Every hire at an early stage startup is critical. Your first sales hire in particular will have a large impact on your organization, its survival, growth and ultimately, its success. But knowing what you need in your first sales pro and what to look for in candidates is half the battle. Within the scope of the sales profession exists a wide array of experience and expertise, and knowing what your company needs to be successful is an important question to answer.
So what should you look for in your first sales hire? At Millennium Search, we have a long track record of experience in sales recruiting across several verticals and industries, and have learned to be very specific based on the needs of each organization. Among startups, there is a great deal of diversity, and with that comes specific needs for your first sales hire. Consider the following aspects of your company:
Your Organizational Structure and Culture- Cultural alignment is a critical factor to consider in hiring. Your sales hire will be interfacing with you and your existing team on a regular basis, making chemistry with your candidates an important aspect. Ask yourself, do they believe in the company and the existing team? Do they believe the product offers value to future customers? Do they share similar values and goals, or will there be clashing personalities and roadblocks with your candidate? Being one of the more important considerations, it is also the most highly subjective, and not all companies look at it the same. But as a starting point, simply put, your team should probably like the candidate and be involved in the hiring process to solidify that opinion.
Your Product and Customer- The scope of technology products is wide ranging in the startup world, each requiring a different set of sales criteria. At a high level, consider whether your product is focused towards SMBs or enterprise organizations. Why? The enterprise solution often entails a higher price, longer sales cycle and more complex implementation, meaning each close will require a mid to long-term sales relationship. Your sales hire needs to excel at building and maintaining these longer relationships, and will need a strong courting skill set. Compare this to an SMB solution, which often carries a lower price point, is frequently an SaaS solution with a broader support structure, and is generally created to have a simple onboard process and quick pick up. Selling to SMBs still requires a strong relationship aspect, but the cycle is much shorter, and volume is much more achievable for one salesperson. Within those two arenas are other company and product specifics that can take you in several directions, but the point remains that much of what you need in your first sales hire depends on your product and customer base.
Your Company’s Progress- The entrepreneur is very often a jack-of-all-trades, who keeps spending tight by compensating with time. This very often includes the role of sales, until it can no longer be tackled by the founder or early staff. Then again, there are many entrepreneurs who are product people, bringing technical or management skills to the table to move things along, but simply lack the skills, personality or know-how to pursue sales or effectively acquire new customers. For the latter situation, your first sales hire’s job will be more than just making the calls and selling the prospect. He or she will need to define the sales process, create and refine the pitch, research the objections and formulate how to handle them effectively. This hire will need to both conceptualize and execute the sales process from every angle, making the job more complex which will involve a longer timeline to success. Some people are great at closing business but have not generated their own leads. And some salespeople excel at hitting quotas and making companies money, but starting from scratch is a totally different ball game.
Questions We Ask Our Clients- You can learn a lot about your sales needs just by forcing yourself to answer the questions a recruiting firm would ask. Where are you in your sales cycle? Do you have paying customers? How many? How many customers do you anticipate having within the next 6 to 12 months? What type of support structure exists for your salesperson? Will you be hiring both a salesperson and a presales engineer? What are you willing to pay, and how does that fit into the market for talent? All of these are important questions to answer when defining needs for your first sales hire.
Evaluating First Sales Hire Candidates
Once you define what your needs are, the next step becomes aligning your company with the characteristics of the candidates you find. When gauging sales candidates, like many job functions, their background is their largest predictor of success. But within each background, there are many aspects and directions. Consider the following:
Quotas, Revenues, and Actual Sales- Top performing sales pros are proud and unafraid of their track record, despite blemishes and bad years. And while no one has a good year every year, there should still be a demonstrated background of success. When evaluating history, consider not only quotas, but also revenues, and actual sales numbers. Is there a history of meeting and/or exceeding quotas? Regardless of the industry or niche they came from, a salesperson’s ability to meet stated goals is a strong indicator of their ability to be successful. Revenues are also a strong indicator framed within the scope of the product served. A combined look at quotas, revenues and customers sold will paint a better picture of their performance in prior sales roles.
Rankings Within Former Sales Teams- Beyond the numbers, take a look at how they ranked within their past sales teams. Pure numbers are often arbitrary and don’t always paint a great picture, but if you put those numbers within the context of their peers, you can get a sense of whether those numbers are actually impressive or not. Keep in mind that you most likely have no sense of the caliber of your candidates’ former peers. But a history of ranking high or being the top performer in the past can shed light on things.
Sales Style, Experience and Preference- Are they relationship focused or do they hunt for new business? Do they enjoy longer sales cycles and relationship management or are they better suited for short cycle and high volume? Has a candidate worked for 100% commission before (not that they would at a startup or software company, but doing so in the past does indicate a level of boldness and confidence)? Are they cut out to launch a product or are they better suited to come in when things are more established?
Sales Success at a Startup- Not every sales professional is cut out to work at a startup. Determining whether or not a candidate has the chops to succeed at your startup can be tough to determine, but past sales experience for an early stage company can be invaluable. Few startups actually make it, so past success in that role is even better. Depending upon your company’s situation, you may also want to see if your candidates have experience launching a product for a startup or opening a new region in past positions, and see how successful they were in that regard. Some sales pros do better at an enterprise company, and many prefer it. Not all startups think this is a necessity, but finding candidates who have the experience is definitely a plus. Along the same lines, have they ever started or owned their own company? It may not have necessarily been a startup, but any entrepreneurial initiative requires a great deal of hard work. Often times, former entrepreneurs make great first sales hires for startups.
Success In Your Industry & Niche- Sales does not often warrant expertise in the industry or niche you work in, and learning a product is not a major pain point for sales pros. That being said, experience within an industry can be a strength in other regards. For starters, knowing an industry or niche most likely means the candidate already has an established network with your potential customers, and can more readily penetrate the marketplace with a related product. Industry experience can also lead to less of a learning curve when entering a new market with a new product.
Background at a Familiar Company- Often times, founders and early stage startup teams have a pretty good idea of what sales will look like for their company, and relate the experience at their organization to that of another company (i.e. I want to interview sales execs from X company). It’s an identifiable way of finding what you’re looking for based on past experience with a certain company and their sales training, process, and cycle. What’s more, finding sales candidates currently or formerly from companies that would be your competitors or complements in the space would lend itself to many advantages, including product knowledge, potential customer contacts, knowledge of the sales cycle and industry knowledge.
Technical Knowledge- CAUTION: Your sales pros don’t need it! Yes, it’s a technology company, and they will be selling a technology solution, but your salesperson is not developing a product or walking customers through technical support. The role of sales is to find and capture new customers. This can be a dangerous caveat for early stage companies, thinking they need to find a technically literate sales pro with a dev background to be a successful salesperson. This is almost always not the case. They are not selling clean code; they are selling a real life solution for a real life need.
Millennium Search is an executive search firm for emerging and high growth technology companies. We help tomorrow’s technology innovators locate and hire top talent in Sales, as well as technical, marketing, business and design functions, from the C Level to managers and individual contributors. Throughout our 10 year track record, we have worked with today’s hottest technology companies backed by VCs like Benchmark Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures and more! Whether you are making your first sales hire or your hundredth, Millennium Search has the people, the network and the tools to help you find the high caliber talent you need to move forward, reach your milestones, and find success in your venture. Contact us today!