Almost a decade ago I was a Lecturer at the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. I had the privilege of teaching hundreds of first-year university students annually, and I regularly keep in touch with many of my past students to this day. Now, with over a decade of ‘in the trenches’ startup, and scale-up experience (and the wounds to show it) under my belt, I can now more confidently say that a job in sales should be your first job out of college or university.
Sales isn’t easy. It takes energy, and focus, and drive. You’ll learn more about yourself, how to focus, how to work in a condensed timeframe than in any other early career.
“Sales? Really? I want to start my own company” is a common reply as I speak with young would-be entrepreneurs. Whether you’re starting a company, or joining a company at any level, a job in sales prepares you more than any other career path. Here are a few of the benefits to starting your career in a sales role:
1) Learn how to add value.
In early-stage companies, you are either building or selling.
I have never been a great builder. I’m not particularly handy, and I don’t know how to code so the likelihood that I’ll contribute meaningfully to building a new product is low. In those first critical phases of growth, finding the white space, and getting your product into the hands of early users, speaking with customers, getting feedback on early-stage concepts and iterating, this is make or break, do or die – there is nothing else that matters. Rolling up your sleeves to conduct customer discovery, packaging up a minimally viable product (MVP) into something that people might actually want (and pay for), and engaging in real conversations with real customers is fundamental to getting a company started. Don’t look for a ‘marketing’ job, or a ‘business development’ job at these stages – dig in and get that MVP out into the world.
2) Put yourself out into the world.
More than any other position, sales teaches you to put yourself out into the world and have strong opinions about an industry, a product, or your compelling view of how the world will look in the future. In short, it allows you to cast reservations aside and engage with real people in a meaningful way. Forcing yourself constantly outside of your comfort zone is the fastest way to get comfortable in your own skin. In sales, you’ll constantly be asked questions you don’t know the answer to and be forced to think on your feet.
3) You’ll learn real strategy.
Done properly, sales is strategy at it’s finest. The process of meeting with customers, learning their preferences, and pushback and iterating on an idea or product allows you to influence where your company plays (what market, category, vertical), and how you can win (what you do better than anyone else). The foundations of strategy are battle tested in the front-lines in conversations with your customers, and shared over late-night working sessions with your team.
4) Finding your own communication style.
Through conversations with customers every single day, you’ll fine-tune your own personal communication style. Should you talk fast or slow? Do you present or are you engaging in conversation? Forced conversations with hundreds of new faces in a short period of time allows you to practice your own communication style to find what works best for you.
5) Technology exposure.
There is a massive industry for sales enablement, and effectiveness tools. By doing your homework, or attending industry conferences you’ll be able to learn how technologies can add value to sales processes. Many of the companies servicing the sales industry are using industry-leading best practices in their own pitches. By shopping around for tools to improve your own sales process, you’ll get led through some best-in-class sales processes that you can mirror in your own.
6) Clear, tangible results.
Sales, more than any other position allows you to point to something tangible on a resume and say ‘I generated $1.5M in pipeline in 3 months’, or ‘I closed over $1M in business in one year’. It’s black and white and you can tangibly point to the work you put in and the results that your work generated. Articulating your results will allow you to use your first job as a springboard into many other roles at all sizes and types of companies.
7) Sales transcends industries.
No matter what industry you move into, there are common traits that you’ll learn in sales that will be applicable – from tech and services, to manufacturing. In fact, a lot of the high-growth SaaS sales methodologies applied to more traditional industries like manufacturing represents a huge opportunity in the next decade.
8) You can earn a great living.
Since the value that sales people bring to an organization is so tangible, you have the ability to earn a great living. In a study of almost 5,000 sales professionals, The Sales Talent Agency found that even entry-level sales roles can bring in upwards of $50,000 on target earnings (OTE) if they are hitting (or exceeding) their quota. This number quickly rises to the six-figure range within a few short years. I’ve hired several of my students from Ivey who have gone on to earn well into the six-figures after investing a few intense years into honing their sales experience.
9) Sales is a springboard.
Even if your end-game isn’t to have a lifelong career in sales, the skills that you learn, and the experiences that you have will allow you to move between industries, geographies, and especially into other roles. Many of the sales people I’ve hired have gone on to become Product Managers, Data Scientists, or Customer Success Managers at other companies. However, the majority of them have found that they enjoyed sales so much that they made a career out of a sales-focused role. In fact, the American Marketing Association found that over one-quarter of CEOs have a background in Sales and/or Marketing.
10) You’ll develop Grit.
Angela Duckworth’s 6-minute TED talk on Grit explains why courage, conscientiousness, endurance, resilience, and excellence are great predictors of long-term success. She summarizes to say that all of these together make up ‘Grit’: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Sales isn’t easy. It takes energy, and focus, and drive. You’ll learn more about yourself, how to focus, how to work in a condensed timeframe than in any other early career. The courage to stick with something even when it gets hard, and a constant process of continual improvement is a skill worth mastering that will serve anyone well in any future career even outside of sales.