Interview: Dan Herchenroether, Author of Selling Air

I'm diverging today from my usual interviews of CEOs, venture capitalist, and others in the local high tech industry to interview Dan Herchenroether, author of Selling Air ( Dan contacted me and sent over a copy of his book, a fictional account of selling enterprise software. I'm usually just a nonfiction person (business and technical books), but I was impressed enough by the book to read it all the way through a few weekends ago.

BK: What's your background, and why did you decide to write the book?

DH: My 20 year career in software was pretty evenly split between corporate systems (mostly financial services) and pre-sales systems engineering. In IT, I worked on projects such as bond and mortgage security modeling and risk management. In sales, I worked for NeXT, Active Software and Altoweb. I was the first SE hired at Active and helped build the sales team.

I've always been an avid reader and dabbled in some writing. After deciding that I had had enough of the rigors of working for startups and constant travel, I decided to get serious about getting a writing career off the ground. Following the advice to "write about what you know" I decided to use my experience in software sales as the basis for a novel about the tech bubble period. I'm finding that there's almost a nostalgia - certainly in the sales fraternity - about the insanity of the 90s as the realization sinks in that we probably won't see a market quite like that ever again.

BK: In your book one of your characters is a sales person who "bends the rules" to win deals. Did you base that one on actual experience?

DH: I assume you're speaking of Tom Gatto. Just about everything that happens in Selling Air is derived from personal experience or relayed from reliable sources. The characters are mostly composites (have to protect the guilty, afterall) but are drawn from people I worked with or sold to. Gatto, however, is fairly close to one individual I worked with, particularly the womanizing. The guy truly would sell his grandmother if it meant making an extra bonus.

BK: I thought the book was great, and worthy of a big publisher--why did you decide to self-publish instead of going through a major publisher?

DH: I spent about six months trying to go the traditional publishing route of chasing agents but there was zero interest. What limited feedback I received can be summed up by saying they "just don't get it". They don't seem to appreciate just how the software industry is, and that people in software - and more broadly, high tech - like to read about themselves. I decided that I'd just have to prove to them that my story is viable. I chose to publish via print-on-demand because it was low risk, low cost to startup and they handle the retail transactions. It's worked out pretty well so far but I will probably switch to become my own publisher because the margins in POD aren't that great.

BK: What do you think readers are most drawn to in your book?

DH: The answer is twofold. First, people in the industry see themselves in the book regardless of whether they lived through the tech bubble in sales, IT or are newbies to the software game. I've recognized for some time that people in the software - or more broadly the high-tech - industry likes to read about themselves. With respect to more recent arrivals to the business, more than one reader has said it should be used as a training manual.

Second, and this is the most heartening development, readers from outside the industry are fascinated by the strategy and tactics depicted in the book. I was afraid that there might be too much technical detail in the book. Anyway, these are people who watched from the sidelines as the dot-com rage turned to dot-bomb and wondered what was going on.

BK: Do you think it's much like the reason people read Dilbert--seeing a bit of their own lives in your characters?

DH: Yes, but I didn't have to be as satirical as Scott Adams. The truth was a self-parody.

BK: You've included lots of "tricks of the trade" of sales. I've been reading lots of sales and marketing books lately and none have actually covered what you end up doing to win a deal as well as your book. Have you ever thought of putting those together as a nonfiction volume?

DH: I don't think I could keep a straight face writing something like that. It's hard for me to take this stuff too seriously. The reps and sales managers who tried to adhere to some "system" usually tossed it out the window by the final month of the quarter. I have to say, though, that more than one agent said I was stupid for doing a fiction piece. Further evidence that mainstream publishing "doesn't get it"

BK: What's next for you--are you working on another book?

DH: Selling Air is the first installment in a trilogy. It tracks our companies during late startup mode. The next book, tentatively titled Paper Millions, explores the experience of going public and the temptations of inflated stock prices. The third will track our heroes and villains through the tech crash. My original idea was to put all that into Selling Air but it would have been a thousand pages so I figured I'd get three books out of the material.

BK: Thanks!