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EPISODE 199: Serial Entrepreneur and Drone Innovator Pramod Rajeha Says Adopting This Atypical Sales Mentality is Imperative for Business Owners
PRAMOD’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Stay persistent because that victory might be right around the corner and you might give up just before you get there. I can think of many times where I’ve attempted or tried to sell 4, 5, 6, 7 times and on the 8th time we actually hit it and if we had given up it wouldn’t have happened.”
Today, we’re talking to a very successful entrepreneur who understands the value of sales and the process.
Pramod Raheja is the co-founder and CEO of Airgility.
He’s very active in the EO, Entrepreneurs Organization.
Find Pramod on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: On the podcast, we don’t really talk to too many entrepreneurs – and I’m also going to stumble over the word, it’s the hardest word to pronounce in the English language – but I’m excited to hear your story. Why don’t you tell us a little more about you that we need to know?
Pramod Raheja: Thank you, Fred for having me. Not only is entrepreneur the toughest word to say, it’s also hard to spell (laughs), I always get it wrong. Happy to be here, I’m currently the co-founder and CEO of a company called Airgility and we build unmanned aerial systems or probably what most of the audience knows as drones, and we have solutions around those drones for government and commercial clients.
Fred Diamond: What excites you about that? Is this a relatively new venture? Again, you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve had a lot of success, a bunch of different companies that you’ve founded and had success with. What excites you about this?
Pramod Raheja: My background is in aerospace, being an aerospace engineer undergraduate and I’ve always been fascinated with flight and space. The golden age of aviation and aerospace was in the 1950’s and 60’s culminating in the lunar landings. When I graduated from college there was nothing going on in air space. That was about 25 years ago and now we are back in an era of an aviation aerospace revolution both in the unmanned space, meaning flying around without pilots but also airplanes and spaceships. There’s a lot happening with satellite and everybody is familiar with Space X and Elon Musk, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Fred Diamond: Once again, this is the Sales Game Changers podcast, we get people all over the globe who want to get better at the art and science of selling. As I mentioned in the introduction, even though you are an engineer you come from the sales side. You’ve always appreciated that and we had a great conversation before the show today talking about that. Take us back to the beginning, how did you first realize that sales was so critical to your entrepreneurial success?
Pramod Raheja: Back in one of my earliest companies, it was a consulting company and we sold nationally, predominantly. One of the things I found which I really didn’t know is I enjoyed going to the C-suite and trying to sell to the executives and became successful at it. Then when I started another company which was essentially a franchise, I got this book and it was called The Accidental Salesperson.
I read it and I said, “This book is me.” Meaning that I had started something and I was naturally selling it, I didn’t even really know, I didn’t think of myself as a salesperson and then as I got more into these companies and selling services or selling products, I realized that sales in itself was part art, part science and you could learn it. You could learn how to do some of these things and that’s when I realized this is actually a focus, this is a career and I’m enjoying this.
Fred Diamond: I mentioned that you are very involved with the EO, Entrepreneurial Organization and you’ve worked with hundreds if not thousands of business owners and entrepreneurs. What is the prevailing thought around sales from that organization, people you dealt with on that side?
Pramod Raheja: What I’ve seen in most of my career, especially with peer companies or even companies that are my clients is that sales is very important, they’re always focused on it. However, there’s a lot of knowledge missing is what I’ve seen, even knowledge of who makes a good salesperson. All salespeople are not created equal, there’s different types of sales roles and many entrepreneurs and CEO’s aren’t really well-versed in who they should hire for what position. That becomes a game of musical chairs many times, is what I’ve seen.
Fred Diamond: You read a book and you began to realize that even though you were a business owner, an entrepreneur that you really are in sales at the end of the day if your business is going to be successful. And again, you’re not just selling to customers, you’re selling to partners, you’re selling to employees, you’re selling to investors, if you will. Take us back to some of the first lessons you learned after you read that book and you began to realize that you’re truly in sales.
Pramod Raheja: I’d say that some of the most basic customer service types of mindset come into play with sales. For example, being responsive. We had a client that became a really top-notch client in one of my companies that had called several of our competitors at the same time they called us. We called them back within an hour to talk to them and tell them about our solution, have them come in, meet with us, visit us and in that time period, it took our competitor companies that long for them to even call her back. We’d already sold and closed the deal at that point.
Fred Diamond: That’s one thing that comes up all the time too, but another thing that comes up as well is preparation. Tell us a little bit about that, how do you prepare as an entrepreneur when you’re going to go meet a new prospect?
Pramod Raheja: You mentioned earlier that we’re selling to many different stake holders. We’re selling to clients, we’re selling to partners, investors which I am doing now as well. Doing research ahead of time is a big deal meaning who am I meeting with? Maybe where did they go to school? What kind of companies have they invested in or worked with in the past? I get an idea so when I walk in the room I’ve done my homework and they can see that I’ve done my homework and it’s not an education process, so we can get right down to true business versus them thinking that I haven’t done my homework, I haven’t looked ahead of time. It’s an advantage as well because most people probably don’t do their homework, so I always make a point to try to do the homework. In the few occasions that I haven’t, I have noticed a difference in how the interaction went, of course, as well.
Fred Diamond: Do you think it’s part of your responsibility to get the entire organization to think about sales, to build a sales culture in your companies?
Pramod Raheja: Absolutely. I think that’s a whole other podcast by itself, probably but yes, absolutely. The focus and the mission, and I don’t know if it was Peter Drucker, somebody said that nothing happens without a sale. That’s something I highly prescribe to and take to whatever I’m running. (Editor’s note: It was Drucker who said that.)
Fred Diamond: You get it, again you’ve created businesses and you’ve obviously learned along the way that if the sales process isn’t part of it you’re not going to be successful, you’re not going to have a nice exit or merger, whatever it might be. But let’s say you have a company, you’re an entrepreneur where not everybody gets it, they don’t really quite understand that. What are some things that you’ve done to get people on board?
Pramod Raheja: I think that if you look at an operation, there’s operations, there’s process around operations. It’s really important to have process around sales as well and that helps get people on board because it becomes a template for what they work from. That’s one of the key things that have been successful for me is having a process that when somebody gets on boarded they learn that process right from the get-go. In every organization I’ve been in we’ve always had what I’d call a sales boot camp, almost where there’s a training period and they’re like an apprentice to some extent. That’s when you get them on boarded and that’s when you get them to buy in.
Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about you again a little bit. Tell us what you’re an expert in, tell us about your specific area of brilliance. Again, where did you go to school?
Pramod Raheja: I went to the University of Maryland.
Fred Diamond: What was your degree again?
Pramod Raheja: Aerospace engineering.
Fred Diamond: I know you’ve run a couple businesses, you mentioned you had a franchise or two along the way, again now you’re running Airgility as the co-founder and CEO but give us a little more background into you. What exactly are you an expert in? Tell us about your area of brilliance.
Pramod Raheja: I’d say that my area of brilliance is around the innovation of business development meaning if you’re trying to create a product or you have a product and you’re trying to get into specific doors, how do you get in those doors and create those relationships? I’ve been successful in my career in almost every domain that I’ve worked in being able to do that. A lot of that just happens to be people skills, soft skills in terms of just building the relationship and then from there, if you’ve built a relationship and there’s a trust, ideas start to flow and business starts to happen.
Fred Diamond: Again, you were very involved with EO for a long time. You must have met some people along the way who got you to understand how to be more effective as an entrepreneur, as a business owner, especially one from a sales side. Why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales mentor along the way that has helped you understand those processes?
Pramod Raheja: One person that really comes to mind right on the forefront is somebody that I both worked with in an entrepreneurial setting but also worked for in a job. He was really instrumental in teaching me how to deal with all types of personalities and all types of people, no matter what the situation was. Whether it was a friendly situation or an adversarial situation, he always kept his calm, kept his demeanor and just me being able to see that, observe that and also talk to him as far as as debrief after the fact just taught me a lot.
Fred Diamond: We usually ask this question of the sales VP’s as ‘what are the two biggest challenges you face as a sales leader’ but what are the two biggest challenges you see entrepreneurs face as it relates to the sales side?
Pramod Raheja: Competition, there’s noise, how do you get around that noise? How you differentiate yourself is obviously one and then I think the other one goes to what you said earlier which is culture. How do you create that culture and house in the process around that sales culture and process in order to have an acceleration machine essentially? How do you do that, how do you accelerate that and how do you exponentially grow that?
Fred Diamond: I’ve got a question for you. Again, you obviously got it, something that’s probably intrinsic with you to help you get it pretty quickly but a lot of entrepreneurs are engineers, they’re consultants or finance people, potentially where the sales and marketing side may not come natural to them. Do you recommend uses of a consultant or have you seen consultants help companies shift to the sales side to ensure that they can get the success?
Pramod Raheja: Certainly a consultant but I think that’s more on a systematic level. On a personal level or on a one-to-one level I’ve seen coaching be very successful. You mentioned the word mentor and I’ve had mentors, of course, somebody that’s mentoring and coaching individuals. In a larger organization if you have a sales team, for example having a coach that can sit one on one whether it’s once a week or once every two weeks or whatever that frequency is can make a huge difference.
Fred Diamond: Again, today on the Sales Game Changers podcast we’re talking to Pramod Raheja. Pramod, before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, you’ve had a lot of successes along the way. Again, your company now is called Airgility. Tell us about the #1 specific sales success or win from your career as an entrepreneur that you’re most proud of.
Pramod Raheja: I would say that there’s a lot of things I’m pretty proud of, but I’d say right now the company that we’ve co-founded two years ago I’m most proud of. If you’ve ever seen the show Naked and Afraid which is on one of the cable channels – I think it’s Bravo – where you’re left out in some desolate woods, desert or mountains and you have to figure it out, that’s how I felt when we started this company. I didn’t even know who we were selling to, didn’t even know exactly what our product was but in two short years we’d have been able to figure that out to some extent, get clients and start to grow.
Fred Diamond: By the way, I love that show. It’s one of those binge-type shows I watch. Again, talking sales here and you said this has been a two year journey so far with Airgility, I’m sure it’s going to be very successful but you mentioned you got a couple clients along the way. You had to get them sold, obviously. Tell us how that happened, tell us an example generically of a client that you brought on board with Airgility, how did you go about making that happen?
Pramod Raheja: Perfect example of that is meeting this company and getting to know them, realizing that at that time we weren’t probably going to sell anything to them, they weren’t really looking for something specific. They were still trying to figure out their own path forward. Fast forward 12-14 months later when they have a need and they’ve already spoken to us numerous times, we’ve had lunch together, they’ve taken an interest in what we’re doing and they naturally came to us and said, “We need to do this and we know you guys now, we trust you guys so let’s just work with you.”
There wasn’t even at that point a competitive angle, we didn’t need to worry about them chopping us around or what have you, they just naturally came to us. I would attribute that to opening that door early on and then building the relationship at the time knowing that we weren’t going to be able to do something but having the vision to know that in the future we probably would have a great opportunity to do something together.
Fred Diamond: Pramod, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the business owners, entrepreneurs and even the sales professionals listening to today’s show to help them take their businesses to the next level?
Pramod Raheja: I think it’s very important to – three things, really. Be persistent, focus and think pipeline. You would ask me a question, Fred a little while ago about an example of how we brought a client on and I would attribute that to focus on building a pipeline knowing that not everything in your pipeline is going to work out, but if you’re building the right pipeline and you focus on the right type of clients you’ll start to see those come to fruition.
Fred Diamond: I mentioned it before, obviously we talked about this. As an entrepreneur you’re selling to potential employees, partners, investors, etcetera but we’re talking today about sales to customers, if you will so talk about how much of your time is on new business acquisition. Obviously if you’re going to get investors, they want to see that you’re successful at selling. You mentioned pipeline, usually when someone mentions pipeline I visualize a pipeline meeting and a document or something on sales force or some CRM system that manages and measures your pipeline. How much of your time a week is spent on pure sales new business development and related functions?
Pramod Raheja: Right now early on in the business we’re not a big team, so a lot of my personal time as a CEO is spent on the sale side of it. Nurturing that pipeline becomes really important in terms of keeping in touch, showing value and why somebody should be working with you. And sometimes again, being early as an entrepreneur, you might not be quite there yet in terms of them being able to buy from you, so just nurturing them until that point happens is very crucial. I don’t know if I can put an exact percentage on it but I’d say it’s pretty high, probably 70%-80%, maybe that combined with fundraising which is what we’re doing right now. The two of those things take about 99% of the time right now.
Fred Diamond: On the selling side, tell us about a sales habit that you have that has led to your continued success.
Pramod Raheja: I’d say that face time is one of the most important things you could do as a sales professional, really getting in front of your clients, your partners, whoever you’re working with. In this case of course, we’re talking about customers so face time can mean email, it can mean phone and it can mean in-person meetings, but that is the most crucial thing is to stay in touch and keep on top of your prospects or whoever you’re dealing with. If you do that, they remember you and usually if you’ve built the right relationship they’re happy to talk to you and if you have something to share with them, that’s even better.
Those are the things that I focus on and then I think the thing that ties that all together is a CRM system. I’m a slave to my CRM system but I consider that a good thing because it keeps me honest, it keeps me on-task and on-point. Otherwise, I’d be letting things slip through the cracks.
Fred Diamond: Tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your company’s success.
Pramod Raheja: We’re focused right now on a specific product and getting that to market. That not only has the potential for a lot of growth but it also requires a lot of focus, so we’re focused on a specific product right now to bring to market.
Fred Diamond: Once again, you mentioned Airgility in the very beginning. Remind us again what is your niche within – again, I’m going to use the word ‘drone’ but I know you used a different term before. What is the niche that you’re serving?
Pramod Raheja: Our drones are very special, it’s a new category of drone called vertical takeoff and landing hybrid which essentially means that it can take off and land from anywhere. You can throw it in the back of your car, pick-up truck and launch it from anywhere, you don’t need any kind of infrastructure and it also can go fast and far. From that essential philosophy we’re able to do a range of missions from indoor confined spaces to outdoor longer range missions as well, is the goal in the future.
Fred Diamond: What’s the major application that people would be using your devices for?
Pramod Raheja: Right now we’re focused on search rescue and confined spaces, so looking for signs of human life working with police SWAT teams looking for specific things, and disaster situations as well is a big focus right now.
Fred Diamond: Before I ask you for your final tip today, again the sales process is hard. We ask this to all the sales VP’s that we interview on the podcast. I got to imagine that it’s especially hard for the people that you dealt with at EO and the entrepreneurs that you’ve come across in your career. People don’t return your calls, especially if you don’t have a brand and you’re brand new, people are busy so it’s very difficult for people to want to take a shot on a new company. Obviously there’s tons of entrepreneurs who’ve been extremely successful. Why have you continued knowing that there’s the sales challenge? What is it about the sale side that has kept you going that you see as so important?
Pramod Raheja: You did ask about the brilliance earlier and I’d say that ties into this question. I love sports, I’ve been an athlete my entire life and to this day play sports, love sports. There’s this winning thrill that comes when you win something or even just participating, so I find that sales to some extent is like a sport. Especially as an entrepreneurial salesperson, I treat myself like I’m an Olympic athlete and that I have to perform at a very high level. There’s a thrill that comes with closing a deal. It could be a small deal and I’d still get super excited, so that thrill of being able to essentially create something from nothing and bring in business is something that just keeps me going. I love that, I don’t think that will ever end.
Fred Diamond: We have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe today. Again, it’s a slightly different show where we talked about it from the entrepreneurial side, but give them a final thought. Let’s have one final thought to inspire our listeners today.
Pramod Raheja: This might sound generic, but I would say that the thought that I would leave for everybody is whatever you’re working on, stay focused, don’t get too scattered, stay focused on what you’re doing very narrow, if you can. On top of that, stay persistent because that victory might be right around the corner and you might give up just before. I can think of many times where I’ve attempted or tried to sell 4, 5, 6, 7 times. On the 5th or 8th time we actually hit it and if we had given up it wouldn’t have happened.