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Common Questions and Answers
A recent Harvard Business Review article pointed out that “more than 50% of US college graduates, regardless of their majors, are likely to work in sales at some point.” It also explained that of the “4,000 colleges in this country, less than 100 have sales programs or even sales courses, and of the more than 170,000 students who earn MBAs annually, only a tiny fraction learn anything about sales.”
And yet, surprisingly, sales has always been one of the hottest professions in tech.
This is becoming more obvious as founders of startups and early-stage seed companies increasingly understand that their products don’t create value, customers do. And that the only way to gain customers is to sell.
Until very recently, revenue generation has taken a back seat in tech, with most founders focused exclusively on engineering and product development. However, as we move further and further into the age of applied technology, founders can no longer hide from the reality that they need someone to help create a market for their product. Without revenue generation, many — if not most — startups will fail.
This is an incredible opportunity for smart, talented communicators interested in working for early-stage companies but disinclined toward the engineering side.
To that end, we’re launching GrowthX Academy, a 12-week intensive program designed to prepare smart, driven individuals to step into sales and business development roles at high-growth companies. Students will learn best practices from tech industry leaders in a rigorous classroom environment, while also working directly with early-stage startups and gaining real world experience.
What is needed to move into a sales or business development role at one of these companies? Top sales professionals often spend about ten years on the job developing their expertise in eight core competencies. Having an awareness of what those are and starting to pursue them now, before you land the role, or as you begin at entry level, can help you accelerate your progress and your path up the ladder.
Business & Marketing Acumen
The foundation for any successful sales person is business acumen. The most successful sales professionals are true partners to their customers, and fully understand business models, know how to quantify value, and help their customers be more successful by providing a competitive advantage. You’ll need to understand in every situation who the customer is, what do they do, and how your business can help them.
Resource: Look at the Lean Business Model Canvas by Alex Osterwalder to gain an understanding of unit economics, the relationship between sales and marketing, how businesses make money, and how the people in those businesses are measured. Knowing how to maintain relationships with the customer is vital to you and your company’s success.
Once you fully understand how a potential customer’s business works, you’ll need to know how to hypothesize the value you can bring to them, along with a strategy for attracting them. How can you best communicate that value in a way that creates conversation? Everything communicates, and everything you communicate should be designed to generate a response from your prospect. This gives you the chance to listen and learn, so that you can communicate that feedback back to your team.
Everything communicates, and everything you communicate should generate a response from your prospect.
Resource: How to Speak So That People Want to Listen by Juilian Treasure is a fantastic Ted Talk that (once you get the bad habits out of the way) will help you communicate value and generate the feedback you need from any business conversation, including those with customers. The trick is to be sure to listen when you get that feedback.
Sales Models & Methodologies
Look around and you will find there are myriad ways to sell. Each approach has value, but some are more relevant than others to your product and market. For example, the way you approach selling in an early-stage company is very different than the way you would approach selling in a more mature and established company.
Exposure to the more widely adopted models and methods of selling and marketing will give you context, and perhaps even best practices you can bring to a company to help you both be better at selling. As a bonus, knowing the different models and what you are best suited for can help you find the right role in the right stage company, and avoid the pain that comes with being in the wrong place.
Resource: The Sales Learning Curve by Mark Leslie details the learning curve of the sales department of an organization, and his methodology works well as you take a new product to market.
Products don’t create value, customers do. To navigate the marketplace as a successful sales professional, it’s critical to gain a deep understanding of who people are, how they make decisions, what motivates them, and why.
Resources: Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products That Win by Steve Blank is an invaluable book for learning the customer development process, and Crossing the Chasm by Jeffrey Moore can help you understand where customers fit in a product and company’s lifecycle.
One of the great tragedies of sales is when the top salesperson gets promoted to the role of sales manager with little to no experience. The great mistake is in not having first learned how to be managed. Management opportunities in sales can be very rewarding if you know how to get the most out of others, while making the relationship mutually satisfying and productive.
Resource: Find the type of leader that you wish to be and seek them out as a mentor. You should also be doing the same thing as a prospective employee — choose to work for those who inspire you and will make you better at what you do.
Seventy-five percent of the average salesperson’s time is spent doing things other than selling. What if you could flip that? How much more could you accomplish? How much more money could you make and how quickly could you advance, if you optimized productivity?
Resource: Essentialism by Greg McKeown is one of the best books I’ve read on prioritizing what really matters. It’s not about time management, but rather offers a disciplined approach to being intentional about what you say yes to.
In the business of talking to humans, there is no distinction between personal and professional development. Becoming a life-long learner always seeking ways to improve, being more mindfully aware, and embracing opportunities to develop as a person will translate into an ability to develop as an individual contributor, team member, manager, leader or even an entrepreneur.
Resource: Do a self assessment of any sort. It can be MBTI, 16Personalities or something else. It doesn’t matter which one — awareness is half the battle. Once you have the results, you can decide what areas you want to improve on. When you are in sales there’s no distinction between personal and professional development.
When you are in sales there’s no distinction between personal and professional development.
Person-company fit is just as important as product-market fit. If you’re considering a career in sales or business development, take the time to find out what you love to do, and how to connect that with the work you want to do. Once you find that path, you’ll have a better understanding of what skills you need to develop to land the role that’s appropriate for you. Checking the boxes other people say you should check is not the key to happiness, and happiness breeds success.
Resource: My deck called “Build Your Own Career Funnel to Get Your Dream Job.”
Build Your Own Career Funnel to Get your Dream Job from Sean Sheppard
A 2013 Gallup poll found that few business leaders and employers feel colleges are preparing graduates for the workforce. One of the best things you can do if you want to take advantage of the growing demand for sales and business development professionals is to prepare yourself — whether that be through a combination of self-study and lucky breaks, or by pursuing specific training like that offered at GrowthX Academy, which sets you directly on the track to secure the job you want.
For driven, talented individuals, there’s never been a better time to enter the startup world in a sales or business development role.
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