During his second week of class, Ricardo Leite, 28, received a Chicago Booth pen worth approximately 25 cents. The first-year MBA and his classmates in Booth’s Entrepreneurial Selling course weren’t particularly impressed with the cheap writing utensil–luckily, their assignment was to get rid of it.
Course professor Craig Wortmann tasked his students with trading their pens over the next eight weeks for objects of increasing value. He issued one rule: students could only barter with people they didn’t know. Two weeks and two trades later, Leite is already up to roughly $200, and he’s still got eight weeks to go.
Entrepreneurial Selling is an exception in a B-school curriculum packed with courses that emphasize either sales at large organizations or entrepreneurship. Few tackle entrepreneurial sales, a subject Wortmann contends is fundamentally different from sales at a large enterprise, where representatives have product development teams, human resources personnel, and marketing specialists supporting them. At a startup, most, if not all, of these responsibilities fall on the entrepreneur.
Leite understands the demands on founders firsthand. The Brazilian founded printing service Zocprint in 2012 before coming to Booth in July of 2013. “At the beginning, you are the founder, the CEO, and the VP of sales; you are everything, so you need to understand the main processes and techniques behind good sales,” he says. His own experience prompted him to sign up for the Booth class, which was recognized in 2011 as one of the top 10 courses in the country by Inc. Magazine. “Professor Wortmann makes a point of making us uncomfortable. On the first day of class he says, ‘Look, this is a sales course, you’re going to be uncomfortable, you’re going to have a lot of rejection, you’re going to do cold calls, and you’re going have meetings to sell products–it’s not easy,'” Leite says.
The class’ overarching goal is to make students “as smart and sufficient in selling as possible, so that when you spend time selling, not a moment is wasted,” according to the syllabus. This is accomplished through a series of assignments that range from cold calling people (and convincing at least 10 of them to fill out a survey) to creating a sales toolkit and presentation around a new product or service.
Leite didn’t waste any time with the bartering assignment. He went straight to Booth professor Lars Peter Hansen, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2013. In exchange for the pen, Hansen gave Leite an autographed copy of his breakthrough article, “Large Sample Properties of Generalized Method of Moments Estimators”–Hansen even penned in a private anecdote. Leite posted the paper to an eBay auction where, as of Jan. 21, the highest bid is $202.50. He also drove traffic to the site by reaching out to prominent Harvard economist and blogger Greg Mankiew, who mentioned the auction in a post, and to Poets&Quants, for that matter.
The auction ends on Jan 23, 2014, at 9:58 a.m. EST. But Leite is hopeful that this is just the beginning. For his next move, he’s considering donating half of the proceeds to charity. Regardless of the final trade, he’s already picked up several key lessons: have fun, make people aware of the product, and select something the market actually wants. Despite these insights, he’s not planning to jump back into the startup world immediately after graduation. “I really think that entrepreneurship is not a field or a career choice … You can be an entrepreneur at a large corporation. You can be an entrepreneur in any context, so it’s more about the mindset and the way of doing things than to found my own company again. Maybe this will happen, but it’s not my plan for the near term,” he says.