Henry Schuck founded ZoomInfo while still in law school. When his biggest lead at that time showed interest, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sell. But there was one problem. He didn’t want the client thinking that he was both the CEO and the frontline sales rep. So he created a fake persona, “Ron Smyth,” to work and close the deal.
In this week’s episode, hear how Henry navigated the biggest deal — despite not being himself.
Before ZoomInfo, what was your first experience in sales? What was your first real sales job?
My first real sales job was when I was 12 years old. I was walking home from middle school, and there was a guy handing out flyers on the street to the students about a door-to-door newspaper subscription selling job. And it said, “Make 10 bucks an hour.”
I was like, OK, I really want a job and this sounds interesting. So I called the guy and said, “Hey, I’d be really interested in this job.” He said, “Great. I’ll drop a packet off at your house tonight. You can start on Thursday.”
The packet was basically a script for how to sell newspaper subscriptions door-to-door. There was a list of objections that you would get and responses to those objections, and a little bit of a training manual too.
It said, “You do not leave the door until you’ve had six no’s.” Once you get six no’s, then you can leave. Then all of the things that someone could say were outlined, like: “I’ve got to talk to my wife,” or “I’ve got to talk to my husband.” There was a response for that. “I already have a different newspaper.” There was a response. “I’m not really going to read it.” There was a response.
You had everything somebody could say to you, and you knew exactly what to say. So I committed the whole thing to memory. I knew exactly what to say regardless of what the response was.
The first day, the guy comes in a van and picks me up from my house. He is a 30-year old guy who runs this thing for the local newspaper. A bunch of other kids from different schools — some from my school — also get into the van. And then he drops us off in a neighborhood. You had one main street and every street off of it. So you just walked up and down the streets, you knocked on doors, and you said, “Hey, would you be interested in a subscription to the Glendale News-Press?”
At the end of the night, the first day, I outperformed everybody else and I couldn’t figure out why. And I realized, OK, it’s probably because I memorized all of these objections and what to say. And so you’d get into the van at the end of the night and the guy would ask, how many orders? I had 10, eight, seven, six. You’d count up your orders and turn them in. Then on the ride home, because he’d drop you off, he’d also buy you Burger King on the way.
But as he’d drop you off, he would ask about the evening and you would basically share best practices. Like, this woman said this, and I said that; this guy said this, I said that. I did that job for probably two years — saved up a bunch of money. Maybe longer, three years. I was making $30 a night, and I’d be working around two and a half to three hours a night. It was really good money for a 12- or 13-year-old. I loved that job.
Looking back, are you like, “That was good sales training,” or are you like, “Missed some opportunities there?”
Yeah, it was like, the sales training I was getting at 12 and 13 would be largely the same sales training I was doling out in my late 20s to an actual sales team at ZoomInfo.
But the construct is the same, right? You have a script, you know how to present your product or your service, you have a list of objections that are going to come up, and you have your responses to those objections.
That construct, that framework exists today. It existed then. And I remember when I was writing the first sales training manual at ZoomInfo, thinking about how similar that process was. And so, I’ve never really forgotten the lessons throughout that time.
OK. So that’s Henry in middle school selling newspapers like nobody’s business.
I was crushing newspaper sales in middle school. I don’t think there was anybody better than me.
And after middle school, were you like, I’m going to be in sales, I love this and I’m really good at this? Or was this just a one-off job?
This was kind of a one-off. But I’m competitive. I loved getting in that van and going, “I got 10. How many did you get? How many did you get? How many did you get?” So the competitive aspect of sales, I always really loved. But I came out of that and I didn’t really think about sales as a profession until much, much later.
OK. Let’s fast forward. Let’s talk about this pretty big deal. Set the scene. How old were you? Where are you working?
So it’s 2011. I am 27. And I’m working at DiscoverOrg, which was the precursor to ZoomInfo. So you can think of it as early ZoomInfo. And we were selling a very similar, earlier version of the platform that we sell today, but really focused on company data and contact data. I’m pretty sure that up to that moment, maybe the biggest ACV deal I sold was $50,000.
And we stumbled into this opportunity with CenturyLink. Here I was, the CEO of this company, we were still a very small business, and I was really intimidated. CenturyLink had their name on stadiums and billboards, and everybody knew them. And it was this big, professional company. And I was just this little, in my mind, junky startup.
How did you get in contact with them?
We ran sales automation and marketing automation plays. We would send out an email saying, “Is this data interesting to you? If it is, let’s set up a demo and show you the platform.” So when CenturyLink said, “Yeah, we’d be interested,” I was like, OK, I’m taking that one.
But I was embarrassed that it would be me. I was embarrassed that they would think, if this was a real company, the CEO wouldn’t be the frontline sales rep. So I concocted a different persona, this guy named Ron Smyth, who was just a seller inside of ZoomInfo. And I was like, look, it’s not going to harm them that a different name was taking them through the sales process. And it made me feel like less of an imposter.
And so the lead came in, we started the sales process. My point of contact was really great, and was guiding me through the motion. It was all virtual. And I remember when I realized how big of a deal it was going to be — three times bigger than any other deal that I had done. She was like, “OK, well, we want to roll this out to 350 users. How much would that be?” I said, “Oh, that’s $150,000.” And she was like, “OK.” And I was like, “Really? Is it OK? It’s really expensive.” But she didn’t flinch.
So this is way bigger. What was the average deal for DiscoverOrg at that point, like $10,000 or $5,000 or what?
Probably $20,000. $15,000 to $20,000.
When you saw that name, were you like, “This is going to be gigantic, this is definitely going to be $150,000,” or were you surprised to even throw out that number?
I was surprised to throw out that number. I thought for sure that it would be a big deal, but I was thinking $50,000, maybe $75,000.
So the deal’s going well, we do trials with a bunch of their sellers. The sellers love it. There’s raving feedback. I’m on the five yard line with this deal. It’s all just a matter of sequencing and time. And she’s off getting a budget from a bunch of different stakeholders internally.
And then the president of the company gets an email from our closest competitor at the time, a company called RainKing. They were the ones that I woke up every day thinking about. So our closest competitor and the products are similar. So the president gets an outbound email from RainKing when I’m on the five yard line of closing the deal.
How long has this been going on for? Is this months, days, weeks?
At this point it’s months, probably two months in. I know exactly where I was. I know exactly the feeling I had when my point of contact sent the email that said, “Hey, my president just got this email from RainKing. How would you respond to this?”
I’m like, oh my God. I’ve got this huge deal. It’s within my grasp. Now my competitor’s going to get in, and it’s going to muddy the water. Worst-case scenario, I lose the deal. Best-case scenario, I’m going to spend the next three months re-articulating the value and trying to get in front of this president guy.
So I called my point of contact right away. She was like, “Look, send me an email that explains that you do the same thing, that you do it better, so that I can send it to him and say, ‘You’re right. This is a great thing that we should have for our sellers. In fact, I’m about to move forward with a contract. And I’m going to ask you for budget for the number one in this space.'”
I was like, “Got it.” And I went to work building a couple of slide decks and an email that outlined that we do the same thing, but it’s more robust, that we’re a better platform. The interesting thing was, in that moment, I realized that when clients or prospects that you’ve built a relationship with send you an email like that, that asks you, “what about your competition?” They’re not trying to upend the deal. They just want you to do the work for them so that they can communicate internally in the best way possible.
So you send the email. What happens next?
I send the email and she responds, “Perfect. Great, thanks. I’ll circulate this internally with him. Shouldn’t be a problem.” And it wasn’t. It never came up again. And the deal gets closed about three weeks later.
Then she goes, “Great. We want to bring all of our executives up to your office for a day of training and onboarding and understanding everything.”
And we’re in the worst office you’ve ever seen. I don’t even know how to describe it. Think about the worst office you’ve ever imagined. That’s where we were. Homeless people would wander through our office during the day, just wander right in. We had to put a keypad lock on this door that faced the street. It was in the worst neighborhood in the community. It was unsafe. People’s cars got broken into in the parking lot. It was just not a great place to be. And I was like, oh my God, she can’t.
I was like, “Oh my God, what am I going to do?” I wrote her back and said, “Hey, actually, my CEO and our other account manager would love to come to you in Dallas and meet with your team and do trainings there. Would that work?”
She was like, “Yeah, of course. You guys should come here.” Crisis averted. Then I went down to Dallas for two or three days for a full onboarding and training of CenturyLink’s reps. And people were so excited.
But you’d have these moments in these trainings where there’d be some guy in the audience who didn’t think it was real. They would go, “Well, pull up Kaiser Permanente then.” And I’d go, “All right, here we go.”
I’d pull up Kaiser Permanente and they’d be like, “Oh my God, those are all the right people at Kaiser Permanente. It took me three years to get ahold of that guy, number three. And there’s his email, there’s his phone number. And the place would be so excited.”
Now in this training, there was a VP in the room when that happened. And he was like, “No more excuses. No more excuses. You guys have access now to the greatest tool that exists for sales people. No more excuses about I can’t get a hold of somebody, can’t get in front of that company. No more excuses.”
Out of all the deals you could share, why this one?
I think one, it was the biggest deal in the company’s history at that point. Definitely the first time I cracked six figures on a deal. It gave me confidence that we could continue to sell to large enterprises, that even the biggest, most sophisticated companies could get real value out of ZoomInfo.
And it taught me the lesson about when a competitor shows up in your deal, what your playbook is next. It isn’t to panic or get mad or disappointed that your point of contact has abandoned you at the last minute. It is to provide them with the data and talking points and slides to respond to that internally, because that’s what they want to do. And it’s also what they’re least armed to be able to do.
Any last bits of advice for salespeople today?
I think, look, sales is hard and it’s stressful. And you never know when a competitor is going to show up with a random email to the president of the company on the five yard line of your deal. But your job is to navigate that cycle, to build a strong enough relationship that gives you an opportunity to always respond.
You want to be there to be able to lay out your perspective, to be persuasive, and to win the deal. I think the number one thing that I appreciate about sales is, if you don’t tell the customer your perspective, why you’re the best solution for them, and get in their heads why they should be transacting with you, don’t expect them to figure it out when you hang up the phone.
This episode of Pretty Big Deal featured Henry Schuck, CEO and founder of ZoomInfo. It was produced by Sam Balter and edited by Xavier Leong. If you have a pretty big deal to tell us about, write in to firstname.lastname@example.org. Otherwise, we’ll see you on the next episode.