Brad Hargreaves | Building Things

Brad Hargreaves on entrepreneurship, community and life

Go Into Sales

with 15 comments

Let’s say you’re a college student who wants to be an entrepreneur. Let’s also say — for one reason or another — you don’t want to jump in and dedicate all your time to an idea right now. Maybe it’s money, maybe it’s confidence, maybe it’s the lack of available co-founders or some combination of the above. From what I’ve seen, most people in this situation do one of the following:

1. Join a big company and plan to do your startup later.

2. Join another startup as a non-founder.

3. Go to graduate school.

I have a different suggestion: go into sales. Take a commission-heavy sales job at a company that gives you the ability to source and manage your own leads with as much independence as possible. Find a larger company in your space of interest and just go learn to sell things there.

The ability to sell is the most underappreciated startup skill. In the get-bought-by-Google model, you just have to be able to code and (possibly) market a product. Ideally, you build something so awesome it just takes off by itself. Sadly, this rarely happens. Instead, almost all companies have to sell something at some point in their lives. And this isn’t a bad thing. It can keep your company (and you) independent of venture capitalists and other control-seeking investors. Having a fundamental understanding of the psychology of sales and the sales process can be the difference for your startup.

Also, sales isn’t IBD analyst-style slave labor. There’s literally no cap on the amount you can make, which means that you can potentially bring home a decent six figures a year if you’re really good — way more than most first- or second-year analysts in investment banks. The hours can also be ridiculously flexible; if you’d like, you can work hacker hours.

For whatever reason, sales jobs are off the radar of most Ivy League college graduates. Since a nice degree doesn’t mean anything in sales, little to no recruitment is done on campus. And Ivy League undergrads love to be recruited.

There’s no better training for being an entrepreneur than actually starting your own company. But if — for whatever reason — that’s not feasible, sales is an good and woefully underappreciated route.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

July 11th, 2010 at 9:07 am

  • Dave B

    Been there, done that. Not a bad move, as long as you don't lose your focus on the sales job as stepping stone to something else. It is very easy to get caught up in the commission rat-race, and before too many years have passed be considered ONLY a sales guy.

    Also be aware that not all companies are equal. Some (IBM comes to mind) have a pretty good track record of training people who move on to bigger and better things. Others are more sweat shops that do almost no training and flog their sales people into meeting unreasonable quotas.

  • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

    This strikes me as good advice, although it's definitely not the route I followed. That said, I do wish I had some actual sales experience. Would come in handy.

  • Pingback: Go Into Sales » News, Hacker, View, Comments » Tjoozey Labs Development - tjoozey.com

  • http://twitter.com/sayemislam sayemislam

    Good post – there's a whole lot in common between top entrepreneurs and top salesmen. The same intangibles drive the winners to success, and it's independent of academic pedigree, resume, etc.

    Probably one of the reasons Buffett also recommends getting some sales exp: http://aliceschroeder.com/forum/topics/buffett-

    I love reading books by Joe Girard, ranked by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's best salesman: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Girard

    His life story is very instructive and similar to what you notice when you read up on the backgrounds of guys like Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and Mark Cuban.

    Nobody ever sees them coming.

  • http://blog.scoopst.com/ David Ambrose

    Hear, hear! Great stuff Brad, considering you described me to some degree – I got put into sales because that's what our company (at that time, just two people) needed the most. I didn't have the notion of “uncapped commission” or near limitless earning potential, rather just the idea of “always be closing” (which I thought I coined, but later got pointed to this gem of a clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-AXTx4PcKI).

    Just want to add a few more thoughts to your post for someone who jumps into sales as their first foray:

    Training: Like Dave B mentioned below, make sure the company or startup that you're looking to join has a clearly defined training program. It doesn't have be a Xerox-style month over month cycle, but it should be something that a new hire can immediately see the benefit of training after the first day. During interviews, applicants should ask company management about the training structure.

    Understanding Quota: Sometimes, management places unhealthy amounts of pressure on their sales team to “meet quota” and do “whatever it takes” to get there. Quota refers to targets hit (sometimes agreements closed in a quarter, revenue earned for the year, volume of meetings per week, etc.) Depending upon the market which the company operates you're looking to join, quota could be as little as five meetings a week to hundreds of cold calls per day. Lesson here is to learn about the space you're looking to join and see what similar companies are doing.

    Listen: Huge point here. I've seen a lot of salespeople rush into their pitch, explain their value proposition, tell a case study, etc. and sell and sell very hard. The customer on the other end didn't get a chance to say anything and when they did, the salesperson was in their own world, continuing to sell, while not realizing they were never listening. Sales is basically a conversation, where both sides (ideally) speak and then listen – basically, passing the ball back and forth to one another. If you don't pause, hear what the your customer is saying and listen to their points, you'll never be able to adjust your pitch to address their concerns.

    Believe In What You Sell: This is one of the first things I look for when I bring on new hires to the company. I want each new hire, especially in the sales function, to believe in what we're doing, the company's vision and how their role pushes the company (and their vision) forward. Money is definitely a byproduct of hard work within the position, but you can tell a good salesperson by how strong their vision and belief is toward what their selling and therefore, the company.

  • http://donaldryan.net DonRyan

    This is terrific advice for anyone who wants to start a business. As a co-founder in our company, I am the operations person and my partner is the marketing and biz dev person. Having said that, when you're small, everybody in the organization needs to know how to sell on some level. As you grow, every interaction has a possible strategic consequence. Even if you're not hard selling and just sharing the benefits of your organization/product/service it's selling. An ability to sell helps recruit key hires. It's just an invaluable skill. Great post.

  • Ed Stonestreet

    Agreed! I have done it and I've also seen it proved by others around me. There is, IMHO no better breeding ground for an entrepreneur than the sales floor. Great cash, great learning, great opportunities and a swift upward curve if you have what it takes. If not, go get an MBA!

  • Ed Stonestreet

    Agreed! I have done it and I've also seen it proved by others around me. There is, IMHO no better breeding ground for an entrepreneur than the sales floor. Great cash, great learning, great opportunities and a swift upward curve if you have what it takes. If not, go get an MBA!

  • http://www.madinmelbourne.com.au/ MADinMelbourne

    AND, do the hardest sales job possible – cold calling door to door….. dreate a teflon skin and deal with a multitude of rejection UNTIL you create a unique selling point, then master it. The world is your oyster, and every other sales job is a piece of cake.

  • http://www.jaretmanuel.com jaretmanuel

    No sales = no startup or startup/business will go poof. Very simple. Hiring for that skill set early is stupid and a burden on cash that you probably do not have nor should you waste. There is plenty of talk about Ideas being worthless however I disagree. Ideas without action is useless, worthless -you name it. If you cannot sell as a founder then there is a high probability you are headed for a crash course into an ugly boat called failure. You have to wake up selling yourself, selling your idea, selling your company, and selling your team. Branson, Salesman, Jobs, same, and the list goes on and on. Sell or sink or at least stay out of the startup game. I don't know if you have to go get a job in sales, but you have to be able to sell and do whatever it takes to get it.

  • http://www.jaretmanuel.com jaretmanuel

    Salesforce.com is a solid place to learn.

  • http://www.jaretmanuel.com jaretmanuel

    No sales = no startup or startup/business will go poof. Very simple. Hiring for that skill set early is stupid and a burden on cash that you probably do not have nor should you waste. There is plenty of talk about Ideas being worthless however I disagree. Ideas without action is useless, worthless -you name it. If you cannot sell as a founder then there is a high probability you are headed for a crash course into an ugly boat called failure. You have to wake up selling yourself, selling your idea, selling your company, and selling your team. Branson, Salesman, Jobs, same, and the list goes on and on. Sell or sink or at least stay out of the startup game. I don’t know if you have to go get a job in sales, but you have to be able to sell and do whatever it takes to get it.

  • http://www.jaretmanuel.com jaretmanuel

    Salesforce.com is a solid place to learn.

  • http://twitter.com/grrsh john garrish

     right on

  • Cheema Avtar

    Hi, well put. Enterprise and sales are definately one of the same. I am an IT engineer of 10 years and contracted at a rate x10 per hour above the standard min wage. I hated it, not even the money gave me the satisfaction. I saved my money and undertook a renovation and new build. I loved it, but unable to continue due to the financial down turn and banks tightening up. I loved the enterprise spirit and the sale of the product. I am now looking to return to sales within IT as I now feel that I have really found my way. I love sales and want some company to try me out. Wish me luck and thanks for the encouragment. T