Sales for Startups: Sales As Athletes

Great perspective from Mark Birch on the importance of discipline and focus in sales.


Everyone has that picture in his or her head of the prototypical sales rep. Not the used car salesman image, but the one of the über successful sales person: tall good looking, outgoing, and probably athletic. Of course, having known many sales people over the years, the reality is there are all shapes and sizes and personalities. The only commonality that ties sales people together is an unhealthy appetite for accepting rejection and an incredible well of persistence. Otherwise, most sales people are all over the map.

Recently, Jason Lemkin of EchoSign fame came to NYC to spend some time meeting with various SaaS startups founders. He also gave a few talks which I was grateful to have the opportunity to attend. One of the reoccurring themes I picked up from his talks was the idea of hiring athletes whether to manage product or to run sales.

Now you might think that hiring athletes seems to be a bit of stretch. Let’s face it: many folks in tech do not exactly hue to the ideal of being athletic. Besides what does being an “athlete” have to do with closing long and complex deals for innovations offered by startups? Well, not much because if experience is any guide, one’s ability to do triathlons or bench press stacks of weights does not translate to quote killing, sales comp smashing performance.

However, I look at the comment in another way. It is not about the physical body but the mental ability. The athlete has intense focus and discipline. The athlete has clear and specific objectives. The athlete is results driven. The athlete is relentless in improving and iterating and practicing. The athlete does not back down from the challenge but instead tackles it head on.

That is the model of the modern sales rep. In a day and age when building chummy relationships and getting by purely from one’s network are gone, there needs to be a better way for sales people to succeed. It is not by being the classic relationship builder and simply working hard only goes so far. Running purely on gut feel is too high risk in high stakes sales opportunities. On the other hand though, being too data oriented and detailed can stifle the initiative and creativity needed to break into new accounts.

The new model of sales is the idea of being a “challenger”. This is not meant in a confrontational way but as a way of introducing new ideas that changes the perspective of the prospective client. Those new ideas are novel and contrary to industry currents, pertinent to the audience being pitched, and always tied back to value. In short, the sales person better be well prepared long before introducing themselves to the potential customer.

What is responsible for spawning this different approach to sales? It is mostly a function of greater information available to customers through analysts and Internet sources as well as the growing complexity of enterprises themselves. This has created better-educated customers that are both in control of the sales process and have higher expectations of the vendor sales teams.

So the type of sales people you need are athletes, but the mentally tough kind that have the discipline and perseverance to succeed. Sales is the toughest job in many companies, which is why it is the highest paid position but also the one with greatest turnover. It is no mistake that many famous quotes by athletes work so well in a sales context like this one from Michael Jordan:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over, and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

That could be any sales rep that is prospecting, hitting the streets, and banging on doors. It is drudgery and thankless and often humiliating. It is not a job that one takes if you need instant gratification or to be always liked. You wear rejection nearly every single day and it is enough to wear out the most seasoned professional. And that it why it is so crucial to hire the “athletes”, the ones that can push through the down periods to get to the high points.

Let me bring up one more note before closing however on the physical side of being an athlete. Many sales people forget that they not only have a sales quota to smash, but they also have their bodies to care for. This is something that I have personally been negligent of since jumping back to the entrepreneur side. It is easy to push things too far to the point of causing serious harm to one’s health. Unlike money or relationships, your health is not something you can ever get back.

The best athletes recognize the importance of balance between pushing oneself hard and rest. The best sales people understand the need for hard work but to also get adequate rest with interspersed with down time in order to rejuvenate. If it is good enough for top athletes, then it is good enough for any sales person.

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