Why do Entrepreneurs Avoid Sales?

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In the Two Sales Myths That Kill B2B Startups, we talk about how falling for the two biggest sales myths ultimately leading to start-up failure. 

There’s the Compelling Product Myth where entrepreneurs believe their product is impressive enough to sell itself. And then there’s the Myth of the Superhero Salesperson; this is the belief that a salesperson with an extensive network of broad, personal contacts will ensure success. 

The fact that many of the acknowledged reasons for startup failure are connected to sales, it is clear that a significant number of entrepreneurs to fall for these myths. The root of the problem is a deep fear of sales, which is deeply embedded in our culture and, frankly, the nature of being human. 

Why do people hate sales? 

People hate salespeople by default because of their natural resistance to being told what to do. We don’t like that our capacity to think and act independently can be undermined by someone we don’t know and who may not be looking out for our best interest. And for most people, that’s what sales reps are: strangers who approach or call us to tell us what we want and why we need it. As evidenced by our common reaction to reject approaches by well-meaning salespeople in department stores – regardless of whether we truly need their help – this instinct is deeply rooted in our psyche. 

When entrepreneurs decide to strike out on their own, few realize that they’ve necessarily become salespeople. In fact, a founder has arguably the worst sales job in the word: one that pays 100% commission. Given the obvious fact that all entrepreneurs are responsible for generating income, one would think that sales would be a widely sought after skill before taking the leap of faith. However, most are not equipped to tackle this primary duty. 

Sales are for Dummies

One reason for this lack of preparation is that sales is an art form that isn’t well taught. According to a Harvard Business Review article, of the 479 accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business in the U.S., only 101 have a sales curriculum. And only 15 offer either an MBA in sales or a sales-oriented graduate curriculum. Of the 350,000 graduates with a bachelor’s in business and 170,000 MBAs, only a tiny fraction are taught about sales. Simply stated, sales is not considered to be a dignified profession – certainly not one deserving of elite training. 

With the rise of entrepreneurship as a business discipline, this is starting to change. Gone are the days when business schools only focused on preparing executives for middle management.  Yet the change is slow, and a big reason for that is cultural.

People Have Negative Associations with Sales People

In his 2013 book, To Sell is Human, author Daniel Pink includes a word cloud with the results of a survey that asked how respondents felt about sales. Some of those words include: 

Annoying. 

Difficult. 

Cheesy. 

Ugh. 

Manipulative. 

Aggressive. 

Dishonest. 

Fake. 

Boring.

Pushy. 

These are not the types of words with which anyone would want to be associated. Whether or not they are aware, entrepreneurs want to be seen as brave risk takers who seek to better society, not disingenuous manipulators. So, the pull of the two sales myths is strengthened by our cultural associations with sales. Evolutionary biology makes this pull even stronger. 

People Fear Rejection

Let’s be honest: Sales is scary. Fear of rejection can be debilitating. In fact, studies show that rejection triggers the same brain pathways as when we experience physical pain. And this makes sense, given how humans lived for tens of thousands of years. Like our primate cousins, humans are tribal animals. During our hunter-gatherer days, we moved in small tribes that cared for each other and, most of all, kept us safe from threatening animals and “others.” The worst thing that could happen to an individual would be to get kicked out of his or her tribe. It would be akin to a death sentence; you’d be lunch for the next saber-toothed tiger. 

This fear remains within us, even as contemporary society provides much more sustenance and safety. And few jobs require dealing with as much rejection as consistently as sales. Salespeople are required to risk rejection when approaching prospects, pitching ideas, and asking for referrals. Even the best are rejected more than they close. 

Despite the myths of Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs are human too. They fear having their ideas and dreams rejected. Combined with their lack of education and negative associations about sales, they easily fall for the two sales myths; that their product will sell itself, and that they can hire themselves out of a sales challenge. 

But they underestimate the unique challenges startups have when hiring for sales. That will be the topic of our next blog.