It feels like every few years, the startup community figures out that they have a shortage. First it was engineers, then product people, then UX, and lately everyone has been coming to me asking if I know any good salespeople.

Now that might be the result of the rise in enterprise software but even SMB products are recognizing that they’re going to need a ground game and asking about how to build sales teams. And rightly so: whether it is through marketing or sales, in a world crowded with competition for our attention, even the best products need someone to bring them to market.

Here’s the problem: there aren’t enough salespeople to go around. And it is our fault.

Every shortage has had its unique contributors. There weren’t enough engineers because STEM education efforts hadn’t yet begun (and I’d argue this shortage continues because we failed to welcome women and minorities into engineering until very, very recently). We ran short on product people because it was a new discipline and nobody really knew where to find them or what to look for. Ditto for UX.

With salespeople, though, it is our culture that is at fault. And if we want to have enough to power the startups of the future, we have to make some fundamental changes in how we talk about sales and its experts.

Before I talk about culture, I want to dispel the myth of compensation as the cause. Certainly money matters. Because we have trained sales people to expect compensation that is at least somewhat commissioned based, the lifetime value of a product directly affects who you can get to sell it. If an advertising or finance sales gig can net you seven figures, startups tend to look less attractive.

But look at all the startup engineers. While it is mathematically true that the expected value of a career at a Fortune 1000 is higher than that of startups, they still leave big companies to go to startups in droves and plenty of new graduates end up there as well. The lure of being closer to the product, having more control, with greater connection to users and to the meaning inherent in the work captures plenty of attention. So clearly compensation isn’t everything.

Therein lies the much deeper issue. Borrowing Werner Vogel’s conception of startup folk as either missionaries or mercenaries, we have created a culture where we only allow salespeople to be mercenaries. “Salesperson” has become startup language for “necessary evil”. They are the lowest of the low, highly paid but never loved.

Even customer support gets more respect than sales. Fancily renamed into customer advocates, customer service is seen as the voice of users, feeding back into the great product cycle of launch and revise. They may be paid dramatically less than salespeople but they are given far more cultural credibility. Couple that with a low barrier to entry and rarely do you hear complaints that we can’t find enough customer advocates.
Cultural credibility matters. If the consistent message of startups is that they are the place you go for meaning, and we deny salespeople access to a meaning orientation, we are essentially denying them access to startups. So experienced salespeople don’t leave big companies and young people don’t go into sales roles.

I don’t blame them. If you can be a customer advocate, or a product manager, or really anything else, why would you pick a career where you will be consistently denigrated? Rather like young black men who opt out of continuing their educational journey because of the bleak prospects beyond, we can’t fault salespeople for acting rationally and refusing to enter into a world that constantly accuses them of being hired guns.

If we want to change this, we need to make a different set of cultural choices. We need founders to highlight and celebrate outstanding salespeople who helped them on the path to outsized exits. We need to start meeting salespeople where they are and genuinely wanting to learn more about their craft as part of broadening our own skillset. And product people and marketers need to actively solicit the expert opinion of salespeople and incorporate their feedback into design choices.

But most importantly, we must allow them to be missionaries. Just like any other startup role, salespeople have a particular skillset that they can choose to apply in a variety of ways. If we want to compete for their attention and convince them to choose to use that skillset on behalf of our products and services, we need to disentangle all our assumptions about motivation and personality from those skills. This isn’t Glengarry Glen Ross; nobody is getting murdered for sales leads. Good salespeople can help us save the world but is on us to invite them to do so.

Side note: If you are looking for salespeople, my best advice is to ask other salespeople if they know anyone who is looking. Homophily is still in play – birds of a feather really do flock together. And for my money, look at Mormons, psychology students, strippers, and anyone else who has looked public shaming in the face and made the shamers blink. Once you’ve had a thousand doors closed in your face when you started talking about God, or stood in a train station trying to get people to fill out surveys for hours, or counted on your ability to earn tips while naked to make ends meet, you don’t mind a little bit of cold calling and aren’t ashamed to make the ask.

The morning after Donald Trump was elected our president, I gave a talk at a women’s leadership conference put on by Thomson Reuters. During the Q&A, the highest voted question was “How do we think about what happened last night?” This is the answer I gave.

There are a number of ways to approach the election, and I’m sure there will be both scientists and pundits who comment at length in the coming days. So let me speak from a personal place.

I love Hemingway, and particularly For Whom The Bells Tolls. There is a quote that has always stuck with me: “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for…”. At the end of the movie Se7en, Morgan Freeman’s character shares this quote, adding “I believe in the second part”.

I still believe the world is a fine place, that people are essentially good, and that we will continue up and to the right in the long term. But if you cannot convince yourself of that, remember that the second part remains true. Good or bad, this is worth fighting for. This is not a time to flee to Canada; we need fighters, here and now. We need you.

Republicans used to say “Love it or leave it”. I love it. So I’m staying.

This doesn’t mean I’m giving up my right to be opinionated. To note that we elected (not they, we) a man who makes openly sexist and racist comments. To not be OK with that. To be angry.

But I’m reminded of the story of C. P. Ellis. I grew up in rural Oregon and though I have been away these many years, I am indelibly a country person in ways that are difficult to describe. Across race and class and gender last night, no demographic was so important as where you live: cities voted for Clinton, everyone else for Trump.

They are not idiots. They are not all racist, or sexist. They are a part of my family (both metaphorically and in actuality) that deeply and powerfully feel that they have been marginalized. They are experiencing the pain and loss that comes from that. And they voted accordingly.
C. P. Ellis was an avowed racist and head of the Ku Klux Klan in his town. When his town desegregated the schools, he was invited to co-chair the committee, alongside a black woman named Ann Atwater. And because she did not reject him but embraced him, because she treated him as intelligent and worth talking to, he left the Klan and eventually became a labor organizer. And her lifelong friend.

One of my friends texted me this morning and said “Just scary to think how we have no idea who our neighbors are.” Maybe that needs to change. Maybe it is time to find out. We need to get to know each other at a deep and personal level, and to take the extraordinary step that is empathy and compassion.

That’s easy for me to say, as a white man with wealth. I am probably better off, individually, than I was yesterday on lots of measures, if much poorer as a husband, father, and member of a civilized society. I recognize the gall of saying to those who now face an even more uphill battle against racism and sexism “Open your arms and embrace they who have put you here”.

I also know that if we want change, short of bloody revolution, compassion is our greatest hope. The Ballot or The Bullet. I cannot abide the bullet. I want to live here. So we elected Trump together – now what? Who will we be? What will we do? We get to decide, each of us, today and tomorrow and for the next four years. Love it or leave it. Understand or reject. It is a decision we must all make carefully.

Side note: Today reminds me of power outages. Or 9-11. Or any of the other events, both large and small, that cause people to rally together and to recognize the common human decency that lives in most everyone. I have this amazing little boy that I love; not one given to prayer, or God, I pray we all do the right thing. Oh, how I pray.