Jon M. Huntsman School of Business

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

HMA: The Long March: Why it Take 10 Years to Sell a Space Telescope

By Seth Merrill

On Thursday, Jim Marshall, Director of Business Development for the Space Dynamics Laboratory, spoke to a group of 30 students and professors from the Huntsman Marketing Association during a presentation titled, “The Long March: Why it Take 10 Years to Sell a Space Telescope.”
Jim Marshall presenting to the HMA club

Marshall’s work involves qualifying, pursuing and capturing the hundreds of multi-million dollar research projects the SDL undertakes each year. These projects include building telescopes that record deep-space image data, cameras for reconnaissance airplanes, meteor-detecting satellites and more.

Because the laboratory is one of only 14 Department of Defense-designated university affiliated research centers across the nation, 95 percent of the SDL’s revenue comes from the government. Last year the SDL received more than $75 million in external research funding.

“We don’t really have a product line, and there’s not a lot of pricing strategy,” Marshall said. “We sell unique solutions to one-of-a-kind problems and solve specialized projects. We are only as good as our last project. We eat what we kill.”

Marshall emphasized how marketing strategy was more manifest in the process of writing proposals for projects. He said because the SDL works so closely with the government, the purchasing process is often complex, unpredictable and political.

“You can’t be out there trying to do open-field tackles,” he said. ”If you aren’t projecting and analyzing potential projects years before the request for proposal is released, you are already too late. You need to be following personnel changes and constantly building a soft network.”

In such a competitive industry, with numerous research foundations bidding on multi-million dollar projects, Marshall said you have to stay sharp.

“Business development is not an orderly, turn-based game,” he said. “It’s more like a sword fight on a pirate ship. You are never in complete possession of information on what competitors are doing. It’s never fair. Everyone’s making moves at same time and not revealing what they’re doing.”

Julian Brown, a senior studying marketing, attended the lecture and was struck by how complex this particular non-profit field is.

“It’s nothing like I’ve learned in any of my classes,” Brown said. “It’s a higher level of years of strategic planning that may take years to close a deal. That diligent, persistent effort is really a skill set, and sometimes it takes making connections and building relationships to accomplish that goal.”

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