Gerry Pond says Canadians suck at selling. So he’s offering $500,000 to fix the problem
Last February, Gerry Pond attended a conference in Halifax involving the Association of Atlantic Universities. The event included discussion of the region’s lack of skill in selling, particularly internationally.
Pond, the last of 15 panellists, grew somewhat irritated with the lack of proposals aimed at remedying the situation with sales education and training, especially considering there were 16 universities represented.
He decided to adopt the “instigator role”, and challenged the educators and university administrators in attendance. Pond said he’d give $500,000 to the first Atlantic Canadian university that establishes a school or faculty dedicated to training salespeople.
“I put out a challenge and I thought the way to get interest, especially with universities, is drop a little money with it,” recalls the chairman of Saint Johnbased Mariner Group in an interview. “This was spontaneous. I wasn’t even planning to do that until I realized that most of the presenters were defining the problem and not a solution. We want to grow worldscale companies in Atlantic Canada, and that’s an impediment.”
The impediment is the East Coast’s deficiency in salesmanship. He says companies across Canada, but especially in this region, are failing to grow because they can’t sell beyond North America. Successful global sellers, such as Clearwater, are the exception.
“Canada can’t sell its products and services on the global stage. It’s an acute problem, not just in technology,” says Pond, who was the initial investor in both Radian6 and Q1 Labs, two of this region’s biggest tech successes. “We’re world-class at innovation… We can develop world-class start-ups. What we can’t do is grow them. And the reason we can’t grow them isn’t because we lack technology skills. We lack sales skills. I want the Atlantic Canadian universities to figure out how to create a better education system for salespeople.”
Pond compares a lawyer arguing someone’s guilt or innocence to a salesperson convincing a cash-strapped customer to buy a product. “It’s an art and a science but it’s not a fool’s errand,” he says.
“I don’t see much difference between a good accountant and a good salesperson,” he adds. “People get really pissed off when I say that, especially academics.” Pond wants to see an East Coast sales school modeled on a law, medical, dentistry or accounting school. He wants it to grant degrees, have a dean, and offer courses and internships. He says the 30 or so companies connected to East Valley Ventures, a start-up accelerator he co-founded, could provide the “living lab” that sales students would require. “They could provide the co-op positions if we got really serious about this.”
Essentially, Pond wants to create a degree program, not just a course. He notes universities often talk of creating “institutes”, which he interprets as “code” for entities that don’t grant degrees.
“I’m not talking about one course in Sales 101. I’m talking about raising professionals like lawyers, accountants, doctors and dentists.” He says such programs exist at American schools, including DePaul University in Chicago and the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Pond’s challenge has generated interest. Almost every East Coast university has contacted him. “They’re beating on my door, saying, ‘What can we do to get your $500,000?’ I said: ‘It’s up to you. You’ve got to be creative and innovative, for a change.’”
Pond insists he doesn’t want the project to be known as “Gerry’s school”. He’d rather a “champion” emerge to take the idea to fruition. Though he has suggested what some of the curriculum should look like, he admits his vision is not fully sketched out. It’s only the problem that’s clear: “Every one of the VCs I’ve talked to have indicated this is a skill set issue for their companies.”
Calvin Milbury acknowledges that a lack of sales skill is an issue among his roster of start-ups. Milbury is the CEO of the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation, a government agency that provides early-stage funding.
“We’re having a lot of success seeding start-ups in the region, in New Brunswick in particular. But we’re not satisfied with just startups. We want start-ups that scale up,” he says. “To scale you need salespeople. And there is a shortage of salespeople here. Typically, the hot salespeople are in the top markets.”
Milbury welcomes Pond’s proposal. In the meantime, however, he argues East Coast companies must set up satellite offices.
“Companies can’t solely build from here. Accessing these sales professionals may require you to set up an office in Boston or Silicon Valley or Toronto.
“You can’t realistically do it just from New Brunswick.”
But can the East Coast actually produce an army of skilled sellers?
Milbury suggests it’s a deficiency ingrained in the culture.
“We have a history of producing good engineers and scientists and business people, but less so on the sales side,” he says. “Culturally we’re a bit modest. We undersell ourselves in Canada, but particularly in Atlantic Canada. We’re almost too humble, too shy. Maybe by extension that culture keeps young people from moving into the sales profession.”
According to Pond, weak sales skills act as a “drag” on the revenues of small companies. He pegs the revenue drag at 30-50 per cent among the companies he is involved with. “It is material and life threatening and often called ‘the valley of death,’” he says. He notes that one company in his roster has, in 12 years, hired 21 sales people and retained only three. “This churn is very costly for a young company.”
In March, Pond was named the Business Development Bank of Canada’s first-ever BDC Entrepreneurship Champion. He spoke at the ceremony in Toronto and later received calls from people across the country, all who said they are willing to help on the sales education issue. “I’ve never had that before,” he says. “These are total strangers that want to connect on this topic.”
Another unnamed businessman has offered to match Pond’s $500,000 pledge, meaning there’s now $1 million on the table. He estimates it would require $2 million to $3 million to launch an academic sales school.
As of mid-July, Pond had four formal proposals in hand and knew of two more in development. The proposals are mainly from universities but there’s also one from a private college. (Pond won’t name the institutions.) His goal is to launch the sales school in 2016.
For Pond, a sales faculty in an East Coast university would help erode the image of sales as a greasy profession. “There’s a lot of baggage,” he admits, “but there are just about as many jokes about lawyers.”
“Any company that’s successful knows the importance of sales, and that it is a discipline,” he adds. “So we’ve got to clean that (stereotype) up a bit. It’s garbage.”