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Overcoming the Stigma: The Unusual DNA of MuleSoft’s Sales Org

Three years ago, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than taking a job in sales. Cold calling, reeling off a cheesy script, “Always Be Closing”. I was a journalist at the time, and the idea of a sales gig made my skin crawl.

But, today, as part of MuleSoft’s Account Development (AD) team – very much the frontline of the sales organization’s pipeline generation efforts – I’m struck by just how wrong my preconceptions were.

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For starters, this role isn’t what you might consider to be stereotypically salesy. It’s not geared towards lone wolfism or shiny suits. If you’re looking for The Wolf of Wall Street, this isn’t it. Instead this a job based on active listening, delivering insight, and understanding what the other person is trying to achieve. It’s an intellectually challenging position where you’re rarely in your comfort zone – exactly what I was looking for.

But it’s a job I never thought I’d take.

In April, Gence Emek wrote a brilliant piece about how a role in tech sales can jumpstart your career, pointing out that many successful people honed their skills on the phones before transitioning to the boardroom. He’s absolutely right; sales skills can certainly elevate your career trajectory, paving the way for future progression. But for many, making the transition into sales and overcoming the initial stigma can be a considerable hurdle.

To get another perspective on the topic, I sat down with MuleSoft’s founder, Ross Mason, to find out whether he’d had to overcome any similar hurdles, given his journey from IT architect to billion-dollar business founder.

“There definitely was a bit of a stigma,” Ross says of his view of sales when starting out as a software engineer in the late 1990s. “At the time, looking at a salesperson, you did think they were just there to manage the relationship and get the paperwork signed, which is not what I believe now, of course.”

With a degree in computer science and experience “in the weeds” of large IT organizations, Ross appeared to be taking a well-trodden technical path. He spent his early career attempting to solve complex integration problems at the back-end of banks and insurance companies in Europe. He’d complain to his wife for “the first hour after work each night” that “nothing ever worked”.

It wasn’t long before he reached a tipping point and decided to “stop complaining and do something about it.” In hindsight, the move is not overly surprising given that Ross comes from entrepreneurial stock. His father owns a string of hotels in Wales, and Ross says he always gravitated toward working with customers. “I like to help people understand what they can do with something. Not just deliver it.” Summers spent working in the family business would position him well to build and help establish MuleSoft decades later.

“That’s where I get my focus on making sure the customer is satisfied,” Ross explains, sitting in MuleSoft’s headquarters in San Francisco. “In [the hotel] business, that’s all you’re doing. You’re making sure everything is right so they love it, and they come back. Ironically it has a lot of echoes with our subscription business, which is why it made so much sense when we started the company and were looking at business models. You have to earn it every year.”

As Ross transitioned from the back office to the front office, he started to flex a new set of commercially-focused muscles. But his first-hand experience in IT had given him a uniquely empathetic ear; he could now jump from macro-level industry trends to micro technology challenges in one conversation, serving as the conduit between IT and the business. “I spend a lot of time with customers and prospects, typically C-level executives, trying to understand the problems they’re trying to solve,” he says. “My discussions are very rarely talking about MuleSoft, but about the industry. I spend a lot of time with customers listening, versus talking.”

Although Ross has not made an all-out switch into sales – he still leads the overall product strategy and is heavily involved in many other technical aspects of the business – he has taken a rather nontraditional route for someone with his early resume. And he’s not alone. MuleSoft, like many growing enterprises, is chock-full of folks with atypical backgrounds.

The AD team, for instance, includes an Olympic hopeful in Atlanta, a former professional rugby player in San Francisco, and a ballet-dancing, chess-playing, part-time DJ in London. In fact, the team is led globally by a former biomedical engineer and a special operations veteran — it’s not your traditional group of deal-closers. But it is a group of multi-talented individuals who draw upon a diverse range of backgrounds to challenge their prospects to think differently.

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Of course, heavy investments in recruitment and training also factor into a deliberately non-transactional approach. But the team’s unconventional DNA has helped to breed a culture where being “un-salesy” is almost the rule rather than the exception. Like Ross, many Muleys started their careers in far-flung pockets of an organization but were drawn to sales for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it’s the perks, perhaps it’s the culture, perhaps it’s the opportunity to enable transformational outcomes for prospects on a daily basis. Most likely, it’s a combination of all three.

Personally, I was drawn to this role by a feeling of frustration. I didn’t want to just read about mega-deals being closed in the news, I wanted to be a part of the action. I also realized that many journalistic processes apply to sales. It’s all about hitting deadlines, having a point of view, and being able to tell a compelling story – the only difference is the final deliverable. The financial incentives and rapid professional development were also factors, but, perhaps most of all, I noticed that the vast majority of people I admire professionally – be it founders, CEOs, presidents or otherwise – have a sales strand in their DNA. They might not be career salesmen, but many have spent time in the trenches engaging with prospects, generating interest, and learning about their end users. They’ve experienced the grind first-hand, and it has served them well.

Sales certainly aren’t for everyone. It takes grit, it involves a lot of rejection, and failure becomes second nature. But it’s also hugely rewarding and might just be a rite of passage depending on your desired career path.

If you are considering making the switch and are looking for one last push, it could be worth heeding Ross’s advice: “[Sales] is about helping somebody understand there are other opportunities out there,” he says. “If you think sales is just about selling more software, then this probably isn’t the right place for you. If you think sales is really about driving a different type of conversation to help organizations understand what other people in their shoes are doing to drive change in their businesses, then I think that role is pretty compelling. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to do it.”

Thinking about making the switch into sales? Feel free drop me a note on LinkedIn – I’d be happy to chat. Or take a look out our Careers page for loads of sales and account development opportunities at MuleSoft.