Snakebite Theory

Snake venom in your heart will kill you. But here’s the thing – a snake doesn’t have to bite you in the heart. It can bite you in the heel, the fingertip. It’s all connected; the venom will get to your heart sooner or later.

All security is external security. There are a lot of things keeping bad stuff out of my body, but almost nothing keeping bad stuff from getting from one part of my circulatory system to another. Once you’re in, you’re in. And my heart is better guarded than my heel – so if a snake really wanted to kill me, it would actually be better off trying to avoid my heart and going for an easier target!

All organizations of people are like this. Within that organization is a particular person you want to talk to, but like the heart, that person may be well-guarded and far away. The organization as a whole may have some features that screen or repel outsiders, but they’ll be weakest at the fringes. But once you’re in, you’re in.

A long time ago, I was in medical device sales. There was a particular doctor who was a very high-ranking person in the largest hospital system in my territory: he was the head of the entire trauma center. That made him (in theory) the single most valuable person in the region for people like me; his signature on a contract would be worth millions of dollars. But predictably, he never met with sales reps. He had tons of systems in place to protect him from them, and no one ever got through the walls of friendly-but-firm administrators, screened calls, and blocked emails. He was the heart.

So I didn’t go for the heart. I found the incredibly overworked, understaffed physical therapy department. The head of that department literally worked in a closet. He was easy to see – I brought a sandwich and I was his best friend for life. In a technical sense, he was worth zero dollars to my company: he couldn’t authorize any purchases. But I offered to put on an educational seminar for his staff that would give them some of the continuing education credits they all needed to stay certified, and I’d even cater it too. The only thing I asked in return was the ability to drop his name later, and he obviously agreed.

So now I go back to the head of the trauma center, but not as a sales rep. I just sent an email saying something super short, like “Hi, I’m the guy running the education seminar for the PTs on how to best support patients coming out of the trauma center. Wanted to know if I could get your input on topics to focus on.” He responded within 15 minutes, and I had a meeting the next morning.

That meeting turned into a six-million-dollar contract.

Think about that when you’re job hunting, for example. People try so hard to find the exact right department head or hiring manager and pitch them from the outside, but that person is the heart. They’re well-defended, their walls are up. They screen and dismiss. But the person who just works in customer service for the same organization might be thrilled to have a friendly voice ask to chat, and once you have one friend on the inside, it’s easy to ask for introductions, drop names, discover more information, and move around. It’s easy to find the heart from the inside.

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