What’s the one thing that most startups need help with?

Sales.

Sales?

It’s a Canadian problem—and an acute problem in the technology sector. We’ve got good innovators, good technology people and good financial people. We can build a really strong team, but we have a very small domestic market, and the Americans are the top software producers in the world, so you are not going to sell a lot to them either.

You have to sell to other countries. They all speak English, generally, in the technology sector, but you still have to sell to humans and know their cultural norms. As Canadians, we’re not very good at that. I find Quebecers have a bit of a leg up on that, by the way, because of their environment.

Is it just a matter of learning the culture in overseas markets?

It’s not the salutations and “drinking the local wine.” You have to really engage and prove you are reliable. It’s a problem-solving exercise. What happens if the purchasing department has said it will only buy from software companies that have $50 million worth of business and have been in business 10 years? Does that mean it’s over for a startup? No, you need to find a sponsor in the company to get an exemption to the rule. It’s a long journey, and you have to know how to weave through the layers of management. You have to give them a business case over and over. It’s a skill—a professional skill—and we’re not growing a nation of salespeople.

Why is that?

You can’t get a degree in sales. You might get a course credit, and you might get a certificate from a college. But sales has not been recognized by academia as a skill set and a knowledge set that is worthy of a degree. And most professions are a combination of knowledge and apprenticeship. Lawyers, doctors, engineers—all require a combination of education and on-the-job training. And that is essentially what sales needs.

We have to bring the status or the prestige of this profession up to a standard that’s equivalent to other professions. And until a lawyer or doctor and a salesperson can be viewed as the same professional class, we are going to be sending people out into the field that aren’t prepared for cross-cultural communications and don’t understand how to build that relationship. And building those relationships can be very difficult if you’re trying to do business in parts of Africa, for example, and it’s really difficult in China. But it’s got to be done.

People assume you’re either a born salesperson or you’re not. Can you turn a lousy salesperson into a good one through education?

I believe so. It’s about problem solving. And in the technology sector, there are a lot of engineers who have been taught problem solving in university. Get the facts; know the lay of the land. If we’re going to build a bridge, do we need some stress tests? Do we need some analysis, some core samples? This is all problem solving. So you can learn to apply that to cross-cultural problems. Can you teach people to listen better? I think you can. Can you teach them to remember better? I think you can. So listen better, remember better and solve problems before you open your mouth.

Can you give me an example of how these skills help?

If you go to Brazil, they speak Portuguese, but many of those companies are actually run by Spaniards. Now there is quite a mix. The Portuguese don’t really like it but put up with it. So that creates some subtleties you need to understand. And then there’s also the fact that they force you to legally create a company in Brazil, and you have to have a Brazilian director on the company’s board. It can’t be a shell company, like you can do in most countries. They want to control their destiny, and that’s very powerful. Until you figure that out, your attempts to get in there will just not survive.

You have many projects underway at the same time. How do you launch a new venture while making sure the old one keeps running smoothly?

Well, make sure the old one is run by people that don’t need you. It’s finding the right people—that’s the hardest part. And then letting it go.

This article is from the May 2015 issue of Canadian Business. Subscribe now!

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