Ken Conklin
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Ken Conklin

Ken Conklin is a business development consultant who works with small to mid-sized technology companies and design teams, helping them secure R&D funding from U.S. Government SBIR programs, grants and industry sources. Ken also prepares strategic and tactical go-to-market plans for clients, including establishing sales channels. Previously, Ken was the general manager of the Cobham GaAs products operation. Prior to joining Cobham in 2005 (then M/A-COM), he held business development and product marketing positions with Hughes, IBM, and RFMD. During his career, Ken has introduced RF, microwave and millimeter-wave devices and components for AESA, GPS and terrestrial/space system communication applications. He is a frequent guest columnist to the Roanoke Times, contributing “slice of life” commentaries.

Beethoven's Riff

November 19, 2014

In a past life, while working in a sales management role for a major defense contractor, a colleague and I forced an impromptu meeting with a MMIC engineering design manager. We entered his office unannounced, as enthusiastic sales people tend to do, interrupting his solitary review of a preliminary design of a 35 GHz low noise amplifier. Annoyed, he glanced up and said “What’s this marketing riffraff doing in my office?”

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary “riffraff” means people who are not respectable and people who have a very low social status. It is disheartening to think that this is how we front-end-of-the-business people, who ultimately provide the fuel for a designer’s innovative pursuits, are perceived.

Sales vs. Marketing

I worry that many research and development people do not understand the distinctly different role marketing plays from that of a sales person. This is probably because marketing and sales are viewed by them as lumped elements, much like passive circuit functions are shown enclosed in a rectangle drawn on a schematic. This perception is exacerbated by the tendency for most organizational charts to assign the marketing and sales function to the same box.

However, any similarity between marketing and sales is like the difference between Beethoven and the members of the orchestra playing his Fifth Symphony. In other words, marketing creates the strategy, and sales makes it happen.

Sales people tend to be over-the-top extroverted characters. Walk into the lobby of any large company and there will be a half dozen of these colorful people hanging around. They will be on the phone, pacing the lobby and exchanging rumors with their counterparts. Most will be dressed in traditional business attire, with a hint of flamboyance, even during these days of professionals wearing jeans and t-shirts to the office.

Sales people come in many flavors. They can be direct employees or part of another organization, such as a manufacturer’s representative. But they all share similar traits. Their glasses are always half full, propelled by a personality that is constantly driving to close a deal. On the rare occasion a sales person’s glass is half empty, one can expect them to proceed directly to the second movement (Andante con moto) of Beethoven’s Fifth.


Establishing channels to market is an important step for small, start-up companies. I generally favor and recommend they contract with regional manufacturer’s representatives (reps) to establish these initial channels.

I like the rep model for many reasons, especially when the product and potential customer set are well-defined. It works especially well for relatively small, budget constrained organizations. This is because they do not have to compensate the rep until the product is delivered and the customer has remitted payment. This is apparently a successful business model for a rep organization and the norm for the electronic components business. It is important, however, to contract with rep organizations that are well established and with many successful years of selling in their territory.

Another advantage of employing reps is they become an instantaneous feedback loop as to whether a product will be accepted in the marketplace. Reps are very short term oriented. If a product is not going to yield immediate results, they will move on to the next product with a quickness that replicates a bullet leaving a gun.

It is the company’s job to keep reps motivated and interested in selling their product offerings. And it is why a sales person cannot get jumping up and down excited about a 35 GHz LNA that has only reached the preliminary design review stage gate. The end game for a sales person is to sell the engineer’s innovative creation, when it actually exists, so they can make money as soon as they can. In other words, the orchestra cannot play the composition without the strings, winds and percussion in place. This is when the real fun begins.

It’s All About Having Fun

I admit, having fun is the main reason I enjoy working with sales people. They operate in a stimulating environment. Over my career, I have had many energizing experiences with the various sales personalities I have encountered. Trade shows, like the IMS, are ripe for unique interactions with sales people.

Try this sometime if you become bored while fulfilling your booth duty obligation at a trade show, like my rep once did. Approach a stranger walking by your booth and pretend you know him (or her) by enthusiastically greeting him by the name printed on his badge. Then watch as he tries to recall where he knows you from. You can coax the conversation along by reminding the person of the great time he had with you at last year’s hospitality suite. Finally, convince him to come over to your booth so you can try to sell something. But, you need to get him into your space before he mutters something about riffraff.

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