From Dave Stevenson - September Edition

Dave Stevenson

From Dave Stevenson: Head of Sales

I’m spending 2019 as an Entrepreneur in Residence at Whiteboard Advisors, and now focusing on what’s next. As promised, enough of France, we’re back to your regularly scheduled K-12 edtech and policy stuff!

Head of Sales

In October 2016, Larry Berger appointed me as interim Head of Sales at Amplify. I dropped the “interim,” went all-in, and built a nifty K-12 sales team. By the time I stepped down in December 2018, Amplify’s bookings had more than doubled — from $60M to $125M — with a bright forecast for 2019. 

I didn’t grow up in sales. I worked in schools, project and product management, licensing and distribution deals, and government relations. So I’m often asked “what surprised you,” or “what do you wish you’d known?” Here are a few highlights:


Sales management is systems and process work. You set territories and incentives, map the buying journey, manage the pipeline. So many spreadsheets!

That work is not enough. It’s a talent game. The best reps, who deeply understand their clients, who have earned trust, can transform a territory and a company. 

As we grew the team rapidly, I did my best to design territory around top talent, and then chase it. I called it the “FC Barcelona rule.”

When Luis Suarez got in trouble for biting, FC Barcelona snapped him up. They already had two of the world’s best strikers — Messi and Neymar. Yet the trio set new records, and the team won it all that year. 

Talent first, shape second. (And no biters!)

Mindset: “Create New Value”

Mark Cranney is the king of enterprise selling. He stars in Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things — the systems sales manager who structures and runs the work with iron discipline.

My favorite thing Cranney isn’t system, though. It’s philosophy. “The true purpose of sales is to create new value for customers.” Instead of focusing on persuasion and tricks, you focus on needs and outcomes. Selling becomes an act of collaborative value creation.

Ben Wallerstein likes the metaphor of Mission Control when a rocket launches. NASA, Lockheed Martin, Boeing employees all high-fiving. They’re vendors and clients, but most of all they’re successful collaborators. 

My team got some of those moments. Our rep standing alongside a curriculum lead training 100 teachers. Our team preparing the deck for a client’s high-stakes board presentation. Our rep modeling instruction in a classroom pilot.

We collaborated to change practice and improve student outcomes — creating new value together.

Managers! Managers! Managers!

(With apologies to Steve Ballmer.)

Some companies in K-12 view sales management as mostly operational. Track pipelines, monitor expenses, manage budgets. You might manage as many as 12 or 18 reps under this model.

I tried to keep the ratio at 8:1. This approach gave managers time to work closely on their reps’ big and complex deals — to be generative and collaborative, instead of compliance-oriented. 

The ratio also gave managers time to work with their people. Building on CEB and McKinsey’s work, we defined the essential skills and competencies for sellers in K-12. We focused our training, ride-alongs, and coaching accordingly, and generally got better at selling. 

As a manager of managers, I tried to balance empowered accountability (“here’s your sample budget, don’t spend it all in one place, or maybe do, it’s up to you”) with generative support. I found the balance by teaming with my managers to “inspect the work” — sitting in on occasional pipeline calls, riding along on presentations, doing generative deal reviews. 

It might work differently in other markets or segments. But for my tenure, the ratio was right, we were serious about improving, and we sure had fun. 

Product/Market Fit

None of these — talent, mindset, or management — matter without product/market fit. In K-12, that requires quality development and a policy wind.

Amplify Science is the country’s best K-8 science curriculum for the Next Generation Science Standards. (EdReports for the fact check). As schools and districts adopted the new standards, they started looking for high-quality materials to support instruction. Curriculum specialists and teachers can see the difference when they review and pilot.

Back in the day, at Wireless Generation, we combined high quality reading assessments with emerging mobile technology, at a time that first Federal and then State initiatives focused on K-3 reading. Teachers saved time, system leaders got better data, and practice changed.

Most of the big growth stories in K-12 share these elements: products that teachers and kids love, quality and rigor that advance teaching practice and student outcomes, and a market segment that has energy and focus. (Sometimes quality and rigor get shortchanged … but it eventually gets noticed).

One way to know that you have product/market fit is when competitors’ reps start calling because they’ve heard about your products from their clients. That happened once or twice on my watch.

Thanks and Further Reading

I owe so many thanks. Silver McDonald (now Lego Education) and Jim Coulon (now BrainPOP) were both incredibly helpful to me in the early going. I hired and led some truly excellent managers and reps and learned so much from each of them. Many, many others were generous with their time and insights.

If you’re a sales professional and interested in trading favorite resources, books, and trainings, drop me a note and I’ll send you my list.

If you’re not a sales professional, please think about “creating new value” the next time you work with one.