Wanted: bag carriers

By Ray DePaul

At 28, I was driven, ambitious, naive, and had a healthy dose of arrogance. With some good experience building revolutionary software products, I thought I was well on my way to my goal of being a CEO. An early mentor burst my bubble when he shared that I had many of the tools of a CEO but was missing an essential skill - I needed to "carry a bag". The fact that I didn't know what that meant was all the proof he needed. For those of you under the age of 50, I needed to learn to sell. I needed to go door-to-door carrying a bag of stuff for sale, at least metaphorically.

The closest I came to acquiring that skill was when I was 18 and in my final summer job before entering university. I put a suit on, grabbed my "bag" and headed out to do door-to-door sales. The bag contained frozen steaks and my job was to sell them before they went bad. The three piece suit was designed to distract from the creepiness of a teenager selling meat door-to-door. It wasn't even noon when the defrosting steaks caught the attention of a german shepherd who almost went through the door to get at me and my bag. I lasted a solid three hours in my first sales job with nothing but a fear of dogs to show for it.

Without the ability to sell, startups are just engineering projects. Good ideas win student competitions but stop there. The individuals who can put the company on their back and have customers exchange money for the value their product offers are the heros of the startup world. And we need many more of them in Canada.

As part of a book and course we offer called Designing YOU, I've had the pleasure of coaching a couple of senior students who were trying to design the version of themselves that they were going to launch into the world. Both identified the proven ability to sell as one of their assets, but they were quick to discount it. Society had literally beaten any pride out of the skill of selling. They didn't realize that they were sitting on one of the rarest and most valuable skills around.

In the technology startup world, the belief is that you need three legs for a successful founding team - a designer, a coder, and a hustler. Other industries have similar needs. There is a chronic shortage of hustlers out there which means there's a fatal flaw in most founding teams. When I look at the success of some of our student companies (GNS3, TLink Golf, Turtle Valley Bison, Deepwater Farms, Smoke Barrel, Green Cup…), they all have a founder that is brilliant at getting customers and investors to hand over cash. This is the single biggest reason they are successful.

We need more inventors. We need more builders and makers. But what these people need is more hustlers. I'm proud to say that in our modest little world at Mount Royal University, we are embracing that need and encouraging students to learn to carry a bag.