Sales is a dirty word at most colleges. Even if you study economics or business, you’re much more likely to spend your time learning accounting practices and financial statement analysis than how to build a sales pipeline. The closest you may get to sales is studying market segmentation in a marketing class likely taken by a low proportion of students.
The result is that most college graduates regard sales as something dirty done by someone else. The dominant images are those of a smarmy used car salesman, or the unwanted telemarketer making anonymous phone calls from a cubicle. College students are trained to analyze; not to pick up the phone. Bothering people with anything other than a disappearing text message may be regarded as socially undesirable.
Meanwhile, some of our most admired businesspeople and leaders are also world-class salespeople, including the late Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, Mark Cuban, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, and Arianna Huffington–the list goes on and on. Selling goes well beyond how a company gains customers; experienced leaders know that employees, partners, investors, and suppliers all need to be sold on some level.
Imagine an entrepreneur starting a new business trying to hire his or her first employee. Whether that employee makes a bet on the new business depends on how well the entrepreneur is able to sell her vision of what the future holds. It’s true for nonprofit organizations as well as companies–any nonprofit needs to compete for donors by conveying the importance of its work.
Sales represents the economic engine of most organizations. Just about every startup and early-stage company needs someone who’s excellent at it. If you’re good, your odds of running a company go up, and you will always have a high-paying job waiting for you.
Yet it’s ignored as a core competence even by people who would naturally be gifted at it, in part because it’s not regarded as intellectual. Our systems seem designed to turn graduates into analysts, like those caricatures of little aliens with big heads and really skinny arms and legs.
Well, I’ll send the opposite message–smart people should sell.
Some of you do it already. Have you:
- Ran a pledge class for your fraternity or sorority?
- Started a club?
- Captained a team?
- Raised money for a cause?
You’re probably a natural salesperson even if you’ve never thought of yourself that way. Or maybe you have an idea that you’re convinced is great. Go with it.
Sell yourself and how much you have to contribute. Sell what you want to see happen in the world. Sell in-person and on the phone. Find a company or organization that does something you believe in, and sell the heck out of it.
A lot of great ideas die on the vine because no one involved is able to sell it. A lot of quality organizations are doing good work or offering a better product, but don’t succeed because not enough smart people are willing to sell.
The barriers between ideas and the marketplace are high. Why do you think pharmaceutical companies hire armies of people to head to doctors’ offices? Better sales for good ideas would make the world a much better place.
The people around you know that you’re smart–they’ll listen to you. If they don’t know yet, they’ll figure it out after a few minutes. If you want to, you can think of it as something other than sales: persuading, influencing, activating resources, leading, accessing people, changing the world.
But find something you believe in and give it a try. The world will thank you for it. At the end of the day someone’s going to sell and someone’s going to be sold. If you don’t do one, you’re guaranteed to do the other.
—Andrew Yang is the founder and CEO of Venture for America and the author of Smart People Should Build Things (HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins).