As I’ve written about before, startup sales is not traditional sales. But when startup founders begin looking to hire their first salesperson, they’re often attracted to big company sales experts. That’s not what startups need though...
There are significant differences between a salesperson who sells for an established company with an established product and a salesperson who is bringing a new product or service to market. The challenges that each one faces are different because the former is following a verified, well-trodden path, while the latter is forging a new path for the first time.
The Difference Between Startup Sales & Traditional Sales
With an established B2B product, the primary goal is to execute on a plan. This requires salespeople who are relationship builders as opposed to market, organization, and process builders.
For innovative B2B products, there is much more trial and error involved until the startup finds the right product/market fit. The startup and its sales team must identify the target customer profile, determine the best tactics for finding those buyers, and create the most persuasive messaging and steps necessary to close deals. Then they must use all of these learnings to build a scalable sales organization.
Consequently, a startup salesperson - a seller of innovative products - must possess skill sets that differ significantly from those you might look for in a seller of established products. As I see it, there are four key traits that startups should keep in mind when hiring their first salesperson.
The 4 Key Traits of An Ideal Startup Salesperson
Startup Experience - The first salesperson on the team must understand the unique challenges of a startup environment, particularly how to optimize limited resources and work well with ambiguity. Ideally, they have experience building a sales organization from scratch, which demands a variety of skills, including working with supporting technology infrastructure, defining sales goals, and determining the headcount required to meet those goals. They should also know how to hire, train, and coach other salespeople who join the team. Startups should look for a salesperson who has done at least some of these things before - perhaps they’ve taken a product (or at least a new set of features) to market for a company or they’ve hired and trained a few salespeople before. Ideally, they’ve got all of these things on their resume, but of course, this is a startup and there’s likely to be a tight hiring budget.
Strategic Thinking & Approach - Startup salespeople must see their primary role as “searching” in addition to simply “persuading.” They must prioritize listening to and learning from the market to determine its core needs in order to learn how those needs align with the features of their innovative product. Instead of being told whom to sell to, they must experiment with value propositions and be able to evaluate which market segments are most likely to purchase the product quickly. These salespeople must also establish a feedback loop between the buyers, product development, and marketing to ensure that they are meeting and reflecting the ideal customer's needs. These analytical skills are typically found in sales leaders at the executive level.
Tactical Skills - Along with being strategic, the startup salesperson must have strong selling skills and a willingness to do the type of work that is usually reserved for lower-level salespeople, like cold calling. Few people possess both strategic and tactical skills, but the two are immensely important for startups that need to get things moving quickly.
Process Building - The startup salesperson must have a deep understanding of how corporate customers make purchasing decisions. They should be able to design a sales process that aligns with that buyer’s process as well as best practices. This includes not only knowing the steps required to get from the first meeting to the signed contract, but also creating the tools and materials (scripts, marketing documents, etc.) that are necessary to advance the sale again and again. By focusing on creating a repeatable sales process, a salesperson can prepare the organization to scale quickly and efficiently.
The first salesperson at a startup will be doing a lot more than selling, so it’s not about hiring someone with the perfect LinkedIn profile. A startup salesperson will have to qualify customers and deals, determine the decision makers and stakeholders, navigate pricing, and map out the organization’s sales process for the first time, all within the constraints of limited resources and a tight budget. Ideally, he or she should be able to figure this out on his or her own... with a little bit of help from the founder. (Because after all, sales starts with the founder.)
Releasing an innovative product or service is not enough. The company and its first salesperson must then learn how to sell it. Since startups won’t have the same stability and structure as an established company, startup salespeople will be riding the ups and downs this journey alongside the founders. Selecting the right salesperson with the right experience and skill set is central to making any startup a success.