This guide is not for big old vendors or inside sales; this guide is for tech founders of enterprise software startups looking for outside sales people to generate millions of dollars for the company year in and year out.
Here are nine things to look for to find the A-team sales guys for your company.
1. Track record. This is easy with sales guys: You can see how much they've sold in past years, but don't make the mistake of being too metrics-driven. Selling a hot product for a big brand in a booming market is relatively easy compared to breaking into a new market for an unknown startup. More importantly, being too metrics-driven can blind you to the other attributes. Would you hire a developer simply on how many lines of code they deliver?
2. Passion. Entrepreneurs talk a lot about the need for passion—for good reason, as passion is typically what sustains a business through tough times—but too many entrepreneurs think, when it comes to sales, they should hire cynical mercenaries who can "sell ice-cream to eskimos." That may work for the big old vendors, but it fails in the startup world where intelligent customers can smell the BS. Team building between developers and sales, based on mutual trust and shared interests, is the true key to success here.
3. Integrity. Here is a bit of timeless wisdom from Warren Buffet: He advises that, when hiring, you should look for brains, energy, and integrity. But if the people you find don't have integrity, the other two qualities will kill you. Unfortunately, there is no magic trick for spotting integrity. Sure, do background checks, but it's important to also be human and trust your instincts.
4. Intelligence. Enterprise sales using disruptive technology is complex, and it requires intelligence to understand the nuances of the enterprise needs and how they relate to a rapidly evolving technology.
5. Empathy. The ability to relate to other people at a human level is essential to sales. This is not a technique, it is a human quality that is probably a mix of genetics and early childhood learning.
6. Great questions. The great sales guys are not looking for a job, they are looking for great products to sell. Do their questions reveal an understanding of the dynamics of your market? Are they prepared? Have they done their research? Are the questions boilerplate, or specific to what you do? What they ask in an interview will indicate what they will ask on a sales call, which segues to point No. 7.
7. Listening. Great sales people use their two ears more often than their one mouth. If you listen well—really attentively with great questions—the prospect will reveal the key driver for the sale. The rest is easy.
8. Energy. The road is long and hard, and you will need physical energy. Hire sportsmen who know about discipline (e.g. in diet), how to endure pain, and how to do what it takes to win.
9. Ambition. Call it drive mixed with passion. You want people who will bounce back the next day after a crushing defeat.
Reeling In Your Players
We've only explained how you find A-team players; how do you make sure you actually get them? Here are four tips that might help:
1. Invest your time. Hiring is your most important job. Take the time to interview several candidates; cast a wide net. As a side benefit, interviewing a lot of smart people is a great way to learn more about your market. Spend lots of face-to-face time with candidates on your short list. Meet with their references—note: meet, not email, not phone. Meet with their family and friends, if it's possible and not too creepy.
2. Don't compromise to "fill a slot." Hiring for the sake of hiring may allow you to check off that empty box, but hiring the wrong person will create 10 more boxes to check off if you get it wrong. Don't be afraid to delay until you find and draw the best possible person.
3. Use onboarding wisely. All that talk about taking your time can lead to analysis paralysis, while speed is of the essence in almost any startup. Most headhunters will give you a three-month money back guarantee and a three-month probation period in an offer. You don't want to make a hiring mistake, but you have three months to spot any mistakes and course-correct without too high a cost.
4. Focus hard on building a win/win compensation plan. That is, a win for the company and a win for the employee. This is hard to do right. Even good compensation plans get gamed, which is why Buffet's advice about integrity is so critical. Be generous, but also demanding.
Balancing Speed With Efficacy
The biggest mistake many entrepreneurs make is not hiring appropriate to the lifestage of the venture.
Don't rush to replace the passion and creativity of the founders—which got those critical and tough early deals—with too much process too soon.
Everybody wants process—for the other guy!
Developers want to see sales guys follow a process, so that they sell what can be delivered. Sales guys also want developers to follow a process so that they get quality deliveries on time. Both tend to underestimate the amount of art versus science in the other person’s job. That lack of respect can lead to toxic behaviour that damages the business.
When you see how the truly great developers are not just a little more productive than the average developer—or even two times more productive, but 10 times more productive—you would be crazy to load process onto their creativity.
Working with armies of average developers requires boatloads of process, but that is typically the maintenance type of work sent offshore. It is all about where you are in the lifecycle. Early in the lifecycle, you want to give individual creativity full reign. A bit later you have some light processes for small teams—that is what being agile is all about. In the latter stages it is all about metrics and scalable, repeatable processes. You move from artisan to factory worker.
The same is true in sales. By the time the product is a market leader in a big mature market, the sales teams need lots of process. You can visit the sales teams of companies like Oracle and IBM to find out how to do this well. However, if you are bringing a new product to market, you need to unleash the creative drive of a few great thought-leadership sales people.
Vivek Ranadive, the great entrepreneur who built Teknekron and later TIBCO, understood this concept better than most. He believed it was better to find the stars, to set out a few clear rules, give them good incentives and then give them a lot of free reign. I am sure TIBCO does not work that way today since it is a more mature company these days, but that's how it worked when they were building the huge value that you see today.
Startups need thought-leadership selling because “you have to capture mindshare before you capture market share.” That may sound like marketing, but the thought-leader salespeople are also marketers. They don’t expect brochures and canned messages to deliver; they create the messages based on a thoughtful synthesis of their company’s value proposition and the pain they hear from the market. Startups need to see evidence of that kind of thought-leadership selling before hiring decisions can be made.
Image from Ocean's Eleven (1960) under fair use