(Editor’s note: Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank is the author of Four Steps to the Epiphany. This column originally appeared on his blog.)

Some of the most important business lessons are learned in the most unlikely ways. At Ardent I learned many of them with a sharp smack on the side of the head from a brilliant, but abusive, boss. Not a process I recommend, but one in which the lessons stuck for a lifetime.frustration

Ardent was my third technology company as a VP of Marketing (Convergent Technologies and MIPS Computers were the other two.) It would be the company where I actually earned the title.

By the time I joined, I thought I was an experienced marketer, but I’ll never forget my first real lesson in what it meant to understand customers and product/market fit.

We were sitting in our conference room in our first “system-planning meeting,”  trying to define the specifications of our new supercomputer and make the trade-offs between what was possible to build, and what customers in this new market would actually want and need. The conversation that day would become one of my professional watermarks.

Engineering was discussing how sophisticated the graphics portion of our computer should be, debating cost and time-to-market tradeoffs of arcane details such as double-buffering, 24 versus 32-bits of color, alpha channels, etc. I was pleased with myself that not only did I understand the issues, but I also had an opinion about what we should build.

All of a sudden I decided that I hadn’t heard the sound of my own voice in a while so I piped up:  “I think our customers will want 24-bits of double-buffered graphics.”

Silence descended across the conference table. The CEO turned to me and asked, “What did you say?” Thinking he was impressed with my mastery of the subject as well as my brilliant observation, I repeated myself and embellished my initial observation with all the additional reasons why I thought our customers would want this feature. I was about to get an education that would last a lifetime.

Picture the scene: The entire company (all 15 of us) is present. For this startup, we had assembled some of the best and brightest hardware and software engineers in the computer industry. My boss, the CEO, had just come from a string of successes at Convergent Technologies, Intel and Digital Equipment, names that at that time carried a lot of weight.

Some of us had worked together in previous companies; some of us had just started working together for the first time.  I thought I was bright, aggressive and could do no wrong as a marketer. I loved my job and I was convinced I was God’s gift to marketing.

Now in a voice so quiet it could be barely heard across the conference table our CEO turns to me and says, “That’s what I thought you said. I just wanted to make sure I heard it correctly.”  It was the last sentence I heard before my career trajectory as a marketer was permanently changed.

At the top of his lungs he screamed, “You don’t know a damn thing about what these customers need!You’ve never talked to anyone in this market, you don’t know who they are, you don’t know what they need, and you have no right to speak in any of these planning meetings.”

I was mortified with the dressing down in front of my friends as well as new employees I barely knew. Later my friends told me my face went pale.

He continued yelling, “We have a technical team assembled in this room that has more knowledge of scientific customers and scientific computers than any other startup has ever had. They’ve been talking to these customers since before you were born, and they have a right to have an opinion. You are a disgrace to the marketing profession and have made a fool of yourself and will continue to do so every time you open your mouth. Get out of this conference room, get out of this building and get out of my company; you are wasting all of our time.”

I was stunned by the verbal onslaught. At that moment I felt so small I could have walked out of a room underneath the crack in a closed door.

The shock quickly wore off as I processed the gist of what he told me. He was right.  I personally didn’t have any facts, and if we were counting opinions, there were a bunch more educated opinions in that room than I had. All I had been doing was filling the air with marketing noises.

I was convinced that I had just been humiliatingly fired – 90 days into our new company.

As I got up to leave the room, the CEO said, “I want you out of the building talking to customers; find out who they are, how they work, and what we need to do to sell them lots of these new computers.” Motioning to our VP of Sales, he ordered: “Go with him and get him in front of customers, and both of you don’t come back until you can tell us something we don’t know.”

And he was smiling.

My career as marketer had just begun.

Photo by Zach Klein via Flickr

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