Startups are super exciting but they can turn a “rockstar sales person” into a “loser”. So if one of these “golden opportunities” comes your way, try to look carefully before you jump in. Here’s why.
Entrepreneurs by definition need to be super passionate about their product. They would not have a product if they were not. They believe down to their bones that what they are making is really needed in the world.
At launch it’s an essential trait to be so convinced that what you are doing is valuable that you keep plowing ahead no matter what. There are so many naysayers at the beginning of a company’s life that an entrepreneur must develop a super thick skin.
Most startups make their first sales through the founders. In fact when you boil it down they make their first sales through social selling. They use the founders’ networks (and/or those of their investors) to get warm introductions to accounts and greatly increase their sales chances.
Then at some point the founders’ networks are exhausted. This is often when the founders call in a “sales professional”. Maybe a chief sales guy or a VP of sales (usually the same function just a better title). It’s time to “scale their sales”.
Now I’ve been in this position. And there are a couple of problems: (1) reality and (2) expectations.
Startup sales reality
The reality is that at this stage most startup’s products have not yet been truly tested in the “open sea”. By using social selling (a great idea to get things off zero) the founders and investors gave themselves an extra sales advantage. Some of the people that bought from the startup’s founders bought the relationship more than the product. They wanted to help the founders out. Some of these people are really friends of the founders.
Sometimes the founders gave these early early clients incredibly good deals–like free–to make sure they got their “beta clients” in place.
Startup sales expectations
The expectations placed on this first “professional sales guy” can be very different to the reality. The founders may think “hey we’ve done the hard work now. We have our first several clients in place and now it’s time to hit the ‘hockey stick’. We’ll bring in this sales superstar dude and we can light this thing up”.
Think this sounds extreme?
Well if you’ve not been there, you may, but I’ve here a few times.
My founders were really disappointed that the new sales star did not sell some major deals in the first 3-4 weeks. For those of us on the sales side you will know 3-4 weeks can go by in the blink of an eye. 3-4 weeks go by while you’re still learning your product and your market never mind filling your sales pipeline. (For tips on ramping up your sales knowledge as fast as you can grab Jill Konrath’s new book, Agile Selling. Still it will take you more than two days to ramp up!)
Startup sales missing link
The problem for many startup is they missed a step.
Hiring a sales dude to scale up your sales is not the next move is a setp has been missed. And in the situations I’ve seen this step was missed out.
The step that was missed was testing and refining the company’s message, target market and conversion of interested prospects into customers. This step could ideally happen in parallel to the founders making their initial sales. But in the situations I’ve seen the sales person is brought in before this testing and refinement was complete (or even started).
I’m reading 80/20 Sales and Marketing by Perry Marshall. In this book Perry recommends testing your product messaging and conversion first on Google Adwords. He lists scaling up with sales people has step #6 out of 10.
Pity I did not read this book a few years ago before I become the first sales dude at a couple of startups. I could have saved myself a lot of stress. In both situations the product and messaging was not refined enough for anybody to sell successfully.
Not to belittle our profession (as you know I think it’s one of the more complex and taxing professions available) but we sales people are really messengers. Our job is to efficiently communicate our company’s message to prospective clients and then help them make a decision on whether to buy our product.
In my opinion our job is not to make “a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”.
It’s not our job to build the product. It’s not our job to adapt the product to the market. It’s not our job to “pivot” the company when the market says it does not want our offering. It’s not our job to figure out the messaging for our product so the market understands how it helps them. It’s not our job to produce collateral that clearly communicates the message. It’s not our job to build websites, landing pages, white papers, blog posts or other content marketing to engage prospects with our message.
And yet, in the startups I was involved with I got dragged into discussions and projects in all these areas.
I got dragged in because our product and message needed fixing. And if we did not fix these issues we could not sell our product. So I had no choice. But the time taken to fix these issues killed sales time.
The reality was the company and product were not ready to “throw the fuel on the fire” that having a dedicated sales person implied. There were too many unknowns in the approach. Adding a full time sales person just created more noise not more sales.
So if you have the chance to join a startup as the first sales rockstar dude, I recommend you check they are ready for you. It’s better to check this out before you jump in. Sometimes a startup’s future is quite cloudy and you might need an umbrella not a pair of shades.