Technology

Startup Web venture gives sales reps an edge: Internet forum allows anonymous contact exchange

September 5, 2005

In literature and on stage, Arthur Miller's tragic salesman Willy Loman has come to symbolize the American dream gone sour.

But for the founders of locally based WillyLoman.com, an online forum for anonymous exchange of business contacts, the moniker has a simpler meaning: Willy Loman is instantly recognizable. The title character from "Death of a Salesman" is still the best-known name in marketing.

"Have you ever felt like Willy Loman?" asked WillyLoman.com cofounder and CEO Bill Johnson. "The idea is to minimize those days and create a site where we can be more successful."

A longtime IT sales rep, Johnson has personally experienced the sales drama English majors read about in class. He's spent long months cultivating relationships with secretaries and subordinates, always trolling for the manager with the clout to make a purchase.

He recalls the years he spent selling for Needham, Mass.-based Parametric Technology Corp., which makes engineering software. Covering the Indiana territory, Johnson eyed Cummins Inc. as his dream prospect. He was euphoric when he finally made his first sale.

"They were Mecca," he said. "You really wanted to crack those guys."

But a few years later, when Johnson began selling for marketing softwaremaker Aprimo Inc., every sales relationship he'd developed for Parametric Technology was useless to him. He had to start all over.

"I would have gladly traded every engineering contact I had to gain access to marketers," he said.

Hence the premise of WillyLoman.com. With the help of two partners, $500,000 from angel investors, and certification for the Indiana venture capital tax credit, Johnson built an Internet site where salespeople can anonymously exchange the names of decision-makers.

Instantly, they can skip months of prospecting and shoe leather. Armed with contacts from the WillyLoman.com network, a salesman knows exactly who is worth his time and attention. It's the difference between cold-calling a CEO and carefully approaching the specific middle manager who might actually purchase your software.

The site launched in May. Salespeople already have loaded 110,368 contacts from 46,280 companies into the Willy-Loman.com database. About half are from central Indiana. The next-largest market so far, Johnson said, has been New York.

Users pay $14.95 per month to access the site, or they can save $29.45 by paying WillyLoman.com's discounted annual rate of $149.95. WillyLoman.com declined to provide revenue projections.

Tony O'Neill, a business development consultant for locally based testing software-maker Performance Assessment Network Inc., is an ardent Willy-Loman.com fan. The most difficult aspect of sales, he said, is identifying relevant prospects. Most of them have layers of people insulating them from sales reps.

"The receptionist's job is to make sure you don't get in touch. They send you directly to voice mail. That's a barrier you have to get through," O'Neil said. "The hardest thing to do is to find the right person inside a company. What Willy does is help me find [him or her] really fast."

"If you're spending your time talking to receptionists all day long, the chances are slim you're going to be making a deal anytime soon," he added.

For Randy Sorensen, who sold for AT&T, Lucent and Avaya over 20 years, WillyLoman.com's best feature is its timeliness. The salespeople who use it constantly police the site's listed contacts. Salespeople know that internal organizations can change quickly in the weeks or months between calls.

"There's no phone book that says, 'What does the current org chart at Lilly look like?' How do you keep current with that?" he asked. "At WillyLoman, the concept I think is exciting is you have a potential army of people out there updating your database."

Purdue University Krannert School of Management Assistant Professor James Oakley sees the potential value in Willy-Loman.com's concept.

But he warned that circumventing the traditional contact channels too frequently might end up making managers even more unreceptive to salespeople. There's a reason executives erect barriers that make them difficult to reach. They don't want to spend their days sifting through unwanted e-mail and phone messages.

"Here's a service that's designed to short-circuit the systems in place. It may make [managers] even more untrusting of salespeople, including those they already know," Oakley said. "Someone's more or less in their eyes sold 'em out by posting their contact information."
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