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Community-led sales

Opening meaningful doors

In 2014, Jim Shilts joined CA Technologies as a sales representative. His job was to sell software tools to the developer community in his patch. Like all reps, he had a target to hit for the quarter and the year. Hitting that target meant achieving his on-target earnings, and missing the mark meant the possibility of polishing up his resume for the next sales role.

Any good B2B sales rep can sell almost any product put in front of them. They are extremely good at understanding the market's challenges, the problems their customers are trying to solve, and the solutions they might cobble together to address them. 

The best reps, though, go a step further than the:

your problem + my product = your solution

formula to make their numbers. They are busy establishing relationships in the market that will serve them well across a career. Even when their employer changes - bringing a new set of products or services to sell - relationships-oriented sales reps like Jim produce more bang for the buck. 

Why? The relationships they establish open more meaningful doors that lead to more sales.

Communities don't begin with a product pitch

Instead of starting with a product pitch in his new role at CA, Jim began building relationships in his community. He started with a simple, local networking group that would gather software developers and engineering leaders. In the beginning, about 20 or 30 people would show up. Then, Jim would propose various discussion topics and invite participants to share their thoughts and experiences. 

"Selfishly, I started the initiative to help build my deal funnel," Jim explained. "But the more I engaged with the community, the movement transformed into building deeper relationships with people in my market. Even if I could not directly help someone, I often discovered opportunities to connect them with others who could help."

Jim's approach to community mimicked the sentiment of Daniel Murry, founder of The Marketing Millennials, who tweeted in 2022: "Most of your audience is not ready to buy. The goal of marketing is that when they are ready to buy, your brand is top of mind."





Jim listened and understood what was on the minds of community members. He then invited guest speakers from the broader developer and software engineering community to speak on meaningful topics to those attending. The meetup was well-attended, and all participants raved about the value they received from participating. 

Jim imposed a few rules around community engagement from the beginning of these meetups. First, while CA Technologies employed him, they did not talk about CA products. He also insisted on a "no sales pitch" policy for the meeting; there was a time and a place for those, and his meetups were not one of them. The meetups were a vendor-neutral zone where people could meet, collaborate, and learn from one another. The neutral stance of the meetup encouraged others in the community to come, and friends started to invite others they knew to join in. 

His employer did play a small part in his community-building efforts. They sponsored pizza and drinks for the attendees - usually around $150 - $200 per event. Beyond being thanked as a sponsor at each meeting, there was no further mention of CA. Jim never hid the fact that he worked at the company. Everyone knew. The association he needed for his day job was there, and people knew where to find him if they had a problem CA could help them address.

A warm introduction

Jim's helpful nature and leadership in the community increased his recognition within and access to his target community as a sales rep. He recounted one new prospect meeting with his sales manager at the time. 

"We met the prospects in the lobby of their offices. The sales manager and I then introduced ourselves. That's when one of the prospects did a double-take."

"You're Jim Shilts? Jim Shilts, the DevOps guy?" asked the new prospect.

"Yes, that's me," Jim smiled. 

"I've been sending my team all your NADOG updates and encouraging them to participate in your meetups. I didn't know you were a sales rep working at CA. That's awesome."

How many sales reps would like that warm introduction on a call with their manager? Jim's community-led orbit was meeting his product-led sales orbit. The more he invested in NADOG, the more this happened.

Jim's reputation in the industry preceded him that day and on many other occasions. He was known for helping people learn more about modern software development practices. People knew he was a sales rep and worked for CA, but he never imposed those views in the community meetings. Instead, he became a trusted advisor to the community. Even though he was not a software engineer, he was welcomed as part of their tribe. 

Jim extended the value of the NADOG community to his sales colleagues at CA. He also invited other salespeople in the industry that he thought could benefit. Getting their buy-in to attend took work.

"Do I have to go?" the reps would ask.

"No. But you should", was Jim's response.

"But why should I attend an evening event if I am not going to come away with five new leads?" they asked.

"I can't promise you five new leads from the event, but I can promise you the opportunity to forge five new relationships," Jim replied.

He advised them to approach it this way: "Go in and participate like a community member. Talk about families and what they are doing. Leave your products on the sidelines. Make personal connections today that will make your future sales easier."

My former colleague and sales executive - Scott Stockton - shared a similar sentiment about his sales-led community approach: "You don't expand through promotion. You expand through participation."

Some reps bought into Jim's approach and prospered. Others did not.

Putting in 1000 hours

When Jim started his work on what became NADOG, he did not have the advantage of communicating his approach using the three-orbit model. In his gut, he knew that to establish broader relationships in the community that would serve him well at any job, he would need to move product-pitching to the side. NADOG was a community-led sales initiative for Jim. His community tribe met in Orbit 3.



Jim did not create the DevOps community at large. Instead, he created forums for those in it to gather, share information, and make connections. The NADOG forums were neutral, helpful, and local. Anyone could have done what Jim did, but he was the one that invested the 1000 hours needed to have it catch on and flourish.

Jim summed up his investment around community-led sales with me, saying, "Community does not have to cost that much. Just be out there, and stay out there".