The Red Herring Sale causes trainwrecks in almost every client or business I work with. I’ve also experienced it in my own businesses several times. So let’s define it, identify a few indicators, and then flesh it out with an example.


The Red Herring Sale is a sale (or client) that comes up early in your business, offers a relatively large amount of money or other resources, and is the first or second of its kind. But because it’s not actually the kind of sale or client you should be pursuing at that time, it ends up diverting you from real success.


If the sale came from an:

  1. unknowable chance (it appeared out of thin air)
  2. unrepeatable process (there is no way to replicate it)
  3. someone believing only in you (and not your product or service)

… sorry to say, but it might be a herring.

If the sale came from a part of your business or service you don’t particularly like, that is not necessarily a red herring - that’s a misalignment with your value conviction, and it’s your decision to pursue that or not.

An Example

When we started building Wordcraft, we tested every channel we could think of. We annoyed friends with a web demo of the game, built a prototype mobile app, did in-person demos around the east coast, skyped with teachers in Taiwan, Lebanon, and Hungary, posted in Facebook groups, ran ad campaigns. All good experimentation.

One surprise was that a school in the south wanted to pay us $5,000 for a single license. Their enthusiasm was unlike anything we had heard - constant emails, calls, and so on. Couple this with a few other schools that had a lot of enthusiasm and we said “ok, this is our first channel, school sales, mainly in the south”. Time to pound the pavement.

Two plane trips, 10+ rounds of emails, and a hunt for a notary on a Sunday later, it started to smell like a red herring.

We didn’t misstep connecting with evangelistic users who formed the core of our community and began viral growth. But there was no underlying repeatability of the process as a sales channel.

An Outlook

Early on, bias toward experimentation and you will indeed find a lot of red herrings. The secret is to take them as learning and not the law - don’t bake them into your integrity as an enterprise. Catapult off the learning and relationships to strengthen the form around your underlying conviction.