Loi Laing was a teacher and a lawyer for most of her career but always had an interest in technology — she even taught herself to code. But Laing, 42, a self-described “people person,” felt that becoming an engineer would be too isolating. She wanted a tech job where she could be more social. That’s when an Instagram ad for a program that would teach you how to sell technology caught her eye.
That ad was for SV Academy. Laing was accepted to the 12-week training program, which teaches critical job skills for a career in tech sales (primarily SaaS). For one year after graduation, students also receive continued training and mentorship from Silicon Valley veterans who’ve worked at the likes of Netflix, Google, Facebook, and others. And six months after completing the program, Laing, who grew up in Jamaica, joined Primer AI, a data analysis automation tool headquartered in San Francisco’s financial district, as the company’s first sales development representative (SDR).
choosing the best candidates
Laing is exactly the type of student Rahim Fazal had in mind when he launched SV Academy (SVA) nearly three years ago. Historically, the tech industry has put a premium on engineering jobs, in part because many successful business leaders today have coding backgrounds, Fazal told Built In. But like any business, tech companies need to generate revenue, which largely falls on the sales team.
“Tech is growing so fast that there’s a supply and demand mismatch,” Fazal said. “My friends who run tech companies struggle most with hiring salespeople.”
In 2017, Fazal teamed up with co-founder Joel Scott, previously VP of operations at Hewlett Packard, to teach people with no tech background how to sell technology. The program is free for students but the bar for admittance is high — SV Academy admits less than 3 percent of applicants. Rather than focus on the level of education or years of experience in the tech industry, they give weight to the students they believe will work the hardest. Experienced sales managers from the industry evaluate applicants in a supervised learning environment, looking for a specific set of skills and values that make a successful salesperson.
“Our mission is to demonstrate that the woman who just returned from military service isn’t just a diverse candidate, she’s the best candidate,” says Fazal.
why companies pay for this program
Fazal and Scott have both worked in SaaS for more than 15 years and many of their former sales hires, now in leadership roles, were happy to return the favor by hiring SVA graduates without many proof points. But the co-founders have delivered on their promise. “We take all the risk for our employers by making large upfront investments in talent to produce high quality outcomes for them at scale,” says Fazal.
SVA charges employers, including PayPal and SurveyMonkey, $12,000 to $15,000 per hire, which many are happy to pay.
“SV Academy graduates are high-achievers hungry to sell, eager to join the SaaS industry, and quick on the uptake,” said Jenny Strauss, HR Director at business data insights firm, InsideView. “In a year, we’ve hired multiple people and already promoted many, with others on track to become AEs and AMs.”
Notably, SV Academy is also addressing two crucial problems that have plagued tech, and San Francisco, for decades — the industry’s severe lack of diversity and the rampant wealth disparity in the city. Women fill only 20 to 25 percent of entry-level tech jobs and comprise just 22 percent of tech executives, according to the annual Women in the Workplace report. In the Bay Area, the median number of black tech employees is 2.5 percent and the median number of Latinx employees is 5.6 percent, a 2018 analysis from the Center for Investigative Reporting found.
“Our mission is to demonstrate that the woman who just returned from military service isn’t just a diverse candidate, she’s the best candidate.”
Laing is the only black woman working at Primer AI but she believes SVA will help improve diversity in the Bay Area’s massive tech industry. She recently got together with her SVA cohort, who have all landed tech jobs since graduating, and couldn’t help noticing the wide range of ethnicities and backgrounds in the room. 60 percent of SVA graduates are women, 40 percent are Latinx or African American, and 70 percent are first-generation college graduates.
And this diverse set of people are entering jobs with an average starting salary of $79,000 per year, which is meaningful in the Bay Area. Earnings for white residents in San Francisco were $70,200 on average, compared to $41,500 for people of color, as of 2017. The gap has only widened since.
pairing classes with mentorship
SVA gives students the skills they need to succeed in tech sales by teaching them how to chase good leads, how to build a sales pipeline — from their first discovery call to closing a deal — and how to work with engineering and product teams to understand exactly what they’re selling and why.
At its core, SVA’s mission is largely inspired by Fazal’s own story. He grew up in government housing in Vancouver, Canada, worked at McDonald’s in high school and didn’t graduate from college with a 4-year degree. Still, Fazal was fascinated by technology and took it upon himself to learn the business side of tech. He got coding help from his best friend, and the two launched a service setting up business websites while still in high school that sold for $1.5 million during their senior year.
“I didn’t have anyone who could guide me or introduce me to anyone [in tech], and no one in my life was a business professional,” Fazal said. “For the non-coders like me, how do you translate that to a tech career with no experience?”
One answer to that question is by assigning every SV Academy student a sales coach throughout their first year as an employee at a tech organization. The coach helps the SVA graduate develop a ‘growth mindset’ to overcome the inevitable challenges they will face on the job and instead focus on accelerating their performance.
Why Soft Skills = Success
SVA’s curriculum focuses heavily on the roles of SDR and BDR (business development rep) as they are increasingly among the highest in demand at tech organizations. In addition to the hard skills required in an SDR or BDR position, SV Academy teaches self-reflection, emotional intelligence, empathy, and other soft skills that help a tech sales employee (or any employee, really) succeed.
These skills allow SVA grads to be more communicative with their teammates, no matter which company they join, help them relate to their co-workers and their customers on a human level, and push them to grow and improve in their roles. (Soft skills are also commonly taught in traditional coding bootcamps, because they’re seen as valuable to engineers as well.)
The classes at SVA are entirely remote, but students stay in contact throughout the week with their cohort and teachers via Zoom and Slack. The curriculum also covers time management and strategies for successful job interviews through both individual and group assignments. The activities center on employer-driven skill-building, role-playing and simulations, and real-life employer projects. One assignment asks students to research different sales methodologies and present them to class, highlighting the merits of each.
“My friends who run tech companies struggle most with hiring salespeople.”
In the SPIN method, which stands for Situation, Problem, Implication, Need-Payoff, the salesperson builds value for the customer, identifies their needs and becomes a trusted source. The Challenger approach is based on research that found salespeople who enjoy debating with customers and have a strong understanding of the customer’s business are the most successful in closing deals. The Sandler approach encourages salespeople to ask the right questions in addition to providing answers, making them more of an advisor than a seller.
Many of the qualities that make a good tech salesperson are the qualities that make any salesperson good at their job — you need to be willing to ask tough questions and you can’t be robotic when talking to customers. At the end of the day, people want to work with people. When it comes to selling software specifically, it’s crucial to master your individual corner of the market. If you work in marketing tech, you should have an understanding of the entire MarTech landscape because customers want to buy from industry experts.
Being A Sales Team Of One
The SVA program focuses heavily on relationship-building and the ability to identify sales opportunities. And that’s exactly what Laing did her first week on the job. Before Laing, Primer AI was mostly focused on government contracts. But because they’re expanding into B2B, they needed someone to design, develop and implement their entire sales strategy from the ground up.
Thanks to SVA, Laing says she was well-equipped to do so. Her first week on the job, she was sourcing leads, qualifying leads for the sales pipeline and learning how to run demos of the product. In a larger organization, when a lead turns from cold to warm, the SDR would turn the deal over to an account executive. But since Laing is a team of one, she handles the deal from beginning to close. She’s also the only person at Primer AI who understands how to use Salesforce, something she learned at SVA. She set-up the company to use the Salesforce platform for their entire sales process.
One of the exercises Laing did in the program was writing sales pitch emails and experimenting with different messaging and subject lines. She then performed A/B testing and reviewed the analytics to see which format worked best for customers in different industries. One tactic she found that worked well across the board was adding a customer’s name to the subject line. After trying that, “my open rate just went through the roof!” Laing says.
That was Fazal’s intention — to create a highly experiential learning process. SVA students get internships, many times at legacy Silicon Valley companies like Palo Alto Networks, so they can better understand what it’s like to work in a sales organization before their first day on the job.
Getting out of the bubble
In San Francisco, where the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment is $3,601 per month, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to feel financially secure without working in tech. Laing says the long term rewards of attending SVA, like receiving a bump in salary, have made it worthwhile.
“I’ve never been paid this well,” said Laing, who added that she did not know anyone in Silicon Valley prior to attending SVA. “For the first time in my life, I feel financially secure.”
While Fazal believes SVA can and is moving the needle on San Francisco’s income disparity, he urges that it’s one solution to a problem that many will need to solve. In fact, some are taking a very similar approach to Fazal and Scott. Flockjay, which launched in January, also provides an online training program for tech sales jobs, with $2.98 million in new funding from high profile backers like Serena Williams.
Similar to SVA, Flockjay is entirely remote and focuses on outbound prospecting, like crafting successful sales pitch emails, as well as learning modern sales tools like Salesforce and Zoom. One key difference is that Flockjay is only free if you don’t land a job after the program. Tuition is $9,000, but you can pay it back in installments. Once you’re earning at least $40,000 per year, you pay back 10 percent of your salary for the first year.
The best advice Fazal has for others who want to join him in this cause is: “spend time with, and really listen to, individuals who are outside of your immediate social community.” He believes that if you listen to job seekers who come from under-resourced communities, you’ll understand their experiences of having student debt and living paycheck-to-paycheck. “It’s that one-to-one human interaction that inspires innovative thinking.”