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Alt. Scientific Career Path #3: Sales Engineer @ Start-up [Jessi Mischel, PhD]

Hey Jessi! Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with Strik3 :)

First, please tell me, what is your job title and how long have you been doing this type of work?

I am the Director of North American Sales at Ripple Neuro and Ripple Neuromed (both part of Ripple Ventures), startup neurotechnology companies dedicated to providing animal and human researchers with tools for their work. More specifically, I sell neural acquisition and stimulation systems for neuroscience research.

That is so cool! I know I’ve said it many times before, but I adore you!! I have more questions but will hold off until you’re finished explaining your background and history with Ripple.

When I started at Ripple, it was my first job after graduate school. Ripple was founded in 2005 and developed our first neural data acquisition system as part of DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics grant. We started selling these products to the greater neuroscience community in 2011 and, in 2015, hit it big with DARPA’s Haptix grant, allowing us to focus on implantable devices.

I started in 2017 and, at the time, we were 19 people, struggling to stay afloat. Now we’re 38 people, still facing the challenges of small business life :-P

At Ripple, we are bootstrapping a medical device company so reinvestment is where any and all profits go. Now, we are making a name for ourselves in the animal neuroscience space, the human neuroscience space, as a medical device manufacturer, and as a company that makes our own end user medical devices. It’s beyond awesome to be a part of and I can’t wait to see where we go from here.

Wow, that is SO exciting! I’m excited for you and for Ripple! First, to go from a tiny company, marketing your devices for use in academic research in animal models and now, IN ADDITION, testing your devices in humans! I’m sure there’s so much more that comes along with that in terms of regulation and manufacturing, but we can discuss later.

Before we talk about technical stuff, can you provide a brief explanation of your job, where it fits in the industry, and what you do on a daily basis?

I LOVE MY JOB. I’m the kind of person who needs to own my own destiny, and working at a neurotech startup has allowed me to do that. I get to participate in decisions across sales, business strategy, quality systems, and more. I wear A LOT of hats. I’ll try to separate the roles that I fill with a brief description of each.

Research Sales Engineer - As a sales engineer, I am responsible for bringing in the dollas. I try to send between 50-100 emails a week to keep in touch with leaders in the field and get information about our products to the people who could benefit from them. I spend between 30-70% of my time on the road (pre-pandemic) for scientific conferences and to do scientific demonstrations at research labs around the world.

Business Development - I am constantly looking out for what new technologies are up and coming in the field. It is important as I shape our animal and human neuroscience businesses that we remain relevant and are continuously innovating to develop tools to meet the needs of our demographic. I perform market research across various scientific markets (in areas where we see a potential product fit) and then identify avenues for future growth. I then turn this information into a product roadmap for the next 2-3 years, taking engineering resources, and future employee hires into account. I also create relationships with other businesses within our field to create joint research solutions to push the field even further.

Financial Planning - Not only am I responsible for making sure we have the money to pay our employees, I am also responsible for making sure my employees get paid in the future. Over the last year, I have been given projection, financial modeling, and profits and losses responsibilities for the neuroscience business units. While it is stressful, I feel like I now have a better understanding of what really makes a business run. When I started it was all about “HOW CAN I HELP THIS ONE LAB” and now it’s more about “how can I grow a business to create technologies that can help as many people as possible.”

WE HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO STAN! You are amazing and as your friend, I am SO proud of you! I know you work hard, but seeing it all laid out is so cool. Do you think your wearing of so many hats has to do with your personal development within the company, or is this the normal expectation for people in a neurotech startup?

At any start up, I believe employees can become stuck with the opportunity to stretch themselves beyond the job they were hired for. I do think that you can limit how much you stretch, but that this could also limit your potential for growth. It really all comes down to asking yourself “what do you want to do with your future?” If you want to be the best sales person, staying focused on sales as opposed to broadening your experience may be the right move.

I didn’t know what I wanted, so branching out seemed like the best way to utilize my access to multiple disciplines at Ripple.

That makes sense, it is a complex one, the start-up world! So, what led you to become interested in becoming a Sales Engineer and working for a start-up?

I actually had to convince myself I wasn’t taking a sales job. I felt that after completing a PhD, being in “sales” was a step down. That is ABSOLUTELY not the case. What got me really interested in the role was the idea of being the face of the company. That is what I wanted. I wanted the researchers whose papers I had been reading for years to know who I was. I wanted to help spread the word about technology that I truly believed would have enhanced my experiments during my PhD.

As for working at a startup, I didn’t want to be a cog in a machine. I wanted to feel like I could share my ideas and that they would be heard by the decision makers. This may be possible in some large companies too, but once I found Ripple I didn’t look much further.

That’s great. I’m glad you had/have the self-awareness to realize you need this kind of work environment to be satisfied and to thrive. I think these types of job characteristics are something everybody, regardless of field, should consider.

So, as we can tell - this seems like a LOT. haha… What is the most difficult part of your job(s)?

Everything I work on, I am the first person working on that problem. As a small team, we are constantly encountering hurdles that no one at the company has seen before. To make it at a startup, you need to be brave and dive in head first to do the research, look at potential solutions, and then implement the solution you think is best. Sometimes it won’t work, but that’s ok most of the time. It just means you do more research and try something else. Sometimes this can get mentally exhausting - it feels more like fighting fires than making progress - but I can tell you that after being at a startup for 4 years, PROGRESS IS BEING MADE. It’s just slow.

YES! That is so encouraging to hear, it’s like being able to see the forest through the trees plus needing to have the guts and persistence to keep pushing.

Another hard thing about working at a startup is that if you are successful, eventually your company will need to scale. Ripple never took any venture funding, so when we were really small we were scrappy and did what we needed to to stay around. That (not shockingly to anyone) doesn’t scale. We didn’t have any real processes written down, so if someone left the company, all of their knowledge left with them. Now we are developing all of those processes so that we can grow, and that has been a big adjustment. It’s hard to plan for growth when you're already growing, but that’s kind of just how it goes with a small company.

Yep. I can imagine how somebody with some formal Project Management training could help here ;)

Oh, how I would LOVE to hire that person, but I also need to evaluate if that would be more beneficial than using limited funds on a new sales person, support person, or engineer. There is always a trade off, and it’s my job to determine what trade-offs to make and get my team to understand why I made the choice that I did. Every choice I make impacts my team - everyone is stretched thin and needs help. I have to make sure that my choices set us up for the best future growth trajectory as we continue to expand. And, I choose to be a manager that is transparent with their team about why I make the choices I do. I work with really smart people and they are earnest in their work, so I feel I owe them a look into my thought process when they are affected by my decisions.

But, getting back on topic, the most difficult part of sales is communicating bad news. As a small company, we are very vulnerable to changes in delivery timelines and really, development pipelines as well. Once a customer hears about a technology that may help them, they want it now. As the sales person, it is my job to set expectations and deliver bad news when necessary.

Managing stakeholder expectations is one of the most underrated/often overlooked skills, in my opinion. It is critical for success, yet often not discussed in job interviews or when somebody first starts a job.

What is the best part of your job and working at a start-up?

I get to do a little bit of everything. It’s equally awesome and terrifying. I have learned so much since I started at Ripple - from what new techniques are being used to study the brain to what kind of quality systems are necessary when developing an implant for human use. I’ve gotten to work closely with neuroscientists, neurosurgeons, our engineers, our quality and regulatory departments, our project managers, our fulfillment teams, and even our executives! Sometimes it’s hard to integrate information across these various positions, however each experience helps me become a better leader and coworker. My experiences can’t be taken away, and I know that wherever I end up, what I’ve learned at Ripple will help shape my future success.

Ok, I think you have us all sold on a career at Ripple!

What advice do you have for somebody who is interested in pursuing either Sales Engineer roles or working at a start-up company after graduate school?

ASK A LOT OF QUESTIONS! I did not ask nearly the correct questions during my interviews and didn’t realize until I had already moved across the country.

This is relatable for a lot of people! What questions do you recommend?

I think with any startup, getting a basic understanding for the financial stability and the 2-5 year vision is extremely important. Your internal dialogue should be - Will this company still be around? Will you get great experience in 2-3 years and be able to move on, or is this a company you want to remain and grow at? Are there opportunities for vertical growth? Are you willing to put in the work it takes to build a start-up into something great?

Excellent, honest questions to consider! I’ll add onto that; it’s important to tie those answers with your own personal risk level you’re willing/able to take. Conduct a personal risk-benefit analysis, if you will.

For sales, your salary will likely have a portion that is based on commission. Commonly, in an offer, this is structured as “X base salary with X% commission, with an expected yearly salary of X based on $X in sales per quarter.”

ASK IF THE NUMBERS PER QUARTER ARE IN LINE WITH WHAT THEY HAVE SEEN WITH PREVIOUS EMPLOYEES WITH YOUR BACKGROUND. I did not do this. I moved across the country to realize the expected salary they quoted me was based on a quarterly revenue THREE TIMES larger than any quarterly revenue they had seen across the five previous quarters. Luckily it worked out, but I could have avoided a few panic attacks if I had done some research into what questions to ask.

Brilliant advice! How important is it for somebody’s background/experience in grad school to match the Therapeutic Area of the Sales Engineer jobs they apply for?

YES! There is a reason the majority of the people in my job (albeit in my field) are PhDs. Being an expert in neuroelectrophysiology IS why I make the sales that I do. I’m willing to lose the sale if our devices are not the right solution. I’m willing to talk up a competitor if they may have a better solution. I genuinely care that the customer's needs are met because I lived their life. As a graduate student, I struggled to cludge together available tools because the ‘right’ solution was either not available or funds were tight. I don’t want anyone to go through that, and especially not at my hand. I know the pain points of different research setups, the individuality required for each experiment, and how valuable data quality and collection time are. I am able to create a relationship with our customers using these aspects of their work, and therefore am able to build a level of trust very quickly. And trust is what makes sales. If I hadn’t spent time really DOING electrophysiology, I don’t think I’d be half as successful in my role.

That being said, the most important thing I got out of graduate school was learning that I could learn new skills and become an expert in a new topic with very little oversight. I learned to trust myself (sometimes to a fault) and that failing is ok!

Yes, gaining confidence in yourself, your science, and accepting that failure is a part of the job are such special skills. Speaking of, what are other key “translational skills” necessary for somebody who wants to work as a Sales Engineer and/or at a start-up company?

I had NO experience in sales and learned everything about sales on the job. While there are several things specific to sales that I have had to learn (forecasting, client relationship management software), the majority of the job is relating to people and conveying that you are an expert in what you are selling. I am naturally pretty good at reading the situation and relating to people (I’m an excellent barstool best friend), and my experience in grad school forced me to learn how electrophysiology hardware works inside and out.

Managing expectations for customers (and for myself in terms of how we could serve our customers) was the hardest thing to learn, primarily that we can’t spend the time to customize to everyone’s needs and still deliver our standard products on time. I wanted everyone’s research to be perfect and our engineers/techs to be in two places at once. While I know this isn’t possible, as a salesperson (at least in my field) you can get so wrapped up in a potential customer’s cool research, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. I’m not really sure what I could have done to be better prepared for this, but it definitely made me feel bad about some of the times I was “that customer” with my sales reps in graduate school. Remember that everyone is advocating for themselves just like you would, and that sometimes losing a sale is a better choice than over-promising and under-delivering.

This is so helpful. And it seems like you’ve gained a TON from your experience so far with Ripple, in sales, and the start-up aspect of the job. This has been great and you’ve shared so much! Are there any other tips or final words of wisdom you want to provide to Strik3’s community?

My only real tip is to go after what you want and to be yourself. I have been true to who I am EVERY DAY since I started at Ripple, and while some days I thought it was going to get me fired, I have become a true agent of change at my company. And because I haven’t adapted to fit a mold, I’m genuinely happy in my day-to-day life. Do what you love and don’t waste time doing something because you think “it’s what you're supposed to do after college/grad school/post-doc.”

Awwww, I want that cross-stitched on a pillow! *warm fuzzy feeling*

Thank you, Jessi, for being the BEST and taking the time to share your wisdom :)

Jessi's LinkedIn | Ripple Neuro | Ripple is hiring! (DM us on Twitter or LinkedIn if you're interested!)

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