Like many that have a career involved in sales, when I was a kid I wanted to be a professional athlete.
For 99% of people, the dream of going pro is dashed when you reach that level that, although your competitive spirit is still alive and well, your physical ability just isn’t matching your peers.
Personally, I hit this ceiling early, at about the 8th grade/JV level, so my dream of being a professional athlete was dead by the time I turned 13. I hope that most of my readers here got closer than I did.
Fortunately, I felt like I got to live the nonathletic version of that dream through my sales career.
The same things that attracted me to sports were prevalent in sales: the competitiveness, the score keeping, the risk, the high swings and ups and downs of victory and defeat.
I believe, for better and for worse, a quota-carrying role at a tech start-up is the closest you can get to being a professional athlete.
No matter what, in sales just likes sports, you are always competing. While this may be true in other professions, the competitiveness in sales is more similar to sports because in sales the judgement is numerical and (generally) free of politics. There are clear winners, losers, and rankings – often these rankings are posted publicly, for the whole company to see. Only a sales guy like me would put this in “the good” category :).
2. The spotlight.
All eyes are on you. There is an entire company of people working to make your offering great and your company succeed. However, none of it matters unless the sales team can deliver revenue based on that work. This is especially true at a startup where all are watching to see if their work can indeed translate into the massive amounts of revenue the VCs expect.
3. Team environment.
Just like on a good sports team, good sales teams rally around each other and form bonds.
4. Work ethic and control.
You don’t have to rely on others to put the work in. You can work as hard as you like, and you get the benefits of that work.
5. High upside.
Top sales reps often earn more than the CEO. In most cases, we aren’t talking Kobe money, but the sales department at any good company is weighing on the heavy end of a company average.
6. The pressure never goes away.
Every sales person starts the year at 0, just like every professional athlete needs to prove themselves to be valuable each year. The more previous success you’ve had the more leeway you get, but even LeBron James will be benched or forced to retire when he is no longer as effective as his replacement could be. The same dynamic applies in sales.
7. It can feel unsustainable.
Many good startup sales reps ultimately opt for management, other careers, or lower risk (often with lower upside) sales jobs. The pressure of hitting numbers year after year is very difficult, and for most it will not be sustainable in the long-term. (Feeling the heat? Check out my article on how to get out of a sales slump.)
8. $1 does not equal $1.
Young sales reps can earn a lot of money early in their sales career. While these big paychecks are awesome, just like with 90% of professional athletes, it is important to understand the context of these earnings. A young sales reps that earns $200k/year in a startup is doing great, and likely has an exciting and lucrative career ahead.
But just like an athlete that has gone pro, making 200k this year is not the same as earning 200k in a traditional careers. If a doctor begins earning $200k, it is safe for her to assume she can and will continue earning that much if not more every year over decades. They can reasonably base their lifestyle around that assumption. The new sales rep needs to take a different view. They need to know that they could become unable to earn that much, OR that doing so may not be a good lifestyle choice for the long-term.
For those that have the right skills and personality to succeed, I believe startup sales is the best way to begin your career, or pivot to if you are looking for a big change. I commend those that are able and choose to remain in the game long-term, but I recommend those getting into startup and tech sales, and really sales in general, understand the situation clearly.