to seal the deal. What I learned from this is that if you focus on selling your brain alone, you catch the momentum whereas going the document way may cause you to lose it.

Do you micromanage more than delegate? My issue here was that I did not trust anyone to deliver the message I wanted as I wanted – text, image, layout and format. Since I could not really delegate – although I believed I was actually doing just that – I wasted valuable time on what font should be used for headers instead of working with the client solving problems or laying growth strategies. As I am quite proficient at text, visual and numerical delivery, I preferred to handle that myself whether or not I had others do it. What happened was that I would superimpose how I would have done it over the material being submitted. That is not how to run an efficient operation. Micromanagement eats up time, creates discomfort for the ones working for you, and may cause a myriad of problems that slow down revenue generation. If you want to earn more faster, reduce – or stop – micromanaging.

Do you surround yourself with people better at certain things than you are? If you micromanage, you will correct what other people do. People that micromanage are usually perfectionists (I am) and accepting imperfection (according to own aesthetic threshold) is just as unpleasant as eating fermented shark (an Icelandic dish; “The single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing I have ever eaten.” Chef Anthony Bourdain, Travel Channel). Anyone subjected to micromanagement will quickly begin to divert attention from the task at hand to a growing resentment toward you. That reduces efficiency and usually results in sloppy work. After all, if you know your boss will change everything you do, why bother?! When I stopped micromanaging, something spectacular happened: I transformed from laborer to leader. Now I expect things to be done properly, although I do not expect them to be done exactly as I would do them. The way to get to this point is to prioritize tasks and be willing to let go once they have been delegated to the proper personnel. Once I fully understood the value of doing this and was able to put a price tag on it (hint: compensation), company growth accelerated.

Do you prioritize or do you work on everything at the same time? In my book, multi-tasking means getting less done in more time. We cannot think two thoughts at the same time although the brain can switch so rapidly that we are deceived into believing that we can. We can’t, for instance, think of an oil tanker and a tomato at the same time without putting both in same mental image. We can switch rapidly between the two, but we can’t ‘see‘ both unless we put them adjacent to one another (and even then we can’t ‘see‘ both as our mind’s eye switches between them). Given the difficulty of this simple task, imagine the effect is has when working on multiple projects at the same time? In my case, I have to ‘rewire‘ my brain before changing between projects which is why I prefer to work on few projects at a time and preferably of very different nature. The greater the overlaps between projects, the higher the risk that mistakes will occur as we confuse the two.

Have you put yourself to the challenge of generating revenue using ONLY your brain? Last year, I asked myself that question and ended up staring into thin air. I had no real concept of what that meant. The method I used to test this theory was to operate only on email and telephone; no PowerPoints, Excels, or Words, only my mind and my mouth. The result was mind-boggling. Before I did this, my reach was limited to Icelandic businesses and a handful of US firms (I spent seven years there, so I had some contacts still intact). Today, I have a network capable of penetrating the largest companies on the planet exactly where I want it to penetrate. The epiphany came when I understood that people are not persuaded by documents but by other people. If you respect them and what they do, they will respect you and what you do. Once you have engaged in friendly talks and have formulated a project that creates a mutual gain, then you whip together the necessary documents and seal the deal. I have found that this leads to closer, longer lasting relationships than actually trying to sell someone something based on promotional materials or business plans. People like being sold something that they can gain from, and sometimes that gain is just interacting with another professional on the same level (that can lead to very interesting projects). I have been very fortunate to have met a lot of great people out there that hold impressive positions yet are very passionate about other things such as the preservation of the Amazon. Companies are not blocks of cement, they are people. When building a business, it is very easy to forget that which sets the stage for labor hour sales.

These are just my observations; there is no right or wrong when it comes to building a business. Or is there?

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4 responses to “Selling Your Brain, Not Your Labor

  1. I couldn’t agree more! About two years ago, I quit using decks in sales presentations and started talking to the clients. At first, they were resistant, because they had to actually interact, but once the meetings got started, they found that the clarity and resolution of thought far exceeded their meetings with other consultants. We could then do a short deck that summarized the meeting, and the sales closed at both a higher rate and in a shorter time frame and the projects tended to have far less noise.

    You can say in a five minute conversation what it takes 40 slides to do in a PowerPoint. They have a place, but it’s more on the back end. The reality is that many research companies focus on data collection (because that’s where they see their value) and not on solutions. By having a conversation, the focus remains primarily on the solution.

    As Snorri indicated, this process also frees up a lot of time and facilitates more internal communication as well. This allows you to delegate more with better results. It also reduces the number of “rogue” applications that reduce the effectiveness of a project and creates a more uniform process for project execution that removes the need for assumptions.

    Companies complain all the time about siloing and in many cases it occurs because they just don’t communicate. Email is very efficient for straightforward communications, but the reality is that many people don’t spend enough time structuring their written communications and important details are often left out.

    Think it’s a great idea but you just don’t have the time? Try it for one project and you will be hooked. Try it for one month and you’ll feel like you took a vacation.

  2. Great article, Snorri. I loved the concept of surrounding ourselves with people that are smarter and better than we are. Formula has worked for politicians for hundreds of years… so it should work for market researchers!

  3. Great article Snorri that really resonated with me.
    I’m new to consulting but knew instictively that with my extensive global experience I would be considered as “too expensive” to all but the c-suite. This has proven right with top managers more interested in the results than the cost and middle management worrying more about my daily rate. I don’t have one but on the single occasion I was pressurised into giving one – to a repeat client I maight add, but at Director rather than c level – I never heard from the person again.
    Thank goodness I have since refused to the point of not pitching for a job that required a proposal stating hourly rates! I have found that concentrating on results gets us the clients we deserve and recognition of the value we provide.
    Thanks again for all the other ideas too.

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