If you are interested in generating higher sales than you ever have before, I have a great take for you. The foursegment Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam CJ Walker on NetFlix is a gem.  The mini-series reminded me that when it comes to selling, so often the process is the product.  

Series Overview  

From what I can tell, adapting books and life stories to screen is very challenging.  We often get a representative story, but not an exact story.  With that caveat, I found this series to be a remarkable testament to entrepreneurship – gutsy risk-taking, resilience in the face of adversity, single-minded commitment, supreme confidence, and the very messy and often sad process of learning whom one can trust.   

Like the modernday Sara Blakely/Spanx story and countless other entrepreneurs, Madam C. J. Walker solved a problem that caused her a lot of personal frustration.  Walker’s balding and other hair issues diminished her self-esteem.  She created a formula that alleviated balding and conditioned healthy hair for black women.   

Once she had the formula, she had little problem selling it herself.  The time was right.  Over a few decades, personal style and glamour had taken on new importance for black women in the post-Reconstruction era.  Everyone buys on emotion, 100% of the time.  Madam CJ. Walker’s passion for high self-esteem for all black women nearly sold the product by itself.  But she also built a process that enabled others to be successful, and the selling process in many ways became the product. 


By 1917, Madam CJ. Walker had amassed a $1 million fortune and built an impressive mansion for herself in prestigious Irvington, NY She was the first self-made female millionaire in the United State.  Irvington was once the home of John Jacob Astor III, Frank Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller, and Alexander Hamilton’s son, James.  That’s in 1917, just about halfway through the Jim Crow era.  Truly remarkable. 

The statistic that has stuck with me ever since, though, is that at the height of her business, Madam CJ. Walker had a sales force of 20,000 black women.  20,000!  Going back to my caveat, I recognize that the show may not be entirely accurate, but what I observed in her assembling that sales force is just textbook in my opinion.   

Here are my key takeaways. 

The product must work, but it will not sell itself. 

Madam C. J. Walker was able to test the product on herself.  She knew it delivered the promises she would make to customers.  I am sure she had great pride in the product development, but she went door-to-door to make the solution known to her target market.  In the process, she created another laboratory – a proven selling process that could be passed on to others.  Before she ever hired her first salesperson, I am sure that Madam C. J. Walker had heard every possible objection and practiced multiple responses until she found the ones that worked.  

No emotion in your solution, you will have a tough time selling.  

Great salespeople operate at a much higher level than the technical aspects of a product.  They have the emotional intelligence to understand what that product really does to the psyche of a person.  When I was a kid, encyclopedia salespeople never sold facts and information.  They sold the hopes and dreams that every parent has for their children.  Madam C. J. Walker sold self-esteem, not hair products. 

Madam C. J. Walker learned how to communicate value and engender feelings of self-worth in her clients.  I left the program wondering if the product was as advertised, or if the experience of buying it drove repeat business. 

Recruitment and training.  

Selling can be a lucrative profession.  When recruiting your sales force, do not be fooled by a profit motive over genuine enthusiasm for what you offer.  Let’s face it, salespeople are drawn to hot products.  But salespeople with profit as their only motive can be manipulative to get the sale at the expense of the overall client experience.  Madam C. J. Walker was successful recruiting from a client base that had personally experienced the transformative nature of her products.  She taught them everything she knew to help them be successful and further transform their lives economically as they realized the profit motive.   

Experiencing the product.  

I was impressed with how Madam C.J. Walker developed a “starter kit” in the series, which evolved over time to a salon experience in which her products were used.  Just more pampering and self-esteem building to strike a deep emotional chord. 

Be fair and equitable with outcomes. 

Madam C. J. Walker consistently expressed her gratitude for the results that her team produced for her.  She was not afraid to share in outcomes because at her core she wanted her people to become financially independent to only increase their sense of self-worth.  The way the series tells it, she struggled at one point with a huge business opportunity that would have profited her at the expense of the people who had been loyal to her and effectively made her fortune.  She had to renege on the deal out of a sense of honor to her people once she understood how it made them feel. 

Whether you have a prototyped product seeking broader distribution, or your sales have hit a plateau and you desire greater momentum, these basic lessons can go a long way to getting the results you want and deserve.  Enjoy the show!