Cory Older, an M.B.A. student at the Acton School of Business in Austin, steeled himself as he prepared to knock on yet another stranger's door--the 100th he had hit in two days. Frankly, he wasn't proving very good at selling dictionaries, but he had to make quota to stay in school.
The classic story of a hard-working, dues-paying student? Not exactly. Selling books door to door isn't Older's way of paying tuition; it's a mandatory part of his school's curriculum.
Acton, a private school whose primary offering is a one-year M.B.A. program, was founded by a group of entrepreneurs in 2002 and designed specifically to teach the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. Last year, it ranked No. 13 on the Princeton Review's list of top graduate entrepreneurial programs.
Every year following winter break, Acton's class of about 25 students breaks into small teams for the Acton Sales Challenge--a three-day competition in which students go door to door to see which team can sell the most children's dictionaries. The challenge is a core part of the experience at Acton."When we started this program, I couldn't find a single M.B.A. program that taught anything about sales," says Jeff Sandefer, an Acton professor and one of the school's co-founders. "Sales is seen as kind of the ugly stepchild of business."
The Sales Challenge is Sandefer's attempt to close the gap between that perception and the reality that successful entrepreneurs must know how to sell. It's not only mandatory to participate; it's mandatory to succeed--students have to sell a modest quota of three books each, or they are expelled from the program. To make it even more difficult, the dictionaries are deliberately overpriced, at $30 each. "The books are something you could probably get on discount at Amazon for $20," says Sandefer. "It's not the books; it's the pitch."
Door-to-door sales may seem as antiquated as a traveling vacuum salesman, but Sandefer is convinced that the skills required to sell a product to a complete stranger are fundamental to every entrepreneur. Besides teaching the art of the pitch, he says, the Sales Challenge weeds out wannabe entrepreneurs who lack courage and persistence. It also teaches how to interact with customers and helps future CEOs develop an appreciation of how hard their employees work.
Of course, selling door to door does have its downside. Acton students have been screamed at by Austin residents, had people threaten to call the police on them, and even had dogs sicced on them. Students work from morning until dark or later. "We've had people selling into the evening to make it," says Sandefer.
Brad Holden was part of the team that won this year's competition. It sold 15 books and knocked on nearly 900 doors in the process. He found that to succeed, he had to sell an idea, not a product. "If you say, 'Are you interested in a kids' dictionary?' they say no. But if you say, 'Are you interested in expanding your kid's vocabulary?' they say yes."
Chase Nall, who graduated from Acton last year, sold stereo equipment while an undergraduate but still found the Sales Challenge difficult. "It wasn't an overly enjoyable experience," he says. "You get rejected continually. I figured I'd have some advantage, but then you get out there, and it's very challenging to knock on doors."
As for Cory Older, whose background is in accounting, he had little sales experience before enrolling at Acton. "It was pretty frightening at first," he says. At the end of the second day, with little success, he says he had a mind shift. "All of a sudden, I began to look at it as a plant manager would look at an assembly line," he says. "It looked like dials I needed to adjust." He realized that the approach he was using immediately put people on their guard. Around the 175th door, he changed gears and began telling corny jokes.
"I'd knock on the door and say, 'Hey, I'm in charge of telling jokes in the neighborhood.' " After rolling out a joke like, Why don't aliens eat clowns? (Because they taste funny), he found that most people would usually say, "OK, why are you really here?" By the end of the third day, armed with his one-liners, Older says, "Some of those people I know would have totally closed the door ended up becoming customers."
When he graduates this spring, Older plans to return to his former employer, a real estate firm. "I'm going back to them to help them start some new ventures, and it's definitely going to involve reaching out to people I don't know," he says. With his newfound expertise, cold calls now seem less intimidating. "I've been more confident since the Sales Challenge," he says. "I can go back to that experience and say, 'This is a lot easier than knocking on a stranger's door.'"