Joshua Smith is the founder and chief technology officer of Kaon Interactive. Kaon is a B2B interactive sales and marketing solution that helps the world’s most visionary B2B companies increase sales effectiveness. They’ve worked with customers like Siemens, Netscape, Dell, and Ricoh to improve B2B sales through virtual experiences.
As a founder, Joshua has directed the company’s technology platform evolution from Netscape plugins through Java and into mobile. In addition to setting key technology strategies as CTO, he heads the platform and process automation teams within Kaon, ensuring Kaon’s interactive applications can be deployed seamlessly throughout Kaon’s customer marketing and sales teams.
B2B Sales Q&A with Joshua Smith of Kaon Interactive
We asked Joshua about how technology, specifically virtual engagement, is changing the “old school” way businesses are thinking about B2B sales.
Q: How has virtual collaboration changed the fundamentals of B2B sales?
A: It hasn’t yet, because the tools that enable collaborative engagement in a remote B2B sales environment are just coming out of the lab now. If we look at how B2B sales happened before everything suddenly became remote, the most effective meetings involved collaboration.
Working together at a whiteboard to talk about what your systems are versus what they need to be. Bringing vendors on-site to the shop floor to see the real problems that need to be solved and to visualize how new equipment could fit into existing workflows. Compared to that, a video-conferencing tool showing a boring slide deck is never going to come anywhere close to that kind of engagement.
Instead, you need to be able to recreate those places in a virtual world and let people interact in real time while sharing that experience. That doesn’t have to mean VR headsets or gamer-level PC rigs. You can get that kind of immersion and interaction in a desktop web browser if you know what you’re doing. It requires a sublime blend of beautiful design and robust technology, developed with a clear understanding of how sales actually happen. Virtual collaboration is not a hardware problem, it’s a software problem and a design problem.
Q: Do you think tools like VR will become commonplace in high-level business meetings? Will CEOs begin wearing VR headsets?
A: That will never happen. If we look at the history of technology, the only “on-face” technology that lasted more than a few years are eyeglasses. From the Stereoscope, through the first VR headsets in the 80s, through glasses-based 3D TV, nothing has ever made it past the Trough of Disillusionment in Gartner’s hype cycle. Headset-based VR is a phase in the march toward metaverse collaboration, and that phase will never reach the mainstream.
What will eventually become commonplace is virtual presence that doesn’t require putting plastic on your face.
I’m not sure exactly what shape that technology will be, but it will probably look something like the popular notion of holography. It could be tricks with mirrors, it could be actual holograms, or maybe it’ll be something entirely new.
Virtual meetings need to be life-sized, six degrees of freedom (6-DOF), real-time, and high fidelity. Until they hit all those marks, I believe people will continue to suffer through Zoom meetings because they’re easy and familiar, and they have a very low barrier to entry on the hardware side.
Q: What about the metaverse? How could that be applied to B2B collaboration?
A: That depends on which definition of metaverse you use. If you mean the Web3, blockchain, VR-headset, highly monetized, privacy-destroying dystopian Snow Crash Ready Player One metaverse, I hope that never even comes to fruition.
But if you mean the confluence of virtual presence, visualizations in 3D that create a sense of place, and real-time collaboration that brings people closer together despite physical distance, that definition of metaverse is exactly what we need. The importance of face-to-face meetings isn’t the face-to-face part. It’s the part where you do things together. It’s the part where a vendor and a customer work together to solve a problem. Creating a metaverse that allows that to occur will be transformative.
So step one is to re-define “Metaverse” to something useful. It needs to be defined in terms of what it does for its user base, not what it does for the balance sheets of the companies trying to force it upon us.
Q: Kaon entered the virtual B2B sales arena long before other platforms were embracing it. What was it like pioneering the early days of virtual enterprise selling?
A: Being first to market is hard because you can’t just copy someone else’s success. You have to try a lot of different things to figure out which ones work and which ones don’t. In the domain of marketing that can be extremely difficult. There are so many variables that it’s impossible to be certain if what you are doing is helping or if the myriad other things happening in the market are driving results. You end up relying on a lot of human intuition, which isn’t terribly reliable.
But in sales, it’s really easy to know what works. If you put a feature out there and nobody uses it, that means it doesn’t work. If it’s widely used, it does work. This is true because our users have their personal money on the line.
Sales people are mostly paid on commission, so they will readily adopt anything that closes more deals. And they will resist anything that wastes their time. We often see upper sales or marketing management try to lead with dictates: this is how you will do your job. That never, ever works in a sales organization. Give them good tools, and let them figure out how to use them.
For example, when Apple and Google made augmented reality (AR) possible on mobile devices we immediately added that as a feature to all our applications that included 3D product models. Intuitively, it seemed to make sense that AR would help sales in a variety of ways. But when I look at the analytics, I see that this feature is rarely used. It works well, the UX is intuitive, and the visual effect is really cool.
But since it isn’t being used, I have to conclude it’s not actually more effective at closing deals than looking at 3D product models on a screen without augmenting reality. We are leaving the feature in, since it’s always possible that someone will find a killer use case. But it’s not a main focus of our roadmap because we’d rather invest in features our users actually want.
Q: How did your background as an entrepreneur lead you to recognize the opportunity that existed for a virtual B2B sales platform?
A: Personally, it didn’t. I’m pretty good at coming up with ideas to solve problems, and at determining whether those solutions are effective. But recognizing what problems the market has—recognizing the opportunity—is an entirely different skill from that. If you look at tech startups that fail, it’s rarely because their technology didn’t work, or because it wasn’t cool enough.
Startups fail because they are trying to solve a problem the market doesn’t particularly need solved. Or worse, some startups don’t even know what problem they are trying to solve.
Kaon’s success derives from a willingness to pivot constantly as the landscape changes, and a leadership team who is particularly good at understanding the problems our markets need solutions for. We are exceptionally good at listening. Yet in both the marketing and B2B sales spaces, we also often have to be thought leaders to help our customers understand what their problems really are once we’ve identified them. We can see the forest while they are looking at one particular tree.
Getting that thought leadership into the wild is another completely different skill set. So recognizing the opportunity, building awareness of those problems, and then building solutions and getting them to market touches every part of the C-suite and the teams who execute those ideas. Innovation is great, but it is not sufficient on its own for success.
Q: What lessons have you learned about disrupting a space like B2B sales that had been stagnant for many decades?
A: There are so many lessons. But I suspect one of the most critical is that, in the vast majority of companies, the tools used by the sales department are created by the marketing department, yet marketing doesn’t interact with sales at all. They never ask sales what they need—they just make stuff and throw it over the wall.
That’s why marketing departments keep making videos and PDFs, which are completely ineffective tools for sales and then wondering why nobody uses them.
There is an entire industry dedicated to making it easier for sales people to access marketing collateral that sales people have absolutely no use for (Note to marketers: the sales team already knows how to get your videos and PDFs; they just don’t want them).
Because of this traditional division of work, our buyer is usually in the chief marketing officer’s (CMO) organizational umbrella, so if we are building something for B2B sales, the first thing we need to do is find our user in the sales organization.
You’d be shocked how many marketers have no idea how to even contact regional sales directors in their own companies. So that can be a real struggle, and then we have to bring the voice of sales into the conversation, which also isn’t easy because of that “marketing knows best” tradition. When your buyer and your user are two different people, it can be quite a challenge to make the right tool.
Once we get everyone aligned, though, it’s straightforward to create the right tools because we’ve been at it for so long. We know what kind of interactivity leads to closed deals and what is cool but useless.
We know how to create shared experiences and facilitate collaboration using the hardware and networks people already have. We know how to make everything turn-key, so deployment doesn’t turn into an IT nightmare. We know how to introduce new tools to the users in both the sales and marketing organizations to ensure they know they exist and how they are intended to be used. And finally, we know how to analyze how things are used, to ensure continuous improvement and refinement are data-driven, not intuition-driven.