Perception of sales among many early startup founders
“Sales” is often an enigma to founders. Many founders, especially the technical types, think that sales is not part of their skillset and it is something that “others” are good at. Working with seed stage startup founders I often hear “I’ll focus on building the product and then I will hire someone to sell.” When forced to think about sales, founders often look for investors or advisors to introduce them to customers or help them hire a star salesman. Founders place great hopes on these magic intros or on that mysterious well-connected salespeople who will come, perform their persuasive art, and solve that sales thing.
If this is how you think about B2B sales, I have some bad news for you. Introductions to customers or star salesmen are nice but they are unlikely to help you grow your business sustainably. In fact, relying too much on these introductions can kill you. Let me explain why.
First, let’s demystify customer introductions. Sure, a warm intro to a large corporate is helpful and may help you get your foot in the door. However, if you haven’t done your sales homework, you may get a false sense of product-market fit and underestimate what it takes to win customers. One common situation I see with companies relying on intros is building a customized product for a high-potential customer and then being unable to sell this product to others. When, at some point, the introduction pipeline dries up, the founders realize that they never had the chance to build their own sales muscle. The very same investors who gave them these brilliant intros are now knocking at their doors demanding growth.
Now let’s look at the first sales hires. An intro to a superstar salesman is useful but not if you don’t know what kind of profile you are looking for and what this person should actually do. If you haven’t done much sales yourself, chances are that you don’t actually know that. There is no ideal “salesman” or “well-connected enterprise guy” without the context of your sales process. If you hire a sales rep, he or she will be selling to people she finds easiest to sell, effectively defining your customer base without any input from your side On top of that, sales people vary a lot in their skillsets – some are better at hunting, some at farming, some are better with certain types of customers or products. Being a top salesman in one company does not often transfer well to another company context. When you are relying on intros, you are making a double bet: on the introducer and on the sales person.
What do you do then?
You should start by actually selling yourself. You experiment, you learn, you iterate, and this will generate some best practices that you can then “institutionalize” and pass on to your new hires. A well-known a16z article on the topic says “sales starts with the founders”. They put it even more bluntly by saying that if you cannot sell your product, no one else will. Based on my experience working with early startup founders, these are the reasons why founders are actually better at sales than early sales hires:
Selling these days is not about sales pitches thrown at a customer, but about listening, doing deep customer need “discoveries”, and offering highly relevant solutions. When Airbnb co-founders flew to New York during their time at YC and knocked on people’s doors, they were selling. When Doordash talked to Chloe the macaroon store manager, they were selling. When you are talking to your users about the problems they face, it is part of your sales process. If you are asking yourself, “When do I start selling?”, the answer is, “Today”. To get some very concrete examples of how to get started, I highly recommend watching the video of Clever’s CEO Tyler Bosmeny where he gives examples of outreach e-mails and activities.
The only way to grow sustainably is to build a reliable sales process that will repeatedly generate and convert opportunities. It is like with everything in life — there is no magic pill, but there is the magic of hard and consistent work. Having worked with dozens of sales organizations of all sizes, I’ve seen that these are weakest ones that depend on a number of sales superstars or a number of super customers. When the company doesn’t have a great sales process, it has no choice but to rely on individual heroism to sell. A successful sales organization runs a well-oiled sales engine where everyone can perform at a high level. Sales reps get in, get onboarded and trained on the sales process and tools, get clear KPIs, and regular management coaching. When all sales elements are in place, individual heroism becomes unnecessary.
You will not have all of the elements of the sales engine in the beginning, but you should start building them now. Here are the core elements of the repeatable sales process that you should start from:
Example sales process of an early B2B startup
Now, going back to the introductions. Once you have done your job selling and setting up the basics of the sales process, you are ready to ask your investors, advisors, and mentors for targeted introductions to specific customer types. You’ll see that 1) you get more and higher quality introductions, and 2) it becomes much easier to convert them. Make sure you use these introductions wisely, work hard on them, and use them as references or case studies for other potential customers. Make sure that you have multiple sources of leads and can generate introductions from the existing relationships.
You are also in a very good place now to ask for referrals to great salespeople as you now know what profiles to look for. You also have much better chances to attract that star sales person because you can show that you’ve “been there/done that” and have an informed opinion on the sales matter.
So, time to get up and start selling!
Marina Gurevich is the founder and CEO of System2Labs, a management consulting company focused on helping B2B startups grow. System2Labs help startups of all stages grow by developing winning go-to-market models and setting up repeatable sales engines. Prior to System2Labs, Marina was a management consultant at Blue Ridge Partners and where she helped PE-owned B2B companies accelerate their growth. Marina also has operational experience of managing global and European sales and marketing functions at Fortune100 companies.