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How This Tech Founder Has Harnessed The Art Of Aligning Incentives To Close Complex B2B Sales

Phil Hayes-St Clair - Inkl

Phil Hayes-St Clair, senior vice president of business development of Inkl.

Inkl partners with the world's best publishers to provide news of substance devoid of noise and sensationalism.

Full Podcast Transcript

Sidney: Welcome to the "SalesNative" Podcast where tech founders share their most valuable sales lessons. I'm Sidney from Sydney, founder of SalesNative, and today's guest is Phil Hayes-St Clair, senior vice president of business development of inkl based in Melbourne, Australia, and the host of "The Founder to Founder" Podcast. Phil, welcome to the show.

Phil: Hey, Sid, great to be here.

Sidney: inkl partners with the world's best publishers to provide news of substance devoid of noise and sensationalism. Phil, I'd love to learn about the business, but first, I wanna know why did you join this company?

Phil: It's a good question, Sid. So I knew Gautam Mishra who is the CEO and founder of inkl. We've known each other for many years, and in fact, he helped me co-found my previous venture called AirShr. Just a guy who brings a huge amount of knowledge around media, and also just some foresight around where he saw journalism going. And he saw that there was a need to bring together a marketplace approach to news, and it was just massively compelling. He was growing inkl at the very early stages that I was growing AirShr, and when we roundup Airshr he asked me to come along and help drive sales and marketing for inkl, and it's just such a brilliant proposition that it was very difficult to say no.

Sidney: Awesome. So tell me about inkl? What do you do, who do you do it for, and how are you moving the needle for your target customer?

Phil: So, Sid, inkl is like Spotify for news in so much as we bring together 50 of the world's best news publishers. We remove advertising and click bait and give people a quiet place to consume world affairs with a really high-quality journalistic lens, and we do that because the world is moving just too fast for anyone to rely on just one single news source. Now when inkl first started, it was all about trying to help business people, and people had a real affinity for news. But what we discovered after that, when I came on board, was the idea that there were many people, in the travel vertical for example, that were looking for something that was stable and recognizable as they went about their travels. And so for inkl, we distribute inkl through a series of B to B relationships usually in hospitality, so hotels, airlines, and public transport, where people have a moment to sort of relax and understand and consume really high-quality news.

So the way that we approached this is we would do deals with hotels to provide news through their guest Wi-Fi to be able to allow a guest to wake up in the morning and to experience their news in a very different way, but on their own personal device as they check in and check out of, for example, Hive properties around the world. The way that we change the needle, or move the needle I guess for our clients, is that we provide them with a digital alternative which reduces their carbon footprint, which presents a really elegant experience for their customers, and we do it in a way which is very cost effective, so that they can also enjoy a reputation benefit of partnering with a company just like inkl.

Sidney: That's awesome. So I now wanna turn our attention to sales at inkl. Phil, tell me about your best sale?

Phil: So I think there are actually two examples, and I wanna give these two to you because whenever you're running sales for an organization, no matter how large or how small it is, my philosophy is just always a strategic business, where you're looking to do longer cycle...a longer sales cycle deals that give you a lot of growth and a lot of reach. But you've also got a run rate business where you gotta focus on individual sales of your product to demonstrate you're actually moving in the right direction on a month by month or quarter by quarter basis. And so the smallest deal that I was most thrilled with was where a new Hyatt Hotel in the middle of the Caribbean had discovered us through word of mouth. They reached out to us and said, "Look, would you do business with us?" And the answer, of course, was, "We would love to do business with you."

And it was probably the smallest deal that I've signed, but the reality was it's I was struck by the word of mouth and how passionate they were to come and do business with us. And that was, obviously, it was a very easy thing to do, but we put a lot of work into developing the relationships and the network, and the ability to share our product with people in a B to B context and that made a huge difference. So I'm always reminded about how important the small individual deals are. When it comes to the bigger deals, I'm very pleased to say that one of our largest deals today, which will go through shortly, is going to change the game for our business because it creates a relationship between ourselves and many, many, many hundreds and thousands of hotels around the world where guests that never knew what inkl was, and the value it brings will soon be able to see that as they check in and check out of hotels all around the world. And that for us is going to be a game changer. We're just finishing the making that deal right now, which I'm massively excited about.

Sidney: Excellent. So what I love about the answer you've given, Phil, is a few things. One, you speak about the run rate business. So while we're all ambitious and wanna take down the large elephant, we gotta think about shooting the rabbits at the same time. Well, we had another guest on the show that spoke about stop hunting for whales and start sardine fishing, right? Same concept here. But I think you're reiterating that, that we have to have a short-term tactical approach as well as a long-term strategic approach. That's just part of the game of survival and entrepreneurship and sales in the game we're in. So that...your examples were succinct and great, but what I wanna call out is actually tying in the answer you gave a little bit earlier, when I said, "What do you do? Who do you do it for?" And you spoke about the clarity in the target market, and you spoke about verticals, B to B, and a real focus on hospitality.

And the two examples you've even pulled up in both talking about your strategic business, as well as the run rate business, were hospitality customers. And I think that's such a good example of narrow niche and being focused on a very specific target audience, first dominating that environment, then expanding ourselves. I know the inkl product. I think it's useful for everybody, but, of course, that's not where to start. So I want their big take away for our listeners to be the narrowness and the niche-ness in which you've approached this, even though your product could do a lot of things for lots of people. Awesome.

Phil: Yeah. And I think also the idea is that we never...we started out with hypothesis to try and determine what that narrow focus should be. It's very easy to try and sort of rush down one vertical, and the truth of the matter is we only discovered that because we were experimenting with different products and propositions, and I just found that this one gave us the right balance of scale, profitability, and reach, whereas others might have given a lot more tactical advantage, but it wouldn't have given us that strategic perspective. So we haven't arrived here by accident. It has been quite deliberate, but it has taken some time as well.

Sidney: Brilliant, brilliant. So one of the things we talk about is looking back at, you know, in order to make a decision about your next sort of 90 days of where to focus your energy on and what narrow niche to go after is to look back at your last 90 days and learn from it. And so, obviously, you guys have done this over a number of 90 day periods to narrow this down. But it is about making all these assessments, you know, scale, profitability, and reach. It's not just size of deal or idealness of customer, there's a few variables involved and it's a constant juggling act until we nail the product market for it. That's part of nailing the product market for it I guess.

Phil: Exactly, exactly.

Sidney: So what should first-time tech founders know when it comes to sales? We've spoken about a few of these things, but, in other words, what sales advice would you be giving yourself if you were starting over?

Phil: That's a great question, Sid. I think, for me, the big learning continues to be every time we look at a new vertical or we're doing deals in the verticals that we ascribe to. It's just so important to never forget, "Well, what's in it for me?" And I think for me, I was...I always knew that was true, but I never internalized it as much as I should have. So when I'm starting to think about relationships, introducing inkl to new people in that relationship ecosystem, and even just thinking about what we would do if we got the opportunity to pitch and then close and then implement. I'm always very, very focused on the incentive structure. So...and that is what's in it for me, but it's also about what's in it for our partners, and then again what's in it for their clients. So as we do B to B sales and, you know, complex selling where there's more than one or two actors in that discussion, it's very important for us to be always focused on how we align the incentives, and how we lean towards the people who are the decision-makers, but ultimately who's gonna be consuming inkl at the other end.

And sometimes for us, that can be pretty convoluted, right, so if you think about, you know, we sell to, for example, a procurement provider, they then sell that to a hotel, a hotel then is going to introduce that to hotel guests. And throughout that process, you've gotta be really razor sharp on what the set of incentives are for each of those actors to pass that on because we might not control the end experience. And so the only way you can really navigate through that is through incentives. And not about just providing them, but understanding what the environmental incentives are, for example, for a concierge manager who might be in charge of this in a country that you haven't visited before. So I think if I had to go back and say, "You know, give one piece of advice to people who are starting in sales." Always have your radar 100% open, and it should never close to all the incentives that are at play. It will help you navigate through conversations and objections, and also for people that just are blocking or you could say they're blocking your progress. Often it comes down to incentives and how they can be manipulated.

Sidney: Brilliant, brilliant. So another way to sort of I guess talk about this is understanding the ultimate win of all the players or all the stakeholders here? And incentives are part of it, but they've got broader ambitions, they've got different pressures on them, different juggling acts that they need to play. And by understanding the various players, and aligning, making sure they're all aligned on the incentives is Phil's recommendation on, especially in complex sales, being able to succeed.

Phil: That's right. And I think the only thing to keep in mind is that you might feel as though you have a good understanding of incentives, and when I say incentives, I'm talking about, you know, how somebody is remunerated to do a job well, whether they be paid, you know, a wage and a bonus or something like that. How they are placed in the standing amongst their peers. Will they be seen to be strengthened or weakened as a consequence of engaging with this product? Will they be seen as a thought leader, or will they be seen as a challenge inside their own organizations? You've gotta understand all those incentives, but know that they're dynamic, they're never static.

So the moment you think you understand the incentives is the moment where you understand them the least, right, because they will change, and you will never have visibility into the organization you're selling into because there will be changes there you won't know about, and unless you're fully vigilant around that all the time, you might find that you get blindsided by a change in actor or a change in personality, or even a change in incentive, which then brings your deal into some tricky water to navigate.

Sidney: I love it. The moment that you think you understand incentives is the moment that you understand it the least. You know I'm gonna Tweet that, right? Brilliant.

Phil: You can have it. You can have it.

Sidney: Brilliant, brilliant. So, Phil, sales aside, as a tech founder, what's your biggest struggle and how are you overcoming it?

Phil: Such a good question. You've got great questions here, Sid. I think that for me it's about trying to maintain a really high-quality level of decision making, you know, really, really consistently. So, you know, I'm a dad like you are. You know, I've got young kids, busy lifestyle, both my wife and I work. Our home is a constant logistics challenge, and, you know, we both love what we do and, obviously, our girls. I think the family side of things is sorted because every decision I make is family first and venture second. I've worked to the benefits of that for many years. But I think for me, you know, the items of fatigue, the ideas of trying to lead a team and be at the front sort of waving hands and doing selling, and being the really consummate partner to your customers, you know, that fatigue and that combination of, you know, travel and everything else that comes with that, can often lead to a dip in how efficient your decision making can be and the quality of your decisions.

And so for me I'm constantly finding ways to try and, you know, integrate the right amount of sleep, the right amount of knowledge, the right amount of food, the right amount of exercise, and the right level of engagement across all the different relationships I have, so that ultimately I maintain a really high quality of decision making. Because sometimes, you know, you shouldn't just say yes to every deal. You shouldn't just...and you shouldn't push deals away because of a particular factor. There are so many things you've gotta be on, you know, on the money on that you need to have that decision making capability. So for me, I'm always...I'm not struggling with it, but I'm certainly always working on it, and that's...that can be a bit of a tricky thing from time to time.

Sidney: Interesting. I think we've had multiple people talk about the challenges of balance, but what I like about your answer is the so what of all of that, and by having the right balance allows you to make better decisions...better quality decisions and more efficiently be able to get to those decisions. So as we say, you know, these things are real and I know you covered a bunch of these things on your podcast on "The Founder To Founder" podcast, so I encourage everyone to check that out as well. So, Phil, thank you very much for being on the show.

Phil: Thanks.

Sidney: I wish you and inkl all the best. I'm excited for you guys, and I look forward to hearing more of your progress.

Phil: Thanks, Sid. It's being a real treat to be here.

Sidney: Cheers mate. Thank you. Goodbye. There you have it folks, valuable insights from a fellow founder. Remember, as a tech founder, to succeed you need to sell. And sales is not a dirty word, it's a value exchange. Meaning you need to create and capture value. Here at SalesNative, our calling is to provide sales inspiration, training and coaching to tech founders wherever you may be in the world, enabling you to reach your potential, to make your impact, and to leave your legacy. If this is you, then I invite you to head over to and sign up for my free talk "The Ten Sales Essentials for First Time Tech Founders." From one founder to another, I wish you success and remember you're just one sale away.


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