Build and Sale

By Pedro Noyola

I am an entrepreneur.
I am not a software developer.

Are these two statements mutually exclusive? I don’t think so. I believe there are two critical tasks necessary to get a startup off the ground: build and sale. There are the unique few who can do both, but the rest of us are better off concentrating on one or the other. I choose to sale.

First, I know that many of you are screaming out in horror. How could a so-called entrepreneur turn his back on the joys of lining up ones and zeroes? How could his ruby be so far off the rails? I’ll tell you how. I just don’t enjoy writing code. Period. I’ve tried it, and I do not enjoy it. Codeacademy is great, and so is Khan Academy. But this is simple comparative advantage. There are people who do enjoy it and will build fantastic products, and at this point in my career I am just not going to be able to catch up to them.

On the other hand, I can build up a comparative advantage in sales, the other critical task. Although I have not carried a quota since I was in college, I have had to discover unmet needs, ask probing questions, and deliver solutions to demanding customers. Those on-the-job experiences combined with in-the-classroom case sessions should set me up for an outstanding sales career. At least according to the Challenger Sale, which points to the ability to understand a customer’s economic drivers, articulate clear benefits, and identify the right metrics to measure success as some of the key components of a superior salesperson. The rigor of the HBS case method demands that we do that a few times a day, so all in all, I am feeling pretty good about that comparative advantage thing.

However, if all that is true, an interesting question I have struggled with is: why aren’t more of my classmates who are interested in entrepreneurial career paths pursuing sales roles? Am I missing something? I have posed this question to executives, professors, and mentors, but I do not feel as if I have the definitive answer yet. The most common responses I have received are that sales roles are not prestigious enough, or that they are not strategic enough, or that the long-term career potential is not grand enough for most Harvard MBA’s. It does not take much research to discover that these are nothing more than common misconceptions. In many technology companies the sales department is the power center and is filled with the most highly paid people in the company who have the clearest track to the coveted C-suite. Maybe I’m not the one missing something.

With all that said, I do think it is important that I know enough about code to be able to speak to developers, to have a bullshit meter, and have a sense of what I do not know in order to successfully get a company off the ground. I just know that coding will be my limitation and sales will be my strength. So like every other HBS entrepreneur, I’ll be on the lookout for a technical co-founder I can trust. Know of anyone?


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