Subscribe to the Podcast now on Apple Podcasts!
Become a member of the elite Institute for Excellence in Sales.
EPISODE 197: ThunderCat Sales Leader and Former Minor League Baseball Pitcher Mike Knox Said this Advice from Tommy John Was Crucial to His Career Success
MIKE’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Chase after what your dreams are, get after it, get to know good people, network and always add value in every interaction you’re in. Have fun with it, too. It goes fast and if you put your hard work and talent to play, you’re going to win.”
Mike Knox is the VP of Commercial Sales at ThunderCat Technology.
We interviewed Dave Schlosser. Dave heads up Public Sector Sales at Thundercat.
Prior to coming over to ThunderCat Technology, Mike held sales leadership positions at Nehemiah security and LexisNexis, and he also spent some time with Oracle.
He also played minor league baseball in the New York Yankees organization.
Find Mike on LinkedIn!
Mike Knox: My mission statement as a sales leader is leading people and helping them solve problems through hard work, integrity, service, vulnerability and generosity of spirit.
Fred Diamond: We’ve had some great podcast interviews with lacrosse players, some football players and some soccer players so I’m going to come back and ask you some baseball questions but first, why don’t you tell us a little more about what you sell today? Tell us what excites you about that.
Mike Knox: I’m incredibly excited to join the ThunderCat team with Dave Schlosser, of course and Tom, Keith and the rest of the ThunderCat family. We’re a value added reseller that really puts the V in VAR through our people, our integrations and really how we package together best of breed solutions that solve tough challenges for the customer. I was just at the Black Hat Cyber Security Conference last week and I loved being a part of the ThunderCat family, being in front of customers and OEM’s knowing that we were tackling the toughest problems that our customers were facing and we could do it all here with an incredible team at ThunderCat Technology.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned in the introduction that you played in the New York Yankee system, I believe your father was also a professional baseball player as well, true?
Mike Knox: Absolutely, he played for the Tigers with Al Kaline and Frank Howard, just an incredible mentor to me growing up, really invested in me as a baseball player and as a businessman because he played 5 years in the majors and then spent 32 years in sales. Just growing up in that environment really helped me see how you could correlate athletics to a successful career in sales.
Fred Diamond: What did your dad sell?
Mike Knox: He was with Alcoa for 32 years so he sold aluminum forgings to airplane manufacturers and was part of the Joint Strike Fighter program with Lockheed. Pretty exciting career and just growing up and hearing him on conference calls and talking with customers, even attending some customer meetings with him as I got older, I just got exposed to so many great things as part of the sales process.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about your baseball career. Again, you played for the Yankees, you played minor league ball, so tell us a little more about that.
Mike Knox: I played three years in the minors, I was a pitcher. I would sit low 90’s but hit 96 at an awesome change up but the curve ball would probably make it up over the fence too many times. No, I’m just kidding. I really enjoyed my time with the organization, just a top notch organization and was really fortunate to play. An unfortunate injury derailed my dreams of playing longer and I just thought after that, “I want to follow in my dad’s footsteps and get into sales” but still, the energy and the competitive drive and the teamwork aspects of athletics certainly never died and still carried on into what I do now in sales.
Fred Diamond: Just curiously, do you have any memories from the Yankees that you string along when you’re in the sales floor, when you’re out there trying to sell and lead teams?
Mike Knox: Absolutely. I think every day you’ve got to approach it just like you do in sports. I remember putting on my cleats and gearing up and locking in and getting in the zone before every customer meeting. I put myself in that place where if I was going on to the mound I’ve got to be so locked in and laser focused. I find myself when I go into customer meetings with that same mentality and I think with that approach I’m able to make the customer successful and make our company successful as well.
Fred Diamond: Tell us how you made the transition. Again, you were a professional baseball player and like your father, you then went into sales. How did you make it from baseball into sales?
Mike Knox: My dad said, “You’re either going to get a finance degree or an engineering degree” so I chose finance. Getting a degree was important and then going to a place that had good sales training was incredibly important. We had a family friend that was a VP of Sales at Autodesk, Steve Blum, who knew Rick Marcotte, CEO of DLT Solutions in Herndon, Virginia and recommended they had a great sales training program. I learned so much there at DLT, very grateful in that, that has set me off on this path ever since.
Fred Diamond: DLT is a great company, we’ve actually interviewed a couple DLT leaders, Chris Wilkinson who now heads up sales at DLT and Chris Dewey who’s another sales leader there as well. Curiously, did you grow up in Detroit, or where did you grow up?
Mike Knox: No, I grew up in Dallas, Texas, moved up here 11 years ago, didn’t know anyone and began working at DLT in Herndon, Virginia, would do it again in a heartbeat.
Fred Diamond: You worked at DLT in the beginning and you also worked at Oracle which is one of the classic sale companies of all time. We’ve interviewed a bunch of guys and ladies who have spent a good part of their career at Oracle. What are some of the key lessons you learned from DLT and from your time in Oracle?
Mike Knox: I think the biggest thing is believe in yourself and your product and really put the customer first. I’ve certainly learned if I try to put myself first, then I’m not going to be successful. I might get short term wins but I’m not going to have long term success and if I really want to have long term success it’s all about putting the customer first. Also, wearing the company’s name and focusing more on who’s the team on the front of my jersey and not on the back. If I worry about the name on the back of my jersey I’m not going to get anywhere at the end of the day.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about you, what are you an expert in? Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance.
Mike Knox: I think if you break the sales process into three buckets of prospecting, selling and closing, I love all three but I think building a strong lead gen program is the most important thing, especially if you have a multimedia, multi-touch approach and you really bring awareness to the market. Then certainly closing and negotiating large enterprise contracts helping customers solve problems in the middle of the process, leading teams and empowering them and making people on your team be able to reach things that they wouldn’t be able to reach without your help.
Fred Diamond: Mike, I could talk to you about sports analogies all day long. Again, you’re a professional baseball player, now you’re also a sales leader, you’re not just the top notch sales guy but you’re also a sales leader. Curiously, what would be some of the lessons you took away from some of the great managers that you reported to as a player that you’ve taken into your sales leadership roles?
Mike Knox: I played for the Staten Island Yankees back in 2004 and a guy named Tommy John was my coach.
Fred Diamond: The pitcher Tommy John?
Mike Knox: Pitcher Tommy John obviously famous for his baseball career and his surgery that has impacted a lot of people. He was our head coach in Staten Island, called us the Baby Bombers and he told me something that I take with me to this day into every day of sales. He always said, “If you throw a hundred pitches and one of them is major league ready and 99 aren’t, you can focus on that one pitch that you throw really well and you can develop it and master it over time so that you can get it to be consistent and you can be 90/100 or 100/100.”
I think not only that persistence on making your strength and your talent grow over time but also realizing the fact that when you start out, you might not have everything figured out but if you have one thing, you can grab onto it and you can build off of that. You can be incredibly successful and that was what he was trying to preach into us as minor league baseball players.
Fred Diamond: On the sports analogies, again, we have a lot of Sales Game Changers listening to the show who are early on in their career, who are getting started, maybe first or second job, if you will. What might be a corollary lesson to that? You mentioned before, prospecting, selling, closing. Maybe focusing on knowing your industry or maybe focusing on becoming an expert in research or focusing on a piece of the sales process?
Mike Knox: Absolutely, I’m a big fan of The Challenger Sales methodology and I think if you look at that, understanding your customer and teaching them, tailoring the deal so that it’s applicable to them and taking control of the deal, understanding the customer’s business like Dave Schlosser said on his podcast as well. You’ve got to understand the customer’s business and be valuable to them. I think every day, especially being at a reseller before and joining an incredible VAR here, I am a value and if I’m not adding value to the customer every day then I’m not representing my company to the fullest extent. Whether I’m at an OEM or a VAR, and even more so on a VAR, I’ve got to add value in everything I do understanding that might be on the prospecting side or the selling or the closing side. I’ve got to find my area of expertise and grow that, find mentors around me to invest in me and then eventually pay that forward into other people as well.
Fred Diamond: Speaking about mentors, you’ve worked for some great companies: Oracle, Lexis Nexis. Tell us about an impactful sales career mentor and how they impacted your career.
Mike Knox: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my mom and my dad as my biggest mentors, but I think from Oracle, Dave Knox, Jeff Hamlen – we don’t share any relationship, by the way with Dave, he was just an incredible mentor – Ray Falcione, Glen Dodson and then from Lexis Nexis certainly Luke Gaffney, Dave Hanson and Steve Anderson which really believed in me and saw something even if I had rough edges. Really invested in my strengths and built me up, I really appreciate what they gave to me and the opportunity they gave to me. That’s why I’m definitely invested in future talent that’s coming up that I can invest in as well.
Fred Diamond: What did you do at Oracle, just curiously? Again, Oracle is a huge company. I’ve referenced Oracle many times on the Sales Game Changers podcast, historically it’s been one of the great sales organizations in the history of technology. Refresh me again on what you did at Oracle, I forget.
Mike Knox: I started out on the Oracle world on the channel side, I resold Oracle into the state and local government, DOD and ICE and was Founder Award and Top Sales Rep at DLT. Then Oracle recruited me to join their National Security group as a field sales rep for military intel. I specifically focused on the military intel organizations within the federal government.
Fred Diamond: Again, we’re talking to Mike Knox, he’s the VP of commercial sales at ThunderCat Technology. Mike, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Mike Knox: Selling into a market where there’s not brand awareness and building pipeline at the pace of the company that they really want to build and grow. I think you have to take into account the customer’s procurement process and the ability to cut through the noise even if your brand isn’t well-known. Being at two startups and building the commercial sales practice at ThunderCat, what a thrilling challenge to be a part of is building brand awareness and cutting through all the noise to offer value and really pull and bring the customer through their procurement process as an expert in improving their business.
Fred Diamond: Again, you worked for Oracle which of course was a huge brand and even DLT had a very strong brand in the public sector channel side, if you will. What are some things that you recommend if you’re working for a company? Because not everybody who’s listening to the Sales Game Changers podcast works for an Amazon or a Salesforce or an Oracle, Microsoft or Apple. What are some of the things that you’ve learned, some of suggestions you have for them to show more value if the brand isn’t quite there?
Mike Knox: I think there’s really subtle things that make a big payoff. It’s really having the attitude of focusing on the customer and their success and not worrying about the name necessarily that you’re mentioning now. I think ThunderCat has one of the greatest stories about how the company was founded. Our CEO, Tom, is incredible and is a service disabled veteran who founded the company, so much respect for him and the company. If I don’t have a brand name in a certain space, I equate it to trying to make the team in the Yankees minor leagues because I was throwing 96 miles an hour out of high school and I think when you’re coming out of high school you think you’re the #1 and nobody’s really challenging you.
You get to spring training with the Yankees and they have a hundred other guys throwing 96 miles an hour if not more, and they’re all just as talented if not more than you. You got to find a way to cut through the noise especially since I was a 27th around pick, I signed for 5th round money as a draft and follow but I still was not a first round pick. I wasn’t a top pick and I had to fight through and find my way, find my place without a brand name. I love that challenge in business because that can get you in the door but I think when you find a way to add value and win over the customer and help them improve their business, I think that’s incredibly more powerful than any name that I could bring, and more important than my name.
Fred Diamond: That’s a very powerful message, there’s so many themes that continue to come through the Sales Game Changers podcast. One of them that continues to come through is the fact that you need to provide tremendous value unlike ever before. You’ve always had to provide value, but now because the customer can find their information on the internet and through social networks, your ability to be able to demonstrate to the customer that you’re not necessarily showing them value in your solution but that you’re bringing them value for what their particular business challenges are. Mike, take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career you’re most proud of.
Mike Knox: There was one deal with the FBI back in 2012 when I was at DLT partnering with Oracle and we won. It was a huge deal and when we won, the contract came in, let out a Tom Brady type yell and I remember that day vividly. Also when I joined my first startup, we won a deal within the first two, three months, within the first quarter of being there and a lot of people said we couldn’t do that and we weren’t going to be successful.
Overcoming the odds and winning early was huge, that was one of my favorite wins and I still think back to that team and what we were able to do. I couldn’t have won it without the team, but again quick wins, big wins and when you win, you lock in and you realize, you experience that success and you never want to do anything else.
Fred Diamond: I’ve got a question back to the sports analogy that you used before. Again, you said you show up at spring training so you’re coming out of high school to the Yankees, or did you play some college ball between that?
Mike Knox: I spent a brief period at Navarro Junior College in Corsicana, Texas because I started pitching my senior at high school and the Yankees scouts said I needed a little more seasoning, which I did. They still had my rights for 51 weeks and I signed a week before the next year’s draft. I went in to play for the Gulf Coast Yankees and ultimately got promoted from rookie ball to High A my first season, that was pretty exciting.
Fred Diamond: You show up to spring training, you were throwing 96 miles per hour. For those people listening to the podcast who don’t know, that’s very fast. You show up, though, and there’s a hundred guys who can throw low to mid 90’s. What was your mindset like there? We talk about mindset a lot in sales in the Sales Game Changers podcast, but I’m just curious. You show up and there’s a hundred guys like you who came from not just Dallas but Montana, Florida, Dominican Republic and all over the place. What was your mindset like when you see a hundred guys just like you, tall, strapping, can throw 90’s, mid 90’s?
Mike Knox: That’s a great question. My first thought is lock in and hyper focus on how I’m going to succeed. For all of the physical talent represented at a spring training, it all comes down to the mental aspect of not only gearing up and executing on your strategy but being able to hang in there and out-wit, be able to out-strategize the batter, too because you’re going up there and a big part of the baseball game is the mental aspect of it. If you’re trying to chunk fast balls over, anyone can time a fast ball, they can time a jet coming through. Velocity is the fourth most important thing as a pitcher, you’ve got to be able to mix it up and be deceptive from your motion and be able to get people out. That mental aspect and being able to lock in, get in the zone is, I think, significantly more important than even having the ability to throw at 96.
Fred Diamond: I’ve just got a quick question as a follow up before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors. Again, you just mentioned as a pitcher, velocity is the fourth most important thing. You’ve got to be thinking about strategy against the batter and all those types of things, how has that prepared you as a sales leader?
Mike Knox: I just got chills, too because of the correlation between sports and sales, it’s so close. I think the biggest thing is you could be able to pitch your product or sell and present well but I would equate that to velocity. If you can’t get in the door and show value immediately, be able to work with the customer in their procurement process after you’ve sold them, I think that’s even more important. To be able to bring awareness and make the customer become an advocate for you, too and ultimately refer you to other customers because they believe in you and in how you’ve helped them. I think that’s more important than being able to just pitch and being able to just sell and present. Probably overlooked and not as sexy, if you will, just like throwing 96 but the mental aspect is so important.
Fred Diamond: The other thing, too that comes up not infrequently on the Sales Game Changers podcast is the ability to listen.
Mike Knox: Absolutely.
Fred Diamond: I can’t throw at 96 miles per hour, but obviously you said there were a hundred guys at the spring training for the Yankees and then you multiply that by 32 teams, I guess. So there’s a couple thousand people who could throw at 96 miles per hour right now but the ability to be successful in sports and obviously in sales isn’t the ability just to come in and chuck, some people say throw up and show up, it’s listening. To provide the value that you were just talking about you have to be able to listen, you have to strategically think, you can’t just get in there and speak for 95% of the time because the customer doesn’t really care.
Fred Diamond: Mike, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the junior selling professionals listening around the globe to help them take their career to the next level?
Mike Knox: Stick it out and you’re not going to earn all of your money in that first year. You can’t expect to be VP of Global Sales at first year or make a ton of money. You might, but I think the more work you put in, sale cycles and deal cycles take a long time and once you’ve built up a pipeline you’re going to be rewarded for the fruits of your labor. I also think, to your earlier point about selling is not telling, there’s a great blog and platform, gong.io and they did research on a million calls and they found out that the most successful reps talk 45% of the time in the discovery call. I love that stat because if I find myself talking more than half the time in a sales call, I know I’m not going to win as much as I could if I listen and help the customer solve their problems.
I think that’s an incredible stat for future sales reps is the ability to listen. It’s kind of counter intuitive when you think of sales, but the more you’re able to listen and really help the customer, you’re going to win so much more. Again, nothing is handed to you, you have to be your own CEO, you have to own it and you have to not just win but also let people tastefully and tactfully know that this is the team that won. This is how we won and this is how we can replicate that to provide predictable revenue.
Fred Diamond: Mike, tell us about some of your selling habits that have led to your sales success?
Mike Knox: I think being professionally persistent, follow up, being nice, not being a jerk, being yourself and I think I mentioned this earlier but putting the customer success above your own. Again, there’s a lot of counter intuitive things about sales but one walking in might think, “I’m just going to put myself first” and it doesn’t work. Putting the customer success above all and being a challenger and knowing what that means, also holding yourself, your team and the customer accountable to deadlines. Nothing like moving things forward when there’s a deadline in place.
Fred Diamond: Mike, before I ask you a couple of the concluding questions here you mentioned Challenger Sale a couple of times, it’s come up not infrequently on the Sales Game Changers podcast. As a matter of fact, we’ve actually interviewed a couple of people who were at CEB – of course, it’s now Gartner Group – when The Challenger Sale was created. What is it about The Challenger that has attracted to you so much?
Mike Knox: What I love about it is it’s an elite capability of understanding the customer’s business and being able to speak their language and help them understand how you can improve their status quo in a significant way. What is sales? You’re selling change, and change is not easy, you don’t just get a CSO or a CIO or somebody in the C suite to change, especially in large organizations. If you’re able to help them see that the change you’re selling is worth it, then you’re going to make a lot of people successful, including yourself. I just thing The Challenger aspect of being able to take control of a deal and teach and tailor, I just love everything about that. Certainly you can build strong relationships and you can be a hard worker and problem solver, but the main characteristics of being a challenger especially in the commercial space as we look to build this business is incredibly important.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Mike Knox: Raising brand awareness for what we can do in the value add that we offer the commercial space, especially leveraging all of the great things that we do in the federal space, especially including our incredible security team. Then really refining our message and building our pipeline so that we can provide a team and a company to grow in, especially on the commercial side not only for ThunderCat but for future sales professionals who are looking for a great place to become part of the ThunderCat family.
Fred Diamond: Mike, I keep thinking about Tommy John. Do you still talk to Tommy John at all? Do you text him, ever, would he know who you are?
Mike Knox: No, you know what? He was pitching batting practice about a month before the season and he broke his hip so we had to have his replacement come in, Dave Eiland. He was our pitching coach, he wound up being the pitching coach for the Yankees and a couple of other teams, he was a great guy. Dave Eiland took me aside and just really spoke in and said, “Mike, you’re getting a name for yourself. It’s up to you to gain your piece of the pie. There’s a piece of the pie in professional baseball, it’s going to be there and it’s up to you to get that piece for yourself.” I love that, Tommy John might remember me as a pitcher who was like Nuke LaLoosh – I’m kidding. (laughs)
Fred Diamond: [Laughs] Nuke LaLoosh.
Mike Knox: Everything about Bull Durham is true. No, just being able to play around experienced major leaguers like that and when guys would come in for rehab they’d come down and buy us all dinner. You just get to see the work ethic that people put in to reach that high level.
Fred Diamond: I’ve just got two more pitching questions for you. Would you like to pitch, it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, you’re winning three to two, bases loaded. As a pitcher, do you get excited about that? Does every pitcher get excited or do guys shy away from that? How about you, is that a situation you want to be in?
Mike Knox: Absolutely, I just got chills, I was like, “Put me in.” I remember when I just started pitching my senior year and we were going into a tournament, it was an all-day tournament and we had won 5 times that day, we had to win the sixth game and my high school’s team mates – we still talk about it – there were a couple hundred people in the audience. Normally for a baseball game in Texas there’s probably like 10 people so to have a couple hundred people there, they were all saying, “We’re going to beat you” and a bunch of other stuff that I couldn’t repeat here. I just took that as a challenge and I locked in and struck out 15 people.
Fred Diamond: Good for you.
Mike Knox: It was so fun, so talking about going in to the bottom of the ninth with a one run lead, bases loaded, yes. Bring it on, let’s do it.
Fred Diamond: “Give me the ball.” Again, we talked today with Mike Knox, VP of Commercial Sales at ThunderCat Technologies. Mike, before I ask you for your final thought, sales is hard. People don’t return your phone calls or your emails, they have a lot of options but why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Mike Knox: I think just like baseball, I don’t expect to win every deal and strike everyone out. I also don’t take it personal, my identity is not on the line in any of my calls, in any of my meetings and I just think my drive and desire and hunger to keep going and make a difference and have an impact. I think overall, I just love winning and helping customers and my company win. There’s nothing like that in the world.
Fred Diamond: Mike, why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire our listeners today?
Mike Knox: Chase after what your dreams are, get after it, get to know good people, network and always add value in every interaction you’re in. Have fun with it, too. It goes fast and if you put your hard work and talent to play, you’re going to win.