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Want to Learn How to Sell? Go on a Mormon Mission

Source: Rick Bowmer/AP/Corbis

Mormon missionary training in Provo, Utah

Mormon Mad Men

Mormon Mad Men: Hold the Whiskey + Cigarettes

Why you should care

Because while you were laughing at The Book of Mormon, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was learning something important about entrepreneurship.

Once upon a time, when you wanted to learn how to be good at business, you started by selling. Whether you learned by selling lemonade, Girl Scout cookies, knives or magazine subscriptions, there was, and is, an agreed-upon wisdom among smart business minds that learning to sell stuff translates pretty well into learning to sell yourself, your product, your business or even a still-nascent business plan.

But for all the companies like Xerox or IBM, Google and Dropbox — and even leading MBA programs — which you’d expect to deliver rock-solid sales training, there’s one place where you might be very surprised to find it on offer.

It’s the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — LDS for short.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know about the two years most young Mormons devote to their missions — it’d be hard not to by now. But what I’m getting at isn’t the obvious fact that the Mormon Church has become a marketing machine in recent years (despite a relatively small number of global converts). It’s a lesson in transferable skills that applies to everyone, whether or not you’re one of the world’s 14 million Mormons. Here it is: Getting out into the world at a young age and doing something that’s potentially scary and unstructured is the best preparation there is for entrepreneurship.

Sales: An evergreen training ground

First of all, it’s important to realize that being good at sales doesn’t just mean becoming the Michael-Scott-regional-manager. I picked the brains of CEOs, entrepreneurs and top managers at investment banks. And they agreed: Selling is an integral skill in entrepreneurship, not just in middle management. From Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce.com, to Lars Dalgaard, a former SAP executive and partner at Andreessen Horowitz, to Ginny Rommetty, CEO of IBM, to Bill Campbell, the CEO-whisperer of Silicon Valley, it’s people who understand sales who are rising to the top these days.

Despite the stereotype of the guy lugging around a set of encyclopedias, sales isn’t just door-to-door. It’s about building a business. It’s about, as one landmark Harvard Business Review study argued, having the right balance of empathy and ego — of understanding others and having an earnest desire to prove yourself. Just take advertising, which makes up 96% of Google’s revenue — plenty of what goes into powering that ad machine is great young salespeople.

“Many big companies have salespeople at their front helm,” said George Slessman, friend of OZY and CEO of IO, a data storage company. “Larry Ellison is an incredibly capable salesperson. Joe Tucci is, too. Ultimately, having the experience of doing something uncomfortable or scary or that you may not entirely want to do is a trait we’re losing in our society. Much of being an effective salesperson means not getting rattled, not getting taken aback by being questioned or in an unsafe place.”

man in orange shirt and shorts knocking on door

Source: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/Corbis

A small army of salespeople pitch Vivint Solar, the fast-growing rooftop solar installation and financing business, founded by a former Mormon missionary.

But don’t just take my word for it. Ask yourself what the following men have in common? Bill Marriott (chair of Marriott International), David Neeleman (founder of JetBlue), Gary Crittenden (former CFO at Citigroup) and Mitt Romney. All hugely successful — and all former Mormon missionaries.

Paving your own path

Ryan Smith is the 34-year-old CEO of Qualtrics, an online survey software company that just turned down a $500 million acquisition offer. Smith jauntily swears that his mission to Mexico was “just like any other life experience.” Except that he had to save to pay his own way. Which is a big task for a pre-teen to undertake in advance of the mission — raising nearly 10 grand to cover the cost of two years, all before the age of 19.

Or take one of America’s most famous Mormons, Mitt Romney — who may have had a comfortable time in a Parisian mansion on his mission, but who was vaulted into a leadership role and ran the mission like a business, telling his team to pull from the self-help/business-advice book Think and Grow Rich and encouraging them to set more demanding goals. (“Mission years are the best years in part because they are the hardest years,” Romney told the 2013 graduates of Southern Virginia University.)

“It can be a lonely life, being an entrepreneur,” said Derek Andersen, founder of the Palo Alto-based StartupGrind. “And being a missionary, too, can be a very lonely experience.”

But if you can make the lonely times turn you into a maverick? That’s a winning recipe.

Tiger Woods-laser-focus

Headshot of Ryan looking into camera

Ryan Smith

A missionary’s schedule is unrelenting: up daily at 6, bed by 10, with no break for two years. Sounds a lot like building and nurturing a new company. And what’s required in both cases is a kind of evangelistic belief in what you’re doing — the kind of belief that might seem irrational to others.

Ryan Smith and serial entrepreneur Davis Smith (no relation) both went on missions to Latin America — Ryan to Mexico and Davis to Bolivia. Both said they learned how to talk to strangers, how to pick up a language, and how to approach someone with whom they didn’t have much in common.

“I had to learn to deal with rejection pretty quickly,” Ryan said. “You’ve got to be self-motivated and you’ve got to put on your big-boy pants. I’m in the middle of Mexico City — one of the most dangerous cities in the world — and trying to make my own way. It was this maniacal focus. No watching TV. No doing anything else. A lot of companies and people don’t ever realize what that real Tiger Woods-type focus is. It’s learning that — and learning to laugh at yourself for a little bit … and being able to live with uncertainty.”

Making your own structure

Other than knowing you’ll be on a mission for two years, both Smiths agree that’s where the structure ends.There’s no secret sales handbook that provides missionaries with guidelines for how to spend their days, aside from some language training. Instead, teams of two come up with a plan and execute on it. For Ryan Smith, that plan included a lot of knocking on doors — the old-school tactic that still serves a purpose — and in fact is a skill plenty of LDS-trained missionaries cashed in on later.

And, as it turns out, excellent training for building Qualtrics, a company that’s trying to beat out better-funded competitors like SurveyMonkey with a dazzling sales team.

Ideas are born every day — for a company, for conversion — but consistently and tirelessly pushing through daily goals is a lot less common, and a whole lot tougher.

In the early days of his mission, Ryan recalls, “I thought, ‘If I go and put my head down and work hard, I’ll feel rewarded.’ I’d think, ‘I’m going to go contact 50 people today.’ … Whatever it was, I thought, ‘Look, I can go do this very specific thing.’ The goal wasn’t ‘conversion’ in the abstract. And what’s funny is I find myself, years later, setting those exact same goals as a CEO.”

Goals for young LDS missionaries can range from the utterly simple (“I’ll cross the street to talk to the old woman sweeping her front stairs”) to the far more complex (“It’s time for a bigger event to bring together 50, a hundred people”). The latter’s tough to accomplish, but, former missionaries say, you build to it.

There’s even some surprising management training wrapped up in the mission: “No one’s getting paid, and you can’t get rid of people if you don’t like them,” said Davis Smith, most recently CEO of a gear company called Cotopaxi.

And a heads-down attitude is what it took for Ryan Smith’s company to thrive — eventually. Entering the data market in 2002, they were early, a little too ahead-of-the-curve, so they never tasted the overnight success of a Snapchat. For Qualtrics, it was more like 10 to 12 years, in Smith’s estimation, of pure bootstrapping. And all the while? It took a lot of hang-ups and lot of cold-door-knocks selling what most didn’t believe in.

This OZY encore was originally published March 1, 2014.

Update: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the official name of the Mormon Church. It is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (colloquially, the LDS Church), not the Church of Latter Day Saints.

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