Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Paul Fifield of Sales Impact Academy Is Helping To Change Our World
“Only work in businesses that have a high degree of revenue certainty” — For the first 10 years of my career I built a successful production company. It was extremely difficult work because we were an agency, and thus had to chase business constantly because of a low degree of revenue certainty. It is difficult to be strategic or offer long-term vision when all you are doing is chasing business to cover overhead and keep the doors open. At that point all you are doing is providing a service, not creating value. It is difficult to scale a business without revenue certainty.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Fifield.
Paul Fifield is the Co-founder and CEO of Sales Impact Academy — the world’s leading go-to-market learning platform, which provides training and education currently not available at higher education institutions. He is a ‘been around the block’ entrepreneur with 18 years’ experience in founding and scaling global companies and now uses his industry expertise and passion for helping others to revolutionize training and hiring for go-to-market teams.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was a Chief Revenue Officer at two different companies and found that I had no time. My to-do list was massive, and every single day I was deciding what I’m not going to get to again. On top of all of that, I needed to learn how to do my job! I learned in a horrendously chaotic way, at a massive personal cost to my life. Stress, anxiety, the fact that revenue leaders get fired very fast, all of these factors weighed on me. I didn’t want this life for future revenue leaders.
The only way to stop the chaos is to bring structure to the profession. Industries like law, medicine, and finance have structures set up to educate and resupply the pipeline of future leaders and workers. Sales has been largely ignored by formal education, so I decided that I could change that, and launched Sales Impact Academy, where we offer an educational platform for upskilling sales professionals, taught by some of the top current leaders in the go-to-market and revenue world. We want a sales career to have standards and teachable skills, and open up the career to anyone who does not fit the mold of a typical four-year college grad.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The most insightful story that comes to mind came from my work in raising capital from Stage 2 as an investor in Sales Impact Academy. It is very rare for a UK-launched company like SIA to get seed investment from a major American investor like Mark Roberge and Stage 2.
So, how did I do it? Well connections obviously help, but those often only get you past the front door. The reason we secured that financing is because I was strategic, but more importantly, I hustled my butt off.
We opened up SIA initially with no need to pay. We saw a problem, a lack of formal education for sales teams, and wanted to start taking steps to solve it. By offering it for free, there were some great unintended consequences — we built relations with big players in the go-to-market industry, including Mark Roberge and his fellow co-founder at Stage 2, Jay Po. I gave myself a metric to meet every single week — I would make 2 high quality introductions to Stage 2 for potential investors in their fund. Mark was impressed — he even commented that my conversion rate was better than their current LPs! By helping them, I helped myself, as that connection became the basis for our seed round. Jay asked me at a certain point if I was looking to raise. My answer was “no, but from you Jay, yes!” We had a deal done within 4 weeks for a $3million seed round. If we do go on to build a massive, global unicorn, it was those moments of hustle, and that investment, that changed our path.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on, our initial tech stack consisted of Zoom and Google subscriptions, a basic document-signing template, the cheapest CRM I could find. Our tech was so minimal, that it really was only $200 a month to launch the “platform.” But, at that point we really weren’t a platform so much as a great idea with clients needing a username to access a Google drive.
People immediately asked about our platform, and given our tech limitations at the time, it was a bit embarrassing to let them peek behind the curtain to find a Google drive. But we had already started the programming — our courses taught by leading sales people — that really became the core of our solution. That is what people wanted the most — information from experts, rather than a fancy website with a million awesome graphics.
The lesson I learned was that I should have been more explicit with those early customers about where we were at. I hadn’t mis-sold them on the idea, but I could have been more up front and clearer about our initial tech limitations. I would have saved myself some anxiety, and more importantly I would have helped early customers see that the core of our offering is the courses we offer. People are desperate for that kind of curated knowledge, not the tech doodads that often come with that knowledge. And now that we have gone through early growth stages and have 300 customers and 1000s of learners, we have made the technological adjustments that have allowed us to scale quickly. But getting that core part of your product right and being explicit about where you are along the development path, is one of the greatest lessons I have learned.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Over the next few years, we expect to see up to 100K people across the globe receive scholarships and free training through the Sales Impact Academy Foundation. The ultimate goal is to open a channel through which unemployed and disadvantaged people will suddenly have access to a whole new life and career. This will make a significant impact in the lives of many people and provide companies with a skilled talent pipeline.
The lack of traditional educational options is a huge barrier to many, and particularly for individuals struggling with social and economic challenges, which is who we really hope to help with this Foundation.
I believe that we have a duty to help others simply because we can. Having established ourselves as leaders in our field, with a customer base of hundreds of reputable tech companies (PayPal, Zoom and Hubspot to name a few), we are in a position to both prepare scholarship recipients for new careers and then immediately provide them with direct connections to great potential employers.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
First and foremost, the change starts with the leaders of these tech companies, who until now have been hiring based on 4-year degrees. We know this is not a true indicator of potential for an employee.
Second, revenue teams need to be practicing continuous development rather than point-in-time training. This way, everyone — regardless of educational or experiential background — is on the same playing field. No more “sink or swim” approach that drags down the individual, team and company.
And thirdly, once the hiring and training structure is in place, we will see a natural change in the large groups of people previously excluded from lucrative sales positions. Without arbitrary hiring requirements holding them back, they will feel more comfortable applying for roles that will transform their lives — going from barely scraping by to supporting their families with salaries starting at $50,000 a year!
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is the same in all walks of life — business, politics, sports, etc. At its basic level it’s motivating and inspiring a group of people to achieve a common, tangible goal together — like winning the Super Bowl or an election or achieving a major milestone in your business. Peter Drucker, the noted management consultant and educator, defined leadership as the ability to corral a group of people to achieve something amazing. Achieving anything amazing is very, very hard and I like that idea of corralling, as it points to the need for clear and purpose-driven communication.
True leadership is also simultaneously staying the course and knowing when to change directions. It involves overcoming your own self-doubts, being transparent, and deeply caring for your team and people — putting them first, rearticulating vision and mission over and over again, over-communicating, being authentic, staying humble, and ensuring you have exactly the right talent on your team to get you to where you want to go.
As you can see, there is no simple definition of leadership. Mostly it involves giving your team a sense of purpose in their work, something we are striving to do with the launch of our Sales Impact Academy Foundation.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- “Only work in businesses that have a high degree of revenue certainty” — For the first 10 years of my career I built a successful production company. It was extremely difficult work because we were an agency, and thus had to chase business constantly because of a low degree of revenue certainty. It is difficult to be strategic or offer long-term vision when all you are doing is chasing business to cover overhead and keep the doors open. At that point all you are doing is providing a service, not creating value. It is difficult to scale a business without revenue certainty.
- “Don’t operate in a crowded space” — Find a major problem that is going unsolved, a ‘secret’ in the words of Peter Thiel, and build a highly defensible solution to that problem. If you think about the PR industry, dry cleaners, or restaurants — it’s incredibly hard to differentiate, to carve out your own space in crowded fields. If you want to build something of scale and value, spend your energy finding those problems where you can create a massively differentiated offering. At SIA, we found a huge problem not being addressed, that of how to skill and align internal sales teams at major companies. By combining technology and curriculum developed with some of the top sales people in the world, we have been able to create the differentiation needed to distinguish ourselves in the market.
- “Cash really really is king, never run out” — No cash means no oxygen, which means death. And I’ve died before, it wasn’t nice. The production company I led ran out of cash at a certain point. I was in my late 20s and really didn’t appreciate the risk we were building up in terms of overhead. Part of this was my arrogance and the naivete of youth, but the real reason was that I had not implemented a strong enough business model, and all of our cash went to overhead. Soon, we no longer existed, owed people money, and I had to learn the hard way the value of having cash.
- “Culture really does eat strategy for breakfast” — I didn’t appreciate the value of internal company culture as much in my early days, and certainly didn’t give it the thought that I now do. One large part of leadership is executing vision; this is where the rubber hits the road. However, in the last few years, I have really come to believe that I need to help create the internal culture for people to thrive and achieve that goal. It’s not just painting the vision and getting others to follow it, but creating the environment for people to do their best work. If I combine a thoughtful dedication to the culture of our company with an amazing, differentiated product, I truly believe that there are no limits for us.
- “Major career and life inflection points almost always lead to something better” — Sometimes it’s really difficult to see past the major moments, both in your personal and professional life. Sometimes you enter into a white space, where everything is unnerving, and you feel like you are in a free fall. But I adopted the mindset that the next thing I have done in my life has always been better and more rewarding because of where I have been. I know it’s difficult to hold onto that rational thought that “things will work out,” but what comes next is almost always better. I have achieved maturity, I know what to look for next because of my past failures.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
For me, and where my passions lie, the issue I am addressing through SIA is about the redistribution of wealth and opportunity to challenge the dramatic inequality in the world. It’s not just about taking money from the rich to give to the poor. It’s more about giving people the ability to change their life through new career opportunities and access to education.
With SIA, I think we are on our way to making a dent on the opportunity end of things, both through our skills-based learning platform, but also through the development of our Foundation. There is absolutely no reason that people should be shut out of jobs or access to education based on life circumstances that they often do not have control over. There are thousands of open sales jobs around the world, and we need to connect skilled people with those opportunities. This will not only help redistribute wealth and opportunity, it will change lives and make this world, the entire world, a better place. Workers will have a career that they have the skills for, companies will have access to great talent and ways to retain them through educational professional development.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can only control the controllables”
A colleague at an old job reminded me of this often, and it has really stuck. And, given the events of the last few years in this world, this basic advice is particularly relevant to all of us now. There are so many scary, distracting, upsetting narratives in the world today — a true confluence of them — that it is easy to get overwhelmed. I feel it often myself, where I am obsessively tracking markets, the news, what’s happening in the Ukraine, inflation, global recession, and the pandemic.
You can really let those feelings gain control over you, but you can’t control any of the craziness of our current world at all. It’s not a matter of forgetting or willful ignorance, but deciding where your focus should be. 99% of the time you should be focusing only on those things that you can control, those things in front of you. Make smart decisions based on data, impact, the culture at your company. Rely on the structures you have put in place. Of course practicing this is hard, but often my work is the balm I need when the world feels overwhelming, and I can control my work.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
The Dalai Lama. He would help me understand life’s purpose, what true happiness is, and how to achieve it. I would definitely let him choose the food. I would be fine with whatever His Holiness wants to eat.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
They can follow me on my personal Twitter account at @PaulFifield, and my LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/paulfifield75/ . Sales Impact Academy is on Twitter and LinkedIn as well: @We_are_SIA and https://www.linkedin.com/company/sales-impact-academy/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!