An accidental salesman meets with unexpected challenge and disappointment. At last, he finds new understanding and acceptance of his identity as a designer.

For a time, I was a salesman.

I would stutter over the phone, “Basically it’s a way to create sustainable revenue from your work as an independent creator, like a recurring Kickstarter…”

“Yeah, like a subscription service…”

“The fees? Well, it’s comparable to Kickst— Yes, 2.9% plus another 5%…”

“Well, Etsy has a different fee structure, so you can’t really compare th— Sure, but we also help you with…”

“Okay, no, I understand.”

I flew across the country. I sat in cafés all day waiting for shaky prospects. I took call after call with the bored and the unconvinced. I begged the rest of the team for changes and features that would help me make just a single sale—anything to stave off the encroaching dread of my job.

I had been working for a small consultancy, and we were heavily lopsided on designers. Because of this, it was decided that the best use of my time would not be designing anything but running sales. It seemed to make sense at the time: design and sales have a lot in common. They both require a nuanced understanding of the product’s intricacies, the customer’s demands, and the market’s dynamics.

But there’s a reason the stereotypical salesman is charismatic and extroverted—the opposite of the traditional designer, so quiet and philosophical. If you haven’t worked in sales, it’s a lot like going on a job interview: you have something you think someone wants, but you’re not precisely sure who will be a fit. So you meet and talk and hope it clicks for both sides.

The difference is that a job interview in the professional world is tightly vetted; a small fraction of applications turn to phone screens, and a small fraction of those turn into real interviews. In sales, it’s assumed that the success rate will be close to zero, so you optimize for quantity instead of quality. A common benchmark for cold calls is over one hundred per day. One hundred little loops of hope, negotiation, and, in most cases, rejection. It was a feeling I recognized, like designing something that went on to fail. Except, I wasn’t designing anything, so I only ever experienced the failure part. And it happened every hour of every day, like a Groundhog Day nightmare on fast-forward.

I finally understood why stakeholders outside of product development could make requests that seemed so absurd: they’re on the outside. As designers, we get to directly craft the end result. It makes us responsible for failure, but that comes with also being responsible for our success. In sales, you still get the blame, but none of the power to make change. You’re expected to find the right buyer for a product as it is, not as it could be. As a designer, I was tuned to perceiving the future, but as a salesman I could only promise the present.

Sometimes I find myself saying that I don’t really identify with the title of designer. That I’m much more of a generic “builder” or “maker” personality. I say that I care about the outcomes, not the output. Sure, sometimes that necessitates design, but sometimes it needs development, or management, or, yes, sales.

But really, I like sitting at my desk. I like putting on my headphones, taking pen to paper, sketching and coding for hours on end. I like the immediacy of the craft, the directness of my contribution.

What’s needed, what you’re good at, and what makes you happy: shoot for all three.

David cole

David Cole is the head of design at Quora. Previously, he was one half of Sleepover, a studio focusing on boutique and experimental online publishing. He’s also led design for startups such as Disrupto, Etherpad, Disqus, and Fluther. He resides in Mountain View, CA.

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Portrait by Richard Perez