Mental Models

This is part of a growing and ongoing series of videos and transcripts intended to help Ulu founders develop their sales skills and improve their sales outcomes.

Following is a transcript of this presentation on call management. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

This module is called mental models. It is one of an ongoing series of ideas designed to help you sell better, sell more sell with greater confidence.

My name is Kevin Hoffberg and I’m a venture partner with Ulu Ventures.

Prior to joining the firm, I spent a career in sales and marketing, a big chunk of that I was the founder of several different sales and marketing training and consulting firms. During that time, I wrote something on the order of 30 or 40 different training programs. The content we’re going to talk about in this module is drawn from that life’s work.

Our objective in this module is the use of what I’ve described as “mental models.”

I want to start with an analogy to make my point. When a map maker makes a map, the map is not meant to be the territory, it is a representation of the territory.

The big thought is to represent what is most useful to the map maker and the user. So, for example, if the map maker is creating something to aid our driving, the map is going to feature roads. And in this interactive age, along with the roads and where they go, it will include information like traffic and driving conditions.

In the same way, a cartographer who’s interested in how we might cross terrain will represent terrain lines that are going to give us clues about changes in elevation over what distance.

The map maker represents the territory, but more specifically represents what’s important about the territory, or what’s important to know about the territory so that the user can achieve his or her objective.

That’s the idea around selling anything but particularly something that’s coming from the imagination of a founder, where you’ve gone to the future and come back with a vision of a different way of thinking about problems and solutions.

In this conceptual environment, going from zero to one, we need to put in front of the client, prospect or customer the equivalent of a map, a mental model that does two things.

The first is it helps us organize our thinking about what it is that we’re offering and how it works and why it matters and so on.

The second thing is that the mental model becomes part of the conversation with the client, prospect or customer. It helps organize their thinking, it helps organize our conversation and hopefully does it in a way that sets us up to influence them to see the wisdom of our worldview and the solution that we have to offer.

Three Words

I’m going to give you three different ways to think about creating mental models. The first one is the use of three simple words.

The idea of behind using these words is to signal to the customer, the client, or the prospect that you understand what it is that they’re thinking and that you’re prepared to talk about it. I’m a big fan of putting them right into the conversation on my terms versus waiting for them to ask them.

The three questions that all customers and prospects are going to be asking themselves is how much, how soon and how sure? How much is around cost. “Soon” is timing. “Sure” is around the risk of taking on what it is that you’re proposing.

This model is super simple and meets those two hurdle requirements. 1) It will help you organize a sales call and, 2) it helps focus the attention of the customer on things that you’re prepared to speak about.

The second example is effectively the same thing. It’s three words that do those two things, organize your thinking, organize the conversation. They are” Why buy, why buy now? Why buy from us?

By the way, I wouldn’t use both three-word models in conversation. I would just pick one.

This one (Why buy, why buy now, and why buy from us) can be incredibly useful if you’re at an end to quarter or end of year conversation and you’re attempting to motivate a sales advance that generates a letter of engagement or something like that.

In another module, we’ll talk about actually how you can influence those thoughts, but these are two examples of simple three-word frameworks.

Four Cell

The second model is the tried and true “four cell matrix.”

You’ve surely seen these before. And the joke with consultants, which is where these things typically come from, is that the right answer is in the upper right-hand corner.

I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s often how these things are set up, where there’s an array of two ideas, from low to high, cheap to expensive, whatever they are. And as I said, the fun tends to be in the upper right hand corner. I don’t necessarily use it that way.

My favorite version of this, and you should feel free to just go ahead and use this as-is, is problems and solutions on a continuum from known to unknown. So, known and unknown problems and known and unknown solutions is the way these four cells resolve themselves.

Down in the lower left-hand corner, where we have known problems and known solutions, you have commodities. It’s difficult to compete in that realm. You need to be all buttoned down on logistics and delivery. You need to be the price/performance leader.

I generally wouldn’t advise a venture funded company to attempt to compete down there. It’s a killing field and it is where large, scale players win.

If we move to the lower right-hand corner, we have a customer who believes that he or she understands the problem, what they don’t have is a clear understanding of the best way to solve it. This is the realm of needs analysis selling, where a good early step with a customer, client or prospect is to say, “let me do some analysis of the problem that you have identified and come back to you with a recommendation on the best way to solve it.”

This is a decent place for venture funded companies to compete. It places a premium on sales skills and on being able to move the customer’s understanding of the right way to solve the problem in a direction that advantages your solution.

The upper left-hand corner is the classic consultant sale where one of two things is true. One, the customer prospect or client actually doesn’t understand the problem. And they’re looking for somebody to come in and help them essentially unpack it, figure it out, and structure the best way to think about what the heck is going on.

The second way is where the customer, client or prospect has a loosely held view of what the problem is and you’re in a position to shift the definition of the problem. Based on that, represent to the client, customer or prospect that you actually have a known, knowable strategy. Best practices would be another term we would use here to solve that problem.

I like strategic selling, in part of it is because I’ve just done a ton of it. I think it is a place for venture-funded companies to play, but you have to be conscious of the fact there’s a fair bit of sales overhead in moving or influencing or helping the client understand the problem in a different way. But it’s a great place to sell. And, it’s the best way to engage your senior leadership team.

In the upper right-hand corner is what you are. Senior executives, founders, and people like you are paid to look into the future where problems and solutions are not well understood and come back from the future with a new understanding of those two things.

We use the word partnership because the smart way to do that is then to find other folks who’ve got complimentary skills or platforms or products or solutions and combine them in ways other people never have in order to take advantage of that unknown problem and unknown solution.

That’s the classic a vision or mission of a founder-led company. And it can be an effective way for you to go to market early on where you’re seeking lighthouse or early customers or clients. You’re asking them to co-create with you this new sense of reality.

This is an example of a classic four cell matrix. I like this model because it does the two things that I think are the hurdle requirements for the concept. One, it’s a great way for me to organize my thinking, where do I want to compete? And what do I have to offer such that I can compete there? And two, this can be a super model to put in front of the customer, client or prospect. Just put it on the screen much like I’m doing here and ask them where they are. By the way, I would take the words “strategy,” “commodity,” “solution” and “partnership” off.

Us the model to let them peg themselves: What is their level of understanding and conviction around the problem and the solution? Having come to that understanding with the customer, client, or prospect, you can then go to work in terms of either moving them from quadrant to quadrant, or just specifically speaking to and addressing what you know based on that common understanding. A very powerful framework.

The Stack

The third framework is what I would describe as a “stack.” This can be drawn as a pyramid. This can be drawn as a simple stack. There are lots of ways to do it, but there are two three ideas here. One is the idea of altitude. So, strategy, if you will, is a 30,000 foot idea, programs is less altitude, and we get all the way down to resources where we’re talking about really finite, specific kinds of things which are down at crop duster level.

And then the second key idea with one of these stack models is alignment. And a third will be content which is like, like what’s actually going on at each of these levels.

A framework like this can put it in front of the client, the customer, the prospect, and he, or she, first of all, has a recognition of, “Yes, those are the right thoughts. You know, the model makes sense to me, you’re ticking the right boxes or you’re offering the right boxes to be ticked.”

The second thing is, then we can have a conversation about what’s going on in each of those levels. What’s the level of understanding? What’s the level of conviction? What’s the level of progress? Then my job as the professional is first of all, to assess what is the level of alignment on offer today or potential on offer in the future?

To the extent that I have a view that there’s a lack of alignment . . . so the programs for example, are not in my estimation set up to deliver against the strategy, or we’ve got the wrong audiences or the content that’s been created isn’t sufficient to the audience’s needs . . . so that’s my first line of selling, which is to suggest or observe the lack of alignment and offer ideas to create better alignment.

This gets me to that third idea, which is propositions about what could be different in each of those things, such that I get alignment. So the three ideas here are that there’s a stack of thoughts that the customer client or prospect agrees with implicitly or explicitly that the stack is a representation of what I should be thinking about.

And two that the conversation about alignment is productive for both of you, which sets up three, your propositions around what to add or subtract or to move in any one of those levels.

I would suggest you just take this stack and adjust those words to suit the specifics of what it is that you’re doing, what it is that you’re selling. As I said, you can draw it as a pyramid. You can draw as a stack. Represent it in the way that makes sense.

When you think about building a mental model for use with your customers or clients, what you most, is first of all, have just one. I wouldn’t put three in front of the client. I think that’s counterproductive to this primary objective, which is organizing your thinking and organizing their thinking via the conversation.

So, when you think about building your own model, the first idea is pick something, whether it’s a four cell or three words or a stack, that is a taxonomy or a map or a representation of what it takes for the customer, client or prospect to be successful in meeting the need of the moment and that idea of taxonomy: it’s a complete representation. It’s a complete collection of thoughts.

The thoughts need to be exclusive from each other. In other words, they can’t just be different words for the same thing. But they do all need to add up to a complete set of thoughts, such that the client or the prospect can look at that, and again, either say implicitly or explicitly, “You got it. What you’ve put in front of me represents my reality.”

And by doing that, “I would agree to the proposition that you have earned the right to influence my thinking.”

The stack, the four cell, and the three words, all do that.

I would say parenthetically, that your mental model doesn’t need to tick every single box. Your solution just needs to tick the boxes where you’re best able to compete. In fact, I often think that a taxonomy or a map where you don’t tick all the boxes will seem, and may in fact be, more intellectually acceptable to the customer prospect or client because it seems to be less self-serving.


To summarize this module, a map maker makes a map that it’s not the terrain. It’s not the territory. It represents the terrain or the territory and in representing it, it draws our attention to the most salient features such that we can achieve the objective we want to achieve, whether that’s driving from point A to point B or walking from point A to point B, or traversing some sort of rough terrain or flying from here to there.

Your map represents the terrain or the territory in a way that’s most useful to that need in that same way.

We want to create mental models to represent the customer, client, or prospect terrain in a way that helps, first of all, organize our best thinking. And secondly, organize the conversation with the client, such that they are in a position or a desire to accept our ideas on how to think about the problem and the solution.

This concludes this module. For more about selling or just about Hulu come to

Thank you.

This module is on the topic of creating and using “mental models.”  The video and transcript covers the following topics:

  • Two reasons to create a mental model (or map): Organize your best thinking; organize the customer conversation and ultimately influence his/her thinking
  • Model 1: Three words
  • Model 2: Four Cell matrix
  • Model 3: Stack

The video is about 17 minutes long.